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Friday, January 31, 2014

A Great Chasm Fixed Between

I find the account of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16 a little unusual for one of the Lord’s parables, if it is a parable at all. It employs plain language rather than the symbolism associated with parables. It is not specifically referred to as a parable. There is no ‘such-and-such is like’ to introduce it. In addition, there are some awfully specific details given: The poor man, Lazarus, is named, something I’m not aware of the Lord doing anywhere else. Abraham, father of the Jewish nation, appears. The rich man has ‘five brothers’, rather than just ‘family’. Perhaps ‘story’ is better than ‘parable’. I believe it’s historical, as it seems unlikely to me that the Lord would employ a Hebrew with whom he had — and continues to have — a relationship as a mere character in a concocted narrative just to make a moral point.

It’s about two men, one of whom lived and died in poverty, pain and ignominy, and a second that lived with the best of everything the world has to offer but no concern for, or interest in, the needs of a man suffering right under his nose. But the second man also dies, as will we all:
“… in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house — for I have five brothers — so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’ ” (Luke 16:19-31)
Note seven things about the rich man’s torment in this passage:

·       He remains fully conscious and has not lost his ‘personality’ or ‘soul’. This is not some random spirit crying out in Hades for mercy. This is an integrated person with memories, history and a sense of connection to this world. There can be no relief in supposing that in an eternity of punishment those who reject Christ will ‘not know what’s happening anyway’.

·       He still seems be in some sort of relationship to time. Abraham does not say of the rich man’s five brothers, “the opportunity for them is lost forever”, but “let them hear [Moses and the Prophets]”, as if there remains a chance for the brothers. He knows the clock is ticking on his family, but can do nothing about it. That in itself seems an exquisite sort of torment, and one entirely self-inflicted.

·       He can see the ‘other side’ of the chasm: He sees Abraham “far off and Lazarus at his side”. That which might have been for him is close enough to see, but not to touch, and nothing about his situation is open to change. There is a constant reminder that things could’ve been different.

·       He has no body but still feels the need to have his tongue cooled.* The rich man says he is “in anguish in this flame”. His request for “water” to cool his “tongue” is not literal, since he no longer has a tongue. But just as over 80% of amputees experience phantom pain in limbs that are no longer attached, so his soul and spirit are tormented and he seems to experience pain as if he had a physical body. The heat, like the water and the tongue, may also be metaphorical, which does not make it any the less real or horrible. He is experiencing not the agony of ‘demons with blowtorches’, but possibly the agony of a conscience that is finally fully aware of the truth that he has rejected his entire life.

·       He doesn’t say “Father Abraham, let me out!” and Abraham doesn’t say, “Don’t worry son, you’ve only got 500 years left to serve”. Despite Catholic dogma, there is nothing rehabilitative, curative or ‘purgative’ about this torment. At some level he recognizes either the justice or the inevitability of his punishment and the fact that there is no revisiting his sentence. And his punishment is not undeserved. He “feasted sumptuously”, yet was able to heartlessly pass a sore-covered beggar outside his gate, probably on a daily basis, without apparently a second thought. Did he know the beggar’s name in life? Probably not. But he sure knew it in Hades. Did he recognize him when he saw him with Abraham? He certainly did. So in life he had looked on the poor beggar by his gate long enough to be aware who he was, but had not done anything to relieve his situation despite being more than able to do so.

·       He cares about the fate of his brothers. We can sometimes find ourselves imagining that someone deserving of an eternity of torment must be a bitter, selfish, deeply hardened individual raging against God and glad to be away from him, and that perhaps this hatred of God somehow even armors such a person against the worst of hell’s torments. “Better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven”, said John Milton, putting words in Lucifer’s mouth. This is the sort of attitude we expect to encounter in hell. The rich man in our story shows no such bravado or brazen antipathy to God. He simply lived for himself and ran out of time, and found himself having to render an account for his life when he never expected to.

·       He seems to be alone. There’s no suggestion that the rich man is aware of anyone other than himself in Hades with him, though he is aware of Abraham and Lazarus. If there are others with him that the rich man is aware of, we don’t hear about it.

The pop musician Morrissey sings, “There’s a place in hell for me and my friends”. Aaron Lewis sings, “So let’s have a party and tell ’em I’m home; there’ll be Janis and Jim Beam as well. And Rick James will bring all the cocaine you want, so let’s have a party in hell”.

That doesn’t appear to be the experience of the rich man as taught by our Lord. Mind you, the opinions of pop stars are considerably more palatable, at least to those who don’t know Christ, than the Master’s own teachings.

Unfortunately these opinions come with all the moral and doctrinal authority of, well, pop stars.

*      The dead do not appear to have bodies in hades, the temporary holding place of the dead. Their bodies are in the grave. The dead do appear to have their bodies in gehenna, the “second death”, the “lake of fire”, into which Death and Hades will be thrown after the Great White Throne judgment.

1 comment :

  1. I cannot think of another parable where the specific name of the person mentioned is given. In fact, it’s given alongside the name of a person whom we certainly know DOES exist, Abraham. If so, then for someone who’s taking the Scripture literally at all, the obvious road has to be to assume that when Jesus started the story with “Now there was a man…” He really meant, “there WAS a man.”

    Interestingly, the rich man’s name is not given, even though he’s the primary figure. Maybe we can assume that in Hell such details don’t matter much. Henceforth your existence, personhood and specific identity will remain a reality for you, but will be of no particular relevance to anyone else. Maybe that’s part of what it means to be “lost.”

    The people with Abraham still have names, though.

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