I don’t know if you are a fan of WNYC’s Radiolab podcasts, but I like to listen to them on occasion. The stories shared on Radiolab involve the connection of science and philosophy to real-life situations. The overlay of these three perspectives over and against each other create very interesting ways to look at life, and especially things we might take for granted.
A recent podcast that caught my ear was titled “Playing God”. It is a story about sorting, and the ways in which humans determine how to sort out the relative worth of human life. The Radiolab team went back 11 years ago to 2005, and to a hospital in New Orleans dealing with the immediate aftermath of hurricane Katrina and the process of having to prioritize the saving and extending of life in extreme, devastating conditions. Most of us will never have to face such difficult decisions in our lives – literally leaving some to die so others could live. I encourage you to listen to the podcast because it tells us a lot about our own humanity, and in particular what we value, or don’t value about human life and how we sort those things out. In conclusion, we see how inadequate we are when it comes to "Playing God".
In many ways, the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus is a critique on the human tendency to sort and to place value on certain lives at the expense of others. It’s interesting in this parable that the person given the name (Lazarus) is the one who the unnamed rich man doesn’t even notice, the one who sits right outside the gate of the rich man’s home. The man passes Lazarus by day after day, paying him no mind as he retires to the incredible comfort of his luxurious life. In the mind of the rich man, a sorting has taken place and Lazarus, poor, dirty and covered with sores, is a life not worth noticing, not worth saving, not worth extending.
As with many parables, there is a pivot to the story, one which turns the world upside down, so we can see better, not how we sort out our own world, but how God sorts things out. Jesus wants us to notice Lazarus, because in God’s world, Lazarus is the one whose life is worth saving. It is Lazarus that stands next to Father Abraham, symbolizing that the person ignored by the rich man is a true heir to the covenant God made with Abraham. This is how God sorts things out in the end, by turning our human assumptions upside-down.
I think that part of the story is easy for us to grasp – that ignorance of the poor, that sorting the poor out as unworthy is not what Jesus wants from his disciples. But what about the rich man? Is he doomed forever? Is that the fate that God has destined for us when God “sorts it all out”?
It’s not easy to deal with the subject of Hell, of some divine judgment that places people into categories of eternal life or eternal death. In fact, outside of the parables of the New Testament, which are image-laden stories, there is little theological discourse in the bible about the existence of Hell or what it may be like. I think the key to understanding the fate of the rich man is found in the last verse “neither will they be convinced if someone rises from the dead”. You might take this as a rebuke of the rich man that indicates the finality of the sorting out process. But I see that statement more as a rhetorical device pointing us to the fact that the Resurrection is the ultimate redeeming act of God to sort each of us into our baptismal categories, already marked for living lives dedicated to loving others, because of Jesus Christ. As disciples, it is through the resurrection of Jesus Christ that we see God’s ultimate sorting plan, one that takes notice of the worth of all life looking ahead to the promise of everlasting life.
So when you walk by that Lazarus in your neighborhood today, this week or this month, know that “Lazarus” has been sorted by God into the book of life, and because of Christ, you too have been sorted into the same book. Now go in peace and remember the poor!
Devotions for Week of Sept. 25, 2016
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Gustavus Adolphus Lutheran Church (GA) in New York City has been chosen as one of eight internship congregations to participate this year in a church-wide initiative designed to increase our understanding of Holy Scripture and most importantly, to cultivate our engagement with it. In partnership with The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, Vicar John Heidgerd will be working to develop innovative ways to deepen our faith formation and sense of discipleship for the sake of ourselves and our communities.