Sunday, January 31, 2016
Sermon: Luke 16: 19-31 The Rich Man and Lazarus
When we meet together, Sunday by Sunday, we work our way through books of the Bible, passage by passage. There are some good reasons why we do it this way - it helps us get the big idea of the book, and to see how the story develops, or what the writer wants to teach us. It means that the preacher isn’t sitting around waiting for inspiration on what particular text to preach from - which can take up a lot of sermon prep time for one-off special services. But it also means that we don’t get to skip the hard, or difficult, or uncomfortable bits of the Bible. We have to deal with it as we come to it.
And let me tell you, having started back into Luke’s gospel, chapter 16 was on the horizon, fitting the bill of hard, difficult and uncomfortable. Last week we had the parable of the dishonest manager - hard enough to get your head around. But today’s passage is even harder. We get to see what hell is like. Every so often you see one of those ‘I died and went to heaven and now I’m back and here’s my story’ type of TV programmes or books. Here, we’re told what hell is like.
Now even as I say that, you might be tempted to switch off, to go to your happy place, and sit it out. But this isn’t a scare tactic invented by hellfire and damnation preachers. These are the words of Jesus. They follow on from last week, with his warning to the Pharisees who loved money that you cannot serve two masters.
Jesus tells a story of two men, with two different life situations, and two different destinies. One man has everything now, and the other has nothing. There’s the rich man in his palace, and the poor man sitting begging at his gate. The rich man was wealthy, and also thought of himself as religious. He dressed in all the latest designer fashions, and had a feast every day. As he was chauffeured in and out through his gates, he always saw Lazarus sitting begging, but never did anything to help.
Lazarus, on the other hand, had a miserable existence. Covered with sores, hunger made worse by the smells of the tasty food on the rich man’s table. His only company were the dogs who came and licked his sores. Two entirely different lives, but verse 22 tells us that both lives came to an end. Lazarus died, and the rich man also died. And as the two funerals happen, there’s a complete reversal of their condition. Lazarus is carried by the angels to Abraham’s side, but the rich man is in Hades.
Hades is the realm of the dead, in Greek thinking, and here we see that it is a place of torment for those who have rejected God. What makes it even worse for the man is that he can see afar off the poor beggar, who’s sitting beside Abraham in comfort and rest.
The rich man cries out to Abraham, asking that he send Lazarus with even a drop of cooling water for his tongue. Ironic, isn’t it, that the one who had everything he ever needed, and ignored the needs of one who lived right in front of his gates is now the one who is in desperate need himself!
The rich man had always been the one who called the shots, whether in business or family, and even now, he seeks to control the lives of others, trying to boss Lazarus around. But Abraham says it is futile - the judgement is just, and the punishment is final - there are no transfers from heaven to hell, or hell to heaven after death. It’s a bit like the ‘transfer window’ in football these days - any players moving from one club to the next have to be signed and sealed by 11pm tomorrow - and once the deadline comes, then they have to stay where they are. But as well as there being no transfers, the judgement is just: the man has already received his good things, he had ‘heaven on earth’ and squandered it.
Abraham says 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.’ It would be easy for some to read that as an isolated statement and conclude that rich people go to hell, and poor people go to heaven. But it’s not as simple as that. We have to read this in its context. This story is told against the Pharisees, who were both religious and rich. They loved money, not God.
The rich man was clearly religious - he knew Abraham, and even called him Father. He knows the truth, but didn’t live it out. But more than that, when he asks Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his five brothers about the wrath to come, Abraham refuses, because his brothers have all they need to avoid ending up in Hades. “They have Moses and the Prophets.” That is to say, they have the Old Testament Scriptures. By shutting off this as a possible excuse for ending up in hell, Abraham exposes the folly of the rich man himself, condemning him also for failing to listen to Moses and the Prophets.
The rich man is not in Hades / hell because he is rich. It is because he selfishly used his riches for himself while ignoring the needs of those around him - prime example being poor Lazarus, who sat at his gate.
In the same way, Lazarus does not end up in paradise simply because he is poor. It is because he trusted in God, even through his terrible circumstances. Did you notice that while the rich man isn’t named, Lazarus is - what’s the significance of that? Well, Lazarus means ‘God has helped.’ Despite his poverty, God has helped him, and Lazarus responds in faith.
As the rich man makes clear in his last plea, hell is a place that can be avoided, through repentance, by turning away from the habitual life of sin and greed, and turning towards God. But he seeks it for his brothers through a supernatural sign, rather than through them reading God’s word and repenting. He wants Abraham to send Lazarus to them to call them to repent. Look at what Abraham says in reply - ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.
Not long after this, a man called Lazarus would rise from the dead, in John 11. Did the Pharisees believe then? No, they sought to kill Jesus and Lazarus. A Christmas Carol might be a good story, with Ebenezer Scrooge changed by the appearance of the ghost of Jacob Marley and the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. But signs aren’t enough to make anyone believe. It’s hearing God’s word and responding in faith, like Lazarus.
This isn’t an easy passage of scripture to read, or listen to, or preach from. But Jesus gives us a clear warning of what lies ahead. Heaven or hell. Selfish loving of money, your good things now, the closest you’ll get to heaven and a lost eternity? Or patient endurance, trusting in God for salvation, and eternity in God’s paradise?
Let this be your only experience of hell, from the lips of Jesus, in this solemn warning. Jesus endured the shame, the punishment, the pain of hell so that you wouldn’t have to. His mercy is great. His promise is true. His salvation is real, for all who will trust in him. O may we know that we are safe in the arms of Jesus, eternally safe. May that be your assurance today as you trust in Christ. Let’s pray.
This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 31st January 2016.