Lots of my friends don’t go to church. Some never had any experience of it; but many of them have sat through countless services at religious schools or with their families. Yet they have, at some stage, rejected it. There are lots of reasons for this, but one I often hear is ‘hell’. Perhaps my friends could not affirm or even understand justification by grace through faith; perhaps they found it a bit medieval and abstract to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Saviour; perhaps they were same-sex attracted or feminist or having sex without marriage—whatever the sticking point, many of my friends were given to understand that a fiery hell awaits them if they cannot conform to the teachings of some Christians on these and similar things. And having been taught this, the Bible reads to them like hate mail from God.
But such abusive teachings are based, first, on looking only at tiny sections of the Bible at a time and, second, on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of stories. Many of you will know Charles Dickens’ novella, A Christmas Carol. Perhaps you have read it; perhaps you have seen the movie. In this story, a miser named Scrooge encounters the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future. What they reveal inspire him to change his ways, now, in this life; they stimulate him to begin caring for the people around him. But this doesn’t mean that Dickens or you or I believe in Christmas ghosts. We know they are a storytelling device used to trigger Scrooge’s reflection and change. When we read Dickens, we know this; and we should use the same critical tools when we read stories in the Bible. Yet tonight’s parable is one of several passages that some people read literally, and use to paint a hellish picture of life after death.
But this is a story, not a history. The rich man and Lazarus aren’t real people: like Scrooge and Tiny Tim, they are characters. And, like Dickens’ ghosts in A Christmas Carol, Jesus’ images of the afterlife serve a literary purpose. So if it’s not about hell, then what is this story about? Well, we are told that a rich man with every resource in the world ignored a homeless beggar living at his gates. He didn’t care one bit for the poor man. He didn’t give him food; he didn’t give him clothes; he didn’t give him ointment for his sores. Meanwhile, the rich man was wearing the fanciest designer clothing and dining on red meat and caviar every day. He was, in fact, building up walls between himself and the poor: the garment workers in Bangladesh who sewed his fine shirts under conditions of slavery; the first peoples relocated into slums so major corporations can mine coltan for mobile phones; the cold, the hungry, the sick, and the lonely found in every city of the world. He is the archetypal rich individual, and he is also every wealthy society that widens the gap between rich and poor, or builds walls or patrols the seas to keep the poor out.
When the rich man dies, he goes to hell. And notice something here: He doesn’t go to hell for any of the reasons threatened by some religious types. Instead, he is in hell for one simple reason: He failed to serve a neighbour. And there he finds a barrier between himself and communion with the saints. Maybe it’s a wall, maybe it’s a chasm. The funny thing is, the rich man built it himself. For there is no fence, no wall, no ditch, no chasm, no abyss that can separate us from the love of God—except for the hellholes we dig for ourselves.
In this story, and in this life, there are gates in the walls which separate the wealthy from the poor. While alive, the rich man could have opened his gate and served his neighbour Lazarus lying there. But he didn’t. Because keeping gates bolted shut is easy. We all do it, as individuals and nations: we try and protect ourselves and our way of life from the demands of those who are needy.
But if we seek a flourishing life, a life overflowing with goodness and meaning, then we’d better fling those gates open and serve everyone who is waiting outside. For as Jesus said in another gospel, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me … just as you did it to one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:31ff). Every time we open the gates and serve, we encounter the Christ, and take a step towards life in abundance.
Now, as I said before, many of my friends don’t go to church, and few would describe themselves as Christian. Yet by golly most of them know how to serve. They volunteer in schools and build up local communities; they teach refugee kids; they host Sri Lankan men on Saturday leave from detention; they listen to indigenous Australians and care for foster kids; they seek justice for the sexually abused; they serve the vulnerable; they love God’s little ones. They may not affirm Jesus as their personal Lord and Saviour; they may not meet conservative Christian sexual mores; they may describe themselves as agnostic or atheist. Yet this story that Jesus tells is partly for them.
For when Lazarus lies sick and hungry outside the rich man’s gate, we are told that the dogs come and lick his sores. And this is very interesting. For in Jesus’ world, spit is a sign of contempt—but it also has healing powers. When they lick Lazarus’s sores, the dogs are helping to heal him. And ‘dogs’ is code for ‘outsiders’: the Samaritans, the Canaanites, the Gentiles. In our day, we might say the ‘unchurched’ or the ‘unsaved’.
With its imagery of hell, tonight’s story has been used by some to help generate hate mail against those outside the church. A storyteller’s tool has been manipulated by anxious and angry religious types to shore up boundaries, put fear into people’s hearts, and control them. Yet this is to read it back to front, for any warning it contains is to the religious. To them, the comfortably religious, Jesus says, “Don’t be like the rich man or his brothers! You have Moses and the prophets, the Bible and the preachers—but whether or not you love people is the only thing that matters to me. If you want life in abundance, tear down the walls you erect between people, then get down on your knees, and serve.”
And to everyone, it’s a letter of hope. To the poor, embodied in Lazarus, the story says: “You are not alone. Horrible stuff happens to the best of us. Your poverty and your suffering are not the result of sin or divine judgement. God sees you, and God is with you.”
To those outside the church, the dogs of this story, it says, “I see you. You may not recognise me, but here I am, looking at you through the eyes of every vulnerable person you serve. Religious types may criticise you for all sorts of things—but I know you and I honour your loving service.”
And to all of us, it’s a letter to life, encouraging us to live wholeheartedly, and engage with the real and difficult people all around. And in our stance of gratitude and service we will encounter the Christ and the flourishing life: a life on fire with meaning and passion, a life overflowing with love. People, this isn’t hate mail detailing what will happen to us after we die. Read in the context of Jesus’ ministry of healing and inclusion, and recognising the storytelling methods which we still use today, we can see it for what it really is: a love letter: a hymn to love, life, and justice, here and now, in this world in which we are truly and deeply alive. Amen. Ω