Shane Claiborne is convinced that most of the evil perpetrated in the world today in the name of Christ and Christianity is not the result of malicious people, but rather of bad theology. His suggestion for how to represent hope, then, is one that should encourage us to engage with significant depth the very Scriptures that are intended to shape the life of the church in Christ-like ways. As he says, “rather than distancing ourselves from religious language and biblical study we (should) dive into the Scriptures together, meeting bad theology with good theology.” In keeping with that challenge, I’d like to spend some time in the Scriptures to guide some of my reflections here.
In the midst of Jesus’ earthly ministry, he chose to share a story that we would call “fiction” today to illustrate a deep truth for his audience about the ordering of human affairs. This story, known today as the story of “The Rich Man and Lazarus,” had several intentional parallels that Jesus drew for the sake of challenging his audience to think in different ways about what is “true” and “normal”; paralleling most centrally issues of rich/poor and blessing/cursing. In so doing, Jesus challenged the folk (read: human-shaped) religion of his day that claimed to be faithful to the LORD yet provided a much different perspective. As the story reads,
“There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen who lived in luxury every day. At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.”
At this point in the story, Jesus’ words may have stimulated some thoughts in folks, especially when it is considered that most saw wealth and comfort as a sign of God’s blessing and poverty and unhealthy as a sign of God’s curse. Was Jesus setting this story up to show how this beggar had sinned and what he needed to do to enter back into God’s good graces? The story continues;
“The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’ But Abraham replied, Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony.”
“Wait, what!?” may have been the thoughts of those in Jesus’ audience. Jesus raised some significant questions in the span of about 45 seconds or so in this story, and already managed to turn the contemporary folk religion with its easy categories and distinctions on its head. Along the way, Jesus asked and answered an implied question: How did this wealthy man end up in Hades? It doesn’t seem like he was a wicked man by most pious marks of righteousness; he wasn’t a drunkard, a womanizer, or a gossip. In fact, judging from his clothing, may have been a religious leader (he was at least a political leader), and so may have been considered religiously blameless. How then did he come into “the place of torment?”