On the Road with Jesus, Pt. 13: The Rich Man and Lazarus
The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

A sermon by Dr. Jim Somerville, Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
September 29, 2013

Luke 16:19-31 [link]


The first time I preached the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus was when I was pastor of the New Castle Baptist Church in Kentucky, some 25 years ago.  I can’t remember what I said, and probably no one else can, either, but I remember what one of our deacons said after I had shaken the last hand and we were locking the doors: he said, “Do you believe hell is a real place?”  

“Yes,” I said.  “Do you?”

“I do!” he said, “But some people say it’s just ‘separation from God.’  I don’t believe that.  I believe hell is a real place and I believe it’s real hot!”

“What makes you say that?” I asked.

“That story you preached this morning,” he said.  “The rich man said he was ‘in torment’ in those flames.  Sounds pretty hot to me.”

He made a good point, and while it was not necessarily the main point of the parable Jesus told I was pleased that at least this deacon was getting his information about hell from the Bible.  A lot of people get it from somewhere else—from books and movies and television shows.  So, what does the Bible say about hell?  At least four different things.

  1. Sheol:  In the Hebrew scriptures the place of the dead is called Sheol, and in my understanding it was like some huge underground “warehouse” for the dead, a place where they continued to have a sort of vague, shadowy existence.  My study Bible says that those who were in Sheol found themselves “removed from God’s presence,” and from “the possibility of worship and praise.” 
  2. Hades:  Hades is the Greek translation of Sheol, and in the Greek version of the Old Testament that’s what it was called.  It’s no surprise that the word spills over into the New Testament in several places (including today’s Gospel lesson), even though in today’s lesson it doesn’t seem to be simply a warehouse for the dead: it is full of flames and torment and agony.
  3. Gehenna: Gehenna is the Greek word that is most often translated as “Hell” in the New Testament.  It comes from ge hinnom, the Hebrew name for the “Valley of Hinnom,” which was, in Jesus’ day, the garbage dump outside the city of Jerusalem.   It’s true.  The whole city sloped down toward a gate in the Southwest corner called the “dung gate.”  They would open that gate and shovel the dung out of the city and into the valley, along with everything else they were trying to get rid of.  And because they were trying to get rid of it for good they set it all on fire, and it would have been somebody’s job to try to keep that fire going, raking whatever hadn’t burned yet onto the part of the pile that was still burning.  So, when Jesus talked about Gehenna, “where the worm never dies and the fire never goes out” (Mark 9:48), he was making reference to that rotting, stinking, smoldering garbage dump just outside the city.  And when he said it would be better to lose a hand or an eye than to have your whole body end up in a place like that most people quickly agreed.
  4. Lake of Fire: The Lake of Fire is mentioned only in the Book of Revelation and only in the last few chapters.  In Revelation 20:10 John says, “And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever.”  In verse 14 he says that Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire.  In the next verse he says that anyone whose name was not written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.  You get the idea from these last few chapters of the Bible that in the end every evil thing left in the world will be swept up in a dust pan and dumped into the lake of fire.  I say good riddance.

But notice how the idea of hell seems to change from the beginning of the Bible to the end: it goes from being simply “the place of the dead” to being a place of eternal punishment, and the difference, I think, is resurrection.  In Old Testament times people didn’t believe in resurrection: once you were dead you were dead.  But in that period between the Old and New Testaments some people began to believe that death was not the end.  They began to believe that there was life after death, and that you would be judged in that life for what you did in this one, and then they began to imagine what that judgment might look like: Ah! Eternal reward for the righteous and eternal punishment for the wicked!  And it must have been right around that time that the first “Fire and Brimstone” sermon was preached..

You don’t hear them much anymore, but you used to, didn’t you?  I grew up Presbyterian, so I didn’t hear as many as some of you, but I did go to a Baptist college and one night I went to a revival meeting at a nearby church where the visiting evangelist took us on a homiletical tour of the “Halls of Hell” and told us all the things we might encounter there.  Terrible things, as I recall.  I can’t remember the details.  I’ve tried to blot them out of my mind.  But his point was clear: hell was a real place, it was real hot, and you didn’t want to go there, “And if you don’t want to go there,” he said, at the end of the sermon, “then come down here and accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior.”  I had already accepted Jesus.  I had been “saved and baptized” as they say.  But if I hadn’t I might have come down the aisle that night.  Fear is a powerful motivator, and the old preachers knew that.  They knew you could talk to people about the love of Jesus all day long but if you really wanted to get them down the aisle you had to scare the hell out of them.

I don’t care for that approach and I think I’ve told you why. 

When my youngest brother, Billy, was five years old some neighbors took him to see a film at a nearby church.  “What kind of film is it?” my mother asked.  “Oh, it’s an evangelistic film,” they answered.  My mother trusted these neighbors.  She trusted evangelism (it does mean “good news” doesn’t it?).  And when the neighbors brought little Billy back they had good news.  “He gave his heart to Jesus tonight!” they said, beaming, as if they had saved him themselves.  It was only later, as my mother sat by Billy’s bed and held his hand through a series of terrifying nightmares that she learned what the evangelistic film had been about:  Hell.  It was all about hell.  And it was presented with such convincing special effects that my little brother thought he was already there.  At the end of the film the pastor stood up and said, “Now, any of you who don’t want to go there need to come down here to the front of the church and give your heart to Jesus.”  My little brother didn’t know what “giving your heart to Jesus” meant, but he knew he didn’t want to go to hell.  He came down the aisle of that church on trembling legs and when he got to the front the pastor said, “Hallelujah!  Another soul saved!”  But all through that sleepless night the soul of my five-year-old brother was in torment while my mother rehearsed the speech she was going to give to that pastor.

I don’t think of that as evangelism, I think of it as emotional manipulation, or worse.  And that’s why I’m so surprised to find Jesus using a similar approach in today’s Gospel lesson.  He tells a story about a rich man who dressed in purple and fine linen and feasted sumptuously every day, and about a poor man named Lazarus who lay at his gate, covered with sores, longing to eat the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table.  But the rich man didn’t give him any crumbs.  He didn’t give him anything.  And when he died the rich man went to hell.  Luke calls it Hades, but it soon becomes clear that this is not just the Greek version of Sheol—not simply a warehouse for the dead—this is something much, much worse.

Jesus talks about a place where the rich man is in torment, and yet, when he looks up he can see Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side.  The rich man calls out to Abraham, and begs him to have mercy on him, and to send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool his tongue, “for I am in agony in these flames,” he says.  But Abraham says, “Nothing doing.  You’ve had yours; now Lazarus is getting his.  Besides, he couldn’t come to you if he wanted.  There’s this huge chasm between us.  We can’t cross over to you and you can’t cross over to us.”  Through the years artists have tried to picture this scene, and they often paint it with the rich man roasting in flames, shouting across a bottomless abyss at Abraham, who reclines at a banquet table on the other side, making sure that Lazarus is getting plenty to eat and drink.  It’s not exactly the way I’ve always pictured hell—or heaven.  I don’t think I would like the kind of heaven where people in hell could shout at you.  I would hope for better zoning regulations.  But Jesus makes his point: like all the other pictures of hell in the New Testament the place where the rich man ends up is both awful and eternal. 

There is no getting out. 

And so the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to his five brothers, to warn them, so that they won’t end up in the same place.  But Abraham says, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.”  And when he says “Moses and the prophets” he means the Bible, or at least all the Bible they had in those days.  “They should read the Bible,” Abraham says.  “That will tell them how to stay out of hell.”  And the rich man said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.  But Abraham said, “If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets they wouldn’t listen even if someone should rise from the dead.”  And that’s when I feel a little shiver run up my spine, because I know who Jesus is talking about: he’s talking about himself.  “If these people won’t believe the Old Testament,” he says, “they won’t believe the New Testament either.” 

And so the story ends with the rich man in Hades, being tormented in those flames forever.  It is a fire and brimstone sermon intended to motivate people, to get them out of their pews and down the aisle, to get them to repent.  But repent from what?  What was the rich man’s sin?  It wasn’t that he was rich.  Being rich is not, in and of itself, a sin.  No, his sin was that he didn’t see Lazarus lying there at his gate day after day, longing for the crumbs that fell from his table. 

When I was in seminary I took part in an experience called “the Plunge,” where I pretended to be homeless and spent 24-hours in downtown Louisville, Kentucky.  I didn’t shower or shave for a week beforehand; I put on old and ragged clothes; I changed the oil in my car and left my hands dirty.  I looked bad and smelled bad.  One of the first things I noticed was that I became invisible.  I mean, I was still there, sitting on a park bench in broad daylight, but the people passing by didn’t look at me, didn’t see me.  Even if I called out a cheerful hello they would just keep staring straight ahead.  They were determined not to see me because if they did, they would have to acknowledge my presence, and if they did that they might have to do something for me, give me something, help me in some way.  It was so much easier just to pretend they didn’t see me and I know because I’ve done it myself.  How many times have I pulled up to an intersection where someone was holding a cardboard sign asking for help and simply stared straight ahead, refusing to see?

Steve Blanchard, our Minister of Christian Compassion, will tell you:  this is how compassion works.  First you see someone in need, and then you feel something for them, and then you do something for them.  Seeing, feeling, doing—these are the three stages of compassion.  If you could look at someone in need and not feel anything for them then you wouldn’t have to do anything for them, but since most of us can’t do that we simply avoid step one: we don’t see people in need and we do it by not looking.  And maybe this would be a good place to say that it’s not just the homeless we don’t see: there are people in our own homes, our own families, our own congregations, and our own communities that we overlook every day.  There are people lying at our own gates, longing for the crumbs of our attention, but we look the other way.

I’m as guilty as anyone.

That was the rich man’s sin.  He didn’t look, he didn’t see, he didn’t feel, and he didn’t do anything for Lazarus.  The only time he saw Lazarus, actually, was when he was in need, and then he asked Father Abraham if he would send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in some water and cool his tongue, as if he were some kind of houseboy.  “No,” Abraham said.  “Then send him to my five brothers to warn them.”  “No,” Abraham said.  “They’ve got Moses and the prophets, and Moses and the prophets have said over and over again that if you see someone in need you’ve got to help him (Deut. 15:7-11), but first you’ve got to see him.  You’ve got to open your eyes and see.”

I was talking to a friend at Starbucks last week and mentioned this parable.  I talked about the importance of seeing people, and especially those in need.  He said, “Yes, when you get to an intersection and someone is holding up a cardboard sign you don’t have to give them anything, but you do have to see them.  You have to look them in the eye and acknowledge their humanity.  You have to see that that’s a brother or sister standing there—a fellow child of God.  Because if you don’t, well, as Jesus said…

"You're going to hell."

Jim Somerville 2013
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