Thursday, September 23, 2010

Lectionary Reflections: Luke 16:19-31

This is a very perplexing, and for some, offensive parable. So I ask you to imagine sitting at the feet of Jesus, or more probable, standing around Jesus as he sat in our midst- how would you hear this story? If you are like me, this parable comes as an affront to grace-filled imaginations and expectations. This parable even appears void of the love and compassion of God that I have grown accustom to while seated in padded chairs or wooden pews every Sunday morning. I even hesitate to preach or teach this passage, especially with youth (as I am doing this Sunday), as the parable’s loaded description of Hades, torment, flame-induced agony, and an impossible chasm may serve as an affront to the therapeutic gospel that drips from the pages of our suburban homilies. [1] Why not dodge the cumbersome illustrations? Why not choose another parable? Would it really be wise to enter into dialogue about this cold and dreadful montage that Jesus offered to the Pharisees? Then I begin to hear myself ask these questions out loud as yet another one begins to develop, who is this fellow that speaks such a dark and difficult parable? [2] And then it hits me, I have only heard this parable, I have only exegeted this narrative, I have only avoided this allegory from my Pharisaical and scribal contexts of luxury and comfort. I have read it with the eyes of the rich man, unconcerned about Lazarus.  As I wrestled through this text, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of the quote on my office wall:
Reading the Bible with the eyes of the poor is a different thing from reading it with a full belly. If it is read in the light of the experience and hopes of the oppressed, the Bible’s revolutionary themes- promise, exodus, resurrection, and spirit- come alive.
                                       ---J├╝rgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 17
So I reread Luke 16:19-31 and for the first time embraced this parable as a fountain of God’s grace. If I only had the eyes to see and the ears to hear, for the poor and the oppressed one had been liberated from sinful conditions of exploitation, poverty, marginalization, and disease. Lazarus, whose name means “the one whom God has helped,” [3] had been resurrected from systemic and cultural oppression and received into the kingdom of God. So I wonder, what would the Lazaruses of this world say if they overheard my off-color comments, this text is void of God’s grace. I can only imagine the reaction of those who dwell in and on the streets of my community and beg for the scraps from my table upon hearing me question the viability of teaching or preaching from this parable.  Dare I rob Lazarus not only of my discarded leftovers, but also the liberating gospel?  It is to that end that Luke 16 has forcefully adjusted my full-belly posture, at least for the time being, in order to see and hear the cries for justice and the hopes for renewal in the faces of people like Lazarus. Yes, this is a parable of judgment; I should be concerned and aware. Yet, it is also a brilliant portrait of grace; I hope to have the audacity to not only preach it, but also extend it to another. As Clark Pinnock once wrote, this parable “ought to explode in our hands when we read it sitting at our well-covered tables while the third world stands outside.” [4] May such explosion launch all of us to live into the good news of God’s grace with Lazarus, and others just like him, whom we encounter every day- if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear.

[1] I love that this parable's notion of "hell" has nothing to do with common evangelical assumptions.  If we want to talk hell, and who really does, why don't we begin here?  My guess is because it is not the illustration we want, rather the one we fear.  So instead, we bypass it, spiritualize it, or refuse it altogether.
[2] Hear the echoes of Luke 15:2 that serves as the preface to the Lukan parables.
[3] See Ronald J. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. Nashville, TN: W Publishing Group, 1997. p.55. What better name than Lazarus to point towards God's grace.
[4] As referenced in Sider, p. 55.