Okay. When we hear this story, I think there’s something in the story that can really distract us and make it hard for us to hear what Jesus means us to hear.
The thing that is distracting is the idea that the rich man is sent to a place of suffering after he dies. That because of how he acted when he was alive, now he’s somewhere surrounded by flames, desperately thirsty, and without any help or relief.
I understand why that’s a distracting idea. It’s an upsetting idea!
Some of you might have grown up in churches that talked a lot about how our beliefs and actions in life might mean we go to Heaven – or Hell – when we die. (You may have noticed that’s NOT stuff we talk about a lot here…)
The places where the rich man and Lazarus end up when they die, in the story, are not Heaven and Hell. Those ideas really come along later, though there are similarities.
Instead Jesus is using an idea about the afterlife, about the place people go when they die, that was common at the time.
People thought the afterlife was like a countryside. And some parts of it were really lovely and lush and comfortable – like the valleys of Abraham, where Lazarus is. And some parts of it were terrible and dry and scorched – like where the rich man is.
And maybe there’s a literal chasm – like, a great big split in the ground – between those two places.
Listen, this is important: Jesus is using this idea to help him tell a story, to make a point. He is not trying to tell people what actually happens after we die.
There are a couple of other places where he seems to try to gesture in that direction – when he says things like, Even if you die, you live; and In my Father’s house are many mansions.
But it seems like it’s one of the things that’s pretty hard to explain.
And he’s not trying to explain it, here.
He’s just telling a story.
And notice that the characters in the story are extreme characters.
The rich man is very rich – he’s like a stereotype of the worst kind of rich person: he has a feast of fancy food every day, and he literally steps over this poor man at his gate, when he goes out shopping for more fine linen clothing.
And the poor man is very poor – lying in the street with no one to feed or help him.
Maybe we could imagine this happening in real life, unfortunately – but these aren’t real-life characters.
This is a story told to make a point.
So what is the point?
The point of this story, I think, is about knowing better.
The last part of the story is the important part; the rest is just setting things up for this conversation between Abraham and the rich man.
And the point of that conversation is that the rich man – and his brothers! – had every reason to know how they should act towards the poor at their doorstep.
Look, the rich man even knows Lazarus’s name; it’s not like he’s just never noticed him.
The point of this story is not that the rich man should have been kind to Lazarus TO AVOID PUNISHMENT IN THE AFTERLIFE.
That is not the reason he should have been kind!
God does not want us to do kind and right and just things because we are afraid. That was the church’s idea, I think.
Fear is not a healthy heart-reason to do good things.
Not what God wants from us or for us.
The point is that the rich man should have been kind to Lazarus because it was the right thing to do.
It was what all the teachings and traditions of his faith told him.
Moses and the prophets, the sacred texts of the Old Testament, the Scriptures of Jesus’ people, are super clear about the responsibility to care for the poor and the sick, to share our resources and respond with kindness to those in need.
And he should have helped Lazarus because it was a human need right in front of him that he could have easily met.
I think what we should carry away from this story is just a reminder that we know how we should act in this world, how we should treat people … and we don’t always do it.
When we have a chance to be kind, we should be kind.
Now, sometimes we’re the ones who need kindness, right? Sometimes we’re the ones who need that helping hand.
Sometimes it flip flops on a daily basis whether we need the kindness, or are in a position to offer kindness.
But when there’s a need right in front of us, a chance to just make somebody’s life a little better or easier – we should TAKE IT.
Not because we’re afraid of eternal torment, but because that’s the kind of people God asks us to be.
There’s one more thing I want us to notice about this story…
We have two characters: a very rich person and a very poor person.
Remember a few weeks ago when we talked about who people think is important…
Who would most people think is more important, of those two people? …
But which one does Jesus give a name, in the story? …
About the vales of Abraham… https://publicorthodoxy.org/2018/10/11/the-vale-of-abraham/