Taking Hell Seriously [sermon 3.20.16, palm sunday]

by susan on March 20, 2016

Jews in Jesus’ day were looking for a Messiah. Their Messiah would be a military king who destroyed their enemies. They expected a competing empire that would overthrow Rome, but Jesus came teaching & living a different kingdom altogether. Maybe that’s why Jesus told so many stories. Stories or parables help us step into something beyond our expectations.

This parable is not the last in Luke, but it is the last parable unique to Luke’s gospel. Contrary to how its often been told, this story not a response to Jesus’ followers wanting to know what heaven and hell are like or whose going and whose not.

Jesus tells this story in response to rich Pharisees who were ridiculing him for his kingdom of God message. They could not get it. So he tells yet another parable.

parable-rich-man-and-lazarus-0219 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. 24 He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘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. 26 Besides all this, 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.’ 27 He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ 29 Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ 30 He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’31 He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”  – Luke 16:19-34

Casey Gerald opened his recent TED talk by sharing about an experience that shifted his faith in a big way. He was 12 years old. It was December 31, 1999. The world was about to usher in a new millennium, Instead of being gathered with a group of Casey was spending the last night of his life gathered with other believers, praying, singing and waiting for their highly anticipated entrance into heaven.

It was a passion-filled gathering and as it neared midnight, things got even more intense. Casey knew his grandmother to be a woman of deep faith so he snuck up to the altar with her. He wanted to make sure he’d be going to heaven right along with her. He described those last few minutes like this:

“So I held on and I closed my eyes to listen, to wait. And the prayers got louder. And the shouts of response to the call of the prayer went up higher even still. And the organ rolled on in to add to the dirge. And the heat came on to add to the sweat. And my hand gripped firmer, so I wouldn’t be the one left in the field. My eyes clenched tighter so I wouldn’t see the wheat being separated from the chaff. And then a voice rang out above us: ‘Amen.’ It was over.

I looked at the clock. It was after midnight. I looked at the elder believers whose savior had not come, who were too proud to show any signs of disappointment, who had believed too much and for too long to start doubting now. But I was upset on their behalf. They had been duped, hoodwinked, bamboozled, and I had gone right along with them.”

Duped. Hoodwinked. Bamboozled.

Many Christians have felt that way. Many of us have felt that way.

Sharing & hearing one another’s stories over the past 5 Wednesday nights has proven to be a transformative experience. It seems there is something almost all of us share in common. We had the fear of hell driven into us from an early age. We, too, were told to prepare for a day that was coming.

Fear of hell can be a strong motivator.  It can make people behave well, follow authority and even endure abuse.

Later in life though, things can begin to unravel. Christianity can feel like a sham.
If our faith is only ever about waiting for a future day,
only ever about leaving here and going somewhere else,
about avoiding a fiery furnace,
it’s got little to do with the way of Jesus.

Jesus talked much more about money than he did about hell. In fact, the actual word interpreted “hell” is used only 12 times in the entire New Testament.

The word for hell is the English translation of the Greek word gehenna. It ‘s a reference to the valley of Hinom, an actual valley just outside of Jerusalem where garbage was dumped and burned. The fire was always burning. Animals would fight over scraps of food at the top of the valley and the sounds they would make were described as the gnashing of teeth. It’s not a place you wanted to visit very often.

Hell was a literal place, you just didn’t need to leave here to get there.

Other words similar to hell found in the NT were “Tartarus” and “Hades”. Hades is the word that shows up in this story Jesus tells about a rich man and Lazarus. Similar to “Sheol” in the Old Testament, Hades referred to a shadowy underworld where the dead dwell. It often had little to do with sorting the wicked from the good.

Amy Jill-Levine says, “Anytime a parable begins, ‘There was a rich man who…,’ we know that the rich man is a poor role model.”

So, what led the rich man there? To Hades, I mean?
He isn’t given a name. We only get a description of how he spent his days. He wears purple cloth, the most expensive of fabrics.  He uses the finest of linens, the kind of elegant clothing used by priests to serve in the sanctuary. He uses them to serve himself day after day after day. Every day brings new opportunities to indulge in the finest food and fabric.

The rich man may not have been given a name in this story, but the poor man is named Lazarus. [interestingly, Lazarus and Abraham are the only two named characters in any parables!]

Lazarus, meaning “God helps” is identified as a poor person using the same word found in the beatitude, “blessed are the poor”. Unlike many translations, in the story Jesus tells, Lazarus is not identified as a beggar.

His poverty is precisely why he has been placed by the rich man’s gate. The Torah required those who had more to share with those who had less.

This was the expectation, but the story tells us the rich man is indifferent to Lazarus.

He probably didn’t even know his name. Lazarus laid there day after day after day,
his only comfort (if you can call it that) is given by the dog who licks his sores.

Sounds like hell to me.

In the story, both men die and when they do, they find themselves in two different realties.

Lazarus wakes up in the “bosom of Abraham” – the word translated “to be with Abraham” in the NRSV translation. The Greek is much more descriptive. Lazarus’s new location provides comfort, feasting, and intimacy. He is with the forefather of faith, he is a child of Abraham, he is part of God’s family.

The rich man, on the other hand wakes up in torment. Like Lazarus during life, he can see from a distance what he wants, but can’t have it. Still steeped in privilege, still feeling entitled, he immediately begins summoning Lazarus and Abraham’s help. Even in death, he has had no change of heart. Even in hell, he sees the forefather of faith and his neighbors as tools to get him what he wants.

The focus here is on the rich man. After all, Lazarus did nothing to earn eternal comfort. The rich man, though, finds a hell of his own making. His day after day after day indifference to the poor person at his gate makes his heart hard and his eyes unable to see.

He never gets it.

He is denied his request for water.
There will be no warning sent for his brothers.
The story ends without a happy ending because
even while experiencing the awful effects of hell,
the rich man still doesn’t get it.

He still equates faith with privilege.
He still thinks he did something to earn an eternal reward.
He just doesn’t get it.

Do we get it?

For far too long, we have not taken hell seriously.  Maybe we believe what we’ve been told or maybe it’s what we want to believe – that we could participate in a clear, clean-cut transaction: Jesus’ life for our sins. His death for our eternities in heaven.

That’s not what Jesus teaches at all.
Instead of scaring people into believing,
Jesus uses hell to wake people up into repenting.
To rich pharisees who thought faith was a privilege,
a status symbol, a guarantee of certain rights, he says “you still don’t get it.”

Open your eyes. Change your minds. Change your hearts.
What you do day after day after day can create hell on earth and in the age to come.

This story is an invitation.
It’s an invitation to repent of all the ways our systems of faith have contributed to the suffering of others. It’s an invitation to know the kind of life Jesus came announcing & embodying.

Maybe the opposite of hell is not heaven, at least not the way we think of it.

The opposite of hell is life: life in the kingdom of God.

It’s the life that Jesus lived every time he ate with sinners & tax collectors & healed the sick. It’s life he lived every time he spoke up for the outcast & spoke truth to power.

It’s a life we can choose to enter into now…
Every time we give up privilege & self-indulgence.
Every time we choose humility over pride.
Every time we spread love instead of hate.
Every time we foster peace, not violence.
Every time we create beauty instead of more ugliness.
Every time we choose to leave our comfort to enter the discomfort of another.

This is not a story about who is going to heaven or hell.
It’s a story about what it means to be human.  It’s a reminder that we are much more powerful than we think we are, that how we spend day after day after day matters.

Jesus invited religious folks & he invites us to wake up and to take hell seriously before it’s too late…

Before we, like some of those pharisees become so blinded by our ways that we can’t even see resurrection when it happens.

Lent practice 6

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