Video is Ralph Vaughan Williams 5 Variations on the Theme of Dives and Lazarus

(Listen as you read this excellent sermon from The Rev. Dr. Harmon Smith)

I need and want your prayers as I venture to speak on behalf of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

The gospel lessons appointed for the past few Sundays have been about the cost of disci-pleship and the use of wealth.  We learned of a shepherd who searched diligently for a lost sheep – of a woman who searched earnestly for a lost coin – of a father who welcomed the return of a prodigal son – of a dishonest manager who was commended for his shrewdness in knowing and doing business in the ways of the world.  Today’s gospel continues those themes and focuses on Luke’s ongoing concern for the right use of wealth and power in a parable that’s usually referred to as the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus.  It’s a parable unique to Luke, and I think it among the most interesting and powerful in the New Testament.

This the story.  There were these two fellows – and one of them was very wealthy.  He dressed in the finest clothing – he ate elaborate spreads of food and drink every day – and his life was very comfortable.  He is actually not named, but he has come to be known as Dives.  His  name is derived from the Latin Vulgate translation of the New Testament, homo quidam erat dives – “there was a certain rich man.”  Dives is Latin for ‘rich’.

The other fellow was very poor – so poor that he lay at the gates of the rich man’s home hoping some food scraps would fall off the table for him to eat.  His name was Lazarus – and this is the only time Jesus identified a character by name, which some say means the story very likely actually happened.  He was gaunt and emaciated and the sores on his body were a licking post for the neighborhood dogs.  You would think, listening to this story, that Lazarus and the rich man had nothing at all in common.  One was comfortable, the other was miserable.  One lived in the lap of luxury – the other lived in the gutter.  Their stories are miles apart, and they appear to share nothing at all except this – they both died.  They both died!  It didn’t matter that one was rich and the other was poor, they both died.  Death doesn’t  discriminate between rich and poor, male and female, young and old.  Death is the great common denominator.  All of us are going to die.  We don’t know when, most of us don’t know how, but we know for sure each of us is going to die.

So is this a parable about the certainty of death and despair of hell and the joy of heaven?  I think the short answer is no and the translation in the service leaflet is correct.  It’s not hell but hades that is named in this story. But that needs a brief side-bar on hell in the Bible.  I’d start by saying the word hell does not occur in either the Hebrew OT or the Greek NT.  It comes to us in Latin and English translations.  When the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek from Hebrew (by 70 Jewish scholars in the 3rd and 2nd c. BC, the Septuagint), the Hebrew sheol was translated as the Greek hades – a Platonic word that simply meant the place of the dead (Gen. 42:38; Ps. 139:8; Hos. 13:14; Isa. 14:9).  Like hades, sheol denotes an underworld state or place where all the dead go – so sheol and hades are roughly equivalent concepts.  In today’s parable, however,  hades sounds like hell – as the place the unrighteous go where there will be weeping and gnash-ing of teeth in an eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.  Hades occurs only 9 times in the Greek NT and has two meanings as hell.  Jesus says because Capernaum did not repent (Mt 11:23) it will be “brought down to hell” (RSV hades,) – and later (16:18) he says that his church can never die because “the powers of death” (hades) is a kind of kingdom that can never overturn the foundation of his kingdom.

When Jerome translated the Septuagint into Latin in 400 AD, both sheol and hades were translated as hell in virtually every case.  Then the King James Version of 1611 followed suit – and much influenced by John Milton and Dante Alighieri, the underworld and afterlife be-came no longer merely a receptacle for the dead but took on very different popular meanings.  I’m sure you will recognize 3 contemporary characterizations of hell.  (1) Everyone will exist eternally either in heaven or hell (Daniel 12:2,3; Matthew 25:46; John 5:28; Revelation 20:14, 15).  (2) Everyone has only one life in which to determine their eternal destiny (Hebrews 9:27).  And (3) heaven or hell is determined by whether a person believes in Christ alone to save them (John 3:16, 36, etc.).  I suppose if we knew the exact day and hour of our death, we could go through life with reckless abandon – eating, drinking, being merry, and then, in the final moment, become very religious and cling to God.  But we don’t know the day and the hour.  So the logic is a neat syllogism.  If there are both heaven and hell, and one of them is our eternity when we die, we need to ‘be prepared’.  And that’s what the rest of this parable is about.  Lazarus and the rich man both die, but this is where the similarity ends.  One of them goes to heaven and is comfortably at the side of Abraham for eternity.  His hunger is ended, his sores are healed, his tears have all been dried.  But for Dives, his misery is just beginning.  The comfort he knew on earth is only a fading memory in the midst of his suffering..  Now he is the one longing for relief – just a drink of cold water would be very welcome.  But that’s hell, not hades.

In early 1996 the Church of England issued a theological report on hell – and while it did not suggest that everyone would eventually wind up in heaven, it did propose that if there is a hell, it is empty. The report says that “In the past the imagery of hell‑fire and eternal torment and punishment¼has been used to frighten men and women¼.”  And it concludes: “Hell is not eter-nal torment, but the final and irrevocable choosing of that which is opposed to God so complete-ly that the only end is total non‑being”.  It used to be that the vast majority of Christians, regard-less of denominational affiliation, believed that hell was a real place where the wicked and the impenitent go when they died.  Hell made people uncomfortable – and the very thought of its pains and torments were enough to scare sinners.  But not anymore.  Most American mainline and so‑called Evangelical churches stopped preaching about hell years ago – and most mainline ministers stopped believing in Hell years before that.  So hell has fallen on lean times.

But back to the roles of hades and hell, our parable appears to reverse them.  There is no explicit, detailed account of life in heaven in the NT and we are not told why one went to heaven and the other to hades but there is an implication. The text injects the suggestion that the reason for Dives’ plea for someone to tell his five brothers to reform their lives is that hades includes the suffering prepared for the Devil and his angels.  But the greater weight of biblical evidence, and the meaning of hades shows that this parable is not precisely about hades but about hell.

Would you say it teaches that God loves poor people more than rich people – that Dives went to hades simply for being rich while Lazarus went to heaven because he was poor?  I don’t think so.  At the end of their respective lives, the rich man’s hands were full and the poor man’s hands were empty.  The rich man was clinging to his wealth, his power, his prosperity, and he needed nothing.  He was self‑sufficient in every sense of the word and may have thought he was invincible.  At the height of his boxing career Muhammed Ali was on a commercial airline pre-paring for takeoff when a flight attendant asked him to put on his seat belt.  But Ali refused.  “The plane will not take off until you put on your seat belt” the attendant warned, whereupon Ali stood up and said “I am Superman, and Superman don’t need no seat belt!”  The attendant said “And Superman don’t need no airplane, neither!”  Dives in this parable had everything and need-ed nothing.  But the poor man’s hands were empty.  No house, no titles, no money, nothing.  The poor man needed everything – including whatever God could give him.  His hands were open wide, and he gratefully received the gifts God offered.  As St. Augustine put it, “God is always trying to give good things to us, but cannot so long as our hands are full.”  Maybe that’s why Lazarus went to heaven and Dives didn’t.

When we come before God at the judgment, we also have a choice.  We can cling to all our worldly stuff – to our car keys, our house keys, our checkbooks, our college degrees, our pro-fessional titles.  Our hands will be full – but our hearts can be empty.  On the other hand, we can come to God without anything – humble, broken, needy.  We can come with empty hands, asking God to bless us.  So I invite you to think about that when you come to Holy Communion.  If you come filled with pride over what you have, or what you’ve done, or who you think you are, your hands will already be full and there’ll be no place to put God’s gift.  But if you come empty-handed, with humility and with need, God will place in your hands healing and hope and the gift of life itself.  Today’s parable suggests that’s our choice.

But there’s more to this story.  The parable ends with a stunning turnabout because, for the first time in the story, the rich man is concerned for someone other than himself.  “Father Abraham,” he says, “I have five brothers who need to know what I now know, so that they won’t to have to spend eternity in this miserable place.  Can you send Lazarus or somebody to tell them to change their lives?”  Suddenly, there is urgency in his voice and concern for people he loves to know the truth.  So he pleads with Abraham to send a messenger from heaven – and surprisingly, Abraham says no!  If they haven’t accepted the messengers on earth, they’re not going to believe someone who rises from the dead.  How sad!  Five brothers – wealthy and proud just like Dives – racing through life with reckless abandon – clinging tightly to their possessions, unaware of the tragic future that awaits them.  And nobody to tell them the truth.

I said at the outset that I think this parable among the most interesting and powerful in the NT.  Can Dives’ five brothers represent our vocation?  Is there a message here for Charlotte and for us in Durham and throughout the state?  I think the brothers are very much alive today – they are everywhere – all around us.  Not all of them are wealthy. Not all of them are proud.  Not all of them are selfish or mean‑spirited or closed‑minded.  Some are neighbors or friends – maybe fellow communicants in the Church.  But if they don’t know the truth about God’s grace – if they are unmoved by the message of scripture – if they aren’t ready to stand before the judgment of God – they are like Dives’ five brothers.  So the rhetorical question at the parable’s end is simply who will tell them the truth?  Who will speak to them the message of forgiveness and reconcilia-tion, so that they do not face the same fate as Dives?

If we are the wealthy ones, wearing purple robes of royalty, feasting on bread and wine and God’s grace – it is our vocation to find these folks, to be with them, and to tell them what Dives so desperately wanted his brothers to know – that we love and serve them because God loves them and welcomes their empty hands to receive his undeserved blessing.  In the face of God we are deeply aware of our own scarcity and poverty – but through scripture, story, sacra-ments, and prayer God has given us an abundance of gifts that graft us to himself and to each other.

My take on today’s gospel is that it makes the audacious claim that followers of Jesus order our lives backwards from a future with God to our present contingent life.  We reflect here and now the blessings we have received in this life.  We lay a good foundation so that we may take hold of the life that is Life indeed.  Holy Communion is the perpetual recapitulation of that gifting to us by one who made himself poor for our sakes – who took the form of a servant – and who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but humbled himself and became obedient, even to death upon a cross.  So I have wanted in this sermon to invite all of us to take a serious look at our lives retrospectively and envision the present from God’s future – seize the moment, carpe diem – embrace the wisdom of the parable of Dives and Lazarus and Father Abraham, and listen intently for our salvation to Moses and the prophets and most especially to God’s Christ – this Jesus whom we trust with both our present and our future.  Amen.

Rev. Harmon Smith, Ph. D.

Rev. Harmon Smith, Ph. D.

Emeritus Professor of Ethics, Duke University

Harmon Smith is an Episcopal Priest, Emeritus Professor of Ethics, and an avid golfer.