Sermon on Luke 16:19-31
A lot of fire and brimstone preaching I’ve heard in my life seems to me to betray a hypocritical hope for the damnation of our enemies rather than doing what it should do and serving as a warning to us in the hope of salvation. While Jesus does preach about the fire in Hades, we need to remember that he does not desire the death of sinners but rather that they repent and live (cf. Ezekiel 33:11). Life is salvation and it is death that we are being saved from (cf. Rom 6:23). Like God, let us desire life for all sinners – for our friends and for strangers, for our enemies and for ourselves.
Jesus does use the image of flame, as I say, to describe the anguish and torment of the rich man in Hades after he dies (Luke 16:24). So, the fire and brimstone preaching comes from somewhere. But let’s look at the whole context surrounding this image.
The rich man, tormented in Hades, sees Abraham far off and calls out to him, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me…, for I am in anguish in this flame” (Luke 16:24). Already take note that even though the rich man and Abraham are separated by a chasm, they’re still close enough to see and hear each other. They’re in the same vicinity, but having a different experience. The rich man’s experience is agony in flame, while Abraham’s is the light of God. St. Maximus the Confessor writes “The Word of God is light, which illumines the minds of the faithful” [like Abraham] “but at the same time, it is also the fire of judgment, which consumes those, who… abide in the night-darkness of this life” [like the rich man].[i] So both Abraham and the rich man are experiencing the same God, but the one who rejects him is experiencing him as agonizing flame.
Note too that it is not Jesus, as the narrator of this parable, who tells us about this flame, but the rich man who describes his own experience this way. It’s his own experience of God that is agonizing to him.
Abraham hears and answers the rich man. And first of all, he calls him “son” (16:25). I think it’s worthy of some note that Abraham still thinks of the rich man as his son, despite all his waste and neglect of the poor beggar Lazarus. The rich man, despite his evil-doing, is not so cut off as to have lost all relationship.
We are relational beings. That’s one of the ways in which we are images of God. God is a Trinity of Persons in relationship with one another and we are also persons in relationship with other persons and with God. We are relational by our very nature and that is indestructible. Even in hell, we remain relational. The image of God doesn’t go away. We are made in the image of God and after his likeness. No matter what, we remain in his image, though we can grow or diminish in our likeness to God, depending on how we live. The rich man in the fires of Hades is still an image of God. Somehow, Abraham is still his father and he is still Abraham’s son. That’s the first thing Abraham has to say, but it certainly isn’t the last.
He was responding to the rich man begging for was a drop of water from the end of Lazarus’s finger to cool his tongue (16:24). Seems like a small request. He didn’t say, “Get me out of here!” He didn’t beg to be delivered from the flame that tormented him. He only begged for a droplet of water. Surely this would not be too much to ask. But it would be a good thing – very like the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table, which he denied to Lazarus who desired them (16:21). And note how the rich man thinks it’s Lazarus who should wait on him, as if Lazarus is his servant. We can see in this his persistent impenitence. If he had instead offered to serve Lazarus, I wonder if he could have heard a different answer. As it is, Abraham reminds the rich man that he has already received his good things and shows him the great chasm between them over which none may cross (16:25-26). I think this chasm is created by the rich man’s impenitence. Abraham speaks the truth about it even though it is a hard truth, but he speaks the truth in love – not in vindictiveness. Remember, he calls the rich man his son.
So, yes, if we are like Christ we will issue the warning of the real possibility of damnation and fire, but, like Abraham, we will issue this warning out of love and truth, not out of some secret desire to cause the wicked to suffer. Very much to the contrary, Abraham doesn’t want the rich man to suffer but rather reveals to the rich man how he is simply suffering the result of his own actions (16:25). This is what happens when we die.
What happens when we die? And then what happens at the end – at the end of all things? These are important questions. Maybe some of the most important questions. This parable does give us a rare glimpse into what happens after death. Though, when studied deeply, I think the parable of the rich man and Lazarus doesn’t so much provide concrete answers as invite contemplation of the mystery of death – so that we might prepare ourselves for it. This is about how we might live now in preparation for death and what comes after.
First of all, by not only taking the opportunities that come our way but also by seeking out opportunities to give food to the hungry and drink to the thirsty, to welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the imprisoned (cf. Matt 25:31-46). Notice Lazarus is most of these things: hungry, thirsty, and sick. So the opportunity to provide for these needs was always lying at the rich man’s gate, but he squanders that opportunity again and again. On the other hand, Abraham, who, by the way, was also a very rich man, did well at caring for these things. There are two rich men in this parable, but Abraham acts in just the opposite way. Remember the hospitality of Abraham to the three strange men who came near his tent.
“He ran from the tent door to meet them.” The rich man wouldn’t have even had to do that, for Lazarus was lying at his gate, but Abraham sought out the opportunity to show hospitality and ran out to meet them and he “bowed himself to the earth” before them. You can see how eager he was to serve them – grateful for the opportunity to show hospitality, knowing that doing so is also his own salvation. He calls himself a “servant” to these strangers and says, “Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, while I fetch a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves.” And here is what Abraham meant by a “morsel of bread”: he “hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, Make ready quickly three measures of fine meal, knead it, and make cakes.” So, a bit more than a morsel of bread. “And [he] ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds, and milk, and the calf which he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.” (Gen. 18:2-8). He stood while they ate! He didn’t even join them, but stood by like a waiter ready to attend to any detail of hospitality.
Live like this, like Abraham and not like the nameless rich man of Christ’s parable. That rich man stands before us as a warning. But show compassion to all others, whether they are just or unjust, even as Abraham addresses even the rich man with the warmth of the name, ‘son,’ do not cut off from hope and loving solicitude even those who cut off themselves. Maybe, if we speak the truth in love to them (Eph 4:15), rather than cursing them to hell, they will be stirred to repentance and join us in paradise.
[i] Maximus the Confessor, Questions to Thalassium, 39, 3: PG 90, 392.