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Reform Magazine | April 27, 2017

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Chapter & verse: John 3:1-21

Chapter & verse: John 3:1-21

mj_cropIn re-reading the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, “Dislocated exegesis” may be a useful method. This is the practice of reading scripture in unexpected places that may “unsettle” our reading of a familiar text. How about reading this story at a board meeting of a financial institution or at the next budget debate in parliament?

Money, wealth, riches have an interesting relationship with the Christian faith. Mammon still competes with the Divine for the heart of the most devout. The borderland between the realms of faith and money has not been an altogether comfortable place to live. Our current church conversations about finances highlight the discomfort. We will agree that our society is heavily materialistic, values products more than people and that greed is still a distortion of the ways of God, yet many of us are unable to decide when enough is enough.

The mantra of the modern Rich Man’s world is: “Compete. Make yourselves cheap! The redistribution of the world’s wealth depends on growth.” But often that redistribution is from the poor to the rich. Growth is at the expense of the poor, while the rich luxuriate in wealth.

Finding appropriate words for God-talk in any context of scandalous disparity between the rich and the Lazaruses is challenge. Like Lazarus, the many people who live in poverty today will do anything to get mere crumbs – even if it means sitting by the gates of the rich or selling what little dignity left to feed hungry mouths. The Rich Man had the resources to help, yet Lazarus dies at his gate. Not even the words of Moses and the prophets could move him to compassion. No wonder he becomes a recipient of divine judgement!

The poor may take heart from God’s preferential option for them: but if it is only a matter for the afterlife (as in the case of Lazarus), then something is wrong with our theology. I have little time for interpretative nonsense implying that people should not bother about their present condition as all will be sorted in heaven where the reversals will happen. Even Father Abraham seems unable to question the inherited theology that causes some to “reap good things and others evil things”! Poor people rightly want to enjoy a taste of abundant living before death. Theological conversations such as the one between the Rich Man and Abraham that continue to silence poor people (even in heaven) must be critically examined, though one can concede that the narrative is laced with heavy “signifying” and “thick descriptions” in Lazarus’ favour.

Did the Rich Man get it in the end? I think not. He is clueless about God’s preference for the oppressed. All he can see is Lazarus (whose name he now utters) in Abraham’s bosom. His continuing indifference to Lazarus lives on, though the “heat” of his new residence is unbearable. He is demanding mercy and help for his family while Lazarus is a passive listener. Even in the afterlife scene he clings to his privileged bubble. “Send Lazarus to help me,” betrays it all. It suggests habits of control by a person so wrapped up in himself that he believes that he can command and expect service. Blinded by internalised and unyielding assumptions about who deserves what, he continues to locate himself and others in the old landscape of his privileged world.

In today’s context of a widening gap between the world of the progeny of the Rich Man and that of Lazarus, are we willing and able to worthily celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus by hearing again and responding to the words of Moses and the prophets? And what new prophetic words are we invited to utter that will initiate “reversals” in our communities? Our response will determine whether or not the Resurrection really matters to us!

The Revd Dr Michael N Jagessar is moderator of the United Reformed Church General Assembly 2012-14

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This article was published in the March 2013 edition of  Reform.

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