The Chasm Between Heaven and Hell
This morning we carry on with a theme in Jesus’s parables where once again, wealth seems to stand as a foil to the reception of grace. "There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man's table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.
The opening of the parable certainly doesn’t give away why the rich man would end up in hell and the poor man in heaven. The explanation for this - as Abraham points out to the rich man - ought to have been apparent to him throughout his life: you knew the Scriptures. You knew that I demanded food be set aside for the poor, that the widows be cared for, that those who were sick not be left alone without care and comfort, and yet right outside your door a poor man begged for your crumbs and you did not feed him. In the parable Abraham says to the rich man, 'Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony.
And that chasm between hell and heaven is closed. No one can cross from one to the other. Realizing his fate is sealed he implores Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to visit his five brothers to warn them that they need to wake up and realize their self serving ways and refusal to repent of this, is going to lead them to hell. But Abraham replies. No. Sorry, if they ignored both the law and the prophets when they spoke God’s Word to them about caring for others, they’re not going to listen to someone who returns from the dead.
This seems a very harsh story. But hopefully it’s one we’re willing to hear now, before the end of our lives. Because I really don’t think we should be surprised to find ourselves warned by God that we all fall into living the life of that rich man. We certainly see around us the poor, the sick, the lame, and those who struggle in various ways. And so we give of our time and money and other resources right? Of course some of you may know what it is like to scrape by, or maybe you’re doing so now and you think, I fit better into the figure of Lazarus than the rich man. I have certainly been there, unable to pay for rent and food, terrified, anxiety ridden, and exhaustedly trying to fundraise.
So how could this rich man story be a warning to me as one who does give or who needs to the point they can’t give? Because I think this story extends well beyond monetary wealth. It is about holding onto anything - fear, frustration, anger, bitterness, envy, resentment, lack of forgiveness - anything that gives us a false sense of self provision, comfort or superiority in judgement or capacity, that shields us from seeing the needs of others whom God has placed in our paths.
Having to answer this question about how we fit into the figure of the rich man, whatever resources we have, drives us to what I think is the core of this Gospel lesson. The chasm between life with God and hell is uncrossable after death so says this passage. Why? While it would seem that our actions are judged on the basis of how we treat people during our earthly life, the one who crossed that chasm between heaven and hell, did so to unite heaven and earth; to make on earth, as it is in heaven. It follows that it is on earth where we are, that our very purpose is to seek to do the will of God just here with one another; to fulfil what it is to be a fully complete human being right here. To love our neighbours and enemies or those who frustrate us or don’t do as we want, as the Scriptures lay out to us (both Old and New). And we have this law of sacrificial, self-giving love defined for us, prophesied for us in the law of Moses and the Prophets, fulfilled in the life, death and resurrection of Christ: this one, Jesus Christ, who crossed the chasm did so not by paying a monetary, or food or drink, or animal ransom or sacrifice - God doesn’t need this - but by giving himself to us so that we could have a relationship with God, and from him, in very concrete ways, learn how God made us to give ourselves for others: living our lives as he does with mercy, kindness, gentleness, compassion, patience, wisdom, and self control, seeking the good of others, not tearing them down. These are the ways we must learn and live out here on earth. Right now. God has told us this over and over and showed us this in Christ and warned us now, of the consequences of not living this way with others.
In a world where sin has obscured, and our own limitations on the outcomes of our actions have obscured, ‘what is right,’ we are left with one reality: we are utterly dependent upon God’s grace to show us how to respond. But precisely because we are utterly dependent upon God’s grace, we must confess our blindness, our own unwillingness, our own fears, our own temptations to securing ourselves by forcing our way, to having what we want how we want it when we want it, to constant complaint when others don’t do what we think is right.
Prayer for the faith to sustain a life of constant confession and repentance is how we get across that chasm now, before it is too late, because it is how we are met by Jesus who alone bridges it. It is in him, through learning his ways and so learning what we’ve done wrong - through confession and repentance - that we are moved out of the rich man’s ways of self sufficiency, of serving ourselves first because we want to protect ourselves from our fears and anxieties, our hurts, our bitternesses, our disappointments - move out of these things and toward receiving grace that gives us the courage to enter into self sacrificial relationships with others that are more than just monetary provision; they are an opening of relationship with the other. So let us allow God in; allow him to use our strengths and more importantly, our weaknesses, to transform our hearts and minds, our knowledge and our capacity to follow his will rather than our own. For this alone were we made stewards on this earth. AMEN.