Posts Tagged ‘Great Reversal’
This is one of those weeks where I’m not quite sure what to do. For the past couple of weeks we’ve been talking about the “Great Reversal” in Luke. This week we’re looking at another paradigmatic example of that, the story of Lazarus. Note this is not the story of Lazarus being raised from the dead found in John 11, but the story in Luke 16:19-31 of a desperately impoverished man who can do nothing but waste away, begging at the gate of a rich man. Lazarus and the rich man both die, but their fates in the afterlife are quite different.
The rich man is tormented in Hades. As he is roasting in the flames, he sees Lazarus sitting in Abraham’s lap, comforted. He begs for a simple drop of water, but is denied. It’s a disturbing scene, but perhaps I’m more disturbed by the reasoning.
Abraham cites two reasons that the rich man will not – cannot! – be helped. First, Lazarus’ life was unrelenting suffering. In the spirit of the Great Reversal, he is now comforted. But the rich man had everything, every comfort in life. Now he suffers in agony. This is retribution. Second, there is a great chasm between the place of torment and the place of comfort. No one can cross from one side to the other. This is permanent. It gets worse.
The rich man, seeing that he cannot be helped, begs Abraham to send Lazarus back to the land of the living to warn the rich man’s brothers of the fate that awaits them. Again, Abraham refuses. He says that they have the warnings of Moses and the prophets and do not listen. He says they won’t even listen to one who has been raised from the dead. Their fate is inevitable. They cannot change. Nothing can be done.
Luke is a great gospel for social justice. It is very clear about good and evil. However, if you like Richard Rohr; or think of your faith as one of reconciliation, redemption, and transformation; or just like being rich or even comfortable, Luke is problematic. Since I fit a lot of those categories – I’m a lot more like the rich man than I am like Lazarus – I don’t like it, but there it is in my Bible.
Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, and help me read this text into something I like. Or maybe help me live with the discomfort.
Grace and Peace,
Very good discussion this Sunday, but, as always, there were things I was hoping to get to that we could not. We were looking at Luke’s Sermon on the Plain. He makes sharp divisions between good and evil and is very clear that the best result, the ultimate end, is the reversal of fortune for those at the top and those at the bottom. One thing we did discuss is that things are not so clear now – and probably weren’t in Luke’s time, either. This forces us to ask who we are in Jesus’ proclamations of blessings and woe and rarely results in easy answers.
The truth is, we likely shift between Luke’s categories all the time. We all experience degrees of poverty and prosperity. It’s less likely that people in Church in the Cliff have experienced true hunger or food insecurity, but it’s possible. I’m certain that many of us have gorged ourselves on food we didn’t need, but enjoyed all the same. Maybe that’s just me. I know that we have all grieved and mourned, whether it was the loss of a relationship or a loved one or a job that brought us to tears. And I know that we laugh.
Because we slide so easily from grief to laughter, it strikes me that one way to read Luke is as a simple description of reality. Not a prediction. Not a judgment. Just an assessment. No matter how good things are going, it can always go bad. For some, it may not be until age and illness overtake us. For some, it’s just some personal tragedy, some minor misfortune, that turns the tide. And, no matter how bad things are going, I know that it can get better. Not without effort and support and even luck, but it can get better. It will get better. Maybe it’s a career change. Maybe it’s a new love. Maybe it’s coming out to your family. Maybe it’s just realizing that we are loved and we are good and we are children of God, but it will get better.
In this light, what might seem like a judgment in Luke is actually message of hope. Things will turn. And in the meantime, as Jesus tells us in the passage following the Sermon on the Plain, the best thing to do is to love our enemies, to return cruelty with kindness. This is how God acts. This is how we should act. This is life in God. This is the reward. This is the means by which the world experiences the Great Reversal. It gets better because we treat each other better. Because we love each other. Because we have compassion. And because we learn to cherish all the moments, the good and the bad, that come with being human.
Good conversation last Sunday. Bonus points to Sarah for saying that transformation starts with hope. I’m always blessed by the wisdom of the gathering. I did want to comment on one part of the conversation.
In talking about a larger, cosmic battleground in Luke, we stumbled upon questions of interreligious dialogue. It’s a question that bedevils those who are interested in building bridges across faiths. Some, like Karen Armstrong, suggest that all religions are ultimately pointing at the same thing, that all paths lead up the same mountain. For her, compassion is the common value and insight for all religions. All other values and practices are particular instantiations of those values at best and distractions at worst. Others, like Stephen Prothero, argue that there are actually many mountains. More importantly, it is chauvinistic to explain to a person of another faith “what it is really about.”
I must admit that I am torn on this. I just took World Religions last semester. Although my professor kept things somewhat close to the vest, I suspect he agreed, in principle, with the Karen Armstrongs of the world. At the least, he saw enough common ground to create opportunities for fruitful dialogue. This contrasted with a course I took in undergrad from a professor and mentor who had a tremendous influence on my thinking. He seemed to agree more with Stephen Prothero. His argument is that the way we think is so inescapably structured by culture that it is hard to even know what the other is talking about, much less shift our thinking to find common ground. For him, the child of Baptist missionaries in China whose first language was Chinese, language itself constrains our thinking too much to even know if we are talking about the same things. He was able to negotiate between cultures because he was fluent in multiple languages from an early age, but that is a rare gift.
I’ll continue to wrestle with this, but I have a tentative standing. Perhaps it is not appropriate to think that all religions have a common root value or that we even mean the same thing when we use words like “love” and “compassion.” However, maybe Armstrong is right that there should be, that compassion is ultimately the value that can unite us, whether it currently does or not. And maybe the task of the person of faith is to steadfastly and earnestly seek that value by engaging others of all faiths or no faith to discover the meaning and the possibility of compassion. Maybe compassion as I understand it is not where we have all ultimately been directed, but maybe our conversation can and should reorient us to that. Maybe in that process of inclusive dialogue, we find God.
Long before I came to Church in the Cliff or went to seminary and was exposed to the liturgical calendar, I received a covert education on it. Living in New Orleans, one is immersed in the flow of that calendar. The already low productivity in the Big Lazy drops even more after Thanksgiving. Holiday parties and ski vacations for those who can afford them leave many out of pocket. And then we roll into Carnival, the weeks preceding Fat Tuesday and Lent. In a city prone to search for reasons to celebrate, Mardi Gras delivers.
Those distracted by hurricanes and public nudity might miss the serious purpose that lurks underneath. Carnival is probably an evolution and Christianization of a more ancient celebration: Saturnalia. Saturnalia was a Roman celebration in which societal norms were undercut – at least, temporarily. Slaves were served a feast by their masters. People wore ornate dinner clothes during the day. Everyone, slave, citizen, and freedperson, wore the hat normally designated for the freedperson, eliminating the usual markers of class hierarchy. And, of course, there was a lot of drinking, perhaps to make equality more palatable. This all harked back to a primal time when humans enjoyed the world’s bounty without labor or commerce and so there was no need for class. (Sound familiar?) In the official liturgical calendar, this time is just ordinary time, but in New Orleans – and in many other places around the world – this is the time to celebrate the Great Reversal.
If you plot out this part of the year as the life of Jesus, this is the time of Jesus’ mission, sandwiched, like all our lives, between birth and death. And so it is a time of celebration. The bridegroom is with us! Feast and drink! Celebrate! For it will not always be so.
But it is not just a celebration for its own sake, particularly if we follow Luke’s story of the life of Jesus. The life of Luke’s Jesus had a particular focus. It is foreshadowed in the messages of angels and the song of Mary. It is welcomed in the joy of the shepherds. And it is stated explicitly when Jesus begins his ministry by reading from the prophet Isaiah in Luke 4:18-19: “The Spirit of our God is upon me: because the Most High has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim liberty to those held captive, recovery of sight to those who are blind, and release to those in prison – to proclaim the year of our God’s favor” (inclusive translation). The world as we know it is turned upside down in the presence of God. We might need a drink.
Please join us this Sunday, 11am at Kidd Springs Rec Center, as we discuss life in the Great Reversal as presented in Jesus’ “mission statement.”
Grace and Peace,