29 Sep 2013
“‘[Abraham replied,] “Between us and you a great chasm is established to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go from our side to yours or from your side to ours.”’” (Luke 16:26) (+)
There’s an awful lot going on in the parable Luke shares with us today. There is the consoling message that those who suffer unjustly in this life will receive better treatment in the next life. That’s a powerful message of hope for those who are hopeless. Karl Marx, however, called this kind of stuff the “opiate of the people.” It dulled their senses to the misery around them through all of the preaching about a better life to come afterwards. He felt that this kind of religious message accomplished the exact opposite of what was preached. It actually kept the hopeless in their plight and allowed the selfish to maintain the status quo that took such good care of them and theirs. The hopeless would not fight to change this world; they would be convinced by this kind of preaching to instead to wait for the next world when they would have the chance to enjoy paradise.
But heaven remains a powerful message of hope. I’m standing in line at CVS to pick-up a prescription. As you’re waiting there in line, they have on display a turnstile of books, most of which have to do with the reality of miracles and visions of heaven. I’m sure a lot of corporate thought went into that placement. It’s not an accident that they’re there. People going to the pharmacy often have something that’s not working right. As you wait in line to get your medicine, as you’re thinking about why you’re there, off to the side you can see books about miracles and heaven. That’s another medicine of hope. Doctors will tell you that a positive attitude is a key ingredient in staying healthy and in fighting disease. A sick and depressed person is worse off than a sick and optimistic person. The body can tell the difference. I don’t think anyone in the CVS line told the pharmacist to keep their prescription as they went home with just the books about miracles and heaven. I think the books of hope combined with the medicine though give anyone a better chance of being healthy.
Stories about paradise like today’s Gospel cannot replace our efforts to make a better world anymore than books of miracles and heaven can replace prescriptions. They work best together. They can’t be used to let us think we can avoid helping the hopeless because eventually God will take care of them. That’s to gut the whole purpose of Jesus’ ministry and life. It’s to undermine the reason why He shared parables with us like that of Lazarus and the rich man in the first place. And so that we don’t miss the message of our responsibility to each other, Jesus includes in His parable not only a story of heaven, but a story of hell. The parable offers hope to those who suffer and a stern warning to those who don’t care. But again, just as the story of Lazarus’ blessing is meant to give the gift of hope now, so the story of the rich man’s misery is meant to give a warning while something can still be done now.
An awful lot of this parable talks about heaven and hell, but I don’t think much of anything in the parable actually has to do with heaven and hell. You know, when Jesus came back to His disciples on Easter and stayed with them for however many days, I’m assuming that there would have been many a question about what it was like on the other side of death. But the Gospels don’t tell us one story about heaven. I’m thinking that what’s not said is a message. The next life is God’s turf. We, on the other hand, get a chance to make our mark, to make a difference, to love God and to care for each other, here and now. This is our turf, and I think this world is where Jesus focuses His message to us in today’s parable.
One of the reasons I don’t believe that Lazarus and the rich man is about the afterlife is because it makes no sense in that way. This parable, if it is about heaven, is one huge contradiction. The rich man is punished horribly as he burns in flames but is never consumed. I can’t hold my hand over a little altar candle flame for more than a few seconds without wincing in pain. Think about what’s going on in the parable. The man is engulfed in flames. Imagine the pain from a little altar candle burning your hand for only a few seconds and then try to imagine the endless pain of the rich man. Look at the first picture on today’s song sheet. Some Christians really believe in this kind of stuff, this everlasting inferno. And then look at the clip art picture of today’s parable. The rich man is in agony in the flames while Abraham and Lazarus look on with smiles from heaven.
Why is the rich man in hell? Because he was uncaring for a number of years, say twenty or even fifty. But then, according to the story, Abraham and Lazarus are just as uncaring about his plight not for twenty or even fifty years, but for eternity. The contradiction is unavoidable. Then you could say that there was nothing they could do. There was a huge chasm separating them. All this does is move the onus of uncaring from Abraham and Lazarus and tacks it on to the God of heaven. Eternal punishment is not about punishment at all. It’s about vindictiveness. There’s no purpose to eternal punishment. There’s no chance of rehabilitation. The rich man is not all bad. He worries, according to the story, about his family and their fate. There’s a glimmer of humanity in him. But it doesn’t matter because eternal hell istn’t about rehabilitation. He’ll burn forever as demanded by an angry God. This is why we can tell that Jesus isn’t telling us a parable about the afterlife. He’s telling us a parable about this life.
Eternal damnation could be logical if God were the god of the fanatics who shot all those innocent people in the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. But they’re not religious; they’re nuts. If Jesus, on the other hand, is the perfect revelation of the nature of God, then eternal damnation is an unavoidable contradiction that has to be rejected. Let heaven be a place of hope, but until then let us as people of faith do all that we can to help the hopeless here and now. And for this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo