TORMENTED IN THE FLAMES
Luke 16: 19-31
Ah, the story of the rich man and Lazarus: not theLazarus who Jesus raised from the dead, this is a different man in the story.In fact, this man did not exist except in folklore. This memorable and even troubling story was a folktale fromEgypt that had been told and retold by different teachers and parents and severalcultures. According to Biblical scholar Eduard Schweizer, “the story is basedon an Egyptian tale of a god who becomes the child of earthly parents, to whomhe shows Hades and paradise, where, after the magnificent funeral of the richman, the rich furnishings of his tomb are given to the poor man. [Remember inEgypt the wealth of leaders was put in pyramids with them to be used in theafterlife.] … Influenced by this story, Judaism told of the honorable burial ofa rich tax collector, which rewarded him for his one good deed, while a devout man received a wretchedburial which atoned for his one sin!”(THE GOOD NEWS ACCORDING TO MARK, JohnKnox Press, 1984, p. 260.) Jesus retells this story that he likely heard inboth childhood and adulthood and makes it fit his sermon. Remember the themesregarding Jesus that Luke shares throughout his gospel: 1) Wealth is not theenemy, but greedy and selfish rich people he challenges often. You mightremember the words of a young Mary when she is sharing the news that she’sgoing to give birth to Jesus: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spiritrejoices with God my savior! … He has brought down the powerful from theirthrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things andsent the rich empty away.” (Luke 1: 46, 52, 53) Again it’s not wealth per se that is on trial, nor people ofwealth. Even Abraham was wealthy. It addresses those who do nothing for thepoor in their life. 2) There will be justice for the poor in their next life ifthey do not get it in this life. And finally, 3) there is a time, usually atdeath, when one’s eternal fate is cast. Therefore Luke’s Jesus and the othercharacters in Luke constantly remind people to change their ways before it istoo late. All of that advice comes to a head when Jesus pulls this story out ofhis memory banks and makes it his own. Remember he has just talked about theparable of the Lost and the parable of the dishonest manager- both three actplays. Here is his next three act play.
Though this is a different rich man than was referredto as the master in the last parable, this rich man had status because he wasdressed in purple, the costliest color to produce and therefore the color ofthe rich. He feasted each day, certainly using servants to be at his everybeckoned call. But as happens whenthere is great wealth and great poverty, there are either security gates orsecurity walls present, both to keep the poor from looking in, but also to keepthe wealthy from having to view the have-nots around them. The rich man hadsuch an arrangement. The word “gate” used here is “pylona,” referring to an imposing grand entrance of a largemansion or estate. That’s as close as the rich man would let the poor man getto him. This is also the only parable of Jesus in which a character is named.In the original Hebrew the poor man’s name is Eliezer which means “God is myhelp.” When the Bible was translated into Latin in the 4th centuryA.D., the name was changed into the Latin term “Lazarus.” To show his greatpoverty, he was covered with sores, which meant he likely was not healed by arabbi nor did he have money for treatments, let alone for food. Like the storyof a Canaanite woman who once told Jesus, “Even dogs eat crumbs that fall fromtheir master’s table” (Matthew 15:27), this man would have sat under the richman’s table and eaten morsels of food that dropped to the floor: he was thathungry. Sometimes we turn away from hungry people, don’t we? When I have seenpeople rummaging through dumpsters at the back of fast food restaurants to gethalf eaten burgers and fries, I have turned away. When I have seen poor menreach down onto a sidewalk, pick up a half smoked cigarette that wasn’t’theirs, and light it and smoke it, I turn away. The rich man also turned awayfrom the sore-covered, destitute man at his gate. Since dogs were consideredunclean and they were licking his sores, this man was unclean: the bottom ofsociety’s human food chain. And the rich man, like many of us, turned away, notwanting to see the man outside of his gate who would gladly have dug through adumpster if he could have. We then learn that the poor man died; there is nomention of a burial, he goes straight to be with Abraham by special angeldelivery. It is an interesting thing about Abraham. He was certainly viewed asa wealthy man by devout Jews, but he was also seen as righteous. To go to thebosom of Abraham was code for paradise. That’s where the poor man went. Therich man, by contrast, died after thepoor man, giving Luke the chance to assert his favorite implication of Jesus:the rich man could have repented andstarted acting with justice and mercy while he was still alive. Instead we haveno record of any change by this man of means. But like rich people in medievaltimes who died of gout, of STDs, or of heart attack or diabetes, he did die; hetoo was mortal. But in his account he died and received a rich man’s burial. Nowcomes the rest of the story. With no further explanation, the listener iswhisked to the underworld, to Hades, which was the place of the dead. Someaccounts say Hades is just a place of separation from God; but other cultureslike the Jews, call it Gehenna, where fires burn constantly; the Greeks calledit Hell, where consequences of one’smortal actions are meted out. But today what ever one calls it, we’rereferring to the pale of the dead. In the rich man’s place of torment, for thefirst time in his life, he looked up atLazarus instead of down! He looked upto paradise and saw the poor man next to Abraham, and he appealed to Abrahamperhaps not even as a man of faith, but as a fellow man of wealth: He uses atitle of honor to appeal to him: he cried out “Father Abraham (perhaps allying himself as one of God’schosen people) have mercy on me.” But then, the rich man, sometimes calledDives, (again only because dives isthe Latin word for rich, assigned to the text in the 4th century)gave his true self away again: he asks Abraham to again treat Lazarus as theservant he always saw him to be: low class, almost non-human: send “Lazarus” he says, “to dip hisfinger in the cool waters of paradise and bring them down to my torment and letthe water drops sizzle as they drop onto my burning tongue and body! I’mtormented in the flames!” Even inHades the rich man is treating Lazarus as merely an errand boy! But, Abraham’svoice, like a premonition, reminds him that he had his good things on earth,and now the consequences are agony; Lazarus had agony on earth and now hisblessing is comfort. There are no strings the rich man can pull or demands hecan make that can make the one in charge—Abraham—change the consequences of hislife-long actions.
We now reach the third and final point of the story:At death, one’s eternal fate is cast.Even as the rich man tries to work the angles that worked for him andprotected his wealth on earth, it works no more after death. Abraham, by meansof explanation says “Between you and us a great chasm has been fixed (a hugedivide), so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so,and no one can cross from there to us.” What irony. The man, who lived witha huge gate and walled off estate in his lifetime, now would give anything toget out of the huge gate and walled off torment that now imprisons him. This is an ultimate morality play, for although bothof the main characters in the play have died and their fate is cast in stone, thereare some whose fate has not yet been decided. Can you tell whose fate is notyet decided? Why, it’s the listener’s isn’t it; it’s the living listeners inhis day and through the ages, and now we are the listeners! We are the onestaking in this three act play and finding that it is not too late for you, orfor me, to make changes in our lives!It is not too late for us to change our destiny because of our choices. Ourfree will choices matter, and they either please or displease God who has aheart for all.
Our world today has an alarming trend toward the richgetting richer and the poor getting poorer with a shrinking middle class. Ournational leaders would do well to enable our middle class to become bigger andmore stable. We will need God’s help and Biblical wisdom. But if you wonder howyou can help the Lazaruses of our day: know that the children in our SundaySchool last week made snack bags for hungry children who come to school with nobreakfast. We have members, who, once a month, feed more than 200 people atHalifax Urban Ministries feeding programs, serving food to hundreds ofLazaruses. We also have members who help staff the HUM food pantry in PortOrange. And we support missionaries feeding desperate people in foreign lands.Now we are already beginning to prepare youth for a mission trip of help nextsummer. So your financial or physical support of your church helps you feedhungry people. But you may see another opportunity, a personal opportunity,this week or the next when you can help someone else in need. If that happens,the halls of heaven will ring with joy. Jeffrey A. SumnerSeptember 26, 2010