With its rich imagery of eternal torment, few texts make better IFB preaching fodder than Luke 16:19-31. This text which records Jesus’ sayings about a nameless rich man and Lazarus, is routinely used to terrorize and torment sinners to respond to ‘accept Jesus’ and join the IFB sect. You see the upright but lost rich man, you see the good Lazarus, you see the first man’s five siblings. It is with them that we are supposed to identify. Lazarus becomes an example of what we are to be. The rich man in his unbelief reveals the fate of those who don’t believe. We are left to figure out what this means — hopefully while we still have time to do so. So this teaching concerns eternal destiny. It is oft heard proclaimed with urgency.
But what if Luke’s concern isn’t with the afterlife at all, but with today?
The Great Chasm
‘…between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us’ [Lu 16:26].
Middle Eastern society was highly stratified. You related to people in your own social class. If you did business with those beneath your station, this diminished your standing in the community and elevated the one beneath you. And people were very conscious of this. For the rich man to receive Lazarus at his table would have been scandalous. And yet, scandalous is exactly what grace is, and therefore what the Gospel is.
The chasm in the text is usually related to the afterlife. But what if it isn’t? What if that chasm refers to social stratification in Judah at the time? Each time he stumbled over Lazarus on the way to and from his home, the rich man reaffirmed that chasm.
Moreover even in the afterlife, the rich man esteems his dignity above Lazarus’. In life, he ignored Lazarus completely. In death, he is prepared to retain him as nothing more than a servant. Fetch me water! Run to my brothers with this message! He could not escape this social system in life, and he could not escape it in death.
This leads to an interesting point.
What if the text uses the ‘chasm’ to reveal the malevolent character of the social divisions that riddled life in Jesus’ Palestine? This matters, because social and economic class matters no less now than then. Yet IFBs are notorious for retaining class divisions even as they blame those terrible socialists for stoking class antagonisms.
But again — what if Lu 16 intends not to terrorize with horrific visions, but to call us to share in God’s life in a community that rejects the social divisions which separate us? Where does this situate IFBs and the broadly evangelical Christian crowd?
The Magnificat said that God ‘filled the hungry with good things and sent away the rich empty-handed’ [Lu 1:53]. This reversal of fortunes is exactly what we see in Lu 16:19-31. So if the Lu 16:26 chasm is the intensification of the social and economic divisions we affirm in life, then something decidedly more radical and all encompassing is needed than fundamentalism’s ‘get-them-to-the-altar.’
We are all the rich man sometimes. But in other moments, we do better. It is in those fleeting moments that we understand that the gospel is a gift. And having received such grace, one can only share out of humble faith.