You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (FYI, the spoken sermon is significantly different from the written text.)
Ever since I first looked over the scripture readings for this morning, I’ve been debating with myself whether we should listen to the song “Highway to Hell” by AC/DC. I think it would be fun, but the fact that I don’t know how the sound system in here is set up – and also some gentle counsel from Faith – has led me to leave the song out this time around. But just so you know, it’s going through my head.
I’m kind of excited to be talking about hell this morning. I don’t know about y’all – maybe you grew up in different kinds of churches from where I grew up – but I almost never hear my kind of peace-loving, compassionate, socially progressive Christians talk about what the Bible says about the long-term consequences of sin.
But today I’ve got my big chance. Our gospel reading this morning is probably the most outstanding story about hell in the whole Bible. Because you know, despite the intense focus and fixation that many Christians have on the idea of heaven and hell, the scriptures really don’t talk about it much – not in a way that meshes with popular conceptions of the afterlife. In most of the Bible, both New Testament and Old, hell isn’t really a big concept. There’s this idea of Sheol – also known as “the pit” or “the grave.” It’s a big, dark, fairly sad place underground where everyone goes when they die.
The Greeks had a very similar concept of the afterlife. They called it “Hades.” This Greek word shows up in the New Testament a few times – including in our scripture reading today. Traditionally, Hades wasn’t really seen as a place you’d want to be – after all, who wants to be dead? – but it also wasn’t seen as a place of torment for evildoers. Just a place for dead people to chill out forever. Sort of like a back-stage area for the drama of life.
More recently, though – in the centuries leading up to Jesus’ ministry – there was a growing trend to think about the afterlife in terms that are more familiar to us today. Many people had come to believe in an afterlife paradise for the righteous, as well as a corresponding place of torment for the wicked. For many Jews, this was connected with the idea of bodily resurrection.
It was in this context that Jesus told the story of the rich man and poor Lazarus, and used contemporary concepts of heaven and hell to demonstrate what life in God’s kingdom is all about.
In this story, the rich man enjoys a lavish lifestyle of fancy clothing and delicious feasts every day. Meanwhile, Lazarus lays outside his gate, enduring both hunger and illness – weeping sores so severe that the dogs would come and lick him. Pretty gross.
But it turns out the joke’s on the rich man. When he dies, he finds himself being tormented in Hades while Lazarus is peacefully resting with Abraham. On the rich man’s side of Hades, there is fire and suffering. This side is separated from Lazarus and Abraham’s side by a great chasm – a dividing line of some kind that prevented any real connection or relationship between the two sides of Hades.
I find this story really fascinating. Because you see, most people who are really big fans of the concept of eternal conscious torment in hell – they tend to be focused on certain criteria for who gets into heaven and who goes downstairs. It tends to be about beliefs, and probably about some of their favorite sins – sexual immorality, abortion, and other hot-button issues that inflame the imagination.
But when Jesus gives us a vision of hell, his focus is on economic and social justice. Both here, and throughout the New Testament, Jesus makes it clear that it’s impossible to be in right relationship with God without also being in right relationship with the people around us – especially the poor and marginalized. In the story of the rich man and Lazarus, Jesus lambasts the social and physical separation of the wealthy one percent from those living in poverty, the people who are being devastated by the effects of income inequality.
In our other reading this morning, the author of 1st Timothy echoes this message when he writes that “the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.” He says that, “those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction.”
The love of God and neighbor, and the love of money, are diametrically opposed. They refer to such opposite states of being that it seems inappropriate to label both of them with the word “love.” The love of God is about self-forgetfulness, humility, spiritual rest, and trust. The love of money produces only anxiety, self-focus, cynicism, and fear.
When I think about examples of destructive, pathological love of money, there are many to choose from. Oddly enough, the first one that came to my mind was a cartoon. Did any of you ever watch the cartoon show, Duck Tales? Scrooge McDuck is a such a perfect icon for the love of money that I believe, if Jesus were telling his parable today, Scrooge would be a great choice to play the rich man.
In Duck Tales, Scrooge is ridiculously wealthy. He’s so rich that he has a money vault the size of a skyscraper where he regularly goes for a swim in gold coins. Scrooge approaches the love of money with a practically religious devotion. Scrooge worships money. He serves money. Money is his focus in life. In the context of Duck Tales, the greatest possible crisis is when Scrooge is at risk of losing his beloved pile of money forever.
Scrooge McDuck is a funny character, but he isn’t happy. He’ll never be happy. Despite all his wealth and influence, Scrooge lives a life of bitterness, fear, and worry. He spends his days managing, counting, and protecting his money. He can’t sleep soundly at night, because he’s so anxious about the status and safety of his coins.
Scrooge’s love of money is an energy-stealing, life-denying parasite that feeds off of his happiness and leaves only anxiety. Instead of being grateful for the joys of life and the fantastic people and places around him, Scrooge prioritizes an illusion of security and importance. For Scrooge, the false promises of security, predictability, and control have become more important than his relationships with other human beings.
Does any of this sound familiar? I think that each of us has a little bit of Scrooge in us. I know I do. When presented with a choice between relationship and security, faithfulness and professional advancement, kindness and success – what do you say? I’ll be honest: I find it incredibly hard to say “no” to the world’s priorities and “yes” to the vision of God’s kingdom. Perhaps especially for those of us who live here in the DC metro area, the pressure to have more, be more, and do more is intense. The love of wealth, status, and our own sense of self-importance, has us anxiety-ridden, overworked, over-committed, and overwhelmed.
This money-loving culture we live in is one of grasping, insecurity, and fear. It’s one that diminishes our health, our happiness, and the extent to which we feel free to make ourselves available to follow in the radical way of Jesus.
It also has a devastating social impact. Thousands of DC children experience homelessness each year, thanks to our collective love of money as a society. Many thousands more live in poverty right here in the capital of the wealthiest nation the world has ever seen. We, the rich men and women of Washington, DC, don’t have to look very far to find Lazarus sitting outside with the dogs.
Which brings us back to hell. Given our wealth amidst a sea of both local and global poverty, what makes us think that we’re going to heaven with Lazarus and Abraham? Is it possible that we’ll end up in torment along with the rich man in the story?
What is hell, anyway? What would it mean to go there? Hell is a lack of loving, compassionate, human relationship. Hell is when we look at our lives and say, “I made it, I keep it, it’s mine.” Hell is when we choose the illusion of self-sufficiency over the hard work of community. Hell is separation from God, but it often begins with separation from other human beings.
It’s no accident that the major feature of Hades mentioned by Luke is the gulf between the rich man and Lazarus. The love of money, the fear of others, the anxiety of security tempts us to build walls, shut doors, and refuse to see one another. This is the highway to hell. This is the road that we’re on right now as a people, as a city, and as a nation. It’s a road we’ve been on so long that it’s come to seem normal.
The first step to addressing our addiction to money, power, control, is to admit that we have a problem. The next step – if we’re ready – is to take a serious look at what it would mean for us to turn our lives around. What will it take for us to get off this road to perdition? What does it mean for you and me to choose the kingdom of God rather than the tyranny of wealth?
There are no cheap and easy answers to this question. It begins with putting money in its proper place. Wealth is meant to be subordinate to the life of our community, our church, and the ministry that God is calling us to be engaged in here in our city. It means seeing that our money, resources, and even our career choices do not belong to us as individuals. They are tools we hold in trust for the people of God and the Holy Spirit’s work in the world.
The surest road to hell is when we allow ourselves to be deceived into viewing our wealth, possessions, and relationships as a means to the end of personal satisfaction. That’s the road to slavery. Because there’s no end to the search for satisfaction. There’s always another itch to scratch, another fantasy to fulfill. You and I will never be satisfied by the things of this world. No good, service, or promise of security can ever satisfy the longing that we innately possess to belong to the beloved community, the mission of Jesus, the kingdom of God.
It’s this false love for self, for our own ideas and selfish pursuits, that separates us from one another and from God. It’s our fear of losing out, losing face, and losing control that keeps us firmly on one side of that hellish gap, burning in our agony, while Abraham and the poor watch us sadly from the other side. Rather than risking heaven, we fight to preserve and protect our own personal hell from intrusion by others. Because, hey – this may be an awful way to live, but at least we’re in control!
We can’t escape hell by ourselves. It’s no accident that the rich man asked Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers about what he had learned too late. He knew that his family members were just like him. In many important ways, we here in this church are just like one another. We are shaped and defined by the people we choose to be in relationship with.
Here at Washington City Church of the Brethren, we make our choices and walk our path in community. So if we’re on the highway to hell, we’re on it together. And if we hope to escape it, we will have to rely on one another for support and encouragement to walk in a different path – the narrow and loving path of Jesus.