Our pastor preached on hell yesterday. The title of her sermon was "Taking Hell Seriously". Many of us who were listening to her had come from traditions where hell was taken seriously. Very seriously. It was to escape hell that Jesus came. We learned that faith in Jesus saves us from hell. So in the parable of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16, the rich man ends up in hell (hades, or sheol in the Old Testament) and Lazarus finds himself in heaven at the bosom of Abraham. Somehow Lazarus must have had faith in Jesus and the rich man did not. Otherwise how did each man end up where he did. Of course. Except the parable does not say that. Lazarus did nothing right and the rich man did nothing wrong. Yet, this complete reversal of fortunes. It is as if Lazarus being poor was now rich and the rich man who enjoyed wealth his whole life was now poor. Rich became poor and poor became rich. The teaching of the Bible on the responsibilities to care for the poor is an embarrassment of riches. The rich man who was a son of Abraham knew what God expected of him when it came to the poor man at his gate. At his gate. Right in plain sight. Where only the dogs gave him any comfort. All Lazarus wanted was a crumb from the rich man's plate. Or a drop of water.
The extreme situations of each person are briefly but poignantly drawn. It is picture of the world we live in. We see it every day on tv news and maybe on our drive into work. We all have poor persons at our gates. Compared to most of the world we are rich.
So is this parable telling us that the suffering have-nots in this life will become non-suffering haves in the next and the non-suffering haves in this life will become the suffering have-nots in the next life, asks John Dominic Crossan. Or is the poor man blessed in the next life because he was poor in this life and the rich man suffers in the next life simply because he was rich in this one, queries Richard Bauckham.
Most Christians have traditionally said, no that misses the point. Although, early Christian commentators were reluctant to let their congregants off too easy. Jerome pointed out the rich man was guilty of sins of omission: he neglected the poor and the needy and that damned him. For most of us modern Christians we tend to take our theology of heaven and hell and superimpose it on this parable. Thus, Lazarus must have had faith in Jesus which saved him and the rich man was an unbelieving hedonist. That is one way to interpret it. Certainly, it takes the edge off of it for us.
Albert Schweitzer cited this parable for why he left Europe to practise medicine in Africa. Some have faulted Schweiter's faith but whose to say he is not the one who got it's point.
Amy Jill-Levine observes that the parable teaches we do not need supernatural revelation to tell us we have the poor with us. It shows us what happens if we don't care.