Friday, 16 September 2016

The Great Divide

  In a New Testament class once, we studied Luke 16:19-31. This passage is a parable of Jesus about 2 characters, the rich man and Lazarus.  I was amazed at the general consensus of belief about the meaning of this parable: that it is about heaven and hell.  Amazed, because this misses the point almost entirely.
  This text is not primarily about heaven and hell, or the afterlife, and we can tell his from a few clues.  First, neither heaven nor hell are mentioned at all in the text. The place of punishment in the story is Hades, the Greek underworld, well-known in the Hellenised world of Jesus. This concept may have informed Christian ideas of hell, but Jesus was simply using the ideas of the day to make a point.  On the other hand, rather than heaven, Jesus refers to Abraham's bosom. This was believed to be a place of comfort in Sheol, for the righteous, perhaps especially for Jewish martyrs. Again, Jesus is using contemporary, established concepts (and therefore, unlikely to be teaching about our modern day Christian doctrines).
  So, if he doesn't talk about heaven and hell, what does he talk about?  First, there's a rich man.  Tellingly, Jesus does not dignify the rich man with a name.  The other character, Lazarus, is a poor man, covered with sores, who lay at the rich man's gate. So, we start to see what the story might be about: something to do with money. After all, only a few verses earlier, Jesus has said that one cannot serve God and money, and let's remember that Luke's gospel has a particular interest in economics. It has been called the gospel of the poor, but equally it is the gospel for the rich, who need to be freed from the oppression of wealth as much as the poor from the oppression of poverty...
  Anyway, poor Lazarus is a very interesting character. When he dies, he is taken to Abraham's bosom.  It's worth noting here that Lazarus is the hellenised version of Eliezer. If that name rings a bell, it may be because of Abraham's servant in Genesis. Eliezer of Damascus was Abraham's most prized bondsman, so valued that Abraham saw him as his heir when the promised offspring was not forthcoming. A slave, the heir of God's promises? And a foreigner, at that. In fact, while we're there, and also picking up on Lazarus's skin condition, I'm reminded of another famous Damascene: Naaman the Syrian. Jesus, in Luke 4, uses Naaman's story (you can read that in 2 Kings 5) to talk of God's outrageously inclusive and revolutionary grace. Jesus was very nearly killed for speaking of that story, and very actually killed for (among other things) daring to challenge the established social order.
  Back to heaven and hell then. As I say, Jesus is, with this parable, using well-established images for illustrative purposes. That is what parables do.
  So this parable is not about heaven and hell. Too often, that has been the focus, and not just of this parable, taking attention away from the very real issue of poverty and wealth, and all that goes with it.
  If this story were literally about heaven and hell, then entry to those places is apparently based on social standing, and attitudes and behaviours, especially towards the neighbour and wealth. That would fly in the face of much doctrine pertaining to salvation and eternal destiny.
  The big issue in this story is the Great Divide. Unlike heaven and hell, this actually is mentioned in the text: a "great chasm has been fixed" between the rich man and Lazarus in the afterlife.  But the chasm, the divide, is not metaphysical, but socio-economic. It is set by the rich man, and gthose like him, and by systems and structures perfectly designed to maintain the divide. And Jesus' point in telling this story is that this situation is not acceptable.
  There have been different incarnations, throughout history, of the worldview that holds to a strict, fixed social ordering, with everyone in their place, whether that be feudal, caste, or whatever system. These systems propose closed, segregated stratification of people, classes, races, etc.
  But then, didn't Jesus say, "The poor you will always have with you"? Yes, he did (Mark 14:7; Matthew 26:11), and doesn't that suggest that some people will always be poor? Well, first, he wasn't saying that, in context, and second, he's probably paraphrasing the Hebrew scripture Deuteronomy 15:11, which encourages openness and generosity towards those less fortunate than ourselves. That text, in fact, relates to the Sabbath Year, which was part of the economic and social laws for Israel. The sabbath year, and especially the year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25) were designed to end poverty by regularly redistributing wealth. This is the real Great Divide: a sharing of wealth. And the early church was an experimental community in this regard. In Acts 2 and 4 we read summaries of life among the first Christians, that they shared, they held possessions in common, they abolished private property. The result was that "there was not a needy person among them..." (Acts 4:34). They ended poverty in their community! Their Great Divide ended the Great Divide, creating a true common wealth.
  Of course, the issue is not just an economic or material one. In Jesus' story, he rich man continues to see Lazarus as inferior and subservient , expecting Lazarus to serve his needs even in the afterlife. The rich man needs an attitude adjustment,not towards his wealth, but his neighbour. And at every point here, Lazarus is his neighbour, they are juxtaposed in life and death. This speaks of a universal law that where there is wealth, there is also poverty, often in its shadow.
  The rich man pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus back to warn the rich man's brothers. Abraham says they have Moses and the prophets, they should listen to them. This stuff is not a secret! It is on virtually every page of scripture. Yet it is ignored time and time again, because it's inconvenient, or it's less important than key issues like heaven and hell. And we're back...
  The story ends with the question over the value of someone coming back from the dead. After all,  if people ignore Moses and the prophets - supposedly the basis for their entire life and society - someone coming back from the dead won't change them, will it?  Perhaps Jesus (or Luke) is employing irony here. After all, Jesus' own upcoming resurrection wasn't enough to change some people's minds.

Sheep and goats today?

I was thinking about how immediate Jesus' parable of the the sheep and the goats was when he told it. It's recorded for us in Matthew 25:31-46. I wonder if today, Jesus might have said something like this...

I was on the street
And you washed my feet.
I was a refugee
And you welcomed me.
I was living with addiction
And you saw my affliction.
I told you I was gay
You said, 'Son, it's okay.'

You say, 'When? When did we?'
I say, 'Whenever you did, you did it for me.'

I was on the street
And our eyes didn't meet.
I was a refugee
You refused to recognise me.
I was living with addiction
To you, I was an infliction.
I told you I was gay
You said, 'Go, and stay away.'

You say, 'When? When did we?'
I say, 'Whenever you did, you did it for me.'

For those who cared
A place is prepared.
For those who didn't- well,
They can go to hell.