Reading Luke 16.19-31
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
What is hell? Hell is a state of being apart from God. And what would that feel like? The Jewish imagination looked to Gehenna, the municipal rubbish tip, sited safely outside the gates of Jerusalem, where it was said the fires never went out. In this evening’s gospel reading, Luke shows Jesus picking up that traditional picture, as the rich man smoulders in unquenchable fires and begs for Lazarus the poor man to cool his tongue. And that is horribly neat, because during their lifetime the rich man treated Lazarus as a piece of rubbish. He didn’t dislike Lazarus, he didn’t notice him enough to do that. No, Lazarus was just a bundle of refuse at his gate, like one of the bags you leave out on the pavement for collection once a week.
The rich man made his choice: he chose his world of beautiful people and nice things; and others, who were poor and sick, did not inhabit that world and so did not really exist for him. But choices have consequences, and now, after a life of shutting his gates against the worth and the suffering of others, he discovers that he has shut himself out of heaven. There is, he discovers, no bridge across the chasm between there and his place of torment. This is what he has made of himself.
There has been a lot that is sick and evil about Christian talk of hell. It has been used to scare people into faith, and to terrorise children into behaving themselves, and all this in the name of a God of love. Why not discard all talk of it, then? Here we have a dilemma. I am confident that God’s back will never be turned upon me or you, that God will never change his attitude towards us from that of steadfast love. But I am also confident that God will never overrule the choices we make, and the consequences which follow.
This is a particularly apt story for today, the Church Urban Fund’s Poverty Sunday, with its picture of a rich man and a poor man, and its warning of the dangers of those choices which wealth makes possible, especially those which cocoon a person in comfort and success. And it offers a healthy lesson to draw from the vision of hell: if I live with my heart and mind as a gated community, if I live as though no-one out there has claims upon me, if I live as though it is a thing of no consequence that the things I do affect them, if I live as though they just do not matter, and if I persist in these things, then this is what I might make of myself. God will go on calling me, but I can go on saying No, or I can just shut the door and turn up the television.
And what then? Can any human being do that for ever? Can human selfishness finally outlast the love of God? Well, what do you think? I can’t be sure.
Meanwhile, as long as we keep the door open, as long as we can hear the call of God in the voice outside the gate, whether it is a single voice that we know, or a million voices of those crippled by debt in our own country or by war half a world away, then the bridge across the chasm is there; and it will not be broken by God.
Gehenna See John Bowker, ‘The Human Imagination of Hell’, Theology, November 1982