Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Lazarus, the Rich Man, and Life... but Which Life?

I find myself in an interesting position. I am not preaching this upcoming Sunday, and yet today, I led my Tuesday morning bible study on our normal weekly romp through the upcoming Sunday's gospel lesson. This gathering is really helpful for me. I have an early crack at the upcoming text every week. It is not uncommon for our encounter with the text to significantly shape how I will be preaching. But this Sunday I don't have to do it. I can drop it this week. Focus on something else. But this text, Lazarus and the Rich Man, has grabbed a hold of me. Perhaps it is just the way I have been formed these nearly seven years in the parish. Or maybe it is THIS passage. I feel guilt whenever I think about this passage since in 2001, while I was on internship, I feel like I crashed and burned on my preaching of this text. Maybe I am not sure I will ever do this text justice because of that, but I feel like I must keep on trying.

Whatever the reason though, this passage Luke 16:19-31, has stuck this week. And while it is not nearly as confusing and problematic as last week's reading, it certainly gives us some possible avenues for interpretation. Without a doubt, one avenue to explore is the whole afterlife image. Over at Working Preacher, Greg Carey opens his reflection about this passage with this line. He writes:
For example, the parable might reflect Luke's view of what happens after we die. At the moment of death, it seems Lazarus journeys to Abraham's bosom while the Rich Man descends into torment. Does death deliver us immediately to our eternal fate? Such a view would seem to contradict that expressed by Paul in 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians. In those early letters, Paul regards death as, well, death. The hope for life resides only in the resurrection. (Paul may voice a different view in Philippians 1: "to live is Christ, but to die is gain.") Luke's story of the thief on the cross also suggests an immediate transition into the afterlife: "Truly I tell you: Today you will be with me in Paradise" (23:43). Moreover, does this parable teach that the wicked suffer torment in the afterlife? Few mainline preachers devote significant pulpit time to that distressing prospect.
Today I was using THE Lutheran Study Bible from CPH (I reviewed it here) and right there in midst of this passage was a special page dedicated to the question of what happens when we die. This parable (and yes, I do think it is a parable) leads a number of folks to think this way and I understand that. However given the placement of this text in the flow of Luke, it seems to make much more sense to be dealing with Jesus' continued discussion of wealth.

Clearly the parable shows that how we use (or misuse in this case) wealth matters. And in this vein, this story clearly has much to do with THIS life, not our afterlife. At the same time however, the Rich Man is clearly so malformed by his misuse of wealth that his afterlife is affected as well. How we live in this world does in fact have some bearing on our afterlife. The other example that we see in this story is the great chasm. The great chasm fixed between the two parties, the wicked and the saved, is there first Abraham says so that those on his side (the saved) cannot pass over to the other. The only way I can read that the saved might want to cross over from their bliss to the agony of the wicked is because they would wish to alleviate the suffering of those others. Those resting in the bosom of Abraham have been so formed by their life of suffering (if Lazarus is typical, and given Luke's stressing of the great reversal, such as in the Magnificat) that they would seek to alleviate any suffering of others. Only the great chasm that stands fixed between them stops the saved from carrying out their aid.

Engaging in this life, so that we are formed with the virtues of the Kingdom ahead of time, is vital for this passage. The law and prophets agree, says Jesus. And the resurrection of one in particular will also point to the Kingdom's reality and fruit bearing of followers in this world. Not that everyone will listen... but maybe we will.

No comments: