Heaven and Hell on Earth

This sermon is from September 29, 2013 and is based on Luke 19:16-31. The text tells the story of Lazarus and the Rich man who live side by side in very different realities.

Imagine the most luxuriously dressed people you can think of… perhaps a movie star. Think of someone easily recognizable. You know this person’s name and face. In the story from Luke there is a rich man. We never hear his name.

On the other hand we hear about a poor man named Lazarus who is covered in soars and eats the garbage that the rich man doesn’t want. It is interesting that Lazarus has a name and the rich man does not. I think it says something about the author’s priorities and who the author believes Jesus sees as the most important in this story. Naming is so important….It allows us to be in relationship, it allows us to be known. Being unnamed means that we are invisible, unseen, unimportant. In this story, Lazarus is given a name. The author wants us to see Lazarus, to see the world from his point of view.

How many of you have walked in the inner city of a large city like Toronto or Vancouver or Winnipeg or even Saskatoon and Regina? How many of you have been asked for change? When I first went to school in Winnipeg, I was approached for change many times. At first it was scary and disconcerting. Then it was irritating and annoying and I’d simply ignore the people. Then I started at the very least making eye contact and greeting the person.  Sometimes I’d give change or snacks that I might be carrying. It’s very easy to not see the people in need around us. Here in Yokrton, it’s not always as obvious. There are very definitely people here who live in poverty but many of us would be hard pressed to know their name and something about them. Most of us do not have relationships with people who live in poverty, even though they live in our community.

Lazarus did not choose to be poor…We don’t know his life story but we might imagine that he was an orphan, or that his parents were poor and he didn’t have opportunities, perhaps he was an immigrant from another place, maybe had a disability that prevented him from working…We don’t know, but we can assume that he did not choose a life of picking through the rich man’s garbage.

In the parable both of them die. Except that what happens next is not what we expect…It is Lazarus, the one who in life would be unseen and unknown who ends up in with angels and the rich man who would be well known in the community ends up in Hades. Somehow we have learned that material wealth suggests we are living a good, upright and faithful life. For those who live in poverty, there is often a perception that they are alcoholic, often they are aboriginal or immigrants, live with some type of mental or physical disability, or they are violent…There are stereotypes around poverty in our own communities and for many of us, interacting with people who live in poverty may be scary and uncomfortable. Most people don’t choose to be poor but circumstances and the place we start in life play a huge role in shaping where we find ourselves financially as adults.

I want to unpack the story a bit and think about the concepts of heaven and hell. Lazarus dies and is carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. In thinking about this, we need to remember that the concept of life after death for the writers of the gospel is quite different from our own concepts. Within the Jewish tradition, which Christianity comes from, the concept of any life after death was a relatively new idea.  Heaven was where God and the angels lived. For the early Christians, heaven was the place of God and the angels, and the place where Jesus went to be after his death. The concept of heaven as a place for Jesus’ followers is a later tradition. Instead, all the spirits resided in a place called Shoel which was a shadowy half-life. For Jesus and the early Christians it seems that heaven was the place where God resided and that at some point heaven and earth would merge. Think about the Lord’s prayer: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” and not says N.T. Wright “in heaven once we’ve escaped earth.” [1]


 There was a concept that at some point in the future, God would come to earth and bring heaven to us. As people of faith, we trust and believe that there is some part of our spirit that continues after death and most of us would agree that in some sense we are reunited with God and the people we love. What we don’t know for certain is what form that reunion takes or how we will experience it. While it is evident that Jesus and his followers believed in an afterlife, they were more concerned about life on earth. Marcus Borg writes that what is central to our Christian faith is “a relationship with the Spirit of God that transforms lives in the present, not … a reward that only comes later.” (meaning of Jesus 246).

So in the theology of the early Christians, when Lazarus is taken to be with Abraham it is a great privilege…one that most people don’t receive. Lazarus, the poorest of the poor, who is to be unknown and unnamed is taken to be with Abraham and the angels.

Meanwhile, the rich man remains nameless and ends up in Hades or Hell – depending what translation you read. This also needs some explanation. Again, you need to remember that the early Christians did not have the same conceptions of heaven and hell as we have. Outside of Jerusalem is Gehenna which, when translated becomes Hades. Originally, this site was one where the worshipers of Moloch practiced human sacrifice. There is a history of violence and fires for burning sacrifices. By Jesus’ time this same place had become the city garbage dump.  This is the place where anyone who couldn’t live within the city was forced to live: anyone with skin conditions like leprosy, anyone who was too poor to afford accommodation, anyone who might have evil spirits – what we might now consider epilepsy or mental illness or physical disabilities, orphans or widows. And in order for people to live there would be cooking fires and fires to keep warm and so you get this image of a firey place with smoke where people live and are tortured because there is already a perception the people living in that place are inferior. This is where our image of hell with heat and flames comes from.

This story flips what we think we know about the world. The people that the culture said were the least valuable, not even worthy of being named become the people with special privileges while those who are well known and wealthy are the ones who suffer.  Now we know that people who live with disabilities and mental illness are good and valuable members of our society, and we work hard at creating welcoming and inclusive communities. But there is still often stigma attached and many of us carry stereotypes.

I want to take the image of the garbage dump seriously. If you look at pictures from the Guatemala city dump or other dumps around the world you will be able to see people if you look carefully. There are millions of people living in the city dump. There are schools for the children and people make their living by combing the dump for things to be reused, resold, recycled somehow.

For Jesus, this image of Hades, what we think of as hell, had a very real and very concrete existence. It wasn’t a metaphysical place for the dead. It was a real place for the living. For us too, hades or hell can be a very real place in our own world. The same type of experience of the garbage dump that Jesus was referring to continues to exist in our own time.

According to Kari Jo Verhulst, “Jesus is describing the effect of living by the chasms of our world, not prescribing God’s eternal response to our sin.” [2] The story is not about two people who end up in heaven and hell. It’s about two people who live side by side in very different realities. Jesus is saying that the rich man is creating hell on earth. He can’t see it because he doesn’t live with the realities of that life. By creating hell, he is cutting himself off from God. The poor man on the other hand lives with the realities of hell on earth everyday and has access to God.

Would you think that the rich man ends up creating Hades? Ends up creating his own hell?  By ignoring Lazarus he is creating hell on earth. And so for those of us who have money, and power and privilege, we need to make a choice about whether we will create heaven or hell. Money in and of itself is not evil. The issue Jesus has with money is not that we have money but that the money is not shared with people in need.

And there are variations on this experience of Hades and hell around the world and in our own community. We have people in our community that struggle every month to pay rent and find food. We have people in our community that live in abusive relationships or struggle with addictions.   You might say, it’s not my problem. We have government programs for people in need. We have food banks. I didn’t make them poor. The problem’s too big and I can’t do anything. Here’s the thing though. We’re not being asked to fix the problem. We’re being asked to make a choice. Do we go along with our governments and business practices that are creating hell on earth? Or do we make a different choice? We are being asked to choose which side of the chasm we want to be on. It’s our choice.

The parable refers us back to the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures – Moses and the prophets. If we go back and look, we know what we need to do. The prophets tell us again and again: look after the poor, the widows, the orphans, anyone who is on the fringes of society. If we are not doing that we are creating hell on earth. 

Following Jesus and prophets means that we are going to be ridiculed at times. It’s not an easy journey. Sometimes we are asked to do things that don’t seem to make a lot of sense. And sometimes we’ll be asked to say and do things that appear to get us into trouble with authority, with our friends and neighbours.  And psalm 91, that we began worship with reminds us that God is our refuge “My rock in whom I trust.” Even when things look bleak and rough, God is there. God is with us as we choose to take a stand.

Our choice is whether we create heaven or hell. What will you choose?



Further Reading:

[1].Marcus J. Borg and N.T Wright, Meaning of Jesus: Two Visions (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1999), 200.


[2]. Kari Jo Verhulst Sojourners: Faith in Action for Social Justice, http://sojo.net/magazine/1998/09/agents-kingdom



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