Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Lazarus and Dives: Luke 16:19-31, a short perspective

Luke is a dramatic new interpretation of Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomic condition. This is particularly true of these passages that deal with wealth, money, mammon, etc. According to Luke, and this is most likely a bit caricatured, there are the Pharisees who see in the world that the righteous prosper and the wicked suffer. In opposition to this view is Jesus who demands that we rethink/reinterpret Deuteronomy and demands blessings on the poor urging the open sharing of one’s possessions.

Luke describes the rich as particularly unrighteous and the poor worthy of all glory and honor under heaven in a story Jesus tells. This parable, by the way, is the only parable told by Jesus that includes two actual names, Lazarus and Abraham. Lazarus was poor, but not poor like many folk in the West who still have homes, cars, computers, televisions, and cable. This was extreme poverty, poverty that kills. He was on the ground outside of the home of Dives, the traditional name given to the rich man. Lazarus would hallucinate about receiving the scraps from Dives’ table, the scraps that the pigs would get instead. Jesus even said dogs would lick Lazarus’ wounds.

Dives, the rich man, dressed in purple and fine linen, an obvious literary reference to just how wealthy he was. He would feast sumptuously every day while Lazarus wasted away just outside his door. By the way, the linens and purple garments aren’t only a literary reference to Dives’ wealth, they also point to the one who should be wearing them, Lazarus. These are garments that Jesus himself would have rejected in favor of giving them to Lazarus. This story is about the great overturning after all.

Lazarus dies and is carried away by angels to be with Abraham. This point was probably particularly pejorative to the Pharisees as Luke paints them as folks who felt that they were the only ones who deserved to be in the presence of Abraham. Dives dies too, and goes straight to hell. As Dives is burning, he asks Abraham to send Lazarus to him with a drop of water to cool Dives. To me, this seems worse than if he’d asked them to change places, a slap in the face to someone who has suffered so much. Dives is turned down and Abraham describes a great chasm between Lazarus and Dives that cannot be overcome. This chasm that Abraham describes existed between Lazarus and Dives even before they died. It was a socio-economic chasm as much as it was a physio-spiritual chasm.

He then asks if Lazarus could be resurrected and go warn Dives’ brothers and friends about the consequences of their lifestyle. Again Dives was turned down and Abraham reminds him that they would not listen. After all, they haven’ listened to the prophets or Moses. This was a slap in the face to Pharisees that follow the law to their letter. Jesus, with Abraham as his mouthpiece saying they’re going to need more than the law. Jesus is saying that something even bigger than the law is needed here, something like perhaps a resurrection.

The tension in this story is continued even now among us, Jesus’ own followers. I and my top 4% in the world salary exemplify this as much as anyone. This story, remember fails to separate the generous rich from the ungenerous rich. Therefore, there is no excuse. We must do more to eliminate the chasm between rich and poor and it must come from the hearts of givers. There is no outside force other than the Holy Spirit herself that can destroy the gap. Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on us, who think that by the law alone we will be saved. By the power of the Holy Spirit change our hearts, change my heart, so that I give more, perhaps even all!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Shrewd Steward: Luke 16:1-13, a short perspective

Luke 16:1-13: This parable is often too hard for folks to deal with and so sometimes it is dropped from the preaching schedule altogether. But something about this story that really strikes a nerve in people. According to Sarah Dylan, most commentators say that this is about how the shrewd steward acts decisively and Jesus is describing the “inbreaking of the Kingdom of God call[ing] upon us all to act decisively.” Just as for Dylan, this is not enough for me. Therefore questions must be asked. Was Jesus really commending a crook? Is it purely allegorical? If so, whom does the master represent? What is it that the shrewd steward does? Taken at face value, this story makes Jesus sound as though he approves of deceit. But let’s look further. Let’s answer the last question. What is it that the shrewd steward does? Well, the shrewd steward forgives debt.

So, it seems this passage for Dylan is about forgiveness, an overarching theme throughout the Gospels, and one that can hardly be dismissed. If it is about forgiveness, then despite the reasons the steward forgives, despite that he had no right to forgive, he forgives and it perhaps redeems him in the eyes of his master. What are the implications for us as Christians if Dylan is correct? Then we must forgive, even if forgiveness helps us, even if we have no right to forgive, even if it doesn’t benefit us at all. We must forgive with flagrant irresponsibility even.

There is another theme however, this one highlighted by Fred Craddock. Verse 10-11 says, “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches?” (Hmm, perhaps this is justification for more churches to accept tithe from Lotto winnings.) This shifts the focus onto another theme throughout the gospels, being faithful with what is given you. It is also found in the parable of the talents. Craddock sees the meaning in this parable much more straight forward and simple (not simplistic) than Dylan.

For Craddock, these two verses concern the stewardship of possessions. Considering all the dangers in possessions, “it is possible to manage goods in ways appropriate to life in the Kingdom of God”(Craddock, Interpretation: Luke 191). He says this is an argument of a fortiori (from the lesser to the greater, specific to the general). If one is responsible for the small things then one will be responsible for the large things. Jesus perhaps is saying , “No, really, you should sweat the small stuff.” Craddock says that very few of us will do huge things this week, win a war, win a gold medal in the Olympics, build a better mousetrap. However, we might vote, encourage a friend, share a meal with friends. “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much.”

Between the two views, Dylan and Craddock, we can see that even forgiving in the very little can lead to flagrant forgiveness in the very big. Seeing these two views together can give us a balance between. Perhaps we should be like the shrewd steward, wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove.