Jesus once told a story about a rich man who lived in luxury and who feasted every day. He wasn’t a wicked man. His relatives and friends would have told you that he was a great guy to be with. He wasn’t stingy either – the parties he threw were memorable occasions. The problem was Lazarus. He was the ‘skin and bones’ beggar who was always there at the gates of rich man – always hoping that he might get some of the leftovers from the daily parties.
Jesus tells us that both of them died. We’re not told the causes of their deaths. Perhaps Lazarus died of malnutrition and perhaps the rich man of a heart-attack from too much partying. The point though is that after death Lazarus is given a place of honour with Abraham, the father of believers, while the rich man (who doesn’t even have a name) ends up in the place of torment.
The frightening part of the story is that the rich man is in hell not because of anything he has done but because of what he neglected to do. He failed to show love to God by keeping the Lord’s commandment’s to care for his neighbour. It’s obvious from the dialogue between the rich man and father Abraham that the rich man knew Lazarus. But he had never fed him from the leftovers of his banquets and he had never tended to the beggar’s sores – he’d left it to the dogs to lick clean the beggar’s sores.
That story challenges our comfortable assumptions. We live in a culture where, if people think of hell at all, they are convinced it is a place reserved for particularly evil people like the Stalins and Hitlers of this world. Not so! The rich man is there simply because in this life he was neglectful of his God-given duty to care for the poor.
What I find particularly sobering is that in the dialogue with father Abraham, the patriarch explains to the rich man why he is in hell and Lazarus in paradise. Abraham says, “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.” I find that scary – particularly because I am part of a culture where we enjoy much wealth. I have a smart-phone and an iPad and a computer… I drive a fairly new car and live in a large home but virtually on my doorstep are needy people, like Lazarus. So what if father Abraham was to say to me one day, “John, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while those boat people from Sri Lanka received bad things, but now they are comforted here and you are over there in agony”? That’s even a thought-provoking challenge to our understanding of the gospel that those who trust in Jesus will go to paradise while those who don’t believe in Jesus will go to that horrible place of torment. Is Jesus saying: you have a choice: you can either have your fun in this life or in the next?
The issue of course goes a little deeper. Jesus is certainly not promoting salvation by works… as if caring for a beggar gets you a ticket into heaven. Not at all! The issue is that the rich man – despite his wealth – didn’t have his heart in the right place. He was at the centre of his life. Life is all about me! I need to have a good time. I have to enjoy myself while I can before it is all over. That makes this parable an indictment against our “me” generation that lives from one adrenalin rush to the next. So many folk today have their “bucket list” – one hundred things to do before I die. And many are making good progress with their list. An acquaintance on Facebook recently posted the comment, “Great to be able to tick that one off on my bucket list.” How scary that one day father Abraham might say to such a person, “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things… and now you are over there in agony.”
I’m thankful that salvation is not by works. Jesus has saved me from the horrors of that place where the rich man ended up. But James makes clear that I need to show my faith in my actions. By the grace of God I am a new person in Christ. But that must show itself in my willingness to keep supporting that sponsor child with the ‘Help a Child Foundation’ and in my readiness to contribute to the various needs that the Lord puts before me.