As almost always happens when we’re examining gospel passages—or, in fact, any passages from Scripture, the immediate, obvious interpretation seldom does justice to the actual, deeper meanings of the texts. That’s very true with regard to today’s gospel, as well. On the surface, it would seem that the rich will be punished for being rich, and the poor will be rewarded—or at least receive reparations—for their poverty. As you might expect, that’s not what this parable means.
First, let’s take a side trip to consider the reward and punishment that Luke describes. What we see here is not meant to be a literal description of either heaven or hell. In fact, the words “heaven” and “hell” never even appear here. Concerning the rich man, it says he died, was buried, and found himself in the “netherworld.” This is שֶׁאוֹל (she’ōl), or, in Greek Άδης (Hades), the abode of the dead. In classical literature, it’s described as being dark, cold, and damp—exactly what you’d expect to find in the grave or subterranean caverns. This passage is one of the few in the gospels that refer to flames and torment. In Mark [9:48], Jesus is quoted as referring to Gehenna (Ge-Hinnom, or the Valley of Hinnom) where “the worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.” But this was not hell, but the garbage dump and incinerator for the city of Jerusalem.
In any case, the nature of the netherworld was never clearly defined. Occasionally, heroes of classical Greek, Roman, and Egyptian literature were described as traveling to the underworld and returning. Stories of such people as Orpheus, Odysseus, Aeneas, and Horus provided a background for the popular conception of the abode of the dead. Notice that none of these were anything like our concept of hellfire.
Now let’s turn our attention to the image of heaven we’ve been given. Like our concept of hell, in Jesus’s time, there was no concept like our “heaven.” Even the Garden of Eden—a so-called “paradise”—wasn’t thought of as a celestial abode, but rather an earthly land rich in water, plants and animals. The concept of heaven that Jesus taught was synonymous with the Kingdom of God, a state begun here in this life and made perfect in the resurrection of the dead. I’m afraid that the Book of Revelation muddied the waters for us because it used extravagant, apocalyptic imagery to describe God’s reign as a heavenly city, borrowing heavily from the writings of the prophets, especially Ezekiel. This apocalyptic imagery wasn’t well understood outside of Jewish religious circles—just like today—so people then as now mistakenly took the symbolic imagery as fact. On the contrary. In today’s passage, heaven seems to be a region in the abode of the dead where Abraham and the faithful of Israel could be found.
Now we can look more closely at the parable that Luke reported. Obviously, the two characters Jesus describes are at opposite socioeconomic poles. When the rich man dies, he’s in torment. Notice that his torment consists in his isolation from everyone and his inability to help his brothers or himself. Isn’t it interesting that his first request of Abraham was to have the poor man sent to do for him what he was unwilling to do for the poor man while he was alive? His entitlement followed him to the grave. The passage ends with a warning for the Christian Church, as well, saying that even Jesus’s resurrection from the dead is not sufficient to provoke a change of heart in those too arrogant and stubborn to pay attention.
Turning our attention to the poor man, we understand that his reward is not anything that would make up for what he lacked during his earthly existence—not even seventy-two virgins. His reward is a relationship—a spiritual relationship. In Jesus’s mind, that is the great treasure that’s worth longing for and striving for. In fact, relationship is the essence of God’s kingdom. What is the kingdom other than a spiritual relationship with others through which we establish a spiritual relationship with God? Once we understand that the nature of heaven itself is relationship, then we can appreciate the full impact of the old saying, “Heaven would be hell for a godless person.” What value can heaven have if we don’t value others?
Now that we’ve taken a brief look at what Jesus places before us as punishment and reward—isolation or relationship—we can better understand his critique of the rich man’s behavior. Here’s the context: for the Hebrew people, the land—the source of wealth—belonged to Yahweh. In fact, every fifty years, the Law of Moses prescribed that they hold a jubilee year when all land must be returned to its original owners. The so-called “owners” were really only tenant farmers of the land of Israel. So, as tenants, they owed a portion of their proceeds to the true owner, Yahweh. And Yahweh designated the poor to be his surrogates. Alms were not to be seen as gifts to the poor, but as taxes to be paid to Yahweh’s representatives. The reason the rich man was cut off from Abraham—that is, the children of Abraham, God’s people—was that he failed to pay the taxes he owed as Yahweh’s tenant farmer of his land.
Can we now bring the lesson of this parable home to our own land and our own situation? These days, there are many who believe in their hearts that what they earn and what they own is theirs to do with as they please. That is the myth of private property. They believe that, even if they see some importance in charitable giving, their generosity should be reserved for a few “worthy causes.” Of course, they themselves believe that it’s up to them to decide who is worthy of their largess—and, therefore, who is unworthy. Often, that comes down to their assessment of who is productive and who is unproductive, or even who is suitable and who is unsuitable—those who don’t look like them, who don’t act like them, and who don’t think like them. Their whims, in the end, determine who will live and who won’t. They won’t kill anyone themselves, but they have no problem letting certain people—certain kinds of people—die. Those people they consider to be expendable because, after all, it’s their own fault, isn’t it? “Everybody has choices,” they say. “We just chose rightly, and they chose wrongly. It’s survival of the fittest. In the end, it’s their own fault.”
What these kinds of people forget is what I often talk about here: we are all debtors. We arrive on the scene with nothing, and we leave with nothing. In the meantime, everything we have and everything we are is pure gift. Like the Jewish people of old, like the rich man in the gospel, we’re but tenants of God’s creation and we owe taxes on our property to God, the true owner. What kinds of taxes? Look at it this way: we’ve all been given wealth. It can be in material things, but most often it’s in the form of intelligence, talents, knowledge, education, health, strength, empathy, understanding, compassion, and so on. If we’re hoarders, if we use these gifts only to benefit ourselves, when we’re gone, all that we’ve done will vanish or become useless—at least to us. We were gifted all these things by God for the benefit not just of ourselves but for others. We are but tenants of God’s gifts. This is not a matter of generosity. It’s what we owe. There’s a saying of Jesus quoted in the Gospel of Luke [12:48] that expresses what this parable is saying in just a few words. “To whom much has been given, much will be required.” Consider this parable whenever you encounter an opportunity to share your wealth, time, or talents. Think of it as God’s taxes on your share of the privilege of belonging to God’s kingdom.