Jesus told stories to get peoples' attention and to communicate an indispensable truth. One of the wildest and most provocative stories Jesus ever told is a parable called The Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16). In this story, Jesus talks about the afterlife and how one's earthly life has an impact on the one to come.
The story is about two people. Here we find two people who were on completely opposite ends of the socioeconomic spectrum. First, the rich man was introduced and, let me tell you, this guy had it good. He had the best clothes money could buy and he lived in luxury every day. He was that guy who always had the best and never held himself back. You could imagine it in our day — a person with the best ride, the best phone and a person who would eat in the finest restaurants.
And then there was a man named Lazarus. This is the only parable which Jesus told in which a proper name is given to one of the characters. Lazarus was a beggar who longed to eat the crumbs that would fall from the rich man's table and pleaded for food at the gate of the rich man's house. Also, Lazarus was afflicted with a serious medical condition that caused oozing sores. Now, the only medical attention offered to him was by the dogs — which would lick his sores.
Now you may think you know where this story is going. It may be thought that this parable is teaching that wealth is corrupt. There is even often an incorrect quoting of a scripture that goes like this, "Money is the root of all evil," but in reality it is the "love of money that is the root to all kinds of evil" (I Timothy 6:10). Certainly, this story is about a self-centered individual who had the wealth and the power to help but did not.
But there is something deeper and far worse in this parable to consider. It is a topic that each one must grapple with and that is, "what is ultimate in one's life?" This rich man elevated his wealth and his personal comfort and made them his most important achievements. The man's identity was completely wrapped up in his riches and self. While by contrast, the poor man was broken and humble.
This is a story about two places. In this story — as is true in real life — the inevitable happens and both died. Jesus continued on, saying Lazarus wound up in "paradise," otherwise known as a "waiting place before heaven." In this place Lazarus was comforted. Now the rich man after death was found to be in Hades, otherwise known as a "waiting place for hell." Here the rich man endured torment and agony, both physical and mental suffering.
Then something amazing occurs, the rich man is able to call up to paradise and a conversation takes place. In this dialogue the rich man does not ask to get out, amazingly he tries to get Lazarus in — to serve him! The rich man's heart has not softened one iota. He is still ordering Lazarus around and not remorseful or repentant for his dispassionate earthly attitude.
How to make sense of this? A common question in our world that could apply here is "why does God throw anyone into hell?" C.S. Lewis is very helpful here with a quotation, "There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'Thy will be done.'" Why is the rich man in torment? The simple answer is that God does not throw anyone into hell, the rich man desired to be there.
New York Times best-selling author and pastor Tim Keller says, "Hell is a freely chosen place when our identity is based on something else than the Lord that goes on forever." Imagine the things that our identity can be completely wrapped up in: riches, work, a relationship, sports team, a hobby, etc. What is ultimate in one's life today has an impact on the future.
In "The Problem of Pain," C.S. Lewis writes, "What are you asking God to do? To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But he has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what God does."
But what happens if your identity is wrapped up in Christ? If this is the case, you are passing forward to others the love and mercy that you received. You see others in their pain and your heart is to help them. If Jesus is your ultimate, you grappled with selfless sacrifice of Christ and you are all in.
I want to urge you to wrestle with the question of what is ultimate in your life. And I want you to imagine what life would be like if you identity was wrapped up in the Lord Jesus Christ. It would change everything, both now and forever.
Norm Byers — found on Twitter @NormByers — is the lead pastor of Genesis Church, with two locations meeting Sundays at 9:30 a.m. at Petoskey Middle School Auditorium and 11 a.m. at Boyne City Elementary. Visit www.genesiswired.com for more information.