Years ago I saw an episode of the sitcom, Wings. The younger, less responsible brother asked a priest, “So, I can live any way I want, and if I repent on my deathbed, I’ll be forgiven?” The priest said, “Yes, but…” That was all the youngest heard. He found his older brother and reported, “Hey, I think I’ve found a loophole in this whole ‘hell’ thing!”
The whole conversation raises the question, “What do we need to do to be saved?” This parable suggests that the rich man didn’t do enough, and was therefore punished with an eternity in hell. The poor, suffering beggar apparently did just enough to earn a spot in heaven. Seems pretty clear. Or does it?
Maybe this isn’t about what happens after we die, but what happens before we die. Maybe this isn’t a parable about heaven and hell in the afterlife, but heaven and hell here on earth. This life is hell to those who are suffering and heaven to those who seem to be charmed. The point of the parable was that the rich man could take a look at the life he was leading here on earth, and how his affluence (and accompanying apathy) created hell on earth for the beggar. For those of us hearing this parable and still living on this earth, it is not too late to take a new look at the way we live our lives – who suffers because of us, and who is blessed because of us. The parable suggests that we have everything we need right here to make informed decisions about how we want to show up in the world. We have Moses and the prophets, and (hint, hint) we will soon have one who is raised from the dead. Maybe the human plight isn’t about earning a spot in heaven. Maybe the human plight is about bringing about God’s kingdom here on earth. Every word, thought, and action can bring about or crush God’s kingdom. How will we show up in the world?
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”