Okay. First things first. This story is not about the afterlife. It’s not about God’s plan for us in eternity. It can’t be. And I’ll show you why.
Now, on the surface, that’s certainly what it looks like. We see two people die, and one of them goes to a place of torment, and the other goes to be with Abraham. It’s not much of a stretch to describe those places as hell and heaven. Sounds a lot like the way we often think about the afterlife. Sounds like Jesus is just telling us what will happen to us one day when God’s will is completed.
But it’s not that. It can’t be. Let’s get into the story.
The story Jesus tells begins with two people. One, named Lazarus, is poor, sick, and hungry.
The other isn’t even given a name. He’s just “a rich man.” And he dresses in the finest clothing, and feasts sumptuously every day.
The world Jesus created in this story, this parable, has two characters, a rich man, and a poor man. Now everyone listening to his story knew what was supposed to happen in a story like this. In those days, wealthy people had lavish homes, and outside those lavish homes there were benches. The benches were there so that beggars and poor people like Lazarus could sit on them. And the wealthy owners were expected to provide some food for them. Not an extravagant meal, but something. That’s the way it worked in those days – there were no welfare payments or food stamps. The poor in the community were fed by the rich. That was how it was supposed to work.
But Jesus tells us it didn’t work that way here. In this story, the rich man wanted nothing to do with Lazarus. We can imagine why. My guess is it was something like this: To this rich man, the world was divided into two groups: good people, and bad people. The good people were obviously those who got all the good things. And the bad people got nothing. Because they didn’t matter. They weren’t important. To the rich man, he himself was good, as his bank statement would testify, and poor Lazarus on his bench, was bad. Not even worth noticing.
And then they both died. And yet here’s how I know that this isn’t really about God’s promise of eternity. Because nothing at all changed.
Nothing. Now, yes, they found themselves in a different place. They were no longer in the rich man’s house, and outside his gate. Now the rich man was in Hades, and Lazarus was with Abraham. But they were still close enough to see each other. Yet there was still a great power separating them. Just like the gate separated them before, now there was a great chasm.
Just like before, the world of the story is divided into good people and bad. And the rich man knows that he is still one of the good ones. In fact, the first thing he does is make demands. He demands that Abraham send Lazarus to cool his tongue. Lazarus is still beneath him. He notices Lazarus now, but only as his servant. Only as someone who can do something for him. Send him, Abraham. Abraham says, no.
So the rich man says, “Wait! At least warn my brothers!” And Abraham says, “They already have whatever they need. Nothing Lazarus can say would be more than what they already have.”
Nothing’s changed. The brothers still have what they had before. Still the world is divided into good and bad people. One group has luxury, the other misery. And still there’s a great divide between them. And still, neither does anything for the other. Just like before.
But wait, there’s one change. Now it’s Lazarus who’s in comfort, and the rich man who is in agony. Why is that? Well, we could say it’s because it turns out that Lazarus was a good man, and the rich man was bad. Good people go to heaven, bad people go to hell. That’s how we often think of it.
Well, even in that case, nothing has changed. Even in heaven, the world is still divided into good people and bad people. It’s just that the places are swapped.
And that’s not heaven. That’s not salvation. That’s not God’s grace. You know what that is? It’s revenge. The conception of the afterlife as the place where good people get rewarded and bad people what’s coming to them. That’s revenge. And that’s a normal emotion or desire to have. It’s normal to want to be rewarded for what you’ve done. It’s normal to want people who have caused suffering to receive suffering in return.
It’s normal to feel that way. It’s human to feel that way. But it’s not what the grace of God looks like. The world doesn’t have to be divided into those who are good and those who are bad.
There is good news – it doesn’t have to be like this. We don’t have to be caught up in a world of good people and bad people. In the story, the rich man and Lazarus were caught up in it, even after they died. But we don’t have to live like in the story. We don’t have to be in an endless cycle of revenge. How? In the story Abraham says, “Listen to Moses and the prophets.” It’s that simple. Listen to Moses and the prophets.
What does that mean? It means that we already have everything we need. To live the life God wants for us – a life that’s not caught up in who is better than anyone else, a life that’s not caught up in endless striving for power and wealth and revenge and being right – to live the life God has designed us for.
Listen to Moses and the prophets. What do they say? They say love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind and all your strength. They say love your neighbor as yourself.
They say, more or less, seek and serve Christ in all people, just like our congregation’s purpose statement says.
And the really good news, the really, really good news, is that we don’t have to wait until after we die to experience it. Because God has promised that Christ has transformed everything. As Paul wrote, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation. Everything old has passed away; behold, everything has become new!”
That’s why I said that this story can’t be about God’s will for us, because nothing had changed. Whereas God’s will for us is that we are transformed, that we are made new, that the whole world is transformed and made new. And God’s will has come true in Christ.
So, if you want to experience life outside the world of good and bad, if you want to live the life that God has designed for you, the life that God has designed you for, then live in Christ: love one another, just as Christ has loved you.
You are able to do that, at least in part, because you have been transformed.
If you want to live the life that God has designed for you, the life that God has designed you for, then live in Christ: love God above all else.
You are able to do that, at least in part, because you have been transformed. And you can live, at least in part, in this world today. There will still be suffering. There will still be great chasms between people. But you can work to change that, because you have been transformed. And one day, when the afterlife does happen, you will experience something so different and so very much better.
Christ transforms death into life. Despair into hope. Division into unity. Suffering into joy. Enjoy that. Love that. Trust that.