Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 30, 2007
Life, Death and Destiny
Someone told the story of a very wealthy man who always proudly drove a new Cadillac. His will specified that he was to be buried, seated behind the wheel of his Cadillac. Someone watching the funeral was heard to remark as the great crane lowered the Cadillac-coffin down into the over-sized grave: “Man, that’s really living!”1
No, that’s death — ostentatious, perhaps, but he is as dead as any poor man. Death is the great leveler of us all. That is one thing that is dramatically clear in the story of Jesus commonly called the Rich Man and Lazarus. “There was a rich man . . . and a beggar. . . .The time came when the beggar died. . . .The rich man also died.” (vv. 19-20, 22). This is a solemn story for a solemn sermon on life and death and destiny.
I. In this life, the station of persons may be very different.
How different were the rich man and Lazarus. One was dressed in purple and fine linen proclaiming his royalty and wealth. The other was a beggar covered in sores. One reveled in banquet luxury every day. The other dreamed of just a discarded crust of bread.
The Haves and Have-Nots of the world often cross paths. And the scavenger dogs show more mercy than some extravagantly wealthy people.
II. But death is the great leveler of us all.
“The rich man also died.” Prince or pauper, we all have an appointment sooner or later with death. “Man is destined to die once and after that to face judgment” (Heb. 9:27).
There is an ancient tale retold by Somerset Maughan in the 1930’s and circulating again these days in Iraq. A merchant in Baghdad sent his servant to the market. Soon he returned trembling with fear. “Master,” he said, I was jostled by a woman in the crowd. When I turned around, I saw it was Death who jostled me. She looked at me and pointed her bony finger in my face threateningly. Please, Master, lend me your horse to flee to Samarra where Death can’t find me.”
The merchant agreed and watched his servant gallop away in great haste. In the evening the merchant went down to the market place and found Death standing in the crowd, He approached her and asked, “Why did you frighten my servant this morning? Why did you make a threatening gesture?”
“That was not a threatening gesture,” said Death. “I was surprised to see him in Baghdad. I have an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”
III. Then again, in eternity the positions of persons may be radically reversed.
One went to Paradise, the other to the torment of hell. One of the Bible words for hell is Ge-Hinnom, “Valley of Lamentations.” It was the name of the deep ravine outside the southeast wall of Jerusalem. In ancient times a shrine for worship of the despicable god Molech was there. The worship included burning babies alive. Good King Josiah put a stop to that. (Where is such a king now when we need him?) Afterward the place became a garbage dump and a dump for dead animals and executed criminals. They had to keep a fire burning there all the time. It made a fitting metaphor for hell.
The rich man discovered hell as a place of utter hopelessness. So Dante described the inferno in his famous trilogy, noting a sign over the entrance announced: “Abandon hope all who enter here.” It is a place of remembrance and regret without remedy. It is a place of eternal despair.
The five brothers mentioned by the rich man are no mere footnote. The parable is a warning to those who are still on earth. Make sure that you do not live here without regard for your eternal destination. The rich man was not in hell because he was rich; Abraham was fabulously wealthy. And the poor man was not in Paradise because of his poverty. While this story does not address the causes of the great reversal of the two men, other Scriptures make it clear that salvation is a matter of being trustingly anchored in Jehovah. “Christ died for our sins” (1 Cor. 15:3) (Austin B. Tucker)