In the Gospel set for today, Luke 16:19-31, Jesus tells a parable of a rich man who lived in indifference towards the poor man who sat outside his gate. In time, the poor man dies, and is carried to Father Abraham. Later, the rich man also dies, and finds himself in Hades. From there, he is able to see his erstwhile neighbour, and calls out to Abraham to send the poor man to him, to ease his torment by dropping water on his tongue. Abraham responds that even if he wanted to do so, it was too late, for an uncrossable chasm lies between them. So the rich man asks, instead, that the poor man be sent back, to his father’s house, for he has five brothers he would spare the same fate. Abraham responds that they have the Law and the Prophets, and if they disregard those, they would disregard even a man sent back from the dead.
Whenever Jesus talks about hell, he is primarily speaking of the impending destruction of Jerusalem, an historical event that eventually becomes inevitable. The warnings have been ignored for so long, it can no longer be averted. In depicting this tragedy, Jesus draws on records and folk memories of previous times Jerusalem was besieged and destroyed, primarily by the Babylonians, when the bodies of the dead were piled high in the Hinnon Valley and bereaved mourners wandered among them, weeping and wailing.
This parable is a parable about Jesus himself, the poor man who will die an excruciating and humiliating death outside the city gate, and be carried to Abraham. And of the house of the high priest emeritus Annas, who, with his son in law Caiaphas and five of Annas’ sons held the position of high priest in Jerusalem almost unbroken from AD6-66. The last son of the dynasty, Annas the Younger, would be assassinated for calling for peace with Rome on the eve of the Jewish War that ended in AD70 with the destruction of the Temple and of Jerusalem of which Jesus warned. On several other occasions, Jesus predicted his death and his return from the dead three days later. But here, he (rightly) states that even this will not persuade the rulers who conspired to have him killed.
Heaven and hell do not diminish this present life, by deferring justice to beyond the grave. Heaven and hell are all around us right now, in Ukraine and Syria and Lebanon and Yemen, and our indifferent or engaged response, and closer to home.
Choose heaven. And choose it now. Before it is too late.
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