16th Sunday After Pentecost
S. Pentecost 16.22 “How You Get To Heaven” Luke 16:19-31
So, how do you get to heaven? How would you end up in hell? These are the questions are Gospel invites us to consider this morning. Pretty important stuff to think on, don’t you think?
And yet, our Lord doesn’t give us a direct answer—doesn’t give us a 3 step program to get to heaven, or 12 steps to stay out of hell. There are no principles to apply, no clearly stated rules to follow. There is just this story of a rich man who ends up in hell and a poor beggar [named Lazarus] who is carried by the angels to heaven—and a conversation between the rich man in hell and Father Abraham in heaven. (Lazarus never says a word, though he’s right by Abraham’s side the whole time). This little story is a perfect example of what an old teacher of mine called “indirect communication” and anyone familiar with our Lord’s word in holy writ will know this is his way.
It’s not, perhaps, the most welcome way for modern enlightened rationalists? We’d like a rule book—“7 habits of highly heavenly people” with clear reasons explaining why each rule is necessary and will get the results we seek. Many try to bend the bible to make it that kind of celestial self-help guidebook. But it isn’t that kind of book at all. It is, [as another old teacher of mine liked to say] “a loosely organized non-fiction novel.” A story, in other words…
This particular story, by the way, is often called a parable (more by modern than ancient commentators). But the old fathers [and a few current ones] notice that it is not called a parable by Luke or our Lord. And it has one striking feature no parable in Scripture has: proper names for two characters—Lazarus and Abraham are both identified by name. Whereas the parables flagged as parables only have anonymous characters: a manager, a master, a shepherd, lost sheep, prodigal sons, vines, branches, wedding feasts, virgins, hedge fund managers, hookers. But no proper names in any…
Neither is the point of this story explicated (as it often is for the parables). When the book you’re reading is “a loosely organized non-fiction novel”, you have to read it in this literary way of taking no more (or less) than the text gives you. So, the default assumption would be: our Lord is narrating events that actually occurred as he describes them. Which makes the story more impactful…
It’s a short but vivid picture our Lord paints. The rich man clothed in purple (a sign of being a Roman aristocrat, probably a senator) and fine linen, who feasted sumptuously every day. That last detail would indicate (to an ancient reader) a sybaritic narcissism. Even the emperor feasted only on special occasions, not every day. This man is a serious hedonist—probably an Epicurean.
But, at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. It’s interesting that the poor man gets a name while the rich man is anonymous. In the ancient world (as in ours) the rich and powerful are the ones whose names are usually known and said with reverence while it is the poor, huddled masses yearning to be free who are anonymous. An interesting detail…
The only comfort Lazarus got from this rich man (who was so rich that he could feast every single day!) was from the dogs that licked his sores. Dogs did not have a good reputation with ancient Israelites like they do with us. They were unclean scavengers and pests. Jesus is the Lion of Judah and Israelites were (and are 😉 more cat people because of this… 😉
Anyway, the poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham afar off and Lazarus at his side. [You can see heaven from hell and vice versa! Just as Isaiah says in the last verses of his book!]
And here, I want to pause and point out that our questions: 1) how do you get to heaven and 2) how would you end up in hell? are answered by our Lord. “The poor man [Lazarus] died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side…” while the rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades…” in Greek αδη is literally “the underworld”, the place of the dead.
See: you get to heaven by being carried by angels (interesting that Lazarus got to heaven the same way he got to the rich man’s gate on earth: he was laid there passively, by others). And you would end up in hell by dying and being buried, sinking down into the underworld of torment, sulfur, fire, heat, and nothing to drink.
Now, here’s where you have to put your “loosely-organized-non-fiction-novel-indirect-communication” eyes on: the rich man demands Lazarus be sent down to share his misery (misery loves company, right? ;-). But notice what the rich man does not ask? He never begs: “Get me the hell out of here!”. So, it seems he is in hell because he refuses to be carried away to heaven. Too proud, too “I built that” to be led by the hand like a child?
Lazarus though, in life and death, is carried by angels and does not complain or resist the divine hand: he’ll take whatever God gives, good or bad (much as Job did).
Now, elsewhere in scriptures we are told that God desires to save all mankind and sends his angels to the 4 corners of the earth to gather us up and bring us to heaven. So, it cannot be that there were no angels sent to carry this rich man to heaven! It must be that he simply refused to be carried!
Now, why? Why would one refuse having divine hands carry us? Ah, Abraham’s answer to the rich man’s demand to send Lazarus down to share his misery is (indirectly 😉 instructive. Abraham answers the rich man, “Child, in your lifetime you received your good things and Lazarus in like manner bad things…” But it seems the rich man did not think his good things were gifts received simply as God wills to give but rather were earnings gained from his labors. If he’d seen his riches were gifts, given by divine grace, he would, presumably, have shared them. While Lazarus take the bad with the good as sent by God for his glory.
Once we say “mine”! of the gifts we’re given, we have closed our hands into fists that will not fit into the hands of the angels come to carry us away from our woes and into bliss. We wrench our closed fists from the angels’ grasp and are drug down by death into the underworld of flame and torment by our own twisted will.
The chasm is fixed so the redeemed in heaven can never sink down into misery, ever, again. But no reason is given [directly!] why the damned cannot bridge the chasm. But it seems plain that it is because they do not want to…
The rich man demands Lazarus be sent door to door to evangelize the rich man’s 5 brothers. But Abraham says “They have Moses and the Prophets. Let them hear them.” The direct approach won’t work. Besides; everyone knows where the church is at…
Here, now, God reaches down [indirectly, by angel’s hands] to lift you up. By his word and sacraments, as pure gifts, God meets us in our misery, sharing our death to share his eternal life and bliss with us.
The truly rich are first “beggars, after all”; and so are happily carried away by angels’ hands to heaven’s gate to beg: Ah, “precious Lord, take my hand…” In Jesus’ Name. Amen.