Several years ago now, when I had been teaching undergraduates for a few years, I said something (demonstrably true) in class about the text-critical problems with a particular passage of scripture that caused a minor disturbance among students. It soon reached the ears of the administration. Nothing came of it in the long run, I am happy to say, except for the lasting memory it left me of my mother’s reaction when I told her about it. “Mark,” she said, “why don’t you just teach what the Bible says. Then you can stay out of trouble.” I laughed to myself at the time and have since thought of her advice when teaching what the Bible says has caused yet another disturbance.
Coming to scripture with the assumptions instilled in us by American Christianity means that we expect to find there confirmation of our most fundamental cultural beliefs and values: namely, that prosperity, both on a national and an individual scale, signals God’s favor. As Protestant Christians in the West, we bring to scripture a long heritage that, somewhat schizophrenically, often emphasizes salvation by grace, as well as a moralism based on limited readings of biblical texts chosen to undergird our particular and peculiar ethical strictures. Stated in the inverse, we tend to affirm that God’s salvation has no effect beyond determining our ultimate destinies, and that, in the realm of everyday living, rules that protect the status quo must be enforced. We are legalists every day except Sunday when we become antinomian.
The biblical story of Lazarus and the wealthy man (Luke 16:19-31) demonstrates that, while contemporary American Christianity may be rife with this schizophrenia, it is not a new phenomenon. If we look closely at “what the Bible Says” in this text, we may cause a disturbance. Most churchgoers know the story, so there is no need to retell it. It should be enough simply to point to two elements in the account.
First, Luke seems to have included it at this point in his Gospel because it suits his emphasis on the danger that wealth poses to spiritual well-being. Early in the chapter, Luke recounts Jesus’ advice about “unrighteous mammon” (16:9, 11) and, then, Jesus’ admonition that one cannot serve both God and “mammon” (16:13). Luke’s Gospel records Mary’s prayer in which she thanks God because God has “filled the hungry with good things and sent away the rich empty” (1:53). Luke’s “Sermon on the Plain” parallel to Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount” offers a “woe” as a counterpart to each of the “blessings”:
Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are the ones hungering now, for you will be sated. (vv 20-21)
But woe to you rich, because you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now, because you shall hunger. (vv 24-25).
Jesus’ idea that servants are greater than masters, that “the first shall be last,” finds quintessential expression in the reversal of fortunes experienced by Lazarus and the rich man. I can think of nothing more disturbing for prosperity-oriented contemporary Western culture than the idea that those among us “worth” the most have the least value in the Kingdom of God.
The Rich Man must have felt as many do today that his money was his own to dispose of as he wished. The needy have no claim or right and the wealthy are under no obligation, he must have thought. Of course, that may have been true and may be true of those who did not and do not consider themselves among the people of God. “Moses and the prophets,” as Father Abraham pointed out, however, place significant obligations on those who have vis-à-vis those who have not. “You shall not steal” may be the favorite commandment of capitalists who see it as the foundation of property rights – what’s mine is mine. Yet, the so-called “Covenant Code” (Exod 20:19-23:33), which immediately follows and explicates the Decalogue, makes it clear that withholding from the poor the assistance that they need is a form of stealing (Exod 22:21-27). Deuteronomy’s treatment of the eighth commandment includes frequent reminders that Israel, once enslaved, has been freed by a God who watches over the disenfranchised, and that the Israelites will always face that the danger that, in prosperity, they will become pharaohs.
Even more disturbing to many Christians, this text links the Rich Man’s final destiny to his actions, not his beliefs. He apparently believed himself to be a child of Abraham, an heir to the promise, judging by his appeals to “Father Abraham” (16:24, 30). Contemporary religion so internalizes/ spiritualizes/ individualizes faith that it cannot comprehend the biblical view of integrity. The Gnostics were wrong when they taught an absolute dichotomy of body and spirit. Jesus was right when he pointed out that one’s being determines one’s doing. This assertion is not legalism. A tree does not bear apples in order to become an apple tree. (Healthy) apple trees bear apples naturally and necessarily. Law or grace? When God writes the law on our hearts in an act of grace, the distinction dissolves.
We frequently hear that it is not possible to legislate mercy, which may be true, but God’s grace transforms the selfish into the selfless. Selfish Christianity is an oxymoron. Forgiven Christians forgive. Freed Christians free. Loved Christians love. By our fruits…