Most Methodists avoid talking about hell. It’s understandable: It makes us uncomfortable. It may frighten us. We may wonder how a God of love could send people there. As I argue in this sermon, however, hell is a natural consequence of God’s love. And it’s out of this same love that God sent his Son Jesus Christ in the world, to bring us into a saving relationship with God. We who place our faith in Christ don’t have to experience hell because Christ experienced hell on our behalf.
The parable that Jesus tells in today’s scripture is, in part, about hell, but it also speaks to the idolatrous faith that we often place in money and possessions, rather than God. Lazarus, by contrast, depended on God alone for life, security, and true wealth. Do we? Why or why not?
Sermon Text: Luke 16:19-31
The following is my original sermon manuscript.
The PBS show Downton Abbey is set in England in the early 20th century. It tells the story of a family of aristocrats who live on a vast estate called Downton Abbey. The first episode of the show begins with the news that The Titanic has sunk. The lord of the estate, Lord Grantham, has three daughters. Under English law, daughters weren’t entitled to inherit anything. So the heir of Downton was a male cousin. Only that cousin died on board The Titanic. And the next heir in line also died on board the ship. So during the first episode, the family is scrambling to figure out who the next heir is.
Turns out it’s a very distant cousin named Matthew. The family has never met Matthew, and they are shocked to learn that—get this—Matthew actually works for a living. He’s a lawyer. He’s—gasp!—middle class. During one of his first dinners at the mansion, Matthew refers to doing something over the “weekend.” And Lord Grantham’s mother, the Dowager Countess asks—completely innocently—“What’s a weekend?”
Because think about it: if you are so wealthy that you’ve never had to work for a living, what distinguishes one day from the next? Monday—which most of us dread because it means going back to work—isn’t any worse than Saturday, for instance. And Wednesday isn’t “hump day” because there’s no hump to be gotten over. If you’re wealthy like this family, every day may as well be the weekend!
And so it is with the rich man in the parable. He didn’t work. He “feasted sumptuously every day.” And a poor beggar named Lazarus lay at the rich man’s gate, and watched him. Scripture says he longed to eat the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table.
This parable probably makes most of us uncomfortable. First, because we’ve all seen Lazarus, right? We see him when we go to downtown Atlanta. We see him on the streets of any big city. We probably even see him right here in Hampton sometimes. And he makes us uncomfortable. We don’t know what to do with him. We don’t know how to help him. We don’t know whether or not to give him money because we worry that he’ll spend it on booze or drugs, and we don’t want to make his problems worse. On the one hand he makes us feel guilty because we have so much, and he has so little, and it hardly seems fair. On the other hand we’re a little angry at him because we think, “Why can’t he get a job and work like the rest of us?” And so we often judge him harshly.
Given that, most of us can identify at least a little bit with the rich man in the parable and that scares us. Why does it scare us? Because the rich man dies and goes to hell. And we don’t want to go to hell. We don’t want to talk about hell. We don’t want to think about hell. And many of us Christians can’t comprehend that a God of love could send people there in the first place.
And yet, most of us believe that God is a God of love because of what Jesus revealed. Yet most of what we know about hell comes from the lips of Jesus himself. Isn’t it clear from this parable that Jesus believed in hell, and he believed that God sent people there?
Look, I’ve been to seminary and heard some creative reinterpretations of this parable: that Jesus isn’t saying that hell is a real place because, after all, it’s a parable; it’s not real life. Jesus is using hell as a figure of speech to make a broader point about social justice, about loving our neighbor, about bringing good news to the poor and proclaiming release to the captives. Well, I would say this in response: the point of the Parable of the Good Samaritan is not that the highway between Jerusalem and Jericho is a dangerous, crime-ridden place; the point is to say something about loving our neighbor. But just because the main point isn’t about the highway doesn’t mean the highway didn’t exist, or that it wasn’t filled with bandits who wanted to rob you. Just as the Jericho highway was real, so hell is real. And Jesus speaks about hell and judgment a lot. If we think Jesus was wrong about hell, why do we think he was right about the parts of his teachings that we happen to agree with! We don’t get to pick and choose.
Besides, why wouldn’t hell exist? God wants us all to be saved, that’s true, but not at any cost: not at the cost of our free will. If we can’t choose God freely, then we also can’t love God. God doesn’t force himself on us. If we live our lives as if we want God to leave us alone on this side of death, God will give us what we want on the other side. As C.S. Lewis said, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’” If you have a problem with the doctrine of hell, Lewis writes,
‘What are you asking God to do? To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does.
And you might object: Who could possibly want to be left alone by God if it means hell? Well, consider the rich man in the parable. Does he seem at all sorry for his sins? Does he ask Lazarus to forgive him? No, he continues to act as if he’s above Lazarus: “Father Abraham, tell Lazarus to fetch me water… Tell Lazarus to go warn my brothers.” He also believes it’s unfair that he’s in hell: “I shouldn’t be judged on whether or not I followed Moses and the Prophets… Moses and the Prophets aren’t enough. Perform a miracle and send someone back from the dead—that will convince my brothers.” If they won’t be convinced by Moses and the Prophets, Abraham says, they won’t be convinced by a man rising from the dead. Some people won’t be convinced. Some people won’t be saved.
Even—as scary as it seems—people like the rich man, who are perfectly religious. Notice three times he calls Abraham his father. He presumes that because he born into God’s covenant family, he’s entitled to heaven. He’s not. Are there churchgoers like this rich man who are perfectly religious, who were baptized, who grew up in church, who presume that of course they’ll go to heaven when they die? Is it possible they’ll meet the same fate as the rich man? That seems like a frighteningly real prospect. The rich man was a sinner who deserved the punishment he was receiving, even though he didn’t believe he did. And the sad truth is that we all deserve that punishment. That’s why the first step toward being saved from hell is repentance: which means believing that we are sinners whose own sin has separated us from a holy God, and our sins deserve punishment in hell.
I was accused on my blog once by a fellow Methodist of being overly interested in sin. “Wasn’t it unhealthy to talk so much about sin? Wasn’t it bad for my self-esteem?” And I’m like, “Are you kidding me? I’m happy to reminded of my sins because I’m reminded of just how much God has forgiven me! I’m reminded of how gracious and loving and merciful God has been to me!” And I want to praise God for that. And I want to serve God out of gratitude. And guess what? I even want to open up my wallet and my bank account and say, “Thank you, Jesus, for saving me from an eternity in hell, and for graciously adopting me into your family, and making me your beloved child—not based on anything that I could ever possibly do, but base do on your grace alone. This money is a small but tangible expression of my love for you! I’m generous because you’ve been so generous to me!”
Maybe one reason some people have a problem with hell is because they don’t think they have a problem with sin! In which case, why did Jesus bother to come into this world in the first place?
We can’t experience hell on this side of death. We can’t go to hell in this life, but through our sin we can experience it a little bit. As one pastor memorably said, “We can’t go to hellion this world, but we can at least move into its suburbs. Maybe I’ve never taken up residence in those suburbs, but I’ve at least passed through them often enough to know that I never want to go to hell, and I don’t want you to go there, either.
And the good news is we don’t have to go there. We don’t have to experience hell because our Lord Jesus Christ has experienced it on our behalf—on the cross. Through his suffering and death, after all, Christ didn’t just experience the pain of the nails in his hands and feet, the gashes in his back from the beatings he took, the the crown of thorns pressed down on his skull, the labored breath he took as he slowly suffocated: he also experienced the pain of God’s complete rejection, his complete absence, his complete abandonment. Because what does Jesus say from the cross? “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” That is hell! Hell is God leaving us alone at last, separating himself from us, forsaking us. I can’t imagine what that’s like but Jesus experienced it in all its fullness—as punishment for my sins, your sins, and the sins of the world.
Why would God-in-the-flesh do that for us? Love. Because he loved us that much. So it’s good and spiritually healthy to reflect on hell every once in a while because it reminds us of God’s love for us.
See, we’ve talked about hell so much we haven’t even gotten around to money and stewardship.
So let’s talk about that: Is Jesus saying that there’s something wrong with being rich? No. There is nothing inherently wrong with being rich. From hell, after all, the rich man sees Father Abraham in heaven, and Abraham was as wealthy as anyone when he lived on earth.
The problem with the rich man in this parable was not simply that he was wealthy; the problem was that he didn’t have a name—and Lazarus does have a name. And you’re like, “Brent what are you talking about?” Well, notice Lazarus is the only character in any parable of Jesus that has a proper name. In his other parables, Jesus refers to Samaritans, fathers, younger sons, older sons, women, stewards, farmers, tax collectors, Pharisees, but not one of these characters has a name except Lazarus.
Why? Jesus wants us to notice the contrast between this no-name rich man and this poor beggar who is called by name, and Jesus wants us to notice what Lazarus’s name means. The name comes from Hebrew and it means, “God is my help.” God is my help. If the rich man had a name, by contrast, it would likely be “My money is my help.” “My fortune is my help.” “My social status is my help.”
So through this parable Jesus challenges us to ask this question: “Where does my help come from?”
See, the potential problem with having money—whether we’re wealthy like the rich man in today’s parable, or just comfortably middle class like most Americans—is that we can so easily deceive ourselves into trusting in money rather than God. It can make us forget that we have what we have, and we are what we are, and we’re able to do what we’re able to do because of God. Money doesn’t buy us the gift of God’s Creation, the gift of this life that we enjoy, the gift of these bodies and minds and talents, the gift of family.
So the rich man’s problem wasn’t that he was rich; it was that that’s all he was. His wealth was his identity. It’s how he defined himself. It’s what he valued about himself. So when he loses his wealth in death—as all of us will—he has nothing left. He’s a nothing man without a name, without an identity, without value.
“You can’t take it with you when you die,” we often hear. But that’s not true: There is exactly one and only one thing you can take with you when you die: Lazarus knew what that one thing was. Do you?
This parable challenges us to ask: is God enough for us? Is it enough to be a beloved child of God—to look to God for everything we could possibly need, to find in God the source of our happiness, our contentment, our self-worth—or do we need more than that?
Because if we need more than “just God” in this life, well, it’s perfectly understandable why we would struggle to be faithful to him in the area of financial stewardship. It’s perfectly understandable that we would hold tightly to our money, our possessions, our resources. It’s perfectly understandable why we would fail to be extravagantly generous the way Jesus wants us to be. Because we need all this other stuff… Because all this other stuff helps us in a way that God doesn’t help us… Because we are not like Lazarus, for whom God’s help was always enough.
Can I tell you about one of my favorite songs? It’s by the great country singer Merle Haggard. It’s called “I Take a Lot of Pride in What I Am.” In case you didn’t know, when Haggard was a young man, he was literally a hobo, who rode freight trains and lived off of hand-outs. That is, until he got himself arrested for armed robbery. By his own admission, his time in prison scared him straight. And when he got out, he was ready to walk the straight and narrow. And the rest is history.
Here’s the crazy thing: in the song, which is at least partly autobiographical, he isn’t singing about his life after prison, after he became a successful musician, after he got rich writing and singing songs. No, he’s singing about when he was still a hobo, when he was still homeless, when, like Lazarus, he had nothing but the shirt on his back. And he sings, “Things I learned in the hobo jungle were things nobody taught me in the classroom/ Like where to find a handout while bumming through Chicago in the afternoon/ Hey, I’m not braggin’ or complainin,’ I’m just talking to myself man-to-man… Where I’ve been and where I’m goin’ don’t take a lot of knowin’/ But I take a lot of pride in what I am.”
Where on earth does this healthy kind of pride come from? Not from the things that we so often value in our world. Not from wealth, not from good looks, not from achievements, or knowledge, or popularity, or power, or prestige.
So… if you had nothing in the world, would you still be worth something? If everything of value was taken away from you, would you still be a valuable person? If everyone else turned against you, despised you, and hated you, and you were left without a friend in the world, would there still be something within you in which you could take a healthy kind of pride? I know how Lazarus would answer those questions.
And if God is your help, well… I know how you would answer, too.
 C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 130.