September 25, 2016: 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Amos 6:1a,4–7 / 1 Timothy 6:11–16 / Luke 16:19–31
A Man in Hell
I grew up in a church where “fire and brimstone sermons” were not unusual. As a boy I would always shudder when a visiting evangelist would say, "My text for this evening is found in Luke chapter sixteen." I knew what would come next. He would continue by quoting the line around which his whole sermon would revolve. The old King James language is still clear in my mind, "And in hell he lift up his eyes..."
It may not be popular, but the Church does believe in hell. Preaching about hell is not inappropriate, but it’s always secondary at best. Hell is an eternal antithesis to embracing the glory of God. We take hell seriously because the salvation given to us in Jesus Christ offers us a glorious alternative. The purpose of this story given by our Lord is not just to tell us there is a hell; it tells us why one man found himself in hell. It is a story that warns others not to make the choice this man made.
Why would anyone “choose” hell? It is one's own choice. Of course most people do not make the choice of hell explicitly; people choose hell passively by choosing other things above God. What kinds of choices lead people into hell? There is a stereotypical list of mortal sins, but nothing is said about the rich man in this story being sexually immoral or running an abortion clinic. This is a story of a man who chooses hell when he chooses to do nothing.
In that day and culture it was common to wipe greasy hands on chunks of bread and then toss the bread to the dogs. It was that bread which Lazarus waited for at the gate. It seems the rich man was well-aware of Lazarus (he knows the beggar’s name). Maybe he thought himself quite merciful in not calling the authorities to have the vagrant put away (Lazarus did not help beautify his gateway). No, the rich man was not cruel; he merely lived his own life and let Lazarus live his.
That is how the rich man chose hell. Mortal sin is not limited to acts of violence or illegitimate sex. Sin is not limited to crude and repugnant people. One way to understand the essence of sin is selfishness. Selfishness is merely putting one's self first. Selfishness is living as though other people do not matter as much as “me”. It seemed not to matter one way or the other to the rich man that Lazarus lay at his gate. The rich man was too comfortable to care. He did not have to worry about Lazarus' hunger; he went to bed full of wonderful foods every night. He gave no thought to the rags with which Lazarus tried to cover himself; he was handsomely dressed in the best clothing available. He was not concerned about Lazarus' sores; he was comfortable.
But this warning is not limited to people who can qualify for television's Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous (if that program isn’t current, it seems there are many more which exalt the same values). In Jesus' day a “rich” person was someone who lived very comfortably, had not only enough to eat but a wide variety of foods, someone who lived in a relatively carefree environment with nice possessions, had the luxury of different clothes for different occasions, and enjoyed a social life with the people of his choice. So not only are we rich compared with most of the world's present population, we are “rich” as Jesus would have used the term.
Maybe this word "rich" is a mental block for us. Let's not say "rich"; let's say we are "comfortable." Comfortable people have discretionary income. What do we do with our discretionary income? If we spend it all on ourselves we are like this man in Jesus' story. What story does our homes and wardrobes and tables and vehicles and vacations tell when placed beside our giving? This is exactly what Amos was prophesying as he warned of God’s judgment on people given to self-obsessed pleasures. With a bit of imagination we might bring his words into our world:
This is what the Lord, the Almighty God says: There is bad news for everyone who is living in the delusion of comfort and convenience. You have your Craftmatic and Sleep Number beds; you recline in your La-Z-Boy recliners; you carefully buy from Whole Foods, Fresh Market, and Omaha steaks. You entertain yourselves with your favorite music. You get wine and beer as if there is no limit. You pamper yourselves with the delicacies from Bath and Bodyworks. Yet you pay no attention to the things that break God’s heart; others can be miserable, but as long as you are healthy and happy, you think all is well. It’s about to be turned upside-down. Your comfort is going to evaporate.
We are bombarded with the temptation to be self-indulgent. We want to be comfortable. The rich man wanted this, and who doesn't? We sleep on beds instead of on the floor. And choosing comfort is not all wrong––unless it becomes our top priority. Is our desire for comfort greater than a willingness to love? Are we most concerned with pleasing ourselves or following Jesus? The rich man chose himself, probably without even thinking about it, and in doing so, he chose hell.
It seems the rich man did not know this. That should not be surprising; many people today do not understand it either. Somehow we've gotten sidetracked by limiting sin to a few visible “nasty” sins. As long as we avoid those we think we are good people. In fact, using that standard, it's very hard to discern any difference between "good" people in the church from "good" people who have nothing to do with church at all. Christian Faith––following Jesus––is more than that. God calls his people to love as he loves. Yes, we find it much easier to seek our own happiness and our own comfort; that is our natural tendency because of the Fall. Apart from the grace of God, it is also what causes us to choose hell.
It was in the clutches of hell that the rich man finally understood. He asked if Lazarus could go back from the dead to warn the living. He hoped his own brothers who were caught up in their comforts would be shocked into listening if someone came from the dead. The Gospel is that this rich man's request has been granted. Someone has come back from the dead. Jesus Christ died for our sins and came back from the dead to show us that God’s ways are above human reasonings and hopes. And believing that, we are called to follow Jesus in the way he loves––not putting our own comfort and convenience above a commitment to be like our Lord.
The choice that the rich man made still confronts each of us today. All we have to do to choose hell is choose to live only for ourselves. I close with a question I ask myself: How am I learning to be different than this man who was so comfortable that he could ignore Lazarus and end up in hell? Only in following Jesus…. Every day, we ask for the grace to follow Jesus. We pray each day, forgive us our trespasses…. We feed on the Living Word. And as we give ourselves to Jesus he frees us from slavery of our selfish desires. That is the Gospel. That is our hope that our own story will not be like this one about a man in hell.