by Ellen Sims
(On fifth Sundays our worship service is abbreviated to make time for a potluck meal together. A brief homily on the Gospel text is offered rather than a longer sermon,)
Jesus told a story of poor man Lazarus who died and was carried by angels to Father Abraham, while a rich man who daily passed by Lazarus died and was tormented in Hades. But this is not a story about the threat of hell. This is a story about how we are to live now, especially how we are to treat the poor and neglected.
The Bible urges us to do justice AND offer charity. But the more powerful response to human and planetary need is justice that addresses root causes of poverty and other forms of violence.
Early on Open Table developed guidelines for “Engaging in Service to Others,” which emphasize doing justice over giving to charity. We acknowledged the importance of charitable contributions for short-term relief. However, we pledged to look for the root causes of systemic problems not addressable by acts of charity and to engage in sustainable solutions. We said we wanted to advocate for policy changes, oppose culturally-entrenched prejudices, support educational efforts, and participate in protests. Doing justice, in other words, is more than tossing crumbs to the poor Lazaruses of the world. Our principles of service call us:
• To see Christ in those we serve and to be Christ to those we serve.
• To abstain from imposing our beliefs onto those we serve. (We assume that God is already working for shalom in our world, and we are called to join in that ongoing work.)
• To serve others as a recursive spiritual practice that stems from and leads to theological reflection and discerning prayer.
• To partner with those whom we serve in relational, sustainable, respectful, and mutual ways.
• To challenge ourselves to be open to fresh understandings, be in new relationships with diverse people, listen humbly to others, and get outside our comfort zones. We do this to follow in the ways of Jesus, who ministered to those who were marginalized; and because sacred transformation often happens “on the margins.”
• To maximize our service by matching our unique gifts, experiences, and passions to the community’s needs.
• To recognize the systemic causes of much that harms and diminishes God’s children and creation, responding not only with aid but also with actions for advocacy and empowerment and healing.
• To cultivate and strengthen community both within and outside of our congregation.
• To keep the boundaries between our congregation and the larger community thin, permeable, and not particularly important. (That’s one reason we don’t make a big distinction between who’s a member or not at OT).
We certainly don’t talk about who’s going to heaven and who’s going to hell—-the Church’s most famous category for naming who’s in and who’s out. Today’s story about poor man Lazarus makes it easy for us to indict the rich man who failed to give beggar Lazarus even the crumbs from his sumptuous meals, failed to offer even a bit of charity much less justice. Let’s not forget that, while tossing out crumbs and hand-me-downs count for something, they are not acts of justice. Those crumbs wouldn’t have changed Lazarus’s situation, just his meal one night. Charitable giving is good, but it’s not all that’s required of us. Jesus told parables to announce the now and coming KINGDOM—a whole new order of things—and not just to tell rich people to give the Lazaruses of the world the crumbs from their tables as their dogs licked the sores of the poor. Jesus was announcing a new SYSTEM. God’s kin*dom was not just about additional resources but radical transformation that would usher in God’s salvation. Through right relatedness, equality of persons, loving neighbor as oneself, privileging “the least of these”—God’s will would be done—on earth as it is in heaven.
What if heaven and hell are not locations or future destinations but conditions of our own making for our current and future realities?
Jesus said little about hell and the most he ever said in one setting is in today’s parable about the rich man in torment NOT because he didn’t believe that Jesus died for his sins (Jesus had not yet died!) and not for any doctrinal irregularity. The poor man, it must also be noted, is carried by the angels to Abraham’s side NOT because of his orthodox theology, but because, well, we’re not sure, but maybe just because that’s what justice demands for those this world has mistreated. The “plan of salvation” and “correct doctrine” that many churches teach are the keys to open heaven’s door—are not attested to in this parable.
In fact, today’s Lucan parable reminds me more of C.S. Lewis’s “parable” on the afterlife—in his final book in the Narnia series. Lucy and Prince Tirian encounter in a lovely field a group of dwarves who perceive that sylvan setting to be a “pitch-black, poky, smelly little hole of a stable.” When Lucy tries to convince them to look up and see the blue sky above and the fragrant violets in the field, a dwarf insists the flowers she extends to him are stinking excrement. Aslan, the Christ figure, whom the dwarves can’t see or hear, explains sadly to the children: “Their prison” (or hell?) “is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison; and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.”
When we live with suspicion and hatred, we create a reality that can become a hell of our own making. I don’t know if that’s what hell is. But today’s parable says nothing about heaven and hell being geographical destinations based on what we “believe” about Jesus—though maybe eternity is an ultimate reality we experience through the God Christians know in Jesus, whose kin*dom is love, whose way shapes our every thought and perception. The dwarves were so conditioned to see the world as dirty and evil they couldn’t detect love and its enduringness.
Today’s story about the poor man welcomed to Abraham’s bosom and the rich man tormented in Hades tells us what God commends and condemns. That’s the point. Jesus didn’t tell the parable to make people believe he was going to die so God would forgive their sins and not send them to hell. There’s nothing in the parable about that. He told a fanciful story so people would stop behaving hellaciously and start living more lovingly, thus ushering in more of God’s kingdom right here and now. And maybe eternity that awaits us is an extension and deepening of our experiences of the God we know through the Kin*dom Jesus preached.
Loving God, help us live in charity and steadfast love, doing justice, and dwelling eternally with you.