+ May I speak in the name …
“Work in church” they said, “it will be fun” they said, “you can consider scriptures, and preach on them”, they said…
As I’m sure we all know parables were Jesus main way of teaching his followers about the kingdom of God; short stories, little tales, which reveal nuggets of gold, gems of wisdom.
But this parable is more curious than most; most deal with earthly things; seeds, sheep, coins, fields, travellers. But this one has gone fully psychedelic.. a cosmic tale of justice and the afterlife…
Or is it?
The thing to say about the parables of Jesus before anything else, is that parables are not meant to be ‘understood’; they are deliberate acts of provocation, small inversions of the ways things work, and they are deeply participative.
The problem we face, some 2000 years on is that we have been taught over and over again, from childhood and through life, what the parables are about, ‘the seed is the word of God’ etc, but that’s not how early listeners heard them.. they were shocking in their newness, defying expectation; they challenged people to consider who they identified with in the stories.
Jesus invites his listeners into these small ‘worlds within stories’; to see themselves, (& ourselves), as characters within the story.
It’s like this; we are sitting in a room with many others and Jesus is in there too, (and it’s getting cold). Instead of saying “can you shut the window”, Jesus might simply suggest, “ooh it’s a little bit nippy”…
He identifies a situation, and then leaves it to his audience to recognise that they can respond, and to decide how to do that…
The Parables are allusive, they hint, suggest, present portraits.. but it’s left to us to decide how to respond.
And what’s more, the inversion of the parables, reveals the prophetic inversion of the kingdom of God.
However this passage goes beyond these things, it seems more direct, less allusive; apocalyptic even. Apocalypse doesn’t mean end of the world, it means revealing, looking under the floorboards at what is really going on. Breaking through numbness and complacency, saying, ‘this is the real story’. This story challenges the social divisions in society, challenges the barriers we create to separate ourselves from one another, asks us to look at the world with new eyes.
First it’s worth noting that this story of ‘trading places’ has origins in Egyptian folklore. The afterlife (figurative, not literal here) is a new idea to Judaism, it was only developed during the Maccabean period, between the OT and NT… Luke was trying to say something BIG, something significant and using a pretty hefty cast to back up the point, Abraham, Moses and Lazarus.
But let’s look and ask what inversions are taking places here;
Well the obvious one is this; the rich man, ‘Dives’, ending up in Hades, and the beggar, ‘Lazarus’, in the bosom of Abraham in paradise…
Today, we are used to ‘a rich man’ coming to no good in Jesus parables. But what we miss today is the utter incomprehension of his early listeners; the rich man would be understood as being blessed by God… the poor man had probably done something wrong, and… well, kind of deserved it. Although of course the socially deprived, the outcast, would not have been happy about their plight, they knew the bitter pill of inequality.
To reveal them in their final destinations would have left people scratching their heads… ‘how can that happen to someone so blessed’.
Abraham appears nine times in Luke; and represents the heritage and continuity of the Jewish community. The listeners would therefore have been scandalised, this broke the order of the day, and raised a most pressing question, “who really is in Abraham’s family?”
The parable tells us that Lazarus was so wretchedly poor that even the dogs licked his wounds, and he sat, (or was ‘dumped’), at the gate of the rich man’s house. They lived so close, and yet a chasm existed between them. The rich man in all his finery didn’t even see Lazarus.
The chasm motif continues into the afterlife, but this is now a different chasm…an inverted chasm. The consequences of indifference become clear.
When we allow barriers to exist, to ‘defend’ ourselves, or to blot out those things which we find uncomfortable or unpalatable, we lose something ourselves.
Of course, the economic/justice story is the foundational; Jesus is making a point connecting God’s reign to the words of the prophets – who we heard today in Amos – as clear as ever about God’s requirement for justice, equity and restoration. But restoring the chasm goes deeper than simply the level of wealth.
We live with the barriers of huge social inequality. A time when economics—not politics—holds the real power and dominance, (daily stock market reports). And apparently serving this narrative are the colourful stories of celebrity and fame; the diamond encrusted glitz of the life of extreme and inaccessible privilege; the ‘barrier’ of the tabloid press and celebrity magazines, (not wrong in themselves).
And we meet in this church, in an area of unemployment, deprivation and limited life choices. How do we respond prophetically?
I wish to suggest that responding only ‘in kind’—within the economic agenda—is not enough. It helps of course, but there is a prophetic critique too…
Like parables, the prophetic subverts the system, changes the game, repositions the agenda. Today’s prophets reject the economic social architecture, for we are not economic units; we are whole communities – made of people, human, beautiful, bruised, with dreams fears, and hopes. The Church across the world does so well to provide food banks, charity and aid; but it can also, prophetically, offer means to be(com)e human.. through art, play, imagination, creativity, dignity, community, reverence and relationship.
Barriers make victims of us all. Discovering the gift of the other sets us free.
There is not us and them.. we are all people together.. let us share stories, let us see one another, maybe even the non-human; the other who reveals something of who we are. When we next study 21stC Anglicanism we will look at the Eucharistic prayer, and the gathering of the many as one body; naming and making of a new community, living together in worship and delight
The rich man never got it, even in the anguish of his predicament he still regarded Lazarus as a servant! And that’s his tragic final irony.
And maybe the final irony for the church too… The last line takes our gaze away from this scene and points to the resurrection; God’s ultimate gift of grace—the final breaking of barriers, ushers in the kingdom of God now. To the households around Newtown, filled with love, and hope and chaos and despair, the gift is already given. The barriers cannot divide us forever.
Leonard Cohen sings, ‘there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in’.
May we all see the glints of light which shine with the radiance of the reign of Gods love; the glory of God, the dignity of humanity within everyone’s story.
GS Collins Sept 2016
‘Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. . . . But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6:20, 24)