"The Rich Man and the Beggar Lazarus"

The story that Jesus told about “the rich man and Lazarus” actually has a third character of some significance “behind the scenes”: Father Abraham, the keeper of heaven in Hebrew tradition.

In Christian tradition, of course, St. Peter took on that role, since he was said to have been given charge of “the keys of heaven” by Jesus himself (Matthew 16:19). But that’s a later Church doctrine. In today’s text, Jesus was speaking to Jewish people who were looking forward to their “reunion” with Father Abraham in heaven after they died and were resurrected there.

“When the poor man died,” says Jesus, speaking of the beggar Lazarus in the parable, “he was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.” That’s their vision of their heavenly home, their reward, their version of “eternal life”. The actual Greek phrase used by Luke indicated “to Abraham’s bosom, or breast” which connotes an embrace, a hug, a welcome of comforting, nurturing, nursing tenderness… It’s a nice image!

By contrast, Jesus says starkly: “The rich man also died, and was buried.” Period! (!) Everyone dies. Everyone gets buried in some form or other; even if it’s to be buried at sea, or dumped in a mass grave, or placed in an unmarked pauper’s grave. What happened to the rich man happens to us all. (!) Death is the final stage of living. I hate to break the news, if you didn’t know: none of us are going to get out of life alive. (!)

Bummer! I’ll bet you didn’t come to church this morning hoping to hear that!

Since there are two very different kinds of “fates” depicted in this parable, the question for the listener is: whether our “afterlife” will feel like the nurturing embrace of a beloved -- when we are gathered to our ancestors (carried to “the bosom of Abraham”) -- or whether the best we have to look forward to is staying (and decaying) in the ground, untended, abandoned in the dark underworld -- a place called “Hades” in Greek, “Hel” in Norse mythology, or “Sheol” (the Pit) in Hebrew.

I spoke briefly with the children about Hades, but let me give you a bit more of the literary background of this parable as you mull over that question regarding the here-after…

Luke is the only Gospel writer that has this parable from Jesus. It is a story which indicates Jesus’ view of what “life after death” is like. He contrasts the traditional Jewish heaven (where the righteous are gathered by the angels to rest in peace eternally with their ancestors) over against the Greek myth of “Hades” where demons dwell and pain is suffered. (Frankly, if I were given a choice between the Hebrew Heaven and the Gentile version of Hades, I’d flee to Abraham’s bosom!)

Hades was a well-known concept in the Hellenistic world. It was where one went when the earth swallowed your body. The Hebrews’ closest parallel notion (in the Old Testament) would be “Sheol” or “the Pit” from which one never returned. Sheol was not populated in Jewish thought; it was simply a grave, a tomb. (!) For most of the time-line of the Bible, it was assumed that “dead is dead”; the idea of resurrection into a heavenly hereafter was a fairly new thought in Judaism, from only about 100 years before Jesus. The Pharisees taught it.