What the Hell?
Luke 16:19-31 and Matthew 25:31-40
Wilfredo J. Baez
The rich man in Luke’s gospel woke up after dying and looked around. “What the Hell, what am I doing here! He didn’t like it at all! What had he done to deserve this?” He looked across a wide chasm and saw Lazarus with Abraham at his side. “What in heaven’s name is he doing over there!” the rich man exclaimed. He obviously was a sinner. I deserve to be over there and he over here!
The rich man had lived a good life. He wore the finest clothing and the richest foods. He was recognized by his community as well-deserving of his riches. Lazarus didn’t have it so good during his lifetime. He used to lie at the gate of the rich man’s gate hoping to win a scrap from the rich man’s table. As far as the conventional wisdom went the rich man belonged in heaven and Lazarus in Hades. Tormented by his fiery environs the rich man pleaded with Abraham to send Lazarus with some water to cool his tongue. He was even maintaining his status in Hades expecting the like of Lazarus to be his servant.
Abraham reminded the rich man that he received his reward while alive on earth. Now you are in agony. Lazarus suffered every manner of evil, now he is comforted. And besides, crossing the chasm between Heaven and Hades was not possible. The rich man pleased with Abraham to warn his brothers so they can live in ways avoid this torment. Abraham told them that they already had warned by Moses but didn’t heed Moses. And if they didn’t heed Moses and the Prophets, they wouldn’t believe someone who rose from the dead.
What the hell is Jesus doing, telling a story like this? Where is the mercy? The mercy is in the story. When Jesus preached he made use of faith promises and faith threats. The audience for this story was Jesus’ disciples and the Pharisees. The disciples were those who would do what Jesus would do. If they had come upon Lazarus they would have offered him a bath, bandaged his wounds and fed him. They were the sheep in Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goat. Lazarus was one of the least of our brothers and sisters. Whenever someone cares for one of these they cared for Jesus. The Pharisees are the goats in that parable. They would have ignored Lazarus. And when the neglected Lazarus they neglected Jesus’.
This parable of the rich man and Lazarus and the parable of the sheep and the goats aren’t about heaven and hell. They aren’t about reward and punishment in the afterlife. Jesus is trying to get the rich man’s attention. He is trying to get the Pharisees’ attention. How you treat Lazarus, how you treat the poor matters? Hey, you or your family may end up in dire straits and may need the very help that you’re not providing now. You may seek mercy and there be none forthcoming.
A preacher’s job is to wake us up. If we expect mercy we have to be merciful. What did we sing last Sunday: What does the Lord require of you? Act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God. What does the Lord require of you? Too many are concerned, like the rich man, with what they require of God and what they require of the church and of others. Life is about them. The church is about them. But what if the church was about us and them, a new US and bigger US, so there is no them.
.Our Wednesday night community meal is very important as important as our Sunday morning gathering. The people there matter. Our Tuesday-Thursday-Saturday basketball team is very important. The kids on that team count. The initiatives being taken for drug addicts and their families and for the incarcerated are important. Anyone of our own children can end up hooked by drugs and be swallowed up in the criminal justice system and a nightmare existence. Some people in this church are working to make our church and our ministries even more about others and expanding our understanding of us to include all God’s children. That’s the groundswell happening here. We are recognizing more and more the sacred worth of every person and every creation.
Jesus was telling the rich man and the Pharisees to change. I think that President Obama has been telling us all to wake up and change. He has been telling the rich man from our story, the rich in our country, to pay more taxes and for our congress to close more tax loopholes. He’s been saying that there are too many Lazaruses, too many least and last of us and too many falling by the wayside of our winner take most society. The end will be a society where the winners become losers perhaps through violence directed at them. It’s a dangerous end game, this status quo that we are playing. That’s what Jesus’ hell language is about.