Luke 16:19-31; 1 Timothy 6:6-19
C. S. Lewis’s book The Last Battle fires the imagination about end times. It is the seventh and final book in his widely acclaimed Chronicles of Narnia; and it documents the end of Narnia and what that means for those who have come to call Narnia home.
I’m going to read an excerpt from this book. In this scene, the characters become increasingly aware of their present reality, that they are actually no longer in Narnia but in what we would call heaven. To bring you up to speed briefly, Peter, Edmund, and Lucy are siblings; Eustace is their cousin and Jill is a friend their age; Digory is an old professor in whose house the children once stayed; Tirian is the king of Narnia, whom the others have all come to help in his last battle; and there is also a talking eagle, Farsight:
(See HarperTrophy edition for full quotation: New York, 1994. Book 7, 209-12: “It still seemed to be early . . . ‘as different as a real thing is from a shadow or as waking life is from a dream.’”)
Our present life is merely a shadow of things to come. C. S. Lewis called it shadowlands; whereas we might think of the life to come as the Kingdom realized. This contrast—between shadowlands and the Kingdom realized—is at the core of both today’s Gospel and epistle.
The Gospel paints a before-and-after picture of two people: a rich man and Lazarus. In the shadowlands the rich man has become a success. Obviously! He’s rich, after all, a thing that’s seen throughout the Old Testament as a blessing. And he shows it through excess. He wears purple and fine linen, and he feasts sumptuously every day.
But he’s also tightfisted with poor Lazarus, who sits outside the rich man’s gate, covered with sores, longing to eat whatever crumbs fall from the rich man’s table. Even the local stray dogs are better taken care of than this poor guy. Can’t the rich man share something of his excess, we wonder? Can’t he at least give some leftovers to the poor guy, or even some crumbs?
In the Kingdom realized the tables are turned. Now it is Lazarus who lives the good life, carried by angels to the side of Abraham. The rich man, on the other hand, is in torment, feeling as if he is standing in flames with an agonizing and unquenchable thirst. Yet, like Tantalus of Roman mythology, his thirst is not allowed to be quenched.
We hearers of this story are left to wonder about a few things. Perhaps riches aren’t all we think they are. Perhaps living excessively toward ourselves and, at the same time, tightfistedly toward those in real need—perhaps such living does not in fact bring glory to God. Perhaps generosity—or charity if you prefer—is the better way.
Then we remember the epistle, which offers a complementary explanation to this Gospel story. “But those who want to be rich,” Paul writes, “fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.”
Do you see the emphasis here? The rich man wanted to be rich. He loved money. And in his eagerness to be rich he became self-absorbed, undisciplined in his excess regarding himself, yet uncharitable towards others. He was trapped by many senseless and harmful desires; and he wandered away from the faith and pierced himself with many pains. He had set his hopes—maybe even placed his faith—in his riches.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. There is nothing sinful in being rich. Indeed, the simple truth is that if we are Americans—and we are—then we are rich. Most of us live better than royalty has lived in much of the world’s history. But for the rich—for us—there is another way. We don’t have to be self-absorbed with our resources and uncharitable towards others. That other way is found in realizing the Kingdom now, here in the shadowlands.
Listen to the last words of today’s epistle. The rich—we—“are to do good,” Paul writes, “to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share.” Thereby we will store up what the Bible calls “the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that [we] may take hold of the life that really is life.”
The life that really is life. That’s the Kingdom realized. Now. Here. In the shadowlands. And we can bring this about!
Doesn’t this excite you? We—as individuals; and as a corporate body, as a church—we can do good in such a way that it, in some sense, gives us glimpses of a greater reality. Like when the eagle, Farsight, flew that thirty or forty feet into the air and said that he could see Ettinsmuir, Beaversdam, and Cair Paravel—these were real places in the Narnia story, places that persons had built, good works that had been done; and they remained after the shadow of Narnia had passed and the true Narnia remained!
So, that’s fine for Narnia and all. But it’s a made-up world. What about for us? What do these good works look like for us?
Today’s Scripture passages give us the answer. Or, I should say, they give us an answer. Do you see it? They exhort us to look outside of ourselves, to focus on others, to seek where others might have a need, and then to help them. They exhort us to possess an attitude of generosity.
What this generosity looks like in the real world, in these shadowlands, is as varied and broad as we are creative. It might mean taking a meal to a family that has just come home from the hospital with a new baby. It might mean making a weekly visit to the grocery store with an aging family member. Or, thinking more corporately, it might mean that we, as a church, bring lunches to homeless people under a bridge in downtown San Antonio every Sunday.
But an attitude of generosity can also take the shape of music, art, and architecture: leaving monuments to the next generations that testify of Christ and his goodness to the world. It can also take the shapes of schools and hospitals. All these things—and too many more to name or even count—all these works that flood the shadow of our present world with the light of the Kingdom—are born from an attitude of generosity.
Even better, our good work in the name of Christ, our generosity, our charity does not just give us glimpses of a greater reality: these things give glimpses of the Kingdom to everyone who sees them. That, I believe, is what Paul means by the phrase “the treasure of a good foundation for the future.” When we will no longer be here to see them; when our children and their children will no longer be around to see them, others will see our good works still, our life that really is life, and praise our Father in heaven.
Today’s Scripture leaves me, and I hope it leaves you, with a desire to do as much as I can to establish here and now in these shadowlands something—many things—that will last into the Kingdom realized.