Questions Pastors Don't Want Asked
In school, there are questions you don't want teachers to ask. Teachers know of questions they don't want students to ask. The same is true of pastors. There are questions we hope you don't ask. Here are three.
Isn't there some sort of reciprocity going on in our text? Abraham says to the rich man, "In your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted and you are in agony." Do good things in this life lead to agony in the next and bad things in this life lead to comfort in the next? Doesn't such reciprocity fly in the face of the Gospel of salvation by grace alone?
What a tough question! Many have answered yes to it. This is the theology behind the monastic life of medieval times. They punished their bodies; they made themselves suffer in life by fasting, praying, and studying so as to get a better life in the next. This is the theology Martin Luther came out of. Look at pictures of Luther in his monastery days. His face is drawn; his eyes sunken. He abused his body to make himself more like poor Lazarus in life so that he might be more like him in death. Luther believed in reciprocity at the time.
But according to the rest of the Bible this could not be what our parable teaches. Reciprocity is the law of karma. Karma is the teaching of Buddhism and Hinduism which says that suffering in this life is repayment for evil done in a past life. You dare never interfere with someone's suffering because that suffering leads them to a higher plane in their next life.
If Abraham doesn't believe in karma, why does he answer the rich man's question the way he does? He's doing as Proverbs advises. He's answering a fool according to his folly. Abraham answers the rich man according to his reasoning. He says, "You never sought to relieve Lazarus' misery on earth with your luxury. Why do you think his luxury should be used to relieve your misery now? You had abundance more than a sinner deserves, how can you ask for more now? You had all the good things you valued; you cared for nothing more than them, and you got to experience them your whole life. Why should you feel cheated now?"
Okay so there is no law of karma in the Bible. But there's another more bothersome question. Is the rich man really so bad? Does he really deserve to be punished so greatly? The rich man isn't shown ordering mafia hits. He isn't shown having affairs. He isn't shown to have gotten his fortune by shady business deals. He is simply shown as being incredibly wealthy and enjoying his wealth. What's so bad about that?
True he is very wealthy. His clothes would cost about $50,000 in today's money; his everyday meal is what the father put on once for his found son. However, despite being so rich, he knew Lazarus by name. Do you know the name of that guy holding the sign that you see everyday? Neither do I.
Jesus makes no attempt to show the rich man as utterly bad. The rich man doesn't really look like he belongs in hell. I mean if he had molested children or even kicked Lazarus, it would make sense for him to be in hell. But the rich man doesn't seem all that bad, and that makes the parable all the scarier to us who think of ourselves as "not that bad." Then we begin to see what the rich man realized too late. Our life can be going great. We can be very successful, very blessed. We can be thought of highly in the community and still be heading for hell.
You'll probably want to deflect that last point by asking a third question. How could a loving God make hell? This is the one question I knew you would ask because you hear it at work, school, home. But realize this; how could a loving God make hell, isn't so much a question as it is an accusation. And it comes from a fear of hell.
Hell is fearful. The torments pictured in the text are extreme. The rich man is literally "in torture." He is in flames; he is burning without being burned up. You know how bad it is to burn yourself on the stove. You know how quickly you put water or butter or aloe on to stop the pain. Imagine that sort of pain never going away. I could go on; I could speak of worms that devour the damned, of darkness that envelops them, of hopelessness that grips them, but whether we're talking flames, pain, darkness, or hopelessness the question remains. "How can a loving God torment people so horribly for eternity?"
First it's not in the heart of God to torment any human being. Jesus says in Matthew 25 that hell was prepared for the devil and his angels. Hell was prepared for angels who rebelled against the loving God without any tempting, provoking, or reason. Hell was created not for human beings but for demonic beings that rebelled against God to ruin His perfect creation. Hell was not created for gluttonous, materialistic rich men or for starving, ulcerated beggars but for glowering, menacing demons. God in fact wants no person in hell. I Timothy says, "God is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to everlasting life." God wants to save the 5 brothers of the rich man more than the rich man does. But that doesn't really move you, does it? What if I told you hell was full?
The play "Faust" was being performed. In the end scene, the devil claims the soul of Faust in payment for the knowledge and power he gave him. A trap door is suppose to lower Faust down into the smoke and flames below, but it breaks. Several times it goes down only to come back up. Suddenly a drunken man in the audience shouts, "Hell is full! Thank God I'm safe!"
That's no joke. From God's viewpoint hell is full. From God's viewpoint not one more soul can fit in there. From God's viewpoint there is no room for the worst of sinners or even the not so bad ones. Hell is full from God's viewpoint because God sees Jesus as taking away the reason for anyone going there. What sends people to hell? God's law does, and Colossians tells us that Jesus wiped "out the debt which was recorded against us because of the law's demands. He took it out of the way by nailing it to the cross."
The law hung over our heads promising to send us to hell. Jesus was born under the law so that He might fulfill it for us. Once something is fulfilled nothing more needs to be done. In Jesus, the law is not an undone thing hanging over our heads threatening us with hell. No, Jesus did all the law requires in our place, so God can't find one reason to send us to hell. But not only does the law demand that it be kept, it also demands that sinners pay for what they break. That's where the cross comes in. On the cross Jesus paid with His holy precious blood and His innocent suffering and death for our breaking the law. On the cross Jesus went to hell in our place.
Once a debt is paid, no one can make you pay it again. It would be over Jesus' dead body that someone could collect hell from you, and no one can do that, not even the law! Hell is full; nobody can fit in it from God's point of view, because from God's point of view His Son kept and paid for the law that sends everybody to hell. But how do you come to see things from God's point of view? By hearing Moses and the prophets. That's what Abraham tells the rich man who is so concerned with saving his brothers. He says salvation from hell is in listening to Moses and the prophets.
Aren't you glad Abraham didn't say that salvation was in believing Moses and the prophets? None of us would be safe then, would we? I mean do you believe as you should? Do you believe Moses when he thunders about your sins? Aren't you like me who believes really hard when I'm sick, scared, or worried but not hard at all when I am healthy, brave, and happy? And do you believe fully when the prophet Isaiah speaks of the Lamb who suffers for your sins? Aren't you like me? Don't you sometimes believe and sometimes doubt?
Thanks be to God then; Abraham doesn't say, "Let them believe Moses and the prophets," because then I would be in constant doubt asking, "Do I believe enough?" But when Abraham says "Let them listen," what a joy. Because then when I listen to Moses speak of the Lamb's blood hiding sinners from the Angel of death, I know He is talking about me. And when Moses' words ring in my ears about how sins are carried away on the back of the Scapegoat, I know that my sins are on the back of that Goat too.
And because Jesus tells me I am to listen when Moses and the prophets speak, I know they are speaking to me. When I hear Isaiah saying that Jesus will not crush a bruised reed or put out a flickering candle, I know that I'm that bruised reed and I won't be crushed; I'm that flickering candle and I won't be snuffed. When my ears hear Isaiah say that the iniquity of us all was laid upon Jesus and that by His stripes we are healed, I know that Isaiah is talking about my sins and my healing.
And aren't you glad when the rich man asked about preventing his brothers from going to hell, Abraham didn't say, "They have the poor and sick, let them take care of them." No, Abraham said, "They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them." Salvation isn't found in doing even legitimately good works; it's found in God's Word ringing in your ears forgiving your sins, healing your guilt, lifting your burdens. That happens here each and every Sunday for everyone listening when I speak.
Did you notice what happened? The more you heard how come hell is full from God's viewpoint, the less you questioned how come God made hell. The more the gnawing fear of going to hell was taken off your soul, the less your mouth challenged the ways of God. You can leave hell to God once you hear that as far as He is concerned in Jesus hell is full.
There you have 3 questions pastors don't like to be asked. Here is one they love to be asked. Can we hear more? Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, TX
Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost (20101003); Luke 16: 19-31