The power of stories

Over the last couple of years, my spiritual advisor and I have been working with a book by Amy-Jill Levine–Short Stories by Jesus. It’s a look at the parables from a new perspective–or rather, from an old one. Levine takes us through a number of parables, helping the reader to hear them as Jesus’ listeners would have. Sometimes it’s been a challenge, because the way they have been shared or preached for many years has become so ingrained in us.

But when I have been willing to listen in new ways, there have been those “Aha!” moments–times when there are new insights…and understandings that have challenged what I thought I knew.

I’ve been reading the last story in preparation for our next meeting–the story about Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31). This one–at least at this point–hasn’t hit me with as many challenges to my understanding as previous ones have…but it has reminded me of the challenges I face as a follower of Jesus. Here’s a version of the story from the Complete Jewish Bible:

“Once there was a rich man who used to dress in the most expensive clothing and spent his days in magnificent luxury. At his gate had been laid a beggar named El‘azar who was covered with sores. He would have been glad to eat the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table; but instead, even the dogs would come and lick his sores. In time the beggar died and was carried away by the angels to Avraham’s side; the rich man also died and was buried.

“In Sh’ol, where he was in torment, the rich man looked up and saw Avraham far away with El‘azar at his side. He called out, ‘Father Avraham, take pity on me, and send El‘azar just to dip the tip of his finger in water to cool my tongue, because I’m in agony in this fire!’ However, Avraham said, ‘Son, remember that when you were alive, you got the good things while he got the bad; but now he gets his consolation here, while you are the one in agony. Yet that isn’t all: between you and us a deep rift has been established, so that those who would like to pass from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’

“He answered, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house, where I have five brothers, to warn them; so that they may be spared having to come to this place of torment too.’ But Avraham said, ‘They have Moshe and the Prophets; they should listen to them.’ However, he said, ‘No, father Avraham, they need more. If someone from the dead goes to them, they’ll repent!’ But he replied, ‘If they won’t listen to Moshe and the Prophets, they won’t be convinced even if someone rises from the dead!’”

There are so many ways this story challenges us. It’s very easy to say that the rich man got what was coming to him–but if I delight in his eternal torment, then am I any better? And do I listen any better than he did to the way I should live?

It’s also easy to find reasons to explain why Lazarus ended up poor and hoping for help from the rich man…but the story doesn’t give any–and none are needed for the story to have impact.

I think this parable–and Levine’s “unpacking” of it–spoke so much to me today because of what I see happening in this country that I love. Safety nets for the poor and vulnerable are being dismantled…the prosperity gospel is widely praised and preached…and so many who claim to be Christian take actions that to me seem so incredibly un-Christian.

Levine suggests that

The parable ends with a cautionary note. Heed the commands to aid the poor and the sick and hungry, or you will eventually suffer worse poverty, greater pains, deeper hunger. Do not just contribute to the food drive, but invite the hungry into your home. Do not just put money in the collection plate, but use your resources to provide jobs and support for those in need. Do not treat the sick as burdens, but as beloved family members who deserve love and care. Know the names of the destitute; each has a story to tell….

[W]e do not need supernatural revelation to tell us that we have the poor with us. We do not even need the threats of eternal torture. If we cannot see the poor person at our gate–in the street, in the commercials that come into our homes, in the appeals made in sermons, in the newspapers–then we are lost.

Will we listen?

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