Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Hell of a Story

The story referred to can be found in Luke 16:19-31.

One of my favorite podcasts is “The Tobolowsky Files.” It is a series of stories told by Stephen Tobolowsky, one of those actors whose face people know better than they do his name. He’s been in many movies, including “Mississippi Burning,” “Thelma and Louise,” and “Memento.” He is also a staple on TV. His two most recognizable roles share a surname. On “Glee” he is Sandy Ryerson, the former Glee Club teacher and sometime conspirator with Sue Sylvester. But he is best known as Ned Ryerson, the insurance salesman who annoys Bill Murray everyday in “Groundhog's Day.” Tobo, as his friends call him, is a born raconteur, with a wealth of stories about his professional and personal life. He has been thrown from a horse and broken his neck, suffered amnesia, had his apartment broken into as he lay medicated and helpless in his bedroom, formed the "Dangerous Animals Club" with boyhood pals, lived with a brilliant but maddening playwright, battled squirrels and skunks in his garden, written the film “True Stories” with David Byrne of the Talking  Heads, and chatted with an irrepressible Holocaust survivor he met at his synagogue, whose experiences are the basis of his podcast entitled “A Good Day at Auschwitz.” Tobo’s stories are funny, sad, nostalgic, mystical, bizarre, dramatic, romantic, heartbreaking and heartwarming. If you just want to hear a good story, well told, Google “The Tobolowsky Files,” go to the website and click on any of the podcasts. You will be spellbound.

Besides a compelling plot, one of the keys to making a story memorable is good details. Details can flesh out a story, make it more vivid, more arresting. Jesus was a good storyteller and one of his most memorable tales is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. In 2 sentences Jesus sets the stage. The rich man wears purple and fine linen and feasts every day. In contrast a poor man lies at the rich man's gate. He would be satisfied with the crumbs that fell from the rich man's table. And instead of being covered with fine linen, he is covered with sores. Which the dogs lick. That detail, besides making us go “Ick,” creates sympathy for Lazarus.

Note that the poor man has a name. The rich man doesn't. Tobo says the worst parts for an actor to play are those without a name, just a title, like “the Judge” or “Loudmouth Executive.” Those characters are never fleshed out. And, indeed, Jesus’ rich man has no distinguishing features. For that reason, among others, it is unlikely that Jesus is talking about specific persons or a real situation. That’s not the point of the story.

The stage is set. It’s time to call “Action!” In this case, the 2 men die. Lazarus is carried by the angels to Abraham's side; in other words, heaven. The rich man finds himself in Hades. He sees Lazarus and Abraham far off and asks the father of the faithful to send the poor man with a mere drop of water to cool his tongue. But every story needs an obstacle. Abraham says there is an uncrossable chasm between the 2 places. So the rich man pleads with Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers. Abraham replies that they have Moses and the prophets to tell them how to live. The rich man says that he won't do them any good. But a man coming back from the dead will impress them. Abraham begs to differ. If the moral arguments of Scripture won't move them to turn to God, neither will the miracle of a man brought back from the dead.

There are a couple of things to note. First, the layout of heaven and Hades cannot be taken too literally. Hell is separation from God. Here it's within hailing distance of heaven. But if the rich man and Abraham couldn't interact, the story wouldn't work. So the chasm that prevents crossing over but not conversation should be seen as a plot contrivance. It makes it possible for us to see what the story is really about.      

And what it's about is not that the rich go to hell and the poor go to heaven. The man's sin was not being rich but not helping Lazarus. The poor man was lying at the rich man's gate. He couldn't enter or leave his house without stepping over Lazarus. But he couldn't even be bothered to give the man his table scraps, much less treat him as a fellow human being. We are commanded to love our neighbor as we do ourselves. The rich man's actions are anything but loving. He reserved all the pleasures he could afford for himself. The rich man suffers in the afterlife what he avoided in this life. Lazarus, deprived of all physical and social comfort in this life, is comforted in paradise. So it’s not about how much you have but what you do with it. The man isn't condemned for being rich but for being selfish and not even thinking of helping his neighbor.

The rich man still hasn't learned his lesson because he asks Lazarus to do for him what he wouldn't do for  Lazarus--give him a morsel of mercy, in this case, a drop of water. Only when he is told that it is impossible, does the man in Hades think of others.  He asks that Lazarus be sent to warn his 5 brothers. This time Abraham doesn't say that what the man asks for is impossible. He merely says that the warning his brothers need can be found in what Moses and the prophets have revealed. And indeed, you can't read the Bible open-mindedly without noticing that God expects us to take good care of others, especially those too poor to afford food, water and shelter. The prophets routinely connect bad religion with a lack of concern for the poor and the powerless. So Abraham is right. If the brothers would only heed the commandments of their own religion, they will avoid the rich man's fate.

The man knows his brothers only too well. They won't listen to God’s Word. They need something more startling, like a resurrected Lazarus. (And what does it say about the brothers that they, too, saw Lazarus at the gate often enough to recognize him should he return from the dead?)

So Abraham drops the bomb. If the man's brothers won't listen to Moses and the prophets, they probably won't listen to Lazarus.

But wait! Why wouldn't a resurrected Lazarus convince them? I mean if someone you knew came back from the dead and told you to change your ways so you don't go to hell, wouldn't you listen? Or would you run to a psychiatrist, terrified you were going crazy? On Easter, even the disciples had doubts. They thought the risen Jesus might be a ghost. Contrary to popular belief, it was hard for them to get used to something that went against what they had previously thought about reality, as well as the beliefs they had grown up with. The Messiah was meant to sit on a throne, not hang from a cross. So it took 40 days of encountering the risen Jesus for the new reality to take hold. Would a mere acquaintance have much effect on the brothers?

There’s another reason why sending Lazarus might not work. True, he might put the fear of hell into the brothers but that's a pretty negative motive to do good. It’s like putting a gun to someone's head and saying, “I want you to be a good person.” You may change their outward behavior but not their inner attitude. They would still be acting out of selfishness--self-preservation.

God is Love. He made us in his image. He wants us to emulate him by loving him and each other. Love requires free will, including the option to reject the lover. You can't make someone love you or anyone. So as Abraham says, if people are not touched by God’s Word on justice and mercy, they won't be changed by any external event, no matter how spectacular.

But wait! Weren't the disciples changed by the resurrection of Jesus? Yes, but only because they had already been touched by his words. When many others turned away from Jesus because of his difficult preaching, he asked the Twelve if they were going to leave as well. “To whom can we go?’ they replied. “You have the words of eternal life.” What the resurrection of Christ did was confirm what they already had begun to believe--that  Jesus is the Messiah. And rather than putting fear into them, it took their fears away. If Jesus conquered the realm of death, what else was there for them to fear?         

So just as Dorothy has to go to Oz to realize that there's no place like home, the point of Jesus’ story of a man who goes to hell is that the existence of hell isn't sufficient to change people. If they don't respond to God’s Word, to the values it promotes, to the perspective on life it gives, to the just and loving God it reveals, to the good news that Jesus proclaims, they won't respond any better to miracles or even fear. That's the twist to Jesus’ story.

The best stories change the way we look at things. “A Good Day at Auschwitz” lets the listener see the  Holocaust through the eyes of a man who could find moments of joy even in hell on earth. In today’s parable, we see that heaven and hell are not so much external places but internal states of the spirit. Those who live for themselves alone are cut off from God, the source of love, even in this life. They are deaf to the Gospel. Wrapped up in themselves, their exile from God is self-imposed. As C.S. Lewis said, the gates of hell are locked from the inside.

Those who love God and others, not just with their lips but with their lives, are already part of the community of God and in this life and the next, they can look forward to greater intimacy with God.   

Character is destiny, especially if you live forever. The good news is we can change. If you let the Spirit of God grow you into his image in Christ, then, as you reach out and connect to others, the Body of Christ grows and the Kingdom of God expands. The Kingdom, Jesus said, is among you, is in you. Heaven is not where you are going, it is what you are becoming.

Think about it. There is no place you could put Hitler that would not be hell for him and for others. He carried his hatred and rage and love of destruction with him. By the same token, anywhere Jesus is can be paradise.  So the ideal place for him is in your heart, your mind, your life.

But don't think you can keep him to yourself. Nothing can contain Jesus. Hell couldn't. And even today, if you keep your eyes open, you'll see Jesus in the damnedest places. He is irrepressible. And thank God for that. 

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