It is the time of year when we decorate our homes, workplaces and sometimes our dress with the dark themes of Halloween. There is the bright and cheery prospect of candy and pumpkin spice, but there is also the long dark of winter approaching. When we celebrate Halloween, we are joining in ancient celebrations centuries old. Our ancestors believed in ghosts, goblins and ghouls of all sorts. Their minds were filled with imaginative explanations for things going bump in the night. There’s a multibillion dollar industry built around horror, costuming and the celebration of the night when the spirits roam the earth. So get your Jack-O-Lanterns lit and the treats prepared to appease the visitors that come knocking, real or imagined.
The story of The Rich Man and Lazarus reads a bit like a Twilight Zone episode. The rich man lived in lavish luxury and feasted daily, but he walked by a poor man who every day sat begging at the gate of his house. The rich man paid him no heed. The dogs treated poor Lazarus with greater compassion than the rich man. Both men died and saw their conditions reversed. Lazarus received comfort at the bosom of Father Abraham, but the rich man saw his fortunes turned to torment in the realm of the dead. He was filled with thirst in the fiery heat of Hades. Jesus was using Greek mythological ideas about the place where the dead go, which include the idea of fire and desolation while they await judgment.
Not to get bogged down in hellish ideas, the thing that I find most interesting in this parable is the mindset of the rich man. Even in Hades he thinks of Lazarus as a servant to him. “Have Lazarus cool me with some water.” “Father Abraham, send Lazarus to warn my brothers about this awful place.” Wealth has a way of making a person think more of themselves than they ought. The rich man thinks that both Lazarus and Abraham ought to do his bidding. But the die is cast. The rich man enjoyed comfort and leisure, while he did nothing to ease the burdens of Lazarus. Now justice is given to them both. The rich man suffers for ignoring the needs of the poor man at his gate. Lazarus enjoys comfort in paradise.
But the true irony of this story is pointed at us, Jesus’s listeners. The rich man wants his brothers warned, but they have been warned already through the law of Moses and the social justice teachings of the prophets. One need only read to know the Lord’s will, to whom we must all give an account. But the rich man thinks that something more spectacular is required. It’s not enough to write down God’s law and provide synagogues and churches and mosques to teach it. No! Send a spectre from the grave, a ghost or zombie with the word of warning. Then they will listen! But Abraham knows they won’t. If they won’t listen to God’s word revealed in the scriptures, they won’t be convinced by a man brought back from the dead.
Of course the ironic truth is that Jesus was raised from the dead, resurrected into a new form of existence, not as a ghost, but an embodied spirit of a new kind. And even though the church proclaims His resurrection, though many have died because of the gospel of Jesus Christ, there are those who will not repent. They will not obey God.
If there’s a message for me here, it’s to know that my suffering in this life is nothing compared the glory of heaven. So keep hope alive! And it is to take seriously Jesus’ word that the first in this life will be last in the life to come. How can I humble myself at the feet of the poor and honor my God?
Rev. Scott Tyring