Monday, October 07, 2013

Does Jesus Condemn the Rich Man to Hell?

Do you remember the Public Service Announcement, "Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk"? I'm enough of a child of the 1980's to recall these billboards. I also remember the "This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?" commercials. The image of a frying egg is indelibly burned into my imagination.

Using a fancy word, these might be called "paraenetic" instructions: they give advice in moral or ethical matters. The nun who taught 4th grade religion was a master of paraenesis: any time a student would lead back in his or her chair, she would admonish us with the story of the student she knew who had tipped the chair back, fell, and had the chair splinter and rupture his spine so he's spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair. It was a story told to warn us away from reclining, not to tell us that if we recline, then we will end up with a shard of wood in our spinal column and dreaming of a helper monkey who will do our bidding because we're consigned to a wheelchair.

Paraenesis expresses colorfully the admonition: "Don't let this happen to you!"It's not intended to establish causal linkage - If A, Then B follows - but the potential consequence to a certain course of action.

I mention this because I learned that my post from Saturday did not cite correctly the passage referenced in the interview. Late on Saturday, I was informed that the condemnation arises from Luke 16:19-31. The idea, it is claimed, that in this parable Jesus is condemning a man to hell because he refused to give away his possessions.

This, as you will recall, is the claim made on the (admittedly edited) interview Professor Moss gave with Bill O'Reilly. To be sure: I'd love to see the unedited version of this. All I have to go on, however, is the interview given. "The most consistent social teaching of the New Testament, that the wealthy give away their possessions, in order to help the poor..." (@1:00-1:10). Never mind the centrality of the Kingdom of God animating the word and deed of Jesus, constitutionally expressed in Luke 4:18. The claim Professor Moss makes is that, "In order to go to heaven, they had to give away their possessions."

I get it: the interview is edited. Professor Moss may have defended this point in brilliant points now consigned to the (digital) cutting floor. All I can do, however, is go off of what has been put out into the public sphere. Professor Moss bills herself as a public intellectual and so I do not fear raising a challenge to her in the blogosphere.

The lineaments of the narrative are pretty simple: a poor, afflicted, man named Lazarus lay at the gates of a wealthy, well-dressed man. The wealthy man "dressed in purple and fine linen" and "feasted sumptuously every day." Lazarus would have loved to have eaten the scraps from the man's table, but was given nothing. Lazarus dies and is taken to Abraham's bosom. The rich man dies - we all die sometime, after all - and goes to Hades.

The rich man cries out to Abraham, whom he can see, and begs him to "send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue." Abraham's response is instructive:
Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. (Lk 16:25)
Our question, then, is simple: is Jesus condemning the man to hell for not selling his possessions, for being rich, or is it because he found himself able every day to walk over the body of the inconvenient fellow at his doorstep? Is he condemned because he is rich, because he eats well, or is it because he couldn't give a damn to love his neighbor? In Luke 11:25-37, it would seem that Jesus is more interested in making his audiences - who are themselves poor - attentive to their summons to be neighbor to others. The Samaritan is good, not because he "sold everything" but because he actually took the time to give a damn about the person in front of him.

This parable, to my amateur mind, stands within the paraenetic tradition: Jesus is warning his listeners that their daily actions have consequences. Salvation doesn't come from singular heroic acts but through the daily asceticism of discipleship.

As I said on Saturday, and I say again, I simply do not see the evidence to support the claim that Jesus doesn't condemn the wealthy. If someone is condemned, resigned to his fate, it's actually fairly convenient: if I know the conclusion is predetermined, I've no reason to act any differently. If I know I'm going to get a "C" on a paper regardless of my effort, then why should I bother? Jesus was no fool in this: even skeptics can admit that he spun a good story. His point aims to shock his audience, to cause them to pause and reflect on their lives: "Am I like this rich man or do I take the time to care?"

When the Gospel begins to look more like Obamacare or a platform in the Republican party, I grow extraordinarily suspicious. Perhaps this is the seduction of either the present academy or popular media: we aim at saying sensational things in order to get our names out there. Watching a number of commentators on religion, I'm struck that the Jesus or faith they propound is more redolent of a political party than the Kingdom of God.

What George Tyrell wrote of Adolf von Harnack in 1910 could easily be applied to any number of popular figures offering commentary on Christianity today. Tyrell wrote, "The Christ that Harnack sees, looking back through nineteen centuries of Catholic darkness, is only the reflection of a Liberal Protestant face, seen at the bottom of a deep well."

Judging from the blogs, news reports, and popular media outlets, I must say: there are an awful lot of dark wells out there.

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