SJF • Proper 21c • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.+
When I was a child, one of the major features of Sunday afternoon, after coming home from church, was the Sunday newspaper, most especially the funny pages. I remember one of the features vividly: not a comic strip but a single large cartoon panel. And what it showed week by week was a satirical view of what life was like down in Hell. It took the approach of the Lord High Executioner from Gilbert & Sullivan’s Mikado: “Let the punishment fit the crime.” One of these cartoons stuck in my mind. This was the panel that showed what happened to people who smoked too many cigarettes. In Hell they were locked into stocks like those from a Puritan New England village. And with heads sticking out through the hole, they were forced to smoke old mattresses rolled up like giant cigars, one after another for all eternity.
This cartoon series was part of a venerable tradition, going back to the ancient Greeks. Many a Greek myth portrayed the sufferings inflicted upon people in the afterlife for their sins in this life: Sisyphus was cursed to push a boulder up a hill only to have it always roll to the bottom again just as he got it almost to the top; Tantalus was doomed to unending hunger and thirst, chained in a pond which would drain away when he tried to bend down to take a drink; and unable to reach the branches rich with fruit, just above his head.
Much later, the great Italian poet Dante populated his Inferno with all sorts of sinners. And these too suffered fates in keeping with their crimes: the lustful burning in unquenchable flames, the misers buried up to their chins in garbage, and the worst of all (in Dante’s mind) the traitors, literally being chewed on for all eternity by the greatest traitor of all, the treacherous fallen angel Satan himself.
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I’m sure that all of us have been tempted, in light of the horrors we hear in the news, to picture visions of Hell, populated with any number of contemporary villains, suffering all sorts of fates reflective of their crimes. It gives a certain satisfaction to know that even if villains get away with their crimes in the here and now, there is a terrible punishment waiting for them in the there and then. The human imagination of such justice has endured for thousands of years, from the Greeks, through Dante, and even in the funny papers.
So when we heard our gospel today, we were on familiar ground — or rather under it. Jesus describes this unnamed rich man suffering torments not unlike those of Tantalus, surrounded by flames, and in an agony of thirst. And we’d be tempted to think that the rich man must have been a great villain, to warrant this punishment.
After all, Sisyphus the perpetual rock pusher was a master swindler who (according to the myth) even tricked the grim reaper and locked him in a cupboard for a while. And forever-thirsty Tantalus was worse — he was punished with unending hunger and thirst because he murdered his own son and, to test the wisdom of the gods, invited them to supper and served them his son’s body cooked in a stew, to see if they could tell and avoid eating the cursed dish. So too with the traitors chewed upon by Satan in Dante’s vision of the Pit of Hell: Brutus and Cassius betrayed Julius Caesar, and getting the worst of all, Judas who betrayed Christ, the epitomes of treason and treachery.
So it is natural to think that the rich man in our parable must have been very wicked to end in Hell. However, Jesus has prevented us from taking that view before hand. He’s already told us about this rich man. We are not told that he is a great villain, a murderer, a terrorist, a traitor. What was his crime? What did he do to warrant such a terrible punishment? Why did he go to Hell?
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Jesus offers us only bits of evidence concerning his life: he is rich, he dresses in purple and fine linen, and he feasts sumptuously every day. He is a rich man who enjoys his riches. So why should he be doomed to an eternity of torment?
We find an answer to this question by looking at that passage from the book of the prophet Amos. Here too we find the easy rich at ease in Zion, and those who feel secure further north on Mount Samaria. They lie on beds of inlaid ivory, they eat the best cuts of meat, drink fine wine, are anointed with oil and spend their time fiddling on musical instruments. This is what they do; but that’s not what gets them into trouble. It is what they don’t do that is the problem. What they don’t do is grieve over the coming destruction of Israel.
The sin of these people isn’t that they enjoy their riches, but that they ignore the fact that their country is going to Hell in a handbasket, and them with it. Their doom lies not in the fact that they live in comfort and spend their time making music, but that they live in comfort even while the doom is advancing, ignoring the prophets, plucking their harp-strings and singing their tunes when what God calls for, as Amos has told them, is for justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness as a flowing stream.
And this helps us to see the sin of the rich man in our Gospel. It isn’t that he is rich, or that he enjoys his riches. His sin lies in the fact that while he is enjoying his riches there is a poor man lying at his gate, about whom he does nothing. The sin of this rich man is that he ignores what is going on right on his doorstep, ignores the poverty and pain that he has every opportunity and means to alleviate — but instead keeps his wealth for himself and his dinner guests. The rich man’s sin is the sin of omission: it lies in what he doesn’t do.
And amazingly he keeps on not doing it! Even in Hell, even wrapped in flames and parched with thirst, the formerly rich man still doesn’t get it. He has the nerve to ask Abraham to send Lazarus, of all people, to dip his finger in cool water to bring him comfort. Ah…now finally he’s noticed Lazarus, he’s finally noticed the poor man, the poor man who lay at his doorway all those years. Now at last he sees the person he stepped over to get through his gate, he sees the “invisible man” whom he treated like “Mr. Cellophane” all those years. Finally he’s taken notice and what does he want? He wants Lazarus to wait on him! As greatas the chasm between heaven and hell, between Abraham’s bosom and Hades — surely there is also a great chasm in this rich man’s understanding!
When Abraham finally explains it all to him the rich man finally seems to grasp his situation, and calls out for a warning to be sent to his brothers who are still living — perhaps the first thoughtful thing he’s ever done, although now too late. If only Lazarus might be sent to warn them! But he receives the chilling answer that an adequate warning has already been given. The Law and the prophets have already laid out the whole duty of humankind: to love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself, to pursue justice and righteousness, as Saint Paul told Timothy, to do good, and to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share. There is no secret password to salvation, no complicated hidden riddle to solve — and unlike that old joke about Saint Peter making it hard on some people getting into heaven, no one is expected to spell chrysanthemum! No, my friends, what God asks has been laid out for all to see, given in the law, reinforced by the prophets, and summarized by Jesus Christ himself: to love God with your whole self, and to love your neighbor as yourself. And you are unwilling to hear that warning, even a warning from one risen from the dead will do no good. You can go to Hell, if you want to.
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These are hard words; this is a hard lesson; but it is also an additional warning to us. God has told us clearly how to go to Hell if we want to, how we can pave the way to eternal death with every missed opportunity to help our sisters and brothers. Every week, we confess our sins, we acknowledge that we have not always heeded God’s warning to us. We acknowledge that we have sinned against God not only by what we have done, but by what we have left undone. We explicitly confess that we have not loved God with our whole heart, and that we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We say those words, every week. Do we mean them? We have this weekly reminder before us, this weekly summary of the law and the prophets, this weekly confession of what we have failed to do.
And further, if we don’t want to go to Hell, God has provided us with the ultimate warning, a warning from the one who was in fact raised from the dead. He, the Risen One, has told us what to do, and we ignore his warning and omit our duty at our peril and to our loss. Hear, O my people, the Lord our God is One Lord, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. Let those who have ears to hear, hear.+