“Any preaching of the Gospel which fails to constitute a scandal and affront to the political state is in my view effectively worthless”[i]. I still recall with vividness the first time I read these words from Terry Eagleton, the former Catholic and Marxist literary critic, when I was 19. They confused me as equally as they attracted me, because despite being brought up as Catholic, my late teens had been punctuated by half-read and even less well-understood tracts on existential philosophy and Beat poetry; I was much more fascinated by the raucous life of Jim Morrison than this man Jesus and if I had read any scripture, it was only because I had been told by a philosophy-teacher friend that the book of Ecclesiastes effectively constituted the first, still-extant example of existentialist prose (You’re not sure? Try: “Then I took a good look at everything I’d done, looked at all the sweat and hard work. But when I looked, I saw nothing but smoke. Smoke and spitting into the wind. There was nothing to any of it. Nothing.” Ecc.2:11). So it was reading Eagleton’s book ‘Faith, Reason and Revolution’ which served as my re-introduction to the Christian faith generally and, more particularly, to liberation theology – though it should be said that Eagleton, with good reason, is reluctant to give it that name himself, for as he holds, “All authentic theology is liberation theology”. It helped me to understand some of my experiences in Latin America and was an invitation to sit with a whole new set of questions.
It was only a few years later that I came across the brilliant notion that Jesus’ parables are crafted as ‘hand grenades for the mind’ to disrupt our conventional, conditioned patterns of thought and shock us into seeing the world in a new and renewing way (Cynthia Bourgeault goes over this in her masterly book ‘The Wisdom Jesus’). Over the past couple of days, I have been chewing over a particularly subversive parable from Luke, in which Jesus offers a prophetic critique of the rich/poor divide which, sadly, is still absolutely relevant to our situation:
“There once was a rich man, expensively dressed in the latest fashions, wasting his days in conspicuous consumption. A poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, had been dumped on his doorstep. All he lived for was to get a meal from scraps off the rich man’s table. His best friends were the dogs who came and licked his sores.[ii]
The contrast in the quality of life experienced by these two men who live parallel lives is truly shocking…if we allow it to be. On the one hand, we see the rich man who lives his life lavishly as if in ‘splendid isolation’, the consummate consumer, his conscience numbed by abundance. On the other hand, we see Lazarus, destitute, vulnerable and dejected, quite literally ‘consumed’ by the dogs which prey on his weakness. We see how he has ‘been dumped’ on the doorstep; in the barrio, the ghetto or the sink estate – wherever, to use Bauman’s disturbing term, ‘the human waste’ of neoliberal restructuring is disposed of – yet never far from the gated communities and prime real estate of the elites. Pagola writes of how the two ‘are separated by the abyss which exists between the rich person’s life of insulting opulence and the poor person’s extreme misery’[iii], both of which, as Ellacuria suggests, are bound up in a revealing dialectic: for Jesus, ‘it is not a question of praising poverty in itself and condemning wealth in itself. It is the relationship between the two that interests him. He condemns wealth that makes people poor and praises poverty that points an accusing finger at the malignant reality of wealth’[iv]. Yet already, we are given some sense of the Great Reversal at play: in contrast to our celebrity-fixated society which is saturated with ‘big names’, the rich man remains anonymous; conversely, we know Lazarus by name – a name and a human story emerge to engage us with the so-often anonymised poor. To be named is to be known, and to be known is to be in relationship: the rich man’s namelessness speaks of his isolation, the lonely inwardness of extreme affluence.
Then he died, this poor man, and was taken up by the angels to the lap of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In hell and in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham in the distance and Lazarus in his lap. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, mercy! Have mercy! Send Lazarus to dip his finger in water to cool my tongue. I’m in agony in this fire.’
But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that in your lifetime you got the good things and Lazarus the bad things. It’s not like that here. Here he’s consoled and you’re tormented. Besides, in all these matters there is a huge chasm set between us so that no one can go from us to you even if he wanted to, nor can anyone cross over from you to us.’
The imagery and metaphor used in the passage above is blunt, dualistic and graphically brutal. The prophetic use of the image of ‘hell’ (which in the Jewish tradition stems from Gehenna, the historical rubbish dump outside the city walls of Jerusalem which was constantly ablaze – a far cry from the spiritualized and other-worldly notion peddled by many fundamentalist Christians today) is primarily a challenge issued ‘to force you to the weighing of consequence, to choicefulness and consciousness’ here and now, in this world, as Rohr puts it.[v]
The choice given to the rich man – and, by extension, to us – is between ‘the living death’[vi] of separateness and unfeeling indifference to suffering or the life-giving choice to love, be compassionate and live in solidarity and communion with others – in the rich man’s case, with Lazarus. There is a sense in which the rich man can be said to have ceased living even as he still lived, as when Oscar Romero said, “I would not want to live the life of many of today’s powerful, who don’t live a real life. They live under guard, they live with uneasy consciences, they live in anxiety. That is not life.”[vii] Perhaps that is why when Jesus addresses the rich in Luke’s Beatitudes, (“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation”), his mode of speaking is that of one who mourns for the dead.
Mexican liberation theologian Jose Miranda goes on to draw out even starker implications from the parable: the rich man isn’t punished for failing to give alms to Lazarus or for boasting depraved habits; “What is punished is differentiating wealth, in its purest expression…What is punished, in torment, is that some are rich and others are poor”[viii]. Again we notice the dialectic observed by Ellacuria – the inherent difference-creating relation of oppression connecting abject poverty to extreme wealth, which is antithetical to the King/Queendom proclaimed by Jesus.
Perhaps even more strikingly, Lazarus is consoled with no mention whatsoever of his own virtue or character; apparently, God’s vision is not a meritocracy. Miranda observes: ‘Here as throughout the Bible, the poor person’s interior dispositions are of no importance. He is rewarded for the simple reason that he is poor’[ix]. I think it would be fair to say that the truly radical nature of this statement about the poor and their relationship with the Divine has been ignored by most of Christian history and tradition.
The rich man now finds himself separated – as he indeed chose to be – from Lazarus by ‘a huge chasm’ which is impossible to cross. That this chasm exists between the rich man and Lazarus insofar as the former is wealthy and the latter is poor is indisputable. This is the chasm imaged by vast inequalities of wealth and power, more pertinent than ever to our stage in history; as Jon Sobrino reminds us, we live in a world of ‘Lazaruses’[x]. Consider the fact that 16% of global economic output is owned by 0.000016% of the world’s population[xi] and around 2.6 billion people – that is more than one-third of the world’s population – subsist on less than $2 per day. Or indeed that the GDP of the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (containing 567 million people) is less than the combined wealth of the world’s seven richest individuals. This is the chasm fixed by exclusionary practices and the accruement of wealth through unjust structures and illegitimate debts which deny so many people their dignity and basic rights; the chasm constructed by gentrification and ‘development projects’ which displace some of our poorest and most disadvantaged citizens to peripheral areas where they need not be seen; the chasm which lies between enclaves of prosperity and the refugee camp, where women, men and children on a move to ensure their own survival in the wake of the chaos caused by war and persecution, poverty or climate change are detained in dehumanising conditions far from western eyes. As former UN General Secretary, Kofi Annan, reminds us: ‘No one today is unaware of this divide between the world’s rich and poor. No one today can claim ignorance of the cost that this divide imposes on the poor and dispossessed who are no less deserving of human dignity, fundamental freedoms, security, food, and education than any of us.’
The rich man said, ‘Then let me ask you, Father: Send him to the house of my father where I have five brothers, so he can tell them the score and warn them so they won’t end up here in this place of torment.’
Abraham answered, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets to tell them the score. Let them listen to them.’
‘I know, Father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but they’re not listening. If someone came back to them from the dead, they would change their ways.’
Abraham replied, ‘If they won’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, they’re not going to be convinced by someone who rises from the dead.’”
The Gospel insistently calls us to conversion, to that fundamental reorientation/ turning around that is repentance. Yet what will it take to ‘shatter our indifference’?[xii] History and experience seem to vindicate Jesus’ insight into just how resistant humans are toward deep and radical change. Jesus is realistic: even as he concludes his parable, he suggests that its chances of actually being heard are slim. Often censorship is most effective as a shut-down of receptivity to the message; how else could such a subversive text be found at the core of a religion which has all too often colluded with state power and brutal conquest? In this parable, ‘listening’ seems to be the precondition for redemption; for any change of heart, a resultant change of structures and an arrival at right relationship – with one another, with the Earth and, ultimately, with God. At this critical juncture for humanity and planet, are we able to engage in the kind of profound and honest listening – to those prophetic voices which issue both from within tradition and from our contemporary world – that is the first step towards dismantling our indifference and liberating us for something far greater?
“The liberation that Christianity preaches is a liberation from something that enslaves, for something that ennobles us. Those who talk only about the enslavement, about the negative part of liberation, do not have all the power that the church can give one. It struggles, yes, against the earth’s enslavements, against oppression, against misery, against hunger. All that’s true – but, for what? For something. St Paul uses a beautiful expression: to be free for love. To be free for something positive, that is what Christ means when he says, “Follow me.”
Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador, martyred March 24th, 1980.[xiii]
[i] Faith, Reason and Revolution, Terry Eagleton.
[ii] Passage taken from The Message, Luke 16, 19-31.
[iv] p.33, Freedom Made Flesh, Ignacio Ellacuria.
[v] p.171, Things Hidden, Scripture as Spirituality, Richard Rohr.
[vii] p. 161, The Violence of Love, Oscar Romero,.
[viii] p.23, Communism in the Bible, Jose P Miranda.
[x] p.104, The Radical Bible.
[xiii] p.170, Romero, see above.