Monday, 8 March 2021

Did you see Lazarus?

A sermon for Provoking Faith in a Time of Isolation
The online Gathering of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
14 March 2021

Luke 16:19-31

The Rich man and Lazarus by James Tissot. 

Our gospel reading for this morning,
            the troubling and difficult parable
            of the rich man and Lazarus,
raises for us the issue of the extent to which
            actions committed in this life
            have eternal consequences.

In many ways it is a deceptively simple story,
            which seems to owe its origin
            to the Egyptian story of Setme,
                        who observes the elaborate funeral procession of a rich man
                        and the absence of any procession for a poor man
                                    who is being carried to the graveyard.
            Setme thinks the rich are much better off,
                        but his son expresses the desire that Setme, at his death,
                                    will experience the funeral of the poor man.
            Setme is initially devastated that his son seems to be wishing him ill;
                        but then his son takes him on a tour of the realm of the dead,
            and Setme sees an elegantly dressed man seated close by the god Osiris.
                        It turns out that this is the poor man, dressed in the rich man’s clothes,
                        and he is being honoured because his good deeds
                                    had been more numerous than his sins
                                    and he hadn’t been compensated during his earthly life.
            The rich man, however, had more sins than good deeds,
                        and is seen being punished by having a hinge-pin
                        from the gate to the realm of the dead impaled in his right eye.

            The lesson from the Egyptian story seems to be
                        that whoever is good on the earth,
                                    will find that underworld is good to them.
                        Whilst whoever is evil on the earth,
                                    will find that eternity goes badly for them.

This conviction that wrongs will be righted,
            and imbalances redressed, in the afterlife
Was also common in Greek and Roman mythology,
            with the idea of some kind of judgment after death
                        resulting in punishment or reward in eternity
            being found in both Plato and Plutarch.

Interestingly, the Jewish view was less clear-cut,
            and there are a variety of traditions within the Hebrew scriptures
            as to how the Jews thought cosmic justice might work.

What we need to be very alert to is that our contemporary understanding of ‘hell’,
            with all that it means to us,
owes far more to Greco-Roman mythology
            and to some of the developments of theology in the middle ages,
than it does to either the Jewish tradition
            or to the teaching of Jesus.

In the Hebrew Bible,
            there was a tradition, originating from the book of Deuteronomy, which asserted
                        that those who are good will have good lives
                        whilst those who are bad will have bad lives.
And the logic of this was that
            if someone was having a bad life,
            they must in some way have deserved it.
Whilst those who had many good things in life,
            were free to enjoy their blessings that came from God.

However, this rather simplistic cause-and-effect theology
            certainly wasn’t the only attempt to understand the relationship
                        between behavior, and reward and punishment.
The book of Job, for example,
            is an exploration in narrative form
            of why it might be that bad things happen to good people,
            and the conclusion of Job is that the eponymous hero didn’t deserve his fate;
                        rather his troubles were sent to him to test his faith.
However, he still eventually receives an earthy reward
                        for his faithfulness through his difficulties,
            with a new wife and family and possessions given to him
                        at the end of the story
            to compensate him for those that had been taken from him.

It’s actually fairly late in the Jewish tradition
            that the idea of reward and punishment occurring after death
            starts to become part of the thinking.
And even by the time of Jesus, it is a far from universal belief
            that God judges and then rewards or punishes people after death.

For example, the Jewish group known as the Sadducees
            were well known for not having a belief in the afterlife at all (Lk 20.27).
Whilst the Pharisees had a fairly well developed understanding
            of an afterlife that comprised either reward or punishment.

There are three key words which it’s worth knowing about
            if we’re going to try and get to grips
            with the background to the story of the rich man and Lazarus,
and these are Sheol, Hades, and Gehenna.

The first of these, Sheol, is an Old Testament, Hebrew word,
            which is used to describe ‘the place of the dead’
It occurs 65 times throughout the Old Testament,
            and mostly does not appear to mean anything more than ‘the grave’, or just ‘death’,
                        rather than to any understanding of ‘life after death’.
What we know of Sheol from the Old Testament is that it is down, dark, and silent.
            It is the unknown void into which people pass
            and from which they never return.

When the Hebrew Bible, or the Old Testament as we call it,
            was translated into Greek,
The Greek word Hades was used for the Hebrew word Sheol.

And this brought with it into the Jewish tradition
            all of the Greek connotations that the word Hades had already acquired.

In the tradition of Greek mythology
            the name Hades was primarily used to refer to the god of the underworld,
                        who, together with his brothers Zeus and Poseidon
                        had defeated the Titans to rule over the entire cosmos.
            Zeus got to rule the air, Poseidon got to rule the sea, and Hades got the underworld.

            In time, Hades also came secondarily to refer to the underworld itself

Within the Greek mythology,
            it was possible for people to make visits to Hades,
                        with Heracles learning the secret entrance to and from Hades.

And so it was that the Hebrew concept of Sheol,
            the place of silence and darkness,
started to acquire the characteristics of the Greek underworld Hades,
            where people could have adventures,
            and where exciting or terrible things happened.

This fusion of Sheol with Hades
            led to the development of the idea within Judaism
                        of the afterlife as a place of punishment and reward,
            with Hades being somewhere
                        that both the righteous and the unrighteous might go.
            So, in Acts 2, Jesus is spoken of as going to Hades at his death,
                        returning from there at his resurrection (Acts 2.27,31).

Sometimes in the later Jewish tradition,
            Hades was thought of as a place not so much of punishment,
                        but more like a holding cell,
            where people are detained until some future judgment day.
But sometimes, as in Jesus’ parable,
            it is a place where punishment is already taking place.

The New Testament uses the word Hades only ten times:
            four times in the gospels, a couple of times in Acts,
            and four times in the book of Revelation where it is always teamed up with death.

The third word that we need to know about as a place of judment,
            in addition to Sheol and Hades,
            is the word ‘Gehenna’, a word adapted from the Hebrew ge hinnom,
                        the valley outside Jerusalem
                                    which had been a site of child sacrifice in 2 Kgs 23.10
                        and became a pit for burning garbage.
This word, Gehenna, is usually translated into English as ‘Hell’,
            and typically refers to the place where bad things are burned away.
So, for example, Jesus says it is better to cut off your sinful hand and throw it away
            than it is for your whole body to be thrown into Gehenna.

And that’s it, as far as Hell is concerned.
            We have the dark silent void of the grave in Sheol.
            We have the Greek mythological underworld of Hades,
            and we have the fiery city rubbish tip of Gehenna.

The problem with the word Gehenna being translated into English as ‘Hell’
            is that just as when Sheol became Hades it inherited all the baggage
                        of the Graeco-Roman understanding of the underworld,
so when Gehenna becomes ‘Hell’ it inherits all the medieval imagery of Hell
            that isn’t part of the Jewish or early Christian tradition.

Hell, as far as the biblical witness is concerned,

contains no pitchforks, no Hieronymus Bosch, no Dante’s inferno,
            no limbo, no purgatory,
            In short, no hell as we often think of it.

And it is within this context
            that we need to encounter Jesus’ story of the rich man and Lazarus.

Jesus is not offering a description of a future post-mortem existence
            where the damned and the saved can see each other across the divide.
He isn’t setting forth a comprehensive account
            of what happens to people when they die.

Rather, he is telling a story
            to make a very important point.
And the key to understanding that point
            lies in just who he is telling the story to.

The clue lies just a few verses earlier, in v. 14:
            ‘The Pharisees, who were lovers of money,
                        heard all this, and they ridiculed him.’

Jesus’ story is aimed at the Pharisees:
            the one Jewish group that had an especially well developed concept
            of who was going to spend eternity suffering apart from God,
            and who was going to spend eternity safe within the embrace of father Abraham.

This parable isn’t Jesus systematically setting out
            his own cosmological understanding
            of the relationship between the here and the hereafter.
Rather, he is engaging, as he does in so many other places,
            with those who think they have a monopoly on the ‘right’ answers
            to the questions of life and death.
And Jesus tells this story to show the Pharisees,
            that their carefully wrought certainties
            might not be so certain after all.

The Pharisees were convinced that by their meticulous religious observances,
            and by their careful ethical practices,
they had earned themselves the right to call the shots
            on who was eternally in,
            and who was eternally out.

And it is precisely this certainty,
            that Jesus is seeking to overthrow in this parable.

The Pharisees were rich, both materially and spiritually,
            and they believed they were rich because they were blessed,
            and they believed that because they were blessed,
                        they would spend eternity with God.
They also believed that those who were not like them,
            and were poor in body and spirit,
                        were that way for a reason,
            and that their poor state would also continue into eternity.

So imagine the effect of Jesus story,
            when the rich and apparently blessed man finds himself in Hades,
with the poor man Lazarus safe with Father Abraham.

Jesus is taking the clinical and judgmental logic of the Pharisees
            and turning it against them.

The warning could not be more stark:
            those who judge others
                        are at most risk of themselves being judged;
            those who do not exercise forgiveness and compassion towards others
                        may not experience forgiveness and compassion themselves.

There are some of us Christians who are very quick to point the finger
            at those whom we are quick to condemn,
And there is a warning here that we ignore at our peril.

It’s interesting that the rich man doesn’t do anything overtly evil to the beggar.
            This rich man is not a wicked or a cruel man.
            In many ways, he was probably a very good man.
But, and it is a very big but, he simply fails to see Lazarus:
            he is blind to the suffering of the poor,
            he cannot see beyond his own comfort and his own security.

And his failure to recognise the humanity of Lazarus,
            is a failure that carries eternal consequences.

You see, whilst we may not want to extrapolate from this parable
            to a medieval view of punishment in the afterlife,
neither does it offer us the opportunity
            of thinking that our lives carry no eternal value.

This is no mandate to eat, drink, and be merry
            for tomorrow we die.

In fact, quite the opposite.
            It seems that the message of Jesus is very clear.
            How we live today determines, in a very real sense, how we shall be eternally.

If we live life for the rewards of the here and now,
            without heeding the call of God to have regard for the lives of others,
then the contribution of our lives to God’s eternity
            might turn out to be less than we would like to think it is.

We need perhaps to be less concerned with our avoiding hell in the hereafter,
            and more concerned with the circles of hell that we create and perpetuate
            for others to inhabit in the here-and-now.

Albert Schweitzer, the theology professor and world-class organist,
            gave up his life of wealth and status,
and became a missionary doctor in Africa.

When asked why, he pointed to the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.

In his mind, the parable seemed spoken directly to Europeans,
            and he said ‘We are the rich man,
                        [whilst] out there in the colonies sits wretched Lazarus.’

This situation has not changed,
            and it is not limited to Africa.

Listen to how Tom Wright puts it:

We have all seen him.
            He lies on a pile of newspapers outside a shop doorway,
                        covered with a rough blanket.
            Perhaps he has a dog with him for safety.
                        People walk past him, or even step over him.
            He occasionally rattles a few coins in a tin or cup, asking for more…
            As I see him, I hear voices.
                        It’s his own fault, they say. He’s chosen it.
                        There are agencies to help him. He should go and get a job.
                        If we give him money he’ll only spend it on drink.
                        Stay away – he might be violent.
            Sometimes, in some places, the police will move him on,
                        exporting the problem somewhere else. But he’ll be back.
            And even if he isn’t, there are whole societies like that.
                        They camp in tin shacks on the edges of large, rich cities.
            From the door of their tiny makeshift shelters
                        you can see the high-rise hotels and office blocks where,
                        if they’re very lucky, one member of the family might work as a cleaner.
            They have been born into debt, and in debt they will stay,
                        through the fault of someone rich and powerful
                        who signed away their rights, their lives in effect, a generation or two ago,
                        in return for arms, a new presidential palace, a fat Swiss bank account.
            And even if rich and poor don’t always live side by side so blatantly,
                        the television brings us together.
So we all know Lazarus. He is our neighbour.

And Lazarus is currently living in hell,
            and it is a hell that others have had a hand in creating.
            It is a hell that we have had a hand in creating.

And Jesus calls those of us who are not currently living in hell,
            to see Lazarus sitting in poverty at the bottom of the pile,
            and he calls us to dip our finger in the water of life
                        and to offer it to Lazarus to cool his tongue.

Poverty is not to be sanctified,
            and neither is wealth to be vilified.
Poverty is not a gift from God but a problem,
            often the result of sin by numerous people,
            which needs relieving.
Wealth may indeed be a blessing of God and the result of hard work,
            but also, as the Greek dramatist Menander put it,
                        ‘property is a veil for many evils’.

Jesus’ parable attacks a particular kind of wealth,
            it attacks the wealth that does not see poverty and suffering.
It attacks the idea that possessions are for one’s own use,
            and that they are owned without responsibility to God and other people.

This is not, as some have feared, an opiate for the poor
            which will keep them satisfied with a handout.
The parable does not tell us how the wealthy are to assist the poor,
            but it insists that the poor are brothers and sisters of the wealthy,
            and that the injustice of the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty
                        cannot be tolerated within God’s eternal perspective.

Our lives matter eternally to God,
            and when the dross is cast into Gehenna to be burned away,
            and when we pass through Sheol to the arms of Father Abraham,
            there will be a question to answer.

And it may well be this:

Did you see Lazarus?

This sermon borrows extensively from Klyne R. Snodgrass, Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, Eerdmans, Cambridge: 2008; and Tom Wright, Luke for Everyone, SPCK, London: 2001.

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