Pentecost 19 C: Eternal Life Now

Luke 16:19-31

Dear Partner in Preaching,

Do you ever wonder if Luke had ever heard about justification by grace? I mean, tradition tells us that he was a traveling companion of the Apostle Paul’s but, if so, it’s hard to know just how much of Paul’s theology rubbed off. On the one hand, you have the incredibly grace-filled parables of being lost and found in chapter 15, but then you get these far more difficult, even threatening parables about money and the consequences of misusing it the 16th chapter. But if last week’s parable was difficult because it was rather confusing, this week’s parable is difficult because it seems painfully clear: hoard wealth in this life and suffer the consequences in the next.

Or is it?

While there is absolutely no question that Luke was tremendously concerned with the proper use of wealth – both his Gospel and Acts have that as a major theme, offering manifold examples of both good and poor use of wealth – I’m not so sure he was trying to settle issues about the afterlife, let alone eternal punishment. This is a parable, after all, where metaphorical, exaggerated, even hyperbolic language is the norm. So I hesitate to draw any hard and fast – let alone literal – conclusions from it. (Interestingly, there is actually very little mention of Hades, Sheol, or hell in the NT anywhere other than in parables.) Further, I also hesitate to use this parable to establish the reality or character of hell because, quite interestingly, while the rich man has indeed experienced a profound reversal of fortune – a theme in Luke from the Magnificat in chapter 1 on – he is nevertheless referred to by Abraham as “child,” making it difficult to conclude that he has been utterly rejected.

So while I don’t think this passage is necessarily a rejection (or affirmation, for that matter!) of Paul’s understanding of justification by grace through faith, I also want to be clear that none of this tempers Luke’s counsel and concern regarding wealth. What it changes, perhaps, is the direction of Luke’s counsel. That is, what if this parable isn’t about the afterlife at all, but rather is about our lives right now?

Two things in particular persuade me to lean in this direction. First, the chasm that is fixed between the rich man and Lazarus isn’t, when you think about, new. Indeed, that chasm was fixed a long, long time ago and reinforced every time the rich man came and went into his sumptuous abode to feast at his rich table and ignored Lazarus. He obviously knew Lazarus was there and understood his plight, because he knows Lazarus by name. Yet he did nothing. Further, even in the afterlife the rich man continues to treat Lazarus as a non-entity, a servant who should fetch him some water or, failing that, be sent as a messenger to his brothers. In both his earthly life and in the life to come, the rich man refuses to see Lazarus as a person, a human, a fellow child of God, and so ignores him and his plight.

And seeing, in this Gospel, is a very big deal. Because before you can have compassion for people, you have to see them, acknowledging their presence, needs, and gifts and above all their status of children of God worthy of respect and dignity. This the rich man utterly fails to do. Which leads me to conclude that the chasm between them in this parabolic description of the afterlife is only a dramatization of the one that existed before, to the detriment of both, for no good comes from setting barriers between the children of God. And this may be Luke’s point all along, less warning us about punishment in the next life than urging us to the abundant life in this one that comes only in seeing those around us as God’s beloved children deserving our care, attention, and fellowship.

The climax of the parable reinforces a more “this-worldly” interpretation, as failing to summon Lazarus to bring him water, the rich man entreats Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers. Abraham’s response is interesting: they already have all the counsel they need in the law and prophets. But the rich man will not relent, arguing that testimony from beyond the grave will be more convincing. And Abraham’s answer to this is now not just interesting but striking: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (16:31).

All of which convinces me that the unrepentant but chastened rich man is not truly the subject of this parable at all. We are. We are those who, along with the community for whom Luke originally wrote, know the resurrected Lord. We are the ones who have the law and the prophets and have seen God’s compassion embodied in the life and ministry of Jesus. We are the ones who gather each week to celebrate his victory over the grave, forgiveness of sin, and the possibility of living in light of God’s grace, mercy, and abundance. We are those who follow the crucified and Risen Lord.

All of which brings me to what I think is Luke’s central question: So…is Abraham right? Does any of this make a difference? Does our faith in and experience of the Risen Lord help us see those we would prefer not to see and regard those around us as worthy of compassion, respect, and honor…or not? Does the testimony of the One who has conquered death and called us to follow him make a difference?

Just to be clear: I don’t think Luke is saying that how we answer this question will determine our eternal destiny. I think he is more interested in whether it shapes our life right now. Because Luke knows that we simply cannot live into the abundant life God offers us here and now alone. Abundant life comes via community, when we see those around us as gifts of God and experience the blessing of sharing what we have with others. There’s a reason generous people are happier than stingy ones – God created us to be in relationship with those around us and we experience the fullness of the life God intends and offers only when we embrace the people God has set in our path.

This parable, Dear Partner, isn’t about earning or relinquishing an eternal reward; it’s about the character and quality of our life right now. One might even argue that for Luke eternal life isn’t a distant reality at all but rather starts now, each time we embrace the abundant life God offers in and through those around us. So while it is certainly a warning not to overlook those around us in need, it is also an invitation to live into fuller, more meaningful, and more joyous life by sharing ourselves – our time, talents, and certainly our wealth – with those around us here and now. For as we do, we live into the life and kingdom God outlines in the law of Moses, clarifies in the prophets, and makes manifest and available to all in the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord.

Thanks for sharing this important word, Dear Partner, for on this day, you offer the testimony of One who indeed has risen from the grave, and that word is both needful and powerful. Blessings on your proclamation.

Yours in Christ,
David