Listening to Moses [Jesus story #11]

Ted Grimsrud—May 10, 2021

As President Dwight Eisenhower was leaving office at the end of his second term, he delivered a famous speech. He warned of the power of what he called “the military-industrial complex,” the domination of our society by people and institutions and ideologies that make our nation’s priorities center on war and the preparation for war. In so many ways, things have only gotten worse since.

Thinking about this warning all these years later leaves one with a sense of urgency. Indeed, we do face political, environmental, moral, and spiritual crises that feel almost overwhelming. We hurtle toward disasters linked with global warming, and our corporate-funded media and federal government resist changes that might limit profits. Our political discourse normalizes hate speech and then insists that mass shootings are the acts only of isolated, mentally ill individuals. And, perhaps worst of all, the message of Jesus, a message of genuine peace, is linked with religiously-sanctioned violence to the extent that being self-identified as a Christian in this country means one is more likely than a non-Christian to support war and the death penalty.

I thought about Eisenhower’s speech (and the urgency borne from all these years of a warning unheeded) as I spent some time with another message of urgency—the story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke’s Gospel. I was struck with some parallels. Jesus tells of two men who die, one is rich, the other poor. The rich man suffers torment due to his cold-hearted life. He urges “father Abraham” to allow the poor man, Lazarus, to return to life to warn the rich man’s brothers of their likely fate. Talk about urgency!

A response to urgency: Listen to Moses

I was fascinated with the story’s implied message about how best to respond to this urgency. The point is simple: Listen to Moses, listen to Torah, listen to the prophets. You already have all the guidance you need. If people won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, an amazing and attention-grabbing miraculous warning to turn or burn won’t change their minds either.

Let’s think about what Jesus might have meant with the Lazarus story. Why would listening to Moses be the response to the rich man’s urgent, life and death plea? These are a few brief passages, ending with the story Jesus told about the rich man’s post-death urgency.

Hear, O Israel: The Lord alone is our God. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Recite these words to your children. Bind them as a sign on your hand and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. Deuteronomy 6:4-9

You shall not hate anyone of your own kin or take vengeance against any of your people but love your neighbor as yourself…. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as a citizen; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. Leviticus 19:17-18, 34

With what shall I come before the Lord? Shall I make sacrifices of burnt offerings, of calves a year old, of thousands of rams, of rivers of oil, of my firstborn for my transgression? No. What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? Micah 6:6-8

God’s law is perfect, reviving the soul; it makes wise the simple; it rejoices the heart; it enlightens the eyes; it endures forever; the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb. Psalm 19:7-11

God shows no partiality. It is not the hearers of the law who are just in God’s sight, but the doers of the law. Some Gentiles, who do not possess the law, still do what the law requires. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts. Romans 2:11-16

The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, ridiculed Jesus. So, he said to them, “There was a rich man who dressed in fine linen and feasted every day. At his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table. The poor man died and went to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy; send Lazarus to bring water to cool my tongue; for I am in agony.’ But Abraham said, “Child, in 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. Between you and us a great chasm has been fixed; no one can cross it.’ The rich man said, ‘Then, I beg you to send him to my five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ The rich man said, ‘No, Father; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ Abraham responded, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” Luke 16:14-31

This story of the rich man after death is just one of a series detailing how Jesus’s message challenged the religious and political leaders of his day—and how they pushed back. Luke builds up to a terrible conclusion, Jesus’s execution. In this back and forth here, Jesus makes clear the main points of his message, a message that both troubled the powers that be and liberated those oppressed by the powers.

Part of the message here to us is this: Listen to Moses. Learn from and follow the message Moses gave to the ancient Israelites. As the psalmist said, the law endures forever, always enlightening the heart. So, we must ask: What does the law tell us that might address our sense of urgency about the crises our world faces?

Religious faith tends toward one of two directions

In general, we may identify two common models for how we approach faith—the belief-centered model and the rule-centered model. The belief-centered model is common for many Christians. We focus on what we believe about God and Jesus and the Bible. A crucial element, for many, of the Christian belief system is the conviction that there is a closed circle, inside the circle are those who believe the right things; outside the circle are those who don’t, the heretics and blasphemers and heathen.

A belief-centered approach to faith can reduce Jesus’s life and teaching to doctrinal formulations and ideologies. Such a reduction encourages us to draw boundary lines and push relational dynamics such as compassion and generosity to the margins. How else can we explain the history of Christianity with its all-too-common embrace of wars, racism, and hoarding of wealth?

The other model centers on rules. Mennonites might be one strand of Christianity that has tended toward this model. The idea here is that we have certain commands that stand at the center of our religious faith. Typically, these commands have clear external expectations so we can be clear about who is following the commands and who is not. In Jesus’s day, the commands included practices such as washing before eating, circumcision for males, avoiding work on the Sabbath, marrying only believers. In the Mennonite tradition, we have had dress codes, requirements to avoid jewelry and to drive cars with black bumpers, and to require the use of the German language.

Interestingly, the rule-centered approach to faith shares something quite important with the belief-centered approach. It also cares a great deal about drawing clear circles marking who is in and who is out. The rules matter, in large part, it seems, because they sustain our sense of specialness. They sustain our need to protect ourselves from the pollution of the outsider. They allow our leaders to exercise power that maintains our group’s orderliness.

Jesus’s third way

Jesus challenges both these approaches to faith. That’s why he was so dangerous. I think we may also say that Jesus’s challenge explains why in the history of Christianity churches have so often ignored or denied the heart of his message. Typically, Christians’ risk is to assume that to be recognized as fully human a person must believe our doctrines or must follow our rules—must be like us. There is no room here for a sense of cultural relativism, a recognition that each set of doctrines or set of rules is only one particular human construct. No, the beliefs and rules are seen as absolute, as coming from God. They mark those inside the circle of truth as human in a way those outside are not.

Well, we must ask: where is God? Inside our circle, protected and hoarded—or inside and outside all of our circles, inviting us to learn from each other’s set of beliefs, each other’s set of rules, all with some of the truth but also all with something to learn from others?

Kathleen and I had a fascinating experience a number of years ago. We gave the baccalaureate address at our son Johan’s high school graduation. We used the story of Jonah and encouraged the students to go out into the world in the expectation that, like Jonah, they will find God already out there, that God is much bigger than just the God of their own community. Then the next day, at the actual graduation ceremony, the guest speaker (we had not compared notes!) spoke of the dangers of the outside world and the need for the students to hold tight to the specialness of their own faith community. We probably couldn’t have created a sharper contrast in worldviews if we had tried.

I believe Jesus challenges us to recognize the inherent dangers in boundary marking, in stereotyping, in us-them thinking, in making human-created lines of separation sacred and requiring coercive defenses. He points to a third model, different from belief-centered, different from rule-centered. Let’s call this third model generosity-centered. It calls us to live with respect and hospitality, to recognize each neighbor as fully human (remember the model of the Samaritan), and to recognize that the God who has created us is generous beyond measure (remember the story of the Prodigal Son).

The generosity-centered model

Jesus’s story about the rich man and Lazarus points to this third model. We misread the story if we take it as a judgment story—a guarantee of punishment beyond death for those who are alienated from “father Abraham.” It’s a story that uses dramatic imagery to convey a sense of urgency, certainly. But its main point is a call to generosity, not a call to fear punishment. Its main point is to shatter the sense of entitlement and superiority that allowed this rich man to live such a callous, self-absorbed life and forget completely Torah’s call for hospitality and respect.

We need to read the Lazarus story in the context of what has come before in Luke’s gospel. From the very start of the gospel, with the song Mary sang after she learned of her pregnancy, we read of things being turned upside down—the great ones being dethroned and the lowly being lifted up. This theme comes up time after time: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God…. But woe to you who are rich, for you have [already] received your consolation” (Luke 6:20, 24).

Jesus shows welcome to the vulnerable and excluded. His acts led to a great deal of celebration, but also before long led to anger and hostility from the defenders of the status quo. Those who don’t want things to be turned upside down soon see Jesus as a threat. And they recognize what’s at the heart of this threat. Jesus shatters boundary lines that separate the wealthy and powerful from the poor and unclean.

What could have been a more potent image of this shattering than this picture of the obviously unclean, pathetic, even disgusting beggar Lazarus embraced by father Abraham? Immediately before telling this story, remember, Jesus had another confrontation with the religious leaders. He called them “lovers of money” who undermined the message of Moses. So, the rich man in this story is not just a person with great wealth. He symbolizes the religious leaders and their friends. He loves money and disregards the actual suffering human being at his doorstep. And he ends up alienated from Abraham.

Talk about ratcheting up the emotional level of the debate! Jesus speaks in the most provocative kind of way—with a searing story of judgment. He turns social and religious hierarchies on their head. Abraham will commune with the unclean beggars. The ones who celebrate their supposed blessings from God with their fine linen and sumptuous feasts will end up separated from Abraham.

Rules-followers who violate Torah

Jesus critiques those who remain callous toward their neighbor. When they do so, they violate Torah. They may follow some rules (Jesus talks elsewhere about tithing mint and cumin), but they miss out altogether on the one rule that truly matters: love your neighbor and recognize that each person in need is your neighbor. They may have some doctrines right (everyone in the picture here would recite Deuteronomy six, “the Lord alone is our God”), but they miss out altogether on the one truth about God that matters: you can’t love God unless you at the same time love your neighbor.

And remember the previous chapter of Luke, the extraordinary picture of God’s love captured in the father’s embrace of his wayward son, welcome without conditions. That picture offers a kind of metaphysical therapy for those who see a universe based on violence and retribution rather than on mercy all the way down.

When we read the prodigal son story and the rich man and Lazarus story together, they tell not of certain judgment but of the path to wholeness. The younger son, like the rich man, brings alienation upon himself. He disregards the message of Moses. But the path to healing is possible when the son “comes to himself” and turns back. When he throws himself upon his father’s mercy, he finds that this mercy is real. Maybe the same thing could happen to the rich man’s brothers should they listen to Moses.

I read the message to the rich man not as a guarantee of his brothers’ eternal punishment. Rather, the implied promise here (when read with the Prodigal Son story) is that indeed Moses and the prophets do provide the way out. The brothers can find healing. They don’t need a new revelation; they simply need a return (“repentance”). The prophets told them all they need. Disregard that message and they won’t be able to hear anything else either. “What does the Lord require? Do justice, love mercy, walk humbly in the Lord’s way.”

Hope for healing

So, we have a message—one that speaks not only to the urgency of Jesus’s rich man but also to the urgency of our Military Industrial Complex crises. This message: It has been revealed to us, from of old, what the world needs, and what we who care for the world need. Trust not in warriors and weapons of war. Trust not in princes and princesses. Trust in the simple words spoken through Moses, and Micah, and Jesus, and Paul: “The commandments are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law” (Romans 13:9-10).

If there is any urgency that would cause us to compromise this command, it is an urgency that must be resisted. If there is any doctrine that would cause us to compromise this command, it is a doctrine that must be resisted. If there is any rule that would cause us to compromise this command, it is a rule that must be resisted. Nothing is as important as love of neighbor.

Let me note, in conclusion, that the final words of Jesus’s story stand as an especially powerful rebuke to Christians. The rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to his brothers. “If someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” But Abraham says, no I am afraid not. “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

We may have the most airtight doctrines of Jesus’s miraculous resurrection—or the Trinity or any other absolute truth; we may follow with rigor various commands, but if we do not listen to Moses and the prophets (“love your neighbor as yourself”) we will live lives alienated from the true ways of God.

However, no matter the crises we may face, no matter the complexity of the problems we seek to overcome, no matter the urgency we rightly feel to find ways to bring healing, if we do listen to these words, we can trust that the maker of the universe walks with us.

More posts in the series “Jesus story” plus others related to Jesus

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