The gospel from Luke is one of the most colorful stories in the Bible and it has a vivid history in Christian art and imagination. The rich man is known as Dives, although that is just a Latin word for “rich man.” The images in the story that Jesus used for Hell and Heaven are not typical of the Hebrew Bible. For most of the Hebrew Bible, Hell or Sheol is a shady place where all souls go and gradually dissipate. Ecclesiastes pointed out that the rich and the poor, the good and the evil, all go to the same place and amount to vanity. A strong tradition of thought in ancient Israel was that God is the God of the living, not the dead, and that people who handle dead bodies are unclean and need to be purified. This tradition was more or less well represented in Jesus’ time by the party of the Sadducees, which included the priests who superintended the Temple worship. You will remember the incident recounted in the 20th chapter of Luke where the Sadducees tried to trick Jesus with a question about whose wife a woman would be in heaven if she had married each of seven brothers. The Sadducees themselves did not believe in the resurrection and thought this question revealed the contradictory nature of belief in a heavenly afterlife. Jesus answered that in Heaven people would not have sexual identities and would be like angels. He then reinterpreted the claim that God is the God of the living by citing Moses’ name for God, namely the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob: if God is the God of the living, then in Moses’ time, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob must still be alive in some afterlife.
In contrast to the Israelite belief that souls just fade away in Sheol, a tradition of immortality or resurrection grew up in Jewish thought during Hellenistic times, that is, after Alexander the Great conquered the area and brought in Greek culture about three centuries before Jesus. In Jesus’ day, this was represented by the party of the Pharisees, and Jesus was a theological Pharisee in this and other matters. The logic of this position was something like this. If the soul is naturally immortal, or all souls are resurrected from the dead, then the righteousness of God’s kingdom requires that in the afterlife the good souls must go to Heaven and the bad souls to everlasting Hellish punishment. In early Christian thought, some people believed that every soul is naturally immortal and therefore has to go someplace, to Heaven or Hell. Other early Christians believed that only the saved believers would be resurrected to be with God and Christ while the unsaved would simply remain dead with no resurrection at all. The Greek philosophical idea of natural immortality became more influential in later Christian thought so that by the time of the Middle Ages most people were convinced that every soul survived and had to go somewhere after death. In addition to Heaven and Hell, which rewarded good or bad people, the Medievals imagined Limbo for unbaptized children who had died before the age of responsibility and Purgatory for the people who were bad but could be made good by some eons of torture. Most of us today would doubt the benefits of eons of purgatorial torture. Jesus’ image of Heaven for Lazarus and Hell for Dives was not quite as elaborate as the Medieval imagery, but lay in that line of development.
Now we do not know whether Jesus’ image of Heaven and Hell in our text was what he really believed, or was a metaphorical appeal to the popular imagination for the sake of telling his story. His more usual image of last things was that God would cataclysmically come down from Heaven into history, punishing the evil-doers, rewarding the just, and setting up a global kingdom of justice with Jesus as its head. On this account Jesus would return to history and reshape it, although he also believed in treasure in Heaven. I myself suspect that Jesus’ vivid picture of Dives in Hell looking up at Lazarus in Heaven, resting in the bosom of Abraham as the spiritual says, was intended as something of a literary device for making his point.
It is interesting to note that Jesus did not say that Lazarus was a particularly good man. Nor did he say that the rich man Dives was particularly bad. We are left to infer that the sin of Dives was that he did not pay attention the poor man at his gates. Jewish religious law was quite clear that the wealthy have a responsibility of charity to the poor. Presumably, Dives’ brothers also were rich but callous, which is why he worried about their fate. The power of Jesus’ story is that its very picture of sumptuous wealth juxtaposed to crippling poverty brings to our mind, like a physical perception, the fundamental injustice of such disparities in wealth where the rich don’t care for the poor. You don’t need the law, or even an editorial comment, to see that it was wrong for Dives to feast sumptuously every day while beggars sought his crumbs with the dogs. It was up to Dives to do something about that. We can just see that.
Americans can see the point of Jesus’ parable even when it is hard to see that we are the rich people of the Earth while others scramble for the crumbs our global economy leaves them. Even poor Americans are rich by global standards. Remember that King David did not seem to see much wrong in seducing Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, and then sending Uriah to the front lines to be killed in battle. Then Nathan, his prophet, told him about a rich man with many sheep who took his poor neighbor’s only and beloved sheep so he could give a banquet. David as royal judge condemned the rich man, and Nathan told him, “you are that man.” David got the point.
American global capitalism increases the world’s wealth and make many people richer. But it stomps those who cannot compete well. We blame non-competitive people for their own poverty and non-capitalist culture that makes them non-competitive. Our economic system increases the gap between the competitive and non-competitive, and demands that the non-competitive people give up their native culture to enter the shallow, rat-race culture of competitive wealth-seeking. If Jesus’ parable causes us to just see that Dives should be condemned, Jesus tells us Americans, “you are that man.”
Please understand that I am not against capitalism, nor against Dives dressing and eating well. The point is that we and Dives have a responsibility to the poor on our global doorstep, especially those whose poverty is accentuated by the system that provides our wealth. Capitalism, or any other economic system, is morally tolerable only when it cares for the losers. The deceptive mythology of capitalism, alas, likens economic competition to a sporting competition: the winners deserve to win by virtue of being better, and the losers deserve to lose precisely because they are less competitive. In real economic life, however, why should losing to the Haliburtons of the world mean that your people deserve to be poor and dependent on crumbs? Lazarus no less than Dives is a child of God.
Now all of these points make good sermon material and I hope you take them to heart. But notice that Jesus took the story in another direction. He said there was a great gulf fixed between Heaven and Hell that could not be crossed: no Purgatory or Limbo for Jesus! What you do in this life is what counts. Moreover, when Dives begged Abraham to send someone risen from the dead to warn his brothers, Abraham replied that Moses had laid down the moral standards, the brothers knew that, and that should be enough. You see, Jesus’ real point was not about the geography of Heaven and Hell. He concocted that scene to draw attention to the irreversible and absolute moral significance of what we do in this life. It is not what we shall do in some heavenly or hellish afterlife that counts. Our worth consists in how we live in our own time. The scene of Lazarus in the bosom of Abraham and Dives in torment was Jesus’ imaginative expression of the worth of their respective lives. He said that the worth of those lives cannot be changed after they die.
What does this imply for us? First, it means that what we believe about the geography of the afterlife is not important one way or another so long as we get Jesus’ point: we stand under judgment for what we do and are in this life. Unlike Dives who seems to have been oblivious to any absolute judgment on his life, we should live with a consciousness that what we do now has ultimate significance for who we are before God. The danger in afterlife-thinking is that we are tempted to postpone taking our lives seriously. Jesus turned afterlife-thinking around to say, “be serious here and now.” Not later but now we live under divine judgment. Now our lives have ultimate significance for defining our worth.
A second implication is that we should therefore attend to the issues that arise on our watch with utmost seriousness. The poor are on our doorstep: what can we do about them now? Countless other issues in addition to poverty shape the moral contours of our environment. Dealing with them all is how we live in our own time.
The Christian gospel is that, no matter how good we are now and throughout our lives before God, it is never good enough. Yet God loves us anyway and receives us with mercy, restoring us to good standing. But now, being restored, we have no excuse for not amending our lives and pursuing the holiness of justice and mercy in the way we live in our own time. Christianity says that Dives can be changed in his own lifetime.
So I invite you to take your life in our time with ultimate seriousness, knowing that this is the life you have to lead and none other. I invite you to accept the grace of God in Christ to give you the power of righteousness while you still have this life to lead. I invite you to look at the world around you and make a difference for justice. Help the poor, improve the economy, oppose the selfish, put peace ahead of control, treat your enemies as you would be treated, protect nature as God’s creation, cherish friends as God cherishes you, create high culture and a decent society because you are creators in God’s image, forgive because God forgives, renew others because God renews, love every one and every thing because God does, and live your life now with the laughter and joy of absolute seriousness because this is the life God gives you.