LEARNING FROM LUKE: HADES
Luke 16: 19-31
If we were to look through an old hymnal for songs about Heaven, we could find them: “When the Roll is Called Up Yonder,” “In the Sweet By and By,” and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” among others. But if we look for hymns that mention “Hades,” we’ll not find any that I know of. A few hymns use the word “Hell,” such as in “How Firm a Foundation.” God says: “The soul that all Hell should endeavor to shake, I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.” Actually in the Old Testament, “Hell” is translated from the Hebrew, “Sheol” which meant “the place of the dead.” It was almost always considered to be a place of refuse (not refuge) and lifelessness. In the New Testament, people in the first century became familiar with the Greek culture that used the word “Hades.” Hades appeared in Greek mythology. In those stories, Hades was the god of the underworld and was the brother of Zeus and Poseidon. It also became the name of the place where Hades lived. One person put it this way: “Hades, as the underworld was called, was a dark and gloomy place. It was much feared by the living. To reach Hades, the dead were taken by ferry across the river Styx.”
The story Jesus tells in Luke’s gospel is not just about Hades; it’s about the disparity between those who have, and those who have not. Stories of the rich verses the poor were actually around long before Jesus used them. But this story, as I said, is also about money. In Gustave Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary, we find these words: “Of all the winds that blow on love, the demand for money is the coldest and the most destructive.” So today’s parable includes a story about a rich man and a poor man named Lazarus, a beggar outside of the rich man’s gate. Lazarus was covered with sores because he had no money for medication and no one would treat him. Stray dogs would lick his sores. But this story is not original with Jesus. “Some scholars trace the story to Egypt where stories of the dead and messages being brought from the dead are in abundance. At least seven versions have been found in the writings of the rabbis.” [INTERPRETATION, Luke, p. 195] One even wonders if Charles Dickens drew upon this old story when he created the characters of Jacob Marley and Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol.” In Dickens’ tale, however, he allowed Marley, wrapped in chains and tormented in the afterlife because of his stinginess, to come back from the dead to warn his partner, Ebenezer. In the musical version of that story, called “The Stingiest Man in Town,” the prophetic choir sings these words to Scrooge in his nightmarish journey: “Repent your crime! Repent in time! Or you’ll repent in vain! For if you wait until too late, you’ll never break the chains!” Almost all of Dickens’ stories were about poor, sick, downtrodden people oppressed by wicked and wealthy people. That was his interpretation of Great Britain’s society at the time of his writing. Certainly in the wake of banking scandals from 2008 even until today, letting the rich get richer and the poor get poorer is a recipe for societal disaster. A small percent of America is very wealthy; and a rising number of people have dropped from being middle class to being homeless after either receiving a huge medical bill, of having a car break down, or being laid off. A society that has a struggling or shrinking middle class starts to fit the mold of Dickens’ novels and even this parable. The rich man lived an extravagant life in his day. But in the afterlife, not even Father Abraham could get across the great canyon between above and Hades. Lazarus was whisked away by the angels to “the bosom of Abraham” as it is described in the Bible. According to this story, Abraham was “far off” (perhaps in Heaven?) and Lazarus was comforted and protected there. The rich man, by contrast, who had treated the poor man as a slave, went to Hades. From there he could look up, way up, and see Abraham comforting Lazarus while he himself was in anguish! He called out: “Father Abraham! Dip your finger in the water and cool my tongue, for I’m tormented in the flame!!” As Clarence Jordan retold that story in the idiom of the Old South, he gave Abraham’s answer: “Lazarus ain’t gonna run no mo’ yo’ errands, rich man!” [NEW INTERPRETER’S BIBLE, Volume IX]
As the rich man pleaded with Abraham to warn his brothers, Abraham said they already had been warned. He said if they hadn’t listened to and heeded the warnings of the prophets, neither would they believe someone who rises from the dead.” All who have ears, let them hear. In the Old Testament, Moses himself said: “Do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted with your needy neighbor.” [Deuteronomy 15:7] And Isaiah said: “The fast that I choose for you is to share your bread with the hungry.” [Isaiah 58:7] In fact, in Jesus’ day, bread was sometimes used by a wealthy person as a napkin, to dry one’s greasy hands after a meal. Then the bread would be dropped on the floor for dogs to devour! Even that bread was not saved for the poor.
In our day, we have noted how Daytona Beach is working on a way to feed and house hungry people. It is not without debate and controversy. Feeding ministries have come to the park on Beach Street, and been told that such activity is a nuisance. So homeless people dig through dumpsters for discarded food or beg at the end of ramps. Two thousand years after Jesus’ parable, the poor man still needs help.
Thankfully the crisis in our community is making thoughtful people come up with helpful responses. There is hope on the horizon. Like with stone soup, which tastes like nothing with just water and stones, if people contribute what they can financially and the soup gets some carrots, and some onions, and celery, and garlic and some over-ripe tomatoes, and pretty soon there is food. Together we can come up with a good solution. Back to our parable: in our world of terrorist attacks, instead of being swooned by a thousand angels when they die, I suspect that terrorists are crying out from darkness: “Tell my brothers to repent! Do it now, for I’m tormented in the flames!!” All who have ears, let them hear. In the dot.com crash, rich people lost their portfolios; companies went bankrupt; and poor people are still with us. Some have recovered with great wealth. As the prophets of every age have done, they cry out today as well, saying there is a price to pay for lavishness and greed. There is still time to repent: to turn from the sin of greed. There is time to re-think what the Pharisees believed: that the wealthy have money because God is more pleased with them, and the poor have little because God is less pleased with them. No. Luke records Jesus’ words to the contrary. “Blessed are you poor, … and woe to you who are rich.” Those words are about greedy, not people with means who help others. There are generous wealthy people in our world and we need them. Just this week Mark Zukerberg and wife Dr. Pricilla Chan announced plans to make a three billion dollar investment to help significantly eradicate diseases over the next generation. Wow. Rethinking self-indulgence can bring great benefits to churches, communities, and to our nation.
Retired seminary professor, Dr. Walter Brueggeman, in his book The Prophetic Imagination says “The prophet’s task is to break through the denial in which so many religious communities live. The first part of the job is to give voice to our worst fears about how far we have fallen from God and what the consequences may be. The second part is to proclaim the good news that change is possible as long as we are willing and God is God.” That’s the message that John the Baptist brought! “Repent!” That’s the message Jesus brought in today’s parable: “Repent! Turn away from ways that serve yourself best; think of ways to serve and care for others.” Jesus illustrates the heart of God with his stories and sayings; like in Luke 15, one chapter earlier: “I tell you there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine persons who need no repentance.” And the father standing in the doorway of his house, looking longingly for a child who had asked for half of his father’s sizeable estate. Then the son left and squandered all of that money; he was so hungry he hoped that some would even give him pig food, but no one gave him anything. The father has a generous heart with his child. Those who seek to follow Jesus do so with glad and generous hearts.
Maybe the rich man is trying to warn us today. Could it be? Is he calling up from Hades, trying to tell us to live differently? Is Jesus hoping we will have ears to hear? Listen to this message that came from heaven: “If they have not listened to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced by someone who rises from the dead.” Abraham’s answer sounds like he doesn’t believe people can change. Let’s prove him wrong, shall we?
Jeffrey A. Sumner September 25, 2016