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09.29.09 Heaven Now, Or Hell Later Luke 16.19-31 Sermon Summary

by on September 30, 2013

People think this parable is about heaven and hell. Probably not. Jesus often used parables to give us a picture of the kingdom of God and to show us how we don’t have to wait for it. It is here already through Jesus Christ.

Summary Points

  • Some questions arising from the parable
  • Seeing Lazarus today, or not
  • Guidance on financial stewardship
  • Thoughts on heaven and hell

In this parable about the Rich Man and Lazarus, it’s interesting that only Lazarus is named. This is the only parable of Jesus in which someone is named. Why might that be? Perhaps this is an insight into the heart of God. Given a choice between those who are rich and those who live in the gutters, God knows the names of the gutter dwellers.

Maybe here is a plea from Jesus for an actual Lazarus, someone his first audience really knew. Or maybe it’s an invitation to identify with the Rich Man; he isn’t named because his name is ours.

Whatever the case, the Rich Man doesn’t see Lazarus. This is his problem. Lazarus the poor man stays at the gate of the Rich Man’s house, wishing to be fed from the scraps of the Rich Man’s table but the Rich Man doesn’t even notice Lazarus. (Give thanks that when we, spiritual Lazaruses, desire to be fed from the riches of God’s grace at Jesus’ table, we are!)

What prevents us from seeing Lazarus today? Perhaps it’s one of the “three A’s”: too much focus on Acquisition, Achievement, or Amusement. The more we focus on getting more stuff, doing more things, or having more fun, the less likely we are to see the Lazaruses in our lives. Our passage from 1 Timothy has some advice about Acquisition which applies also to Achievement and Amusement: “Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.”

Some of us don’t see Lazarus because we deliberately look away. When Lazarus shows up on our TV or computer screens, we use the remote or the mouse to click away. It’s like driving through ski country and marveling at the million dollar chalets and ignoring the trailer parks.

We don’t see Lazarus because complex delivery systems hide him from us. We don’t see the fourteen year old Indian girl who stitched our shirt together during a 12 hour work day because it has gone through 3 to 4 middle men before it lands on our discount racks. Same thing with those who pick our vegetables. Twenty-five years ago I was a doorman at the Broadmoor hotel—very conspicuous, very nice uniform. The largest tip I got was $100 for parking a guest’s car. How many housekeepers get a tip amounting to even a tenth of that? They don’t. They’re unseen.

There are places you can go to see Lazarus. Our congregation serves meals to homeless youth at Urban Peak. We enjoy table fellowship when we house homeless families with Interfaith Hospitality Network. We help others notice Lazarus when we participate in Cropwalk for Hunger. Some of us get a more distant glimpse of Lazarus when we write checks supporting these causes.

The point is, if you want to avoid the Rich Man’s fate, you had better seek, find, and help Lazarus now.

What guidance does this parable give us in discerning God’s will regarding our generosity? Interestingly, not much that we didn’t already have. The parable ends by endorsing Moses and Prophets as enough information to save the Rich Man and his five brothers. Moses’ Ten Commandments and Prophets like Amos give us the guidance we need. Do right by your neighbor and take care of the underclass. All Jesus’ resurrection adds to this is the assurance that if we fulfill the Law of Love as Jesus did, giving of ourselves sacrificially for the benefit of others, especially the least among us, we will experience union with God.

There are a number of decisive moments in our exercise of financial stewardship. The first is when we purchase things for ourselves. That new outfit, new car, new house, that vacation—is there anything left when we’re done Acquiring for ourselves? If not, our ability to be generous is already determined.

Another decisive moment is when we spend time in discernment. How often we pray for what we want! How often do we submit ourselves and our finances to what God wants? If we listened to God in prayer and Moses and the Prophets, would God direct our spending? Try it and find out.

A decisive moment presents itself when we see a need. Has God placed me here in this place, now in this time of need in order to meet that need? As I was writing this summary, a man came to the church asking for gas money in order to drive to his mother’s funeral in Dallas. A scam? Maybe. But I remember the principle so well-articulated in the Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations (#5, Extravagant Generosity), “what others do with the money I give them—they have to answer to God about that; I just have to answer to God about what I do with mine.”

Finally some thoughts about “heaven” and “hell.” Please notice that neither word is mentioned in this parable. What some English Bibles erroneously translate as “hell” is actually Hades, a Greek work for the Old Testament realm of the dead known as Sheol. Sheol is neutral, it is a holding place for the dead, everyone goes there. It is true that the Rich Man is experiencing agony and Lazarus abundance, but we hear more than the parable says when we assume this is heaven and hell as popularly understood today.

I find it interesting that Abraham is the one presiding in the conversation. Abraham is the Father of the Faith (Jews), and according to Paul, the Father of the Faithful (Gentiles). So is this a judgment of faith and faithfulness? Abraham was “blessed to be a blessing.” Is this a judgment about whether we have used our blessings to bless others? Abraham precedes Moses and the Prophets, so this is a further validation of these as standards for judgment.

But more provocatively still, since Abraham is the judge in this passage, does Jesus mean to leave room for another judgment, a final judgment and an ultimate redemption, namely by God? Remember in Amos it was the complacent who were the first to enter the Exile, but God was faithful to Israel and returned them from Exile (many times, it would turn out).

The Rich Man didn’t pay attention to God in this life. He didn’t listen to Moses or the Prophets. He didn’t live in God’s kingdom here in his present life, and so he didn’t after he died. The question this parable asks us is whether we are living in God’s kingdom here, in our present lives?

Many people seek for their place in the parables of Jesus. Not many of us are Lazarus. More likely we are the Rich Man. But certainly we are his five brothers. May we live as those who hear God’s direction in Moses, the Prophets, and the resurrected Christ, and may we see and help Lazarus now.

Questions for Discussion or Reflection

  • Think of a time you helped a Lazarus. How did that make you feel? Was God especially present in that time?
  • How do the “three A’s” prevent you from seeing Lazarus today? How does the advice from 1 Timothy apply to you?
  • How often do you find yourself looking away when Lazarus appears? What can you do to pay closer attention? What might that look like?
  • Are you deliberately involved in activities that show you where Lazarus is? If not, why not?
  • How well do you know what Moses and the Prophets say about money? What impact has this knowledge had on your spending and giving habits?
  • Do you agree that this parable is less about heaven and hell and more about the kingdom of God in this life?


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