Abraham said to the rich man, “between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.”
In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Unless you reject the belief in any kind of reality beyond what is brutely material, death is not so much the end of life as such as it is rather the end of one phase of life that simultaneously marks the beginning of another. While death may permanently separate these phases from each other, there is nevertheless a mysterious continuity between them, for it is the soul of the same individual that continues to live from the one to the other. Speculation abounds as to the specifics of it all, of course, but that’s the gist of it.
But throughout Scripture, death not only divides this life from the next, but it also inverts them. The character of one’s life in the future is often depicted as the opposite of the character of one’s life in the present. And so in today’s passage from Luke, we find that the circumstances in which the rich man and Lazarus respectively find themselves after death have also been radically inverted. You can almost think of their lives after death as like the photo negatives of their lives before death. I know, photo negatives -- not exactly the most current metaphor -- but when I was a kid, I loved holding those creepy strips up to the light after my mom brought home another envelope of pictures from Walgreens. Anyway, when you look at a photo negative, you clearly see its continuity with the original picture -- more than continuity, actually, since it’s the same image as the original picture -- but all the colors are weirdly inverted; what was light in the original is dark in the negative and vice versa. As we’ll see, there’s something similar going on in this story of the rich man and Lazarus.
Now, the most obvious factors at work in Jesus’ story today are those of wealth and poverty. There’s the luxury and self-absorption of the rich man on the one hand and the hunger and suffering of Lazarus on the other. And so most commentators treat this story as a straightforward cautionary tale about the spiritual danger of wealth, especially when enjoyed to the neglect of the poor and needy. However, I basically just preached my take on the problem of wealth a few weeks ago, when I expounded on Christ’s teaching from earlier in Luke that those who wish to follow him have to give up all their possessions. But Jesus was still talking about it last week when he told us that “you cannot serve God and wealth” and yeah, he’s still talking about it this week with this story of the rich man and Lazarus. So I’ll try not to just repeat what I said last time, but it seems like Jesus doesn’t want to change the subject yet and he’s kind of in charge of the conversation. Fortunately, though, this story is deep and so there’s plenty more to unpack.
Onto the story. In this life, we see the rich man wearing the finest clothes and indulging in daily feasts while Lazarus is covered in sores and is starving for food, even if just the crumbs from the rich man’s table. And most significantly, we are told that Lazarus lays at the rich man’s gate. Lazarus is not just some random person somewhere who happens to suffer in poverty while the rich man lives in luxury. He’s right there in front of him. The rich man likely passed by him in utter disregard every day on his way to the feast, though I imagine that he might have looked down occasionally to make sure his robes don’t brush against him. Alleviating his hunger and his poverty would not have demanded the slightest inconvenience from the rich man; all that he had to do was feel some compassion and act in charity.
After death, however, Lazarus finds himself receiving from angels the comfort that had been withheld from him his whole life as they carry him straight to his father, Abraham. The rich man finds himself in the torment of Hades, by contrast, far away from the comfort of Abraham.
Notice the ironic twist in the relationship between the rich man and Lazarus. Again, in this life, Lazarus was right there in the presence of the rich man, laying at his gate right in front of him, close enough to crave the crumbs that fell from his table. There was no distance between them: the rich man was so close to Lazarus that he could have relieved him with practically no effort. Lazarus was already miserable -- he was ill and on the verge of starvation -- but his suffering was further compounded precisely by his proximity to the comfort that the rich man could have given him, but refused to. In the next life, however, there is a great chasm fixed between them, a distance so great that “those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” And in a dark parody of Lazarus’ longing for the crumbs of his table, the rich man similarly desires a drop of water from Lazarus’ finger to cool his tongue from the flames. But now, the very proximity by which the rich man could have helped Lazarus has become the chasm that Lazarus himself cannot cross to help the rich man. As dramatic as this is, the point of the inversion here is not like the downfall of the villain at the climax of a movie. There’s little room for victorious satisfaction. Rather, the deeper implication here is that it was the rich man’s willful neglect of the proximity of Lazarus’ need that actually created the chasm which separated him from comfort after death. In life, the rich man acted as though there were a chasm between him and Lazarus such that he not concern himself with his plight; in death, he discovers to his horror that there now really is a chasm between them.
Now, we ought not jump too quickly to interpret this as a fable; it’s not a morality tale where we’re supposed to nod soberly at the rich man “getting what was coming to him” before making a decent resolution to be a bit more philanthropic. Nor is the message that “we better make sure to help people more or we’re gonna get it,” because I don’t think that the condition of the rich man in Hades -- while certainly one of torment -- is primarily one of punishment. There’s no mention in the story of God directly sending the rich man to Hades -- though there are other parts in the Bible that do speak of that; but here, rather, the rich man’s agony in Hades is depicted as just as matter-of-factly as was his luxury on earth. In this story at least, his fate after death is simply the natural consequence of his own making.
What is the teaching that Christ would have us learn in this story? First, we only have one soul, and once that soul is cleansed and regenerated by the Holy Spirit, its health consists in its growing capacity for the love of God and neighbor. During times of affliction, represented in the story by the suffering of Lazarus, we can grow in our love of God by humbly asking for the grace to persevere in hope of the eternal comfort that God will provide in its stead. It can be an uncomfortable notion, but Scripture says in numerous places that God ordains for various hardships to befall us in order that we have the opportunity to see God more clearly when it looks like everything else is falling apart. Because spoiler alert: everything else does actually fall apart eventually. But during times of abundance, represented by the “good things” that the rich man so thanklessly enjoyed in life, we can still increase our love of God and neighbor by decreasing our dependence on the abundance and giving freely to those in need.
So in short, one lesson of Christ’s teaching today is this: whereas in affliction we receive a lack through which we can love the fullness of God more purely, we receive in abundance the opportunity to create a lack by giving it away. It’s then through this self-imposed lack that we can more purely love that same fullness of God in abundance as we do in affliction. The warning is clear, though, for if we content ourselves with whatever fullness of comfort that comes our way in this life -- indulging it in complacently as the rich man did -- then we will find a proportionate lack of comfort for our souls after death. Lack corresponds to fullness; fullness to lack; and death inverts them both. This story teaches us that our souls will only experience the presence and comfort of God to the capacity that we prepare them to experience in this present life.
The good news is that we are not left on our own in this grave calling to love God and neighbor. Not only has God regenerated our souls from the death of sin by the grace of the Holy Spirit and enabled us to love him, but God has also revealed his will to us in the Scriptures. We don’t sit around waiting for some supernatural spectacle, as if we deserve witness someone rise from the dead before being held responsible to repent. That’s what the rich man was thinking when he asked Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to warn his five brothers, who were presumably living in the same luxury as he once did. But Abraham drives the point home: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”
It turns out that the more we ignore what God has revealed to us in Scripture, the more we neglect the love of God and neighbor and the more we become oblivious to the eternal stakes of our present lives. Thus it is through our diligent meditation on the Scriptures, along with our faithful obedience in the love of God and neighbor, that we are enabled to experience the presence of God in both the life of this world as well as the next; enabled, in other words, to expand our capacity for the love of God -- emptying our souls of all else -- in the certain hope that God will fill whatever is lacking in them with his the fullness of his blessed comfort. Amen.