What’s your favorite Bible story and why?
I’ve never been all that hot at favorites. My favorite book or movie or symphony or Spice Girl changes from day to day. Some days, my tastes more or less align with the majority: I can’t really argue with the folks who put “Abbey Road“ in the top five albums or “Vertigo” in the top five films. And on other days, I hang out with the minority: right now, the record that would come with me to the desert island is “Stan Rogers: At Home in Halifax.”
I have a similar difficulty choosing a single favorite Bible story. For my money, Scripture is the ultimate classic: there are more wondrous tales in its pages than I can count (and within those tales, there more layers of meaning than any us of will discover). So, rather than attempting to hold a single story above all the others, I’ll do something that feels a little more manageable and tell you about one of my favorite stories.
I really like the parable that we call Lazarus and the Rich Man. I guess I like it because, in telling it, Jesus masterfully combines prophecy with comedy, the serious with the absurd.
So. There’s a rich man and a poor man; a man who knows nothing but privilege and a man who knows nothing but suffering. The rich man eats well and lives well. He has a big house, a big car, a big iPhone, a big flat screen TV. And he figures that he is pretty a good person. After all, his light bulbs are all compact fluorescent, he shops at the farmer’s market, and he drives a hybrid. The rich man spends his days thinking virtuous thoughts. He thinks these thoughts as he steps over the poor man on his way to church.
Time passes and, as people sometimes do, the rich man and the poor man both die. When the afterlife begins, the rich man has the hell surprised out of him. Well, I suppose he has the hell surprised into him. He is engulfed in flames, surrounded by pitchfork wielding demons, and listening to nothing but Enya. In the distance, he sees the poor man standing in heaven. And here comes Jesus’ first punchline. The rich man is so accustomed to privilege that, even standing in the middle of hell, he tries to call room service. “Could you just get me a glass of water? Maybe some San Pellegrino with a twist of lemon?” When that doesn’t work out, the rich man moves onto the tactic which has served him so well in his life: he begins to argue. And this gives us the second punchline. Notwithstanding going to church for decades and listening while Scripture is read, the rich man looks up at heaven and, with a totally straight face, says, “but nobody told me to love my neighbour as myself.”
Jesus bring the absurd and the serious together in order to tell this folk tale and, therefore, to proclaim the Gospel. And in doing so, he invites us to more or less the same place that Paul hopes we will reach when, in his letter to his friends in Corrinth, he puts wisdom and foolishness in the same sentence. You should become fools so that you may become wise.
Now, it’s tempting to round the edges off of Paul and say that what he means is that other people think we’re foolish but we’re really wise. In other words, folks may think we’ve lost our way but, actually, we’re the only ones on the right path. But that is to let ourselves off the hook much too easily, to avoid the hard work that Paul is calling us to. Paul and Jesus alike are calling us to engage in the foolish and dangerous exercise of questioning our most basic assumptions, our common sense, our of courses — about how the world works, about human nature, about what a successful life looks like, about who God is. They are proclaiming our vocation to hope and to work for something that is as absurd, as foolish — as childish, even — as the Kingdom of God.
Like the world found through Alice’s looking glass, the Kingdom of God is a place of absurd possibility, of imagination. It is a place where the wisdom of this world is bent and reinvented and absurd new stories are told.
The Kingdom is the place where Nelson Mandela and his friends discover the absurd idea that apartheid might end, where the church discovers the absurd idea that women and GLBTQ folks might be priests, where the United States discovers the absurd idea than an African American person might be president, where a rich man discovers the absurd idea that how he treats his poor neighbor matters. The Kingdom is a place where a soldier discovers the absurd idea that the murdered peasant who hangs before him on the cross is the son of God.
Lazarus and the Rich Man leaves us with a question: if something as preposterous as a total reversal of wealth and power and status is possible, then what else await us in the Kingdom of God? Some of the answers to that question are almost too absurd to imagine.
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