by Chris Ritter

People generally ask two questions on a Sunday like this.  One is, “Are you watching the big game?”  The second question is, “Are you actually watching for the game, or just the commercials?”  I looked up lists of the greatest Super Bowl commercials of all time.  We actually remember them better than the games they interrupted. There was the Clydesdale colt that wants to make it on the Budweiser Team.  The #1 commercial was from my childhood and actually debuted on Monday Night Football.  Mean Joe Green is walking to the locker room after a tough game and a little boy offers him his Coca-Cola.  After his gratefully chugs it down, the giant gives the boy his jersey.  Advertisers have learned to tell a quick, poignant story that sticks with us.

We all know the feeling of being swept up in a good story.  The short-term effects that stories have on us can be scientifically measured. Our palms may sweat in a moment of intense conflict.  Our heart rate rise and fall.  MRI’s have proved that different parts of the brain are engaged when someone is engaged with a compelling narrative. Uri Hasson, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Princeton University, discovered that the brain wave patterns of the listener actually start to mirror those of the storyteller. 

Stories can also have a long-term effect. Long before Super Bowls and neuroscience, Jesus understood knew the power of a good story.  Today we start a new leg of our journey through the Gospel of Luke as we study the stories that Jesus told to communicate the Gospel.  Luke contains more parables of Jesus than any other Gospel.  (Luke has twenty-four and Matthew is not far behind with twenty-three.)  Luke also has more unique parables of Jesus found only in his gospel, eighteen. 

Interestingly, Jesus not only told stories to reveal truth, but he also told stories to conceal truth.  In Luke 8, Jesus’ disciples asked for an explanation of a certain parable.  This was his response:

10 He said, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that,

“‘though seeing, they may not see;
    though hearing, they may not understand.’

Luke 8:10 (NIV)

Why would Jesus tell stories to prevent people from understanding?

For every person leaning in to listen to Jesus with a desire to follow him, there were others with their own agendas. Last week we discussed the Pharisees who kept a watchful eye on Jesus to catch him in something he might say.  They were jealous of the attention he was getting and wanted to charge him with a heresy.  Imagine a young Pharisee being sent to spy on Jesus with his pencils pencil and spiral notebooks in hand.  He returns to his superiors:

  • “Good… you’re back. What did he say?”
    • “Well, he said there was this runaway Son who wasted a lot of money but eventually came home to his father.” 
  • “Hmm.  What else did you hear?”
    • “He told a story about a vineyard owner whose tenants wouldn’t pay their rent and a man who woke his neighbor up in the middle of the night.”
  • “Okay… but what did he teach?”
    • “He talked about a farmer whose seed were eaten by birds and choked by weeds.”
  • “This is useless.  We wanted you to record what he taught.”
    • “Did I mention he told about a woman that lost one of her ten coins and spent the rest of the day cleaning her house? When she found it… she threw a party.”
  • “Never mind.”

There was life-changing truth in Jesus’ stories for those who wanted truth.  But those who only wanted to catch him on some theological technicality walked away scratching their heads. Truth is sort of like that. It finds its way to open to hearts.

The Rich Man & Lazarus

Today our scripture reading is from Luke 16:

19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’

25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’

27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’

29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Luke 16:19-31 (NIV)

When I was a kid, we had a pastor named Skip.  For a man with such a easy-going name, Pastor Skip was anything but easy going.  A preacher of holiness, he proclaimed very vividly what Christians should and should not do.  He told us what Christians should not watch.  His list included Dallas, Dynasty, Falcon Crest, and Soap Operas.  These were some of my mom’s favorite shows.  He listed the words that Christians should not say.  Those were some of my dad’s favorite words.  Pastor Skip taught what Christians should not read.  He preached once that Christians should not buy the National Enquirer because it was garbage (which, of course, it was.)  Instead, each Christian home should have a family Bible prominently displayed and often read. 

Pastor Skip also had the habit of dropping by for unannounced visits.  As I remember it, my family went shopping for a large display Bible around this time. When Pastor Skip drove up, we had a little drill we would run.  We turned off the TV, hide the National Enquirers, and make sure the Bible was visible.

Our new family Bible was a nice leather-ish one found on sale at the Christian bookstore where it had been marked with a sticker that said “imperfect.”  (We were a farm family trying to survive the 1980’s… so we were looking for a bargain.)  The guy at the store assured us that the scriptural texts themselves were all complete, but there were some omissions in the reference section.  Good enough. My mom later searched through the Bible to see what was so imperfect about our new Bible.  It had a large topical reference section at the back with all the passage of different topics organized together for study.  Mom finally found the imperfection.  Our Bible was missing the section on Hell.

The Bad Place

Most Americans would not see a Bible without hell as an imperfection but as an improvement.  Pew Research did a study recently and found that 72% of Americans believe in heaven, but only 58% believe in hell.  They didn’t ask how many wanted to believe in hell.  I expect that number would be extremely low.  The reason so many Christians believe in hell is because most Bibles are not like the one of my childhood.  Hell is in there.

Some people think that hell is maybe an Old Testament concept.  After all, God seems a little frown-faced at times in the Old Testament.  But the Hebrew scriptures are more or less silent on both heaven and hell.  Judaism is a very “this world, this life” kind of faith.  The Apostle Paul who wrote so much of the New Testament does not mention hell explicitly.  To learn anything about hell, we have to look in the books of the Bible with red ink.  Almost everything we believe about hell comes from the lips of Jesus himself.  The same Jesus that taught us about grace, forgiveness, inclusion, and selfless love also teaches us about hell.  And Jesus actually talked more about hell than about heaven.

If the idea of hell doesn’t bother you, let me suggest you just haven’t thought about it long enough.  There have been people who have refused the Gospel because of the doctrine of hell.  “If you are telling me that everyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus is going to spend eternal, conscience torment in hell, I cannot accept that.  Because that means my mom, dad, and grandparents are there.  I cannot accept a faith that teaches they are lost and suffering forever.”  Some Christians believe that the idea of hell runs counter to the concept of a loving God.

Hot Takes on Hell

This is not primarily a sermon about hell, but let me take this opportunity to mention a few things I have gleaned over the years about divine judgement that I have found helpful. 

First, hell is not created for us.  Matthew 25 calls it the eternal fire that is “prepared for the devil and his angels.”  God did not create us for hell.  He created us for love and fellowship with him.  C.S. Lewis said that there are two kinds of people.  One says to God, “Have your own way.”  To the other, God eventually says, “Have it your way.”  I remember listening to Billy Graham preach and he often defined hell as eternal separation from God.  In many ways, hell is just the end product of our own choices and trajectory.  Tim Keller says that hell is not primarily a place of torture.  It is a place of torment.  Torment is something that comes from within us.  Hell is when we end up abandoned to our own devises, idols, and desires.

Second, God is infinitely loving and infinitely wise.  There is no one better qualified to judge.  If I am worried about God being unfair, unjust, or unloving… I need not be.  Part of trusting God is trusting God to judge in keeping with his wisdom and character.  The scriptures mention varying degrees of punishment.  In Matthew 23 Jesus told the Pharisees that they would receive “the greater condemnation.”  If some are condemned more, that must mean that some are condemned less.  But no one has to be condemned at all.  Romans 8:1 says “There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  Part of the wonder of our salvation is what we are saved from

Third, I have read to the end of the book.  In Revelation 20, hell itself is thrown into the Lake of Fire.  I take this to mean that hell itself will one day be destroyed along with all who have gone there.  Revelation calls this event “the Second Death.”  In Matthew 28, Jesus said not to fear those who can destroy the body.  He said to fear God who can destroy both the body and the soul in hell.  Hell is a place of destruction and there is little warrant in scripture to insist that the suffering that happens there goes on for all eternity.  Eternal life is a gift of brought to us by the grace of Jesus Christ.

Jesus and Hades

The parable we study today is vivid and would have raised many eyebrows.  But I do not believe there is much in his description of hell that would have surprised his original hearers. In the Old Testament period, the dead were thought to go to Sheol (literally, the grave).  This is roughly akin to the Greek concept of Hades… a shadowy place where the dead reside.  In spite of Elijah being taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire, there was not a sense from the Hebrew Scriptures that you died and went to Heaven… at least not Heaven as we have come to think of it.  People didn’t die and go to God.  They died and joined the rest of the dead.  By the First Century when the New Testament was written, it was accepted that Hades/Sheol had two compartments:  One for the righteous and one for the wicked. 

Jesus works with these basic categories in his story.  Of course, Jesus would promise something better for his followers through his own death and resurrection.  He did not promise us a place on the nicer side of Hades.  He promised us a place in His Father’s house:

Jesus said, “In my Father’s house are many rooms.  I go to prepare a place for you that where I am, you may be also.”

John 14 (NIV)

The Gospel brings us a new, clearer understanding of eternity:

This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, 10 but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel.

2 Timothy 1:9,10 (NIV)

The really surprising thing about Jesus’ story is who is in a place of comfort and who is in a place of torment.  Most of Jesus’ parables have a twist, and the twist here is not that there is a hell.  It is who ends up there.

Pharisees and the Love of Money

Luke 16 is dominated by Jesus’ conflicts with the Pharisees.  (You may remember they were introduced into the story last week when we studies Chapter Five).  In verse 13, Jesus mentioned that no one could serve both God and money.  These things are in conflict with one another.

This brought derision from the Pharisees:

14 The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. 15 He said to them, “You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight.

Luke 16:14,15 (NIV)

The Pharisees did not see their wealth in conflict with their relationship with God.  To the contrary, they saw their wealth as proof of God’s favor.  After all, Deuteronomy promises blessings to those who remember God’s covenant. They were the children of Abraham, the ultimate insiders, and their wealth was God’s visible stamp of approval.

It is always dangerous to pick your favorite parts of the Bible to justify your own prejudices.  You have to keep reading and take it what John Wesley called “the whole tenor of scripture.”  We need the whole Bible to be whole Christians.  If the Pharisees had read the Book of Job, they would have seen that sometimes you can do everything right and still go through very difficult times.  Some of the greatest saints in the Old Testament were met with very difficult lives.  These include Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Elijah. They ignored the mandate to love their neighbors by restricting it to the people who were like them.

The story Jesus told these Pharisees certainly challenged their self-understanding as God’s elect by both birth and blessing.  He told a story of two men who lived close together but whose lives could not have been more different.

Jesus said there was a rich man that was into conspicuous consumption.  He dressed in keeping with his status.  Purple dye was expensive and garments of that color were reserved for the royal and the rich.  True white linen was also a luxury.  The combination of the two was a clear signal of status.  This rich man feasted sumptuously every day.

At the man’s gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus.  The fact that he was brought there is an indication that he was lame.  He longed for the scraps from the rich man’s table.  In those days the very rich would use bread as napkins to sop up the grease on their fingers.  They would fling this bread under the table.  Lazarus would have loved to have had some of that bread.

Lazarus was covered with sores and the dogs came to lick them.  We love our dogs.  They are part of the family.  Dogs don’t make out too well in the Bible, however.  They were not the pets we think of today.  They are scavengers, perhaps useful to have around for pest control.  But they were also something of a threat themselves.  Lazarus is so alone that he has no defense against the dogs roaming the town.

It is interesting that Lazarus is named in the story and the rich man isn’t.  You would think it would be the other way around.  Sometimes this story is called “The Story of Dives and Lazarus,” but Dives just means “rich.”  Lazarus is the only character in a parable of Jesus to be given a proper name. Jesus gives him dignity that life never afforded him.

But death is no respecter of persons.  Both Lazarus and the rich man die.  The rich man received a proper burial.  We can only guess that Lazarus poor body was disposed without ceremony.  But, upon his death, his soul was carried by the angels to the bosom of Father Abraham himself.  He was cherished in ways he never experienced during his life and comforted after his earthly suffering.

The rich man, however, found himself in torment.  But he could look and see Abraham and Lazarus far away across a great chasm.  He called, “Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his find in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.”

Abraham replies… “Son…”

This was a shocking statement.  A son of Abraham in torment?  John the Baptist warned (Luke 3) that people should not claim descent from Abraham as their source of security.  God could raise up children of Abraham from the very stones.  Abraham does not deny that the rich man is his descendent.  That fact, however, does not change his destiny.

Abraham reminds the former Rich Man that Lazarus does not work for him.  His days of luxury are over.  Lazarus is being comforted.  And, besides, there is a great chasm that separates the place of blessing from the place of desolation.  No one can cross over.

The man then asks that Lazarus be sent back to his family to warn them.  He had five brothers and he did not want them to end up like him.  But Abraham says, “They have Moses and prophets.  Let them listen to them.”  It is all there in the Bible.  They have already been warned.

“No Father Abraham, if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.”

“If they don’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced if someone rises from the dead.”

Divine Reversal

Someone told me a long time ago when I started ministry that a preacher’s job is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”  Jesus certainly accomplishes both of these things in one story.

One of the most prominent themes in Luke’s Gospel is that of Divine Reversal.  Mary sang, “God has lifted up the lowly and has cast the powerful from their thrones.”  (Luke 1).  Lowly shepherds are summoned by the angels to witness the birth of Christ.  Simeon declared that Jesus would cause the rising and falling of many in Israel (Luke 2). Those up will be down and those down will be up.  Jesus is constantly elevating outcasts.  The coming of Jesus is upsetting the established order of things. 

Notice the chasm between the Rich Man and Lazarus.  It mirrors the Gate that stood between them during their lifetimes.  There was feasting on one side of the fence and suffering on the other.  Now the situation is reversed. The insider becomes an outsider.  The outsider, an insider. 

The parable is not as simple as “Poor people go to heaven and rich people go to hell.”  But the categories that define success in the eyes of the world are not the same categories that define success in the eyes of God.  Heaven keeps a different score card.  Jesus will say in Luke that it is hard for the rich to enter the Kingdom of God.  Why? There is intense temptation to trust in your wealth instead of serve God with your wealth.  Jesus is making the point that those who fare well in this life should not consider that an indication of their fate for all eternity.  God will judge all.

Hope, Love & New Beginnings

I hope we see the love of Jesus in this passage.  Jesus did not tell this story because he hates Pharisees.  He told them this story because he loves them.  With whom did Jesus want his listeners to relate?  They probably could not relate much with Lazarus.  They would not want to relate to the rich man in hell.  I think the Pharisees (and us) are supposed to find ourselves in the five brothers who still have an opportunity to repent.

Jesus wanted us to see that we live in a time of grace with abundant opportunities for new beginnings.  God’s judgement is coming.  Death is final.  But we have the Scriptures to speak to us and guide us.  There is still time to turn. During his lifetime the rich man had opportunities to love and care sitting right outside his gate.

Hard hearts will meet a hard end.  Hell has no exits, but this life is full of opportunities for new beginnings.  The barriers between us and God in hell cannot be moved, even by Abraham. The barriers between us, God, and others in this life can be moved… and must be moved… by us.