The old man and the cats…

The Great Chasm: A Sermon on Luke 16: 19-31

Delivered at St. Bartholomew’s Church NYC, September 25, 2022.

The Lady’s Chapel at St. Bartholomew’s Church, where this sermon was preached.

If there’s anything harder to wrestle with than a parable, it’s a parable that involves the afterlife.  And that’s what we have this evening, in the story of a rich man, traditionally known as Dives (Dee-Vays) and the beggar Lazarus, who lay at his gate, longing to be fed with the scraps from the table of Dives, but who never was.  Yet Dives knows Lazarus, or knows of him, so perhaps Dives never bothered to care about the beggar’s well-being, but never drove him off his property, either.  

Lazarus dies, and is taken to be with Abraham himself. 

Dives dies, too, but finds himself in Hades, tormented by flames.  Dives sees Abraham, comforting Lazarus, and begs Abraham, calling him Father Abraham, for mercy, asking the patriarch to send Lazarus to relieve his suffering, if only a little bit.  Abraham feels some sympathy for the sufferer, and acknowledges him as “Child,” but then reminds him that in his lifetime, Dives received his good things, and Lazarus similarly received evil things.  But now, Abraham says, Lazarus is comforted and Dives suffers.   

Not only won’t Abraham help Dives,; he can’t—he tells Dives that “between you and us a great chasm is fixed,” preventing either from going to the other side.

Dives then seems to accept his fate, but begs Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his five brothers, so that they will not join him in torment when they die.  Abraham reminds him that they have Moses and the prophets and should listen to them.  Dives replies “No, Father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.”  Abraham says “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

Let’s let that last line settle in a bit, shall we? 

If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

Oh, while we’re reeling from that one, let’s ask ourselves how the Greek Hades became equated with the Hebrew Sheol, and what that meant to the early Church.  There’s a fragmentary work titled Against Plato”or “De Universo, which is traditionally attributed to Hippolytus of Rome (c. 170-236), but which has been argued by C. E. Hill in 1989 to have been written by Tertullian (c. 160-c.225).[1]  Whichever one of them wrote it, that incomplete work gives us a Christian description of Hades:

But now we must speak of Hades, in which the souls both of the righteous and the unrighteous are detained. Hades is a place in the created system, rude, a locality beneath the earth, in which the light of the world does not shine; and as the sun does not shine in this locality, there must necessarily be perpetual darkness there. This locality has been destined to be as it were a guard-house for souls, at which the angels are stationed as guards, distributing according to each one’s deeds the temporary punishments for characters. 

So, for the early Church, Hades was not a permanent place of punishment—or not yet, at least—and the souls in bondage there are not damned—or not yet at least, until the end of days and the final judgment of God on his creation.

         This is not exactly comforting reading, is it?

         But I think there may be a way through the confusion: We just need a reliable guide.  In his 1945 book The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis presents us with yet another parable, also about the afterlife, one which might help us in understanding Luke’s.  Lewis takes us to a dreary little suburb, where he is waiting on a line to get on a bus.  The people around him are querulous and disagreeable, and Lewis goes to the back of the bus to avoid them.  An annoying poet—one who insists Lewis reading his poetry—joins him, but they suddenly realize that the bus is flying through the drab, dark skies.  The bus eventually comes to a stop in a bright—almost painfully bright—meadow, where they are met by those who knew them in life—because of course, Lewis is telling his own parable within a parable—he’s recasting the Refrigerium of Prudentius, a tale written in the 4th Century in which the damned in hell are allowed to visit heaven, and if they choose to, to stay.  

         Lewis finds his own guide, the Victorian writer George MacDonald, whom Lewis looked up to as a teacher, and MacDonald explains to his eager pupil who asks what is happening, and if “judgment is not final?” and “Is there really a way out of hell into heaven?”

MacDonald answers: “If they leave that grey town it will not have been Hell.  To any that leaves it, it is Purgatory,” and adds that this place in which they have met is not “Deep Heaven” but rather “The Valley of the Shadow of Life”. And yet to those who stay here it will have been heaven from the first.  And you can call those sad streets in the town yonder “The Valley of the Shadow of Death” but to those who remain there they will have been Hell even from the beginning.”

Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus  similarly posits that Hell is created by us, for us, in having  Mephistopheles, who is free to walk the Earth, say that: “Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it./Think’st thou that I, who saw the face of God/And tasted the eternal joys of heaven,/Am not tormented with ten thousand hells/In being deprived of everlasting bliss?” In other words, Hell is a state of mind, not a place.

And here is where I believe the two parables begin to merge.

In Lewis’s parable, “[t]here are only two kinds of people in the end: Those who say to God “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.”  

Lewis’s parable hints at a hope that Jesus’s parable does not share on its face.  But knowing, as we do from Tertullian, or Hippolytus, that Sheol and Hades were not the permanent home of those whom we meet there, brings Lewis’s parable much closer to Jesus’s, while opening a different portal into Jesus’s parable.

I admit that my belief in the Grace and mercy of God outweighs my knowledge of the sinfulness not just of the world, but of myself. I believe in the forgiveness of God because I need God’s mercy, and because the nature of God offers love and deep compassion. That is not to say that I don’t believe that sin harms us; it clearly does, and it hurts the soul, as today’s reading from First Timothy reminds us.  But like Lewis, I just don’t believe that God ever gives up on us. 

Lewis’s warns us that we can reject God’s love, and refuse to enter into joy; God will not force us into relationship with Him. But he also reminds us that, as we often sing here at St. Bart’s “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy, like the Wideness of the Sea.”

God’s mercy is far greater than that of humanity. Second, that God loves everything He has created, and longs to put things right between sinful humanity and Himself. The first point, the mercy of God excelling ours, is important because in every criminal justice system, there is a concept of proportionality, that means that, for any crime, however horrific, there comes a point where the punishment outweighs the crime, and becomes itself unjust. God’s Justice is not that—think of the parable of the workers in the vineyard, where the early morning workers are paid the same as those who only work an hour. That’s mercy to the latecomers, but not injustice to the earlier arrived workers. (Matt. 20: 1-16).

A parable, though, is not a factual narrative.  Its purpose is to jolt us out of our ruts, and to shake our preconceived notion.  We shouldn’t admire Dives.  He let Lazarus suffer outside of his gates, and even in Hades, still thought he could use Lazarus to either help himself, or those who he loved.  But the logic of the story is a warning, not a prophecy.  Jesus was warning us, his followers, to wake up, and open our hearts to love, and to act lovingly, by caring for those in need, instead of wallowing in self-indulgence.  He sought to challenge his followers to reevaluate their own lives and beliefs.  

In other words, the force of the parable is not, I think to forecast the afterlife at all—but rather to urge us to lead the lives for which our creator God has made us, to which our Redeeming God has called us, and through which our Sustainer God promises to walk with us.

Let us make it so.

[1] C. E. Hill, “Hades of Hippolytus or Tartarus of Tertullian?:  The Authorship of the Fragment De Universo, Vigillae Christianae, vol. 43, No. 2 (June, 1989), pp. 105-126.

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