As the leader of an evangelical youth group in the early '70's I had learned to build my gospel messages around the ultimate question of eternal destiny, aka the choice between heaven and hell. When it came to Biblical passages on hell I found the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man extremely compelling. It never failed to impact those who listened, especially me. Once asked whether this story could be a parable rather than an actual account, one of my Bible college professors responded by saying that he hoped not. For as a parable, he claimed its description of hell could only represent something far worse. The argument convinced me for some time.
However, something far more powerful overwhelmed my thoughts over the years, so that by time I actually reexamined this story a few years ago I saw it in a whole new light. What I present to you is not the study that changed my mind, but reflections of a mind that knows the new of Christ. In view of this, I'd rather share how it all ties together in Christ than to tell you what I want you to believe. If that means leaving you hanging, wondering what I'm trying to get at, I'm okay with it. The truth is that I've learned far more from the in-betweens than from any supposed plateaus. With that said, I'm going to start with what Jesus said leading up to the story of Lazarus and the rich man, because not to do so only tells part of the story. The habit of isolating Jesus' words and stories from one another is the main reason our twisted versions seem plausible in the first place.
Jesus' first story deals with an unscrupulous financial manager who got caught misusing his master's money. Before dismissing him, his master demanded a detailed accounting of all his business matters. In other words, he wanted to know who owed him what. Faced with homelessness, as the accountant realized he had nothing to fall back on, he devised a sneaky plan to obligate his master's debtors to take him in. Under the guise of getting things in order, he had each one of his boss' debtors rewrite his bill at a much reduced amount, making them accomplices. He blackmailed them. And should any of them ever refuse to share in the support of his lifestyle he would expose their dirty little secrets. The one was obligated to the other in a sick co-dependency. Ignore this simple dynamic and you'll overlook what Jesus had triggered within the audience.
The master commended the dishonest manager because he had acted shrewdly. For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light. I tell you, use worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings. Luke 16:9 NIV
I say we've missed the meaning of this story partly because we've tried too hard to make Jesus' words applicable to our own lives, and as a result we have overlooked what the original hearers would have understood. Do you really think Jesus intended his disciples to follow the example of this sneaky little cheat, only in a new or Christian kind of way? That's how I learned it. After all, if Jesus said it, it had to be a principle for us to follow, right? Perhaps if we listened without the constraints of needing to make it fit our own thinking we might hear something that actually sounds realistic, even in our own modern world.
Consider the master's commendation in view of this statement:
Although they know God's righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them. Romans 1:32 NIV
For years I had great difficulty understanding why this master would praise a servant who cheated him so badly, but it was only because I was trying to reason it Biblically. This exact same kind of praise runs the world, and I had learned it from my youth. Those who have made their wealth through deceit can't help but approve those who follow in their footsteps, even though they might end up killing them for it. All our lives we have learned about the pat on the back, that welcome-to-the-club approval by which we have moved from one form of acceptance to another. Anyone who pretends not to know what I'm talking about is caught up in the deception of his or her own making.
Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else's property, who will give you property of your own? No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money. The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. He said to them, "You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of men, but God knows your hearts. What is highly valued among men is detestable in God's sight". Luke 16:10-14 NIV
There was nothing new in what Jesus said here, for what he spoke would have been recognized as truth by all who heard him, as every lie ever told testifies to that which is true. Even in our world today people agree with the same basic premise of trustworthiness versus dishonesty, for its principles have been spewed out for centuries - parents to children, government to its people, bosses to their employees, the religious establishment to its followers - but it's little more than lip-service, for in actuality the one either willingly or unwillingly hides the secrets of the other. The only ones in the crowd who made any noise about what Jesus said were the Pharisees who dared not challenge him scripturally because they knew the law supported what he said. Instead, they resorted to ridicule in an attempt to discredit him, but it didn't work.
I think the rest of the crowd waited in silence hoping Jesus might somehow release them from their burden of obligation to their religious blackmailers. Realize that the people had been supporting the affluent lifestyles of their religious leaders under fear of judgment, both from man and from God. The clergy of the day stood between the people and God, and they held this bogus authority over them in all matters of life. The people dared not challenge or expose the religious leaders (except perhaps in secret) nor would they refuse any extortion payments for their sins lest they be thrown out of the synagogue, which would make them outcasts to God as well as to their own people. It was the total ruination of one's life, reputation and livelihood.
But Jesus did not fear them. Instead, he exposed these unscrupulous men in front of all Israel through the telling of this story. They were the dishonest managers who had misused their master's money. They were the ones whose service was about to be terminated. They were the ones who made deals with their master's money in order to secure future favors. Jesus had likened the praise the Pharisees would receive from God to the approval given to the sneaky little accountant because of his cleverness in having cheated his master one last time. The Pharisees had been seeking the praise of man, not of God, and everything they considered worthy was detestable in the sight of God.
The Law and the Prophets were proclaimed until John. Since that time, the good news of the kingdom of God is being preached, and everyone is forcing his way into it.Luke 16:16 NIV
The coming of John, the baptizer, initiated a whole new religious fervor in the Jewish community. I'm sure some didn't want to be left out of any possible move of God, but I suspect it had more to do with making sure they would not lose their power over the people. If God was really in the kingdom as preached by John they wanted to be seen as leaders in it. In reality, they were bullies who pushed their way in by making it seem they were the ones in control of whatever God was doing.
It is easier for heaven and earth to disappear than for the least stroke of a pen to drop out of the Law. Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and the man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery. Luke 16:17-18 NIV
Why did Jesus bring up the matter of divorce here? It was most likely one of the main violations of Law among the Pharisees, and by how Jesus tied it all together they had obviously made loopholes in the Law to justify themselves before those they severely judged for the smallest trespass. Jesus exposed these keepers-of-the-Law as the Law-breakers they were. But he didn't stop there, for he pushed his expose by telling another story in which he pictured these rich men as seen by God, that is, stripped of everything that created the illusion of their superiority and authority over the ones they had taken advantage of. I seriously doubt any of the adults in the crowd mistook the identity of the rich man in this story. I'll bet their eyes were darting back and forth between Jesus and the Pharisees as they stood transfixed by the confrontation.
There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man's table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores. The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, 'Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.' But Abraham replied, 'Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.' He answered, 'Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father's house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.' Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.' 'No, father Abraham,' he said, 'but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.' He said to him, 'If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.' Luke 16:19-31 NIV
Maybe I don't need to remind you, but I will anyhow: The word Hell as used in this story is actually the same Greek word Hades, which is the same word that was chosen to represent the Hebrew word Sheol in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament. So, for the Jews, not only did it represent the finality of man in the grave it also would have called to mind the beliefs of the Greeks and Romans on the matter - beliefs that had infiltrated and altered their own over a period of many years.
Also, as I suggested earlier, I think Jesus played off their contemporary Judeo-Gentile blended belief of the afterlife to paint an especially vivid picture of the flip-flop view of how God really sees things. While this parable seems to draw us into doctrinal dissertations, fears and/or worries about the Biblical view of the afterlife, it would have filled the common folks in the crowd with a wonder that God might possibly view this world so differently than what appears to the eye and by what was taught by the supposed spokesmen for God. The Pharisees, on the other hand, would have been enraged by the prospect that their roles could ever be switched.
The wording of the story crashes against the beliefs of the Pharisees. The very idea that the despised Lazarus would be carried by angels into Abrahams bosom while the rich man - he who was after their likeness - merely "died and was buried" to wake up in Hades, assaulted their view of the rightness of Scriptural accuracy. The Pharisees consistently scoffed at any suggestion that they were not Abraham's children. Also, the conversation between a man in Hades and Abraham in paradise created a rhetorical scene designed to highlight the fact that they lacked faith in Moses and the Prophets, for they would not believe even if someone were to rise from the dead.
To hold that this story accurately portrays Jesus' teaching of what will happen to people when they die presents quite a few problems and/or contradictions. First, how could the rich man in Hades see Lazarus in Abraham's bosom? I'm not questioning God's ability to create something beyond my understanding, I'm questioning a God who would. Are we to believe that God is some kind of sadist placing one in view of the other? If so, what kind of perverse comfort might be found for anyone in paradise if they could see others suffering in flames? Would anyone in hell, or Hades, actually be conversing with Father Abraham? And then, why does the story have the rich man addressing Abraham instead of God? And would a wicked man in hell even be concerned about his brothers' fates?
I know answers have been constructed in view of such questions, but I have to wonder how we can be satisfied with any answer that overlooks the very meaning and reason behind the story itself. For it so accurately describes the fallacies of the self-righteous religious man by portraying HIM in the role he has projected on everyone else. To those who made their living by taking advantage of their perceived position with God, Jesus spoke pure absurdity. However, his disciples experienced some incredible distinctions between life and religion that would be driven home once they received the Spirit.
By the way, any idea what this "great chasm" is?
Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, so that we may know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words. But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no one. For WHO HAS KNOWN THE MIND OF THE LORD, THAT HE WILL INSTRUCT HIM? But we have the mind of Christ. 1 Corinthians 2:12-16 NASB
The great chasm is the void between the mind of the world and the mind of God, not some barrier created by an impassable terrain. There is no crossing between the one and the other, for the only possibility is to have miraculously been given the mind of Christ. Listen to what the disciples learned from Jesus and you find this same conclusion all throughout their writings.
And still more to come ...