September 30, 2007


If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded of someone should rise from the dead. – Lk. 16: 31

Religious traditions create many stories of heaven & hell. Although they take place in the afterlife, they are not meant to convey information about the world beyond death. Their real target is the assumptions & attitudes of this world. The afterlife is often portrayed as a “fixed” place because this “fixity” provides a focus on something essential that is not easily grasped in the flow of time, i.e., they clarify truths that are murky & ambiguous in the earthly realm. What happens on the other side of death reveals what is happening on this side of death.

Why did the rich man go to hell? We are not told that he acquired his wealth by foul means, nor even that Lazarus begged from him & was refused. We are not told that he committed any crime or evil deed. We forget that a very important way we can sin is through our omissions. This rich man is not a miser, but he is numb to the presence of the poor & inattentive to their needs. Here, it is not what he did that matters but what he failed to do.

Notice that even in hell he is not interested in repentance, but only relief. His appeal to “Father Abraham” does not get him the hearing he wants. His reply has two parts: (1) he asks the rich man to remember how it was on earth – Lazarus in torment & the rich man in comfort. Now the situation is reversed with no explanation of why – presumably just a fact that the rich man should remember & ponder. (2) The gulf that exists between rich & poor in this life can be crossed, but not in the afterlife. Therefore, the time before death is the time for repentance; the time after death is for consequences. The message is clear: do not procrastinate, repent now.

Since his torment cannot be relieved, the rich man takes another tack. Perhaps he can keep his brothers from sharing his fate. Again, he is rebuffed by Abraham. The way of change is not to fear future torment but to listen to Moses & the prophets. The rich man does not think that is enough – something spectacular is needed. Abraham doesn’t think so. They do not need something more but to attend to what they already know. The problem is not that they do not know, but that they know & don’t care. Nothing gets to them, & this self-imposed isolation is their destiny.

Why then, did Lazarus go to heaven? We’re not told that he ever performed a single good deed. The clue lies in his name. This is the only parable of Jesus where the character in the story has a name, so it must be significant. “Lazarus” is the Greek form of the Hebrew name “Eliezer” which means “God is my help.” Lazarus is not just a poor person, but a poor person who believes & trusts in God. It was his faith & trust that got him into paradise, not just being poor, for poverty can just as easily turn a person bitter & angry & criminal.

So according to this parable, the gospel measurement for heaven or hell is seeing. It is spiritual blindness & indifference that condemns people. We are challenged to turn down the noise, pause from the rat race & put aside our preoccupations to notice Lazarus at the door. How do we open the door? We need to remember that most doors are locked from the inside. AMEN!