Why Rich People Will (or Won't) Go to Hell

Dr. Marvin A. McMickle delivered the following sermon on the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) at a public witness and rally during Sojourners' "Reviving Our Spirits: Transforming Our Politics" conference in Cleveland last weekend. Dr. McMickle is pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in Cleveland, Ohio. + Click here for the full sermon text.

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The parable of Jesus found in Luke 16:19-31 involves two men who share the same space but live worlds apart from one another. One of them was a rich man (Dives is the Latin word for rich man) and the other was a poor beggar named Lazarus. The rich man was defined both by what he wore and what he ate. The parable said he was dressed in purple; a color so expensive to make in the ancient world that only royalty and the very wealthy could afford such garments. The parable also says that he ate sumptuously every day. He ate the best cuts of meat, the finest desserts, the best wines and probably the most costly fruits and vegetables. Everything about that man spoke of money, luxury and privilege.

Sitting just outside his door sat a beggar named Lazarus whose body was covered with open sores. We learn two things about Lazarus; first, he would happily have eaten any crumbs that fell from the rich man's table. The text does not say that he did eat the crumbs from the rich man's table. That is a detail the writer would not have overlooked. The text says that he would have gladly eaten the crumbs if they had been offered to him. However, the rich man inside that house was so oblivious to the presence of Lazarus that it never dawned on him even to offer Lazarus his crumbs.

Second, we learn that the dogs that searched for food in the garbage heaps of the town would come by and lick his wounds. No Jewish man would want any uninvited contact with dogs; but especially not with the scavenger dogs that lived in and ate from the garbage piles. The danger was not that the dog would get sick from contact with the open sores on Lazarus. The danger this text describes was that the bacteria carried by the dog from the garbage it ate would be transferred to Lazarus through his open sores making his condition even worse. For every luxury enjoyed by the rich man there was a counter balancing misery experienced by Lazarus.

The text shifts to a scene where Lazarus dies and goes to heaven where he is seen sitting in the arms of Abraham. The rich man dies, goes to hell and is continually tormented in the flames. The question raised but not explicitly answered by the text is what the rich man did that warranted his ending up in hell? The text does not say he was cruel or unkind. The text does not say he blasphemed against God in any way. In fact, the text does not say anything about why the rich man ended up in hell. The answer, however, had to reside inside the parable or it would make no sense. There is only one thing this text suggests as a possible reason for why this rich man went to hell; and it was not the fact that he was rich. The Bible says it may be hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 19: 23-24), but it is not impossible.

The sin of the rich man was not in his material wealth; it was in his spiritual poverty. It was in his lack of concern or compassion for Lazarus who sat just outside his door, but who received no notice from the rich man who must have passed by him two or three times every day. The sin was that for all the wealth of the rich man, he still fell under the judgment of the lyrics by Harry Emerson Fosdick who said that some people can be "rich in things but poor in soul." The rich man ended up in hell because he lived in close proximity to Lazarus and his pitiful conditions, but he did nothing and said nothing that could alter that poor man's life.

The sermon from this text could very well begin with the task of determining who Lazarus is and who the rich man is in the life of the 21st black Baptist church. In my book, Preaching to the Black Middle Class,I recall that when I was a teenager back in the 1960s and in the days of Black Power I was inclined to read this parable through a racial paradigm and cast the rich man as white society and Lazarus as the oppressed black masses. That reading of the text always allowed me to assume the position of the victim and never feel compelled to take any action myself. After all, I was Lazarus being bypassed and overlooked by the rich, white man.

I later came to realize something very important about the Bible. Dr. James A. Sanders, one of my Old Testament professors in seminary used to remind us that any time we read the Bible and came away feeling better about ourselves it was a pretty good bet that we had misread the text. The Bible does not exist to comfort us in our present condition and allow us to comment on the sins in the lives of others. The Bible exists to disturb us and make us confront the sin in ourselves. Only after I learned how to read the Bible did I realize that this parable is best read from a class paradigm and not a racial paradigm. This text is not about people of different races; it is about people in any race that are separated by economic disparities.

When I realized that, this text began to work on me in some very different ways. I am the pastor of a black, middle class congregation here in Cleveland. In the context of the 21st century most black churches and the people seated within them are much more like the rich man than they are like Lazarus. The people in the neighborhoods around most of our churches are much closer to Lazarus than the preachers and people gathered inside the sanctuary. That being the case, the basis upon which God will judge the church has less to do with what any of our churches do that is focused inward on the people who belong to our congregations. The message of the parable is that God will judge us, indeed God will send us either to heaven or to hell based upon what we do for Lazarus who is seated right outside our doors.

The church where I serve is an inner-city congregation in Cleveland, Ohio. The U.S. government has determined that my city is the poorest city in the country, and my congregation is situated within the poorest neighborhood in the poorest city in the country. That is the context in which every action we take as a church must be considered. Every Sunday morning when our members pull into the parking lot of the church driving their Lexus, Cadillac, Mercedes Benz and Jaguar cars, they have driven into the poorest neighbor in the poorest city in America. When they walk into the church building dripping in mink coats and Rolex watches they are sitting in the poorest neighborhood in the poorest city in the country. Every ministry we undertake, every stewardship decision we make and every special dinner we plan for ourselves is overshadowed by the unavoidable and inescapable reality that Lazarus is sitting right outside our door.

Every church that is similarly situated must realize as we do, that we have two separate and distinct congregations. One congregation comes to church on Sunday and occasionally they return during the week. The other congregation comes in and out of the building all during the week in need of food, child care, an HIV/AIDS test, a job referral, a hot meals or a helping hand. The church dare not pass these persons by as they sit just outside our doors. We are the rich man and they are Lazarus. Whether any one of us ends up in heaven or in hell will be determined, in large measure, by what we say and do about Lazarus!

The rich man in the parable of Jesus ended up in hell because he paid no attention to Lazarus who sat just outside his door. Lazarus also sits just outside the doors of most of our churches. I wonder where you and I will end up. The answer to that question depends upon how we respond to Lazarus! Before we direct our attention to the social and political institutions of our nation, let us as Christians and as people of all faith traditions be sure that we are not guilty ourselves of passing Lazarus every day and never sharing even the crumbs from our table!

Now that we have considered the claim that this passage makes upon the faith community, let's stretch the lens through which we read scripture and see that this same side-by-side economic disparity extends to our entire society. We live out the Lazarus paradigm every day in towns and cities all across America. We are the richest nation in the history of the world, and yet we tolerate poverty and human suffering that is on par with what one might expect in some impoverished corner of the globe. We have right here in Cleveland, Ohio some of the finest medical facilities and doctors to be found anywhere in the world. We also people who are among the 45 million American citizens without any medical insurance. They have the sickness, but they cannot afford the cure.

I mentioned earlier that two consecutive census reports announced that this city where you are convened, Cleveland, Ohio is the poorest major American city in the country. I want to warn you that statement is only partially true, and in some respects it is altogether misleading. It is true to say that the people who live within the city limits of Cleveland are among the poorest in the country. However, the people who work in the towering skyscrapers you see behind you but who take their wealth home with them into the surrounding suburbs are anything but impoverished. When you look at Greater Cleveland as a whole, this is the 12th wealthiest region in the country. Lazarus sits right outside the door, but as in the biblical parable the rich man passes by and pays no attention to the poor man, the sick man, the hungry man that he passes by every day.

Part of the problem is the geography that confronts us as we stand here today. Just behind me sits Cleveland Browns Stadium where the average player earns $4 million a year. One block away, just barely in sight sits the Cleveland Board of Education where the average income of teachers is just above $40,000 a year. What does it say about our society when we spoil our professional athletes and starve our public schools? There is something wrong with any society that pays 100 times more to people who tackle than it does to people who teach!

In large measure the problem is a lack of political wisdom in terms of who we elect and a lack of political will on the part of those who promise us everything but then deliver on almost nothing. How do you account for a president who ran as a "compassionate conservative," but once elected he asks for more money for weapons and wars then turns around and vetoes a bill that would provide health care for children? It is Dives and Lazarus! How do you account for a Congress that votes a pay raise for itself and enjoys the finest health care insurance in the world, but does not have the courage or conviction to establish a living wage or some form of universal health care for the working men and women of this country? It is Dives and Lazarus! How do you account for a Democratic Party that was elected in order to change the policies of the preceding four years, but to date it is governing with the same disregard for the neediest in our society? It is Dives and Lazarus! How do you account for a presidential election cycle where very rich people are running for the highest office in the nation, but not one of them, including Hillary or Obama have set forward an action plan to deal with poverty and misery in this country? I tell you, it is Dives and Lazarus all over again!

The time has come to transform our politics so we can transform our society. The time has come for people of faith and conscience to live out their faith and act on their conscience. Back in 1967 when he decided to speak out against the Vietnam War, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, "There comes a time when silence is betrayal." Those words remain true today. It is betrayal for us to see the problem but say nothing. The paradigm has something of a global message as well.

It was 40 years ago when our nation came to a crossroads as the War on Poverty was promised, but the war in Vietnam was being promoted. Today a war on poverty is desperately needed, but instead we are engaged in a fruitless and futile war in Iraq. 40 years ago the cost of war was $500,000 per day. Today we spend that same $500,000 in less than three minutes. In the course of a day we spend almost $274 million; in the course of one day! We have great wealth as a nation. We could provide health care to every citizen. We could provide adequate housing for every citizen. We could provide quality public education. We could provide at least a living wage for every worker. But we do not do these things. Why? It is because today, as was the case 40 years ago, we seem more focused on a foreign war than we are on the welfare of our own people.

It is betrayal for us to talk about the problems but do nothing to remove them. It is betrayal to $3, 170. 98 per second on the war in Iraq, when that same money could repair our infrastructure, educate our students, or provide housing and health care for our citizens. Therefore, be silent no more; let justice roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream. Be silent no more; "whatever you do to the least of these you have done unto me" says Jesus. Be silent no more; Dives and Lazarus are still living side by side. Dives keeps getting richer and Lazarus keeps sicker and poorer. Be silent no more; raise your voices, use your votes, live out your values, and lift up the vocabulary of the Kingdom of God. Let us resolve, and encourage others to resolve that we will stand on the words of the prophet Micah who declared:

He has shown you what is good,
And what does the Lord require of you,
But to act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God!

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