Afterlife? Where is Abraham's Bosom?

Hespeler, 21 May, 2017 © Scott McAndless
Luke 16:19-31, Psalm 146, Daniel 12:1-3
T
he Bible doesn’t just talk about the afterlife in one way. There are all kinds of ways in which it is described. In some texts it is found in a place called Sheol, but then there are other places that talk about Heaven and Hell. There are references to Hades, Paradise and also to the Pit and the Lake of Fire. And this is not just a matter of using different words to describe the same thing. The various places and states are described in such different ways that they are very hard to reconcile with each other. But it is fun to watch people try.
     Theologians and experts in religion seem to have this deep need to systematize and organize everything including what the Bible says about the afterlife so there are people w

ho have attempted to reconcile everything that the Bible says about it. The solution, in Christian theology, has usually been to describe an afterlife that changes over time. The theory is that the dead have been sent (and will be sent) to different places at different times in history. In Old Testament times they were sent to one place which had various departments but that system was changed when Jesus came and was raised from the dead and it will be changed again at the end of the world. It is a fascinating study, but, when I look at it, I can’t help but wonder if the people who make their careers sorting all of that sort of stuff out, have been missing the point entirely.
      One of the things that especially makes me think that is the passage that we read this morning from the Gospel of Luke. In this passage Jesus tells his followers a parable in which all of the characters die and Jesus says interesting things about what happens to them in the afterlife. In particular, Jesus speaks about them going to places that are not really spoken about anywhere else in the Bible. The poor man, Lazarus, dies and is taken to a place called “Abraham’s Bosom.” The awkwardness of this is somewhat covered over in the translation that we read this morning where it is rendered that he “was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.” But the literal translation of the original text actually says that the man is taken to a place called “Abraham’s bosom” or “Abraham’s breast.”
      The rich man, who is not named, but to whom tradition has given the name Dives, is taken to another place called Hades, which is of course the ancient Greek land of the dead. What’s more, there appears to be a great impassable chasm that separates the two men in death.
      All of these are places and features that are a little bit hard to reconcile with the descriptions of the afterlife elsewhere in the Bible. And so theologians grappling with this parable often have a hard time fitting places like “Abraham’s bosom,” into their maps of heaven or hell or whatever. But they are missing, I think, the point of the parable that Jesus told.
      To understand what Jesus is saying, you need to visualize the opening scene that he describes. “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day.” Jesus says, “And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table.” Now how would you draw a picture of that scene? We would probably imagine this rich man (who I’m going to follow the tradition and call Dives) sitting at a well-appointed table dining on expensive foods, but you need to know that that picture is actually wrong.
      Rich people in Jesus’ day did not sit down to eat. Anyone know how they ate? They laid down on couches to eat. Everyone agreed that it was the proper and civilized way to eat. And there were a number of reasons why they thought so. First of all, you will note, lying down on your side makes you kind of helpless. You can’t really reach any food that is not placed within a couple of feet from where you lie. This is by design. It means you have to be waited on hand and foot by an army of slaves and rich people in Jesus’ day loved to show off how many slaves they had.
      It kind of makes you clumsy too, of course, and more likely to drop your food on the floor. But they kind of liked that too because there was no better way to show off how rich you were than to not care about the food you wasted by dropping it on the floor.
      One other thing about the couches, though, they were actually much bigger than this one – big enough, in fact, that two or three people could share one comfortably. In a formal dining room, where we must imagine Dives dining, there would be a number of these couches where he would welcome his honoured guests. Every position in the room had its relative importance and honour but the most honoured position you could occupy was if you actually shared the couch at the head of the room with your host. The guest of honour would lie right here with his head resting against his host’s breast. Another way to put that would be to say that the guest of honour was in his host’s bosom. Now, remember that expression: in the bosom of the host.
      So that is how you must imagine Dives. But what about Lazarus? Where is he? He interestingly enough is lying down too, but not in such a nice place. Lazarus is lying just outside the gate of the house. And where is that? It is directly opposite the couch where Dives lies on his dining couch – directly opposite. How do I know that for sure? Because every single rich person’s house in the first century was built in the same way. Every house that has been dug up had the same floor plan. The dining room was always directly opposite the front gate. This also was by design.
      You see, when a rich man entertained important people for dinner, the whole point was so that everyone would know about it. So the house was laid out so that anyone who walked by the front gate could look in and see exactly who was lying in the place of honour at his host’s breast. For this purpose, the entire centre of the house was left as an open courtyard, open to the sky and planted with a lovely garden. Nothing would be allowed to obstruct the view of the people dining on the couches.
      So don’t just imagine Lazarus lying at the gate of the house, imagine him lying right here, right outside the gate and watching every morsel of food that Dives eats, seeing all of the food wasted as it falls to the floor and dreaming, just dreaming, about being able to eat a few bites of that wasted food.
      Of course, Dives can see Lazarus too and maybe it even crosses his mind that the poor man might appreciate having the food that he is wasting. But Dives knows that he could never share it with him. Even though there is only a pleasant garden the separates the two men, Dives knows that it is actually a yawning chasm, an impassable social barrier. For if ever Dives got up from his couch and crossed it to go to Lazarus, it would totally destroy his standing and reputation among other rich men.
      That is the situation at the opening of the story and you need to see it because otherwise you cannot understand what happens next. What happens next is that Lazarus dies. Presumably he dies of his wounds and extreme malnutrition. “The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to the bosom of Abraham.” And if you see the situation at the opening of the story, you can understand now what that means. “Abraham’s Bosom” isn’t a place or a region of the underworld, it is a picture of Lazarus’ new situation. What it means is that Lazarus now finds himself lying on a couch with his head resting against Abraham’s breast.
      The picture you are supposed to see is that Abraham is holding a feast and Lazarus is his guest of honour, sharing the great patriarch’s couch. It’s kind of an amazing image when you think of it. All his life Lazarus has watched these amazing feasts from a distance, knowing he will never belong on one of those couches. Now he feasts in more honour than Dives could ever imagine.
      Meanwhile, Dives has also died. I am almost certain that he died choking on a pretzel or something like that. And where is he taken? We are told only that he (not needing the ministrations of angels) was buried but then somehow finds himself in a place called Hades which is clearly a place of great torment and suffering. And, yet, curiously enough, he can still clearly see Lazarus where his lies feasting on Abraham’s lap. Where then is Dives? Is he in some special department of the underworld where the flames burn alongside a bottomless cavern? Is that how we’re supposed to read the story?
      Or is the point that Dives ends the story in the very place where Lazarus began, lying in agony watching the other fellow dining sumptuously on a couch? Is not the point of the story that both at the beginning and at the end the two men are separated by a divide that is so close that they can see and hear each other and yet, in both cases, the separation is inexplicably uncrossable. After all, Jesus, the guy telling this story used to say, “The first shall be last and the last first” and he also told a whole lot of other stories where everything at the beginning is totally turned upside down by the end. So I actually feel pretty comfortable saying that Jesus’ main interest in telling this story wasn’t to give us some sort of map of the afterlife. It was about demonstrating how the ways of this world could indeed be turned upside down.
      In fact, the thing that I find absolutely fascinating about what Jesus says about the afterlife in this story is that it is so clearly a metaphor of everything he saw wrong about how things worked in his world. Note particularly the great chasm that Abraham talks about. “Between you and us a great chasm has been fixed,” he says to Dives, “so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” And, of course, the mention of such a major feature as a great chasm in the afterlife has sent Christian theologians scrambling to identify this chasm and its meaning in the underworld or wherever it is supposed to be located. But I note that, while Abraham says that it has been fixed or established, he doesn’t say who fixed it there. Of course, people have just assumed that it’s supposed to mean that God fixed it (which would mean that God has locked Dives into his torment), but Abraham doesn’t say that.
      What if Jesus is saying that the one who fixed that chasm was Dives himself? All his life, Dives was over there on his couch feasting while Lazarus was over there lying at his gate. It was only a few meters! At any moment Dives could have gotten up and walked across his garden and given Lazarus bread from his table, but he did not do that because that garden was an uncrossable social divide. Indeed he could not be seen crossing without it causing him a loss in his social standing.
      In a way, Jesus is saying that Dives created his own hell and is the author of his own torment because of the choices he made during life. He was the one who decided that there could be no contact between himself and Lazarus. That merely continued in the afterlife. He was the one who decided the chasm between them could not be crossed. That merely continued in the afterlife.
      Somehow it seems, if you attend to this parable of Jesus (the only one he told that was set in the afterlife) – if you really attend to what it is saying, you will come away learning more about this life and its priorities than you will about what the afterlife is actually like. Somehow, I think, that was exactly what Jesus intended.
      And it makes you think, doesn’t it? What are the chasms and divides that still exist in this world? Is God placing someone – some Lazarus – at your gate? Is there someone you could help, or give comfort to or speak a word of life to but you don’t? Maybe you don’t even see this person – at least you don’t notice them because, though they are nearby, somewhere on the path of your week, they seem to be on the other side of some chasm that has been erected by race, by prejudice, by economics or religion. The chasm may seem uncrossable, but what if it is only so in your own mind?

#140CharacterSermon Some think Parable of Lazarus & Dives is about the afterlife but it ends up teaching more about this life & what matters

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