The Road to Hell

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 9/25/22, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture reading for this sermon was: 1 Timothy 6:6-19, Luke 16:19-31. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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I have walked by homeless people and given them nothing. I have had people on the street try to speak to me, and I acted like they didn’t exist. I live in a city where thousands of people – men, women, families, children – don’t have a permanent place to stay. During the pandemic, the Oakland school system gave our family food. Because they knew that if they didn’t do that for families, many children who relied on school lunches would not have a lunch at all.

So I don’t have to imagine the scene that Jesus describes in his parable of The Rich Man and Lazarus. This is not an unfamiliar spectacle – someone poor and sick and desperate and begging, waiting outside the door of rich people’s homes and offices. I’ve seen it here, in the Bay Area, more times than I can count.

This scene that Jesus paints is not a fairy tale. It’s not metaphorical. We’ve all seen it, haven’t we?

And so we can ask: Who is Lazarus in our lives? Who are the Lazaruses that lay outside the house of the rich today? Take a moment and let one of those people you’ve seen come into your mind. Let yourself come eye to eye with that modern-day Lazarus of your experience.

Having met our Lazarus, there is another question we can ask. This, for me, is the tougher question: Who is the rich man? Who is the modern-day rich man in my experience?

Now here’s where, at least for me, temptation creeps in. If you tell me to picture in my mind what the rich man looks like, I want to say Jeff Bezos, or Mark Zuckerberg, or the Monopoly man with his big top hat and a cigar. And, yes – with the exception of the Monopoly man, who is literally a caricature – all of those billionaires are absolutely the rich men of our age.

But I don’t think that’s the message that God wants me to take away from this story. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I don’t think God wants me to walk away from this story thinking, “gee, that Jeff Bezos had better watch out and start treating old Lazarus better.” “Gosh, Mark Zuckerberg had better change his ways, or he’s going to be in for a rude awakening when he dies!” No, I don’t think that’s the right message for me.

The right message for me is found in the words of the prophet Nathan to David, when he confronted him about his hidden sin. Nathan said to David, “You are the man!”

I am the rich man. Poor Lazarus is laying outside of my door. And I really don’t care. Not really. Not enough to reorient my life. I’ve got more important stuff going on.

I don’t have a personal connection to Lazarus. I don’t know him. He’s just some guy out there, someone who makes me feel a little uneasy when I see him on the BART train, sleeping or asking for money. He’s a person who makes visible, who brings to my attention in a visceral, unmistakable way that something is wrong. And I don’t want to see that, because life is hard enough without worrying about the problems of strangers.

You know, the rich man in Jesus’ story – I think it’s entirely likely that he wasn’t an unpleasant person if you met him. If he had you over for dinner, I imagine that he was absolutely charming. He was probably a loving father to his children, gracious to his mother-in-law, and kind to animals.

But in this story, he ended up burning in hell.

This is a funny thing – because in my experience, there are two main types of Christians: There are the Christians who are really into social justice, and then there are Christians who love talking about eternal damnation. I rarely run into people who enjoy both of these concepts. But, apparently, Jesus wasn’t your average dude. Jesus was perfectly capable of being a fire-and-brimstone preacher. 

By the way, this story of The Rich Man and Lazarus is kind of weird. It’s weird because it talks about a conscious afterlife apart from the bodily resurrection. I find this strange, because as far as I know, this is the only place in the gospels where we hear anything like this. Usually, when Jesus is preaching apocalypse, it’s one that involves wars and sieges and resurrection and, you know, physical reality. Because Jews have always been really into the body and history rather than ethereal notions of a spiritual afterlife.

But I digress.

The fact is that Jesus talks about the coming judgment a lot. It’s a huge feature of the Kingdom of God. The reign of God is about God showing up in a big way, pulling back the curtain on history and showing us what real justice looks like. Sheep and goats, wise bridesmaids and the foolish ones, guests who are invited to the wedding and those who refuse to come. Jesus was very clear about this. There is judgment coming for all of us. We will all have to answer for the way we have treated one another in our time here on earth.

So Jesus is absolutely interested in the concept of social justice; it is at the heart of what makes the Kingdom of God tick. And it is precisely because God cares about poor Lazarus out on the pavement, with dogs licking his sores while the rich man doesn’t even know his name – well, that’s why the judgment is coming. God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all – and so on the day that God shows up, everything will be well-lit. All the deeds of darkness will come to light. The crooked will be made straight. Everything that was formerly hidden will become clear as crystal.

And what is clear from the story is that the rich man – and when I say the rich man, I mean me – the rich man has spent his life building a chasm between himself and Lazarus. He has lived in his own social bubble, living a fancy life with his fancy friends talking about important things, and it all just seemed so normal.

That’s what we humans do, especially living in this class-stratified society we inhabit: We adapt our expectations to what we see around us. Just like the rich man in this story, we isolate ourselves among people who look, think, and behave like we do. 

A big function of money is to gate certain spaces for people of certain social classes. I mean, for example, wealthy people eat at expensive restaurants, not just because the food is so good, but also – and perhaps more importantly – because that is where their kind of people eat. They know that when they go to that fancy French restaurant, they won’t be seeing any Lazaruses at the next table over.

The rich man isn’t a bad guy; he just doesn’t live in a world where poor Lazarus is relevant. The sick man, lying on the street outside being licked by the dogs, is outside of the rich man’s sphere of concern.

And so I’m feeling convicted this morning, considering myself as the rich man in this story. I’m thinking about all the people whom I have placed beyond my own sphere of concern. The people who I am willing to walk by and refuse to acknowledge. The people that I have chosen to ignore by the lifestyle and relationships I dwell within. I’m thinking about the fact that Jesus is telling me here, in the sixteenth chapter of Luke, that this completely normal human pattern – this way that we keep to our own kind and class – is going to lead me straight into the fires of hell.

Which leads me to ask the same question as the onlookers who heard Peter’s preaching on the streets of Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost: What must I do to be saved? What must I do to start digging myself out of the chasm that I have built, to separate myself from people who are different from me? People who have social, emotional, physical, and financial needs that I could help meet. Who are the people that I have shut out, and what is the word that God wants to speak through them to me?

I wonder about our church, too. As a community, who are the Lazaruses that we have left out in the narthex, so to speak? Are we a church for all people, or only the right kind of people? What barriers have we, perhaps unconsciously, erected to keep Lazarus out of worship and out of membership class?

Charity is important, and both through the church’s food pantry ministry and through the charitable actions of individual members, we are a pretty generous group. But, the question to us this morning goes beyond charity. You know, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the rich man in Jesus’ story donated to the local Jerusalem food bank. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the rich man was, in fact, very charitable in a whole host of ways that didn’t require him to be in intimate relationship with the poor. 

But this kind of charity, while good, is not enough. The story that Jesus poses is personal, it’s about the human relationship – or the lack thereof – between the rich man and Lazarus. Lazarus needed charity, for sure. He had very tangible material and medical needs. But, as we learn later in the story, the rich man’s needs were greater. What the rich man needed most of all was to encounter Lazarus as a brother, an equal, a child of God in his own right. His failure to do so had consequences beyond the rich man’s ability to imagine.

And it is a problem of imagination, isn’t it? One of the things that blows me away in this story is that, even as Lazarus is calling out to Abraham as he literally burns in hell, the rich man fails to imagine Lazarus as a fellow human being, equal in dignity to himself. Even in hell, he’s still thinking of Lazarus as less-than. The rich man says, “Hey, Abraham, send Lazarus over here to give me some water!” “Please, Abraham, send Lazarus back to my family, to tell them what happened to me.” Like Lazarus is still a social inferior, to be bossed around as a slave. Incredible, isn’t it?

Do we do that? As a church, do we see charity cases rather than brothers and sisters? Do we see tasks to complete rather than friends to be encountered? What would it look like to slow down and imagine one another in a different light?

The big reveal in the story of The Rich Man and Lazarus is that heaven and hell are a reflection of our lives here and now. The rich man himself had been digging the chasm – between himself and Lazarus, between himself and God – he’d been digging it his whole life. Year after year, the rich man got used to staying on his side of the gulf; that pattern of separation became so entrenched that he couldn’t even imagine a way out.

What are the ways that I am separating myself from others? Have I dug a hole that has come to seem so normal, but which in fact is leading me into a living hell? 

Jesus is telling me this morning: Stop digging the hole.