Penn Jillette, who you might know as half of the magicians act Penn and Teller, is an atheist. At some point he was being interviewed about his faith (or lack thereof) and he told a story about being on a plane once and having a man come up to him and hand him a copy of the New Testament. Jillette said that the man was very polite, wrote a very kind message in the front of the Bible, and wanted to assure him he wasn’t crazy, but that when he saw him on the plane the man felt the need to speak to him and share that gift. Jillette was asked if he was offended by this interaction and he said it was actually quite the opposite. He went on to say:
“I’ve always said, I don’t respect people who don’t proselytize. I don’t respect that at all. If you believe there is a heaven and hell, and people could be going to hell or not getting eternal life or whatever, and you think it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward. “How much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize? How much do you have to hate someone to believe everlasting life is possible and not tell them that? If I believed, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that a truck was coming at you, and you didn’t believe it, that that truck was bearing down on you, there’s a certain point that I tackle you, and this is more important than that.”
Jillette explained that his mind wasn’t changed by this encounter, the point was that he respected this man who cared enough about his faith and about a person who he only knew from tv and billboards, to feel the need to speak to that person.
Y’all got a break from the numbers last week – 8% of Americans talk about God, faith, or spirituality once a week, 15% once a month, three-fourths of American Christians have fewer than ten spiritual conversations a year – Jillette hits the nail on the head here about why those numbers are so scary: if we believe what we say we believe, that at the end of life on earth there are two outcomes, heaven and hell, eternal life or eternal death, how can we not be talking about it? We’ve been encouraging you over this last month or so to think about your “one,” one person in your life who is not a Christian who you can commit to working to change that, my guess is that your one isn’t some stranger (in fact if they are you’re doing it wrong. Praying for the person who cut you off on the interstate is a good thing but that’s not what we’re working on here). Your one is hopefully someone who you know, it might be a friend, it might even be family, what could be more important than their salvation? Y’all know I’m not big on fire and brimstone but if you believe hell is real, and you worry that someone you love might be headed that way, and you’re not constantly praying for them and you’re not also praying that God gives you words or means or something to reach them, do you really love them at all?
This parable is the only glimpse into Hell we’re given in the Bible. We’re introduced to two characters, a rich man and a beggar named Lazarus. This isn’t the main point but I don’t want you to miss it, its not an accident that we know the beggar’s name and not the rich man’s. We’re told that the rich man wears only purple, the color that kings wore, the most expensive die in the ancient world, and that he was constantly hosting feasts, people would have known this man’s name. This might be true for Shelby, not growing up here I’m not as in the know, but you knew who the rich people in Laurens were. And when I say rich I mean riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiich. I’m not talking about folks who had a good job and bought a big house and fancy car, I’m talking about the old money folks, the bank and mill presidents, the people whose house is referred to as “the so and so house,” even if that family doesn’t live there anymore, that’s the kind of rich I’m talking about, that’s the kind of rich this man is presented as. Everyone would have known his name. In this parable Lazarus, the beggar, the person folks would walk by without a second thought, gets a name and the rich man doesn’t. In the kingdom of Heaven the last shall be first and the first shall be last. Where do you want your name to be known? Jesus talks a lot, even in this parable, about how folks who focus on getting their rewards in this life will get them and then realize they made a mistake. Where are you putting the effort in to making your name known, on earth or in heaven?
This rich man, whoever he is, is the only person we meet in scripture who we’re told goes to hell. If we’re being technical it is probably more correct to say he doesn’t go to heaven, Jewish belief at this time was that the righteous would go to heaven with God at their death but the non-righteous would be in a type of purgatory until the day of the Lord when all people would be judged. Semantics aside, this man is in hell. Which should be concerning to us, potentially, because he seems like a nice guy. We’re certainly not told of anything exceptionally bad about him. He’s apparently religious, he recognizes Abraham, he calls Abraham father, and Abraham calls him “my son,” so there’s an attachment and recognition there. He’s aware of the world around him apparently, we know that because he recognizes Lazarus. More on that in a second, but its not as if he’s presented as someone who was consumed by his possessions to the point that he completely ignored the rest of the world. He wore his purple and had his feasts and all that, some people are so rich that they flaunt it without meaning to. I remember one day in my senior year of college we were talking about next steps and those of us who were not going back home were discussing how and where we going to live and one of my friends who was going to pharmacy school at PC said his parents had bought a house in Clinton for him to live in while he was there. Nothing wrong with that, its just a different world from the one the rest of us were living in. This man doesn’t seem possessed by his wealth, he doesn’t seem greedy. He’s religious, he’s aware, he’s concerned about other people. Even in hell, in the midst of despair and suffering, his thoughts go to his brothers and he wants to protect them from his fate. What a nice guy, how is this guy in hell? Another aside – what a necessary reminder that our goodness isn’t enough to save us. Being a “nice guy” and checking off a bunch of boxes of “goodness” won’t do it for us. The thing that determines the fate of our souls is faith in Jesus Christ.
We only see one real issue with this man: yes he’s concerned about people, but he’s concerned too late. Now that he’s suffering he’s worried about his brothers, and Abraham’s response is kind of a shot at the rich man, Abraham says that the brothers have enough information to know what to do without extra insight, the implication being that the rich man should have as well. And this is the flipside of him knowing Lazarus’ name, because I think that’s actually the most damning thing we see: he saw Lazarus every day sitting outside his gates, too weak to fight off the dogs, and he never did anything about it. He knew Lazarus by name. He might have even thought about helping Lazarus, he might have been concerned about Lazarus, he might have thought to himself “one day I need to talk to him and figure out something to do for him,” but that concern never led to action until it was too late. “It’s the thought that counts” is a ridiculous saying. Think about how selfish that idea is for a minute: I was going to do something nice for you, I didn’t, but I’d like credit for having the thought. All this rich man’s concern amounted to nothing because he didn’t act when he had the chance. It is good to be concerned about folks. That concern has to go somewhere or it will be wasted.
The scariest part of this parable, to me, is the fact that the rich man and Abraham are able to have this conversation. Because what that seems to say is that even though Heaven and Hell are separated by this “great chasm” that Abraham mentions, people in the two places are aware of each other. The rich man can see Lazarus, Lazarus presumably can see him. My hope is every person in here is confident in their salvation, if you’re not I’d love to talk with you more about that, my question this morning is if you are confident: who might you be seeing across that chasm? And what are you going to do about it? The thought is not enough. “If I believed, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that a truck was coming at you, and you didn’t believe it, that that truck was bearing down on you, there’s a certain point that I tackle you, and this is more important than that.” Who’s your one? And will you commit right now, not just to thinking about that person, not just to wishing there was something you could do, would you commit right now, to loving that person enough to turn concern into action?