Rob Sturdy: Being Nice to People and Avoiding Hell

15 03 2012

“There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house—for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”

(Luke 16:19-31 ESV)

The above parable, from Luke’s Gospel is challenging and unsettling for a variety of reasons.  In terms of the human element, the rich man himself is unsettling.  He “feasted sumptuously every day,” all the while a poor man named Lazarus suffered under horrific conditions, seemingly unaided by the rich man who could only (maybe not even?) spare scraps from his table.  Even worse, Lazarus, covered in sores is licked by dogs, apparently to feeble to shoo them off.  Of course the rich man winds up in Hell.  What else would we expect!  And yet, this in and of itself is quite unsettling.  Though it is in vogue to fashion one’s self as part of the “99%,” the reality is that being a college educated person with an iPhone makes you part of the 1%, even if you have taken off a few months to live in a tent on Wall Street.  In all reality, if you live in North America odds are you are part of the global 1%, and I say this to indicate that you and I are very much implicated in the same sin as this rich man.  Which means his ultimate destination, that being Hell, should make us a bit nervous.

It is also unsettling because this man who is condemned to Hell knows Abraham, indeed he calls him Father.  This too is a bit unsettling, every bit as unsettling as Jesus telling us that there will be some who used his name to work miracles but will nevertheless be told to depart from his presence (Matt 7.23).  Also, quite unsettling is the fixed chasm which no one can cross!  Yes, the whole thing should leave us fairly shaken.

So how might we avoid such a fate?  The implication is clear.  Be nice to people.  Consider the poor.  Then you won’t go to Hell.  At least, that’s what the text seems to imply and that’s what I heard a very well regarded theologian preach recently.  Is that what we’re meant to take away from this?  Well, not so fast.

The rich man seems to have a bit of a change of heart.  His change of heart does not so much include Lazarus, who he still regards as his servant (send Lazarus to preach!).  Rather he has regard for his kin which I thinks we might regard as a bit of personal growth on his part.  Abraham replies, ironically, “even if someone where to come back from the dead they will not listen.”  I say that Abraham said this ironically, because this is indeed exactly what the Christian Gospel proclaims.  A man did come back from the dead, but many did not listen.  The reader would be alert to this reading Luke and immediately think you the resurrection of Christ.  The implication is, that if they would be ready to listen to the man come back from the dead it would have some moral and spiritual benefit on their manner of life and this is the important point.

When interpreting passages such as the one above, we must be careful not to interpret them as if the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus counted for nothing.  By this I mean, if our take home point is “if the rich man was nice to the Lazarus, he wouldn’t be in hell!”  Not so.   The rich man has deeper problems.  He is not listening to God through Moses and the Prophets, he is not listening to God’s gift to us, Jesus Christ, the man risen from the dead.  If he had listened to them, how might it have affected him?

Perhaps he would have fallen under conviction that he is selfish and an oppressor of the poor.  Perhaps he would’ve realized that because of the sin in his life, he was actually the one in moral and spiritual poverty.  Perhaps he would’ve realized that though he was physically rich in this life, he was destined for an eternity of deep poverty in Hell.  In other words, the rich man would have discovered that he is Lazarus, destitute and covered in sores.  And perhaps in his poverty, he would have called out for mercy, a few scrapes, from a rich man.  And perhaps, if he had paid very close attention, he would have discovered that for all the spiritual poor and destitute who did cry out, they did have a rich man, namely Jesus Christ, who was willing to give them more than just scrapes but to give them all things.

For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.
(2 Corinthians 8:9 ESV)

This Gospel saves us from the fate of the rich man in two ways.  It saves us from the rich man’s fate (hell) and it saves us from the rich man’s life (oppression).  It saves us from the rich man’s fate by paying our debt, as Christ suffered and bore the wrath, the Hell of God on the cross as a full and sufficient sacrifice to pay for sins, even the sins of this man.  Second, it saves us from this rich man’s life.  You see, Christ is our rich man and we are his Lazarus.  Only in this instance, Christ as our rich man left his sumptuous table, cleaned our wounds and gave us all things.  Having experienced this in its fullness, how could we continue to live selfishly?  Or to oppress the poor?  In other words, the proclamation of the Gospel is meant to give us more than assurance, it is meant to affect us.  Through the Gospel we are given charity where we are selfish, compassion where we are oppressive, and mercy where we are judgmental.

So don’t be like this rich man.  Listen to the prophets, and Moses.  Listen to the voice of the one raised from the dead, Jesus Christ our righteousness.  He became poor that, by his poverty we might become rich.  This Gospel not only saves us, it transforms us.