August 21, 2011: Lazarus and the Fat Cat

Posted on : Aug 18th, 2011 | By | Category: This Sunday's Service

“He’s dead, but he hasn’t died. He’s in Hades, but he still hasn’t died the kind of death that actually brings life.” (Rob Bell)

This Sunday we will once again explore the topic of heaven and hell. It’s not the easiest topic to preach on since the Bible doesn’t provide us with a clear picture on the subject. In fact, Scripture doesn’t seem to dwell much on the subject at all (most of Scripture is focused on this life) and the texts that do refer to “heaven” and “hell” are a bit confusing. Take for instance the odd passage we looked at last week in which Jesus tells a wealthy young person to sell his stuff, hand it out to the poor, and follow him to gain “treasure in heaven.”

This week we look at the well-known passage in the Gospel of Luke about Lazarus and an obscenely rich guy. You know the story in which the rich guy ignores the starving and very sick homeless person, Lazarus, in his driveway. So desperate is Lazarus that he would even be willing to eat the food thrown away in the guy’s trash can.   Well both die and a reversal of fortune occurs. Lazarus finds himself in a state of content in the presence of Abraham (from the book of Genesis) and the fat cat finds himself in Hades. Hades is a Greek mythological term and refers to the place where all the dead live (in the Hebrew Bible it is called Sheol and it is the place where all people go when they die, the good and the bad). The Christian understanding of hell can be compared to the Greek mythological concept of Tartarus which was an abysmal dungeon-like region below Hades, an infernal place of suffering and torment – remember the Gospel of Luke was written in Greek for a Greek audience, Hades is a concept they would be familiar with.

The tortured rich man pleads with Abraham: ‘Have pity on me! Send Lazarus to dip his finger in water to cool my tongue. I’m in agony in this fire.’ But Abraham said, ‘My child, remember that you were well off in your lifetime, while Lazarus was in misery. Now Lazarus has found consolation, and you have found torment. But that’s not all. Between you and us there is a fixed chasm, so that those who might wish to come to you from here can’t do so, nor can anyone cross from your side to us.’ Faced with the finality of his situation the wealthy man remembers his family and asks if there is a way he could warn them.

According the Biblical scholar Tom Wright, Jesus is by no means the first to tell this story. The story of Lazarus and the rich man is very much like a well-known folk tale of the reversal of fortunes between the rich and the poor in the ancient world. The story was so well known that we can easily identify the twist that Jesus has added. In the usual story, when someone asks permission to send a message back to loved ones who are still alive on earth to warn them, permission is granted. But in Jesus’ reinterpretation of this old folk tale, the rich man’s request is denied.

Sounds a bit harsh, doesn’t it? If this was just a moral tale about riches and poverty this would have been a blah ending. This is not how we like stories to end (just think of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol). If this was just a moral tale, I definitely prefer the way it plays out in the well-known ancient folk tale, in which the rich man’s request to warn his family to change their ways is granted.   But Jesus doesn’t tell moral tales, he tells parables. And that’s a good thing. Why? In the words of Tom Wright, if this was just a moral tale then some might say it is better to let the poor stay poor, since they will have a fabulous time in the afterlife. And this sort of argument has been used too often by the careless privileged people of society for us to want anything to do with it.

The story, after all, doesn’t add anything new to the general folk belief about fortunes being reversed in future life. It is a parable. That means that we should take it as picture-language about something that was going on in Jesus own work. (Tom Wright)

Spoiler alert: This story doesn’t have anything to do with heaven and hell; it doesn’t give us information about what heaven and hell would be like. Jesus used a popular folk tale of his time to explain something about life here on earth.

Okay, now you’re confused: aren’t we busy with a sermon series on heaven and hell? Yes, we are and this text is very much about the age to come. How now?

We’ll talk about that on Sunday,

Kobie

~ This Sunday’s Scripture ~

Luke 16:19-31

Jesus said to his disciples: “Once there was a rich person who dressed in purple and fine linen and feasted splendidly every day. At the gate of this person’s estate lay a beggar named Lazarus, who was covered with sores. Lazarus longed to eat the scraps that fell from the rich person’s table, and even the dogs came and licked Lazarus’ sores.

One day poor Lazarus died and was carried by angels to the arms of Abraham. The rich person likewise died and was buried. In Hades, in torment, the rich person looked up and saw Abraham and Sarah in the distance, and Lazarus resting in their presence.

‘Abraham,’ the rich person cried, ‘have pity on me! Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue; for I am tortured by these flames.’  But Abraham said, ‘My child, remember that you were well off in your lifetime, while Lazarus was in misery. Now Lazarus has found consolation, and you have found torment. But that’s not all. Between you and us there is a fixed chasm, so that those who might wish to come to you from here can’t do so, nor can anyone cross from your side to us.’

The rich person said, ‘I beg you, then, to send Lazarus to my own house where I have five siblings. Let Lazarus be a warning to them, so that they may not end in this place of torment.’ But Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let your siblings hear them.’ ‘Please, I beg you, the rich person said, if someone could only go to them from the dead, then they would repent.’ ‘If they don’t listen to Moses and the prophets,’ Abraham replied, ‘they won’t be convinced even if someone should rise from the dead.'”

Leave a Reply