When the Walls Fall Down


Twenty-Sixth Sunday after Pentecost | Luke 21:5-19

We don’t always get what we want, and even when we do, it is never clear which is better.

Blessings turn into cages, and what we thought were our failures may turn out to be gifts. We keep revising our opinions of the past and of events that brought us to where we are. Perspective, like prophecy, is a tricky thing. Just when we think we have a grasp on either one, it shifts.

You will be betrayed, Jesus says. Some of you will be killed, he says, yet not a hair on your head will perish.

Well, which is it? That seems a reasonable enough question, given the plain contradiction. Are we talking metaphorically? The things he describes don’t seem to be metaphors.

This isn’t the happy Jesus of bumper sticker Christianity. It’s not warm and fuzzy theology, and this isn’t the passage one would choose to read to new converts.

Or maybe it is precisely the right passage. They would know what they were in for. It would match up with what life brings them. A gospel life is not a trouble free life, and blessings are not magic. In Christian theology, all paths lead to the cross.

Rocks in StreamAll the stones will be torn down, Jesus says. All of them will be torn down, with not one left on top of the other.

All of the stones were torn down, of course. The Romans destroyed the temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD, purposefully reducing the stone walls to nothing but rubble, making the sort of point that Rome was so very good at making in the face of rebellion.

Today many Christians read this passage as a word of prophecy from Jesus, telling the crowd about things that would happen. Some say that this Gospel was written after 70 AD, when the author of Luke already had experienced the destruction of the temple and seen political persecution of Christians, and so the writer put these words into the mouth of Jesus. That last view is not particularly infused with faith, true enough, but it’s out there, and it’s possible. Still, who knows? God can work with anything, perhaps even a crafty gospel writer.

The meaning and the value of what Jesus is saying doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the temple in Jerusalem, or with stones in actual walls, or the persecution that played out in ancient courts. All of it could apply equally well at any time to our interior landscape, our inner life, our real lives, regardless of what is going on in the world.

Jesus knew that sooner or later our walls fall down. The stones crack and our building blocks get scattered. Maybe we call it depression, or cancer, or the loss of a loved one, or the lack of someone to love. Maybe it’s war, displacement, a flood, loss of work, loss of the ability to work. Our walls fall down. Our temple, our heart, where we cherish the things we have come to love, is broken, and we are cracked open, torn apart.

One of my favorite words is in the last verse of this passage. It is usually translated as patience or endurance, and I have written about it on other occasions: by your endurance you will gain your souls. Endurance. Patience. ὑπομονῇ. Hypomone. Taking this compound word literally, the meaning is remaining under. Living under. Dwelling in all of what life piles onto us.

It is a word of hope, but not the sort of word that most people want to hear. It is a word of being delivered in our troubles, but not out of them, and it does not match up with popular theology. It is the sort of thing understood best by people who have lost something, or who never had it to begin with—the poor, the troubled, the disenfranchised, those who understand that they live in the Exile, like strangers in a strange land, and knowing they may never see the Exodus in this life.

Fallen RocksSooner or later we are all exiles. Every single one of us. It may last a week, or a season, or the rest of our lives, but our walls crack and fall and we are left in the rubble.

The gospel hope is in the presence of a God who does not reside just in high places and in the palaces of a heaven we have not seen. The hope of Christianity is in a God who did not refuse or flee when we chose to kill rather than embrace the incarnation of God.

Yes, that sounds stark.

Christians are used to hearing words like sacrifice and redemption. It is the language which we in the Church use in part to explain and in part to distance ourselves from the event of the crucifixion. The simple fact of the gospel story is that we, or our counterparts from long ago, wanted this Jesus fellow gone. The presence of this god-man, if that is what he was, made us uncomfortable, so uncomfortable that we wanted him dead. Executed. Maybe a few of us would have stood faithful at the cross with John and the three Marys, but most of us can make no such claim. Not if we are honest.

The gospel story tells that God permitted us to kill even God. Perhaps that is what it took for us to grow to the next stage of humanity—killing the God we thought we knew, that we might grow to know the God who dwells among us like a stranger in a strange land. The resurrection story tells us of a God we had never truly known, and a new way of living in the presence of a God who stops at nothing, not even death, to remain present with us.

By Rama (Commons file) Leonard Cohen in 2008.
Leonard Cohen in 2008.

We may lose everything. All our stones may crack and fall, not one left piled on top of another. We may be betrayed by those we love, killed outright. Jesus gives us the promise of being present, that he will give us the word we need at the right time, the right place, to offer an answer and a reason for our lives. And when a wall falls, there is something on the other side. By our endurance we gain our lives.

As the late Leonard Cohen put it, “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”




A Man Called Lazarus

By Fyodor Andreyevich Bronnikov - http://etnaa.mylivepage.ru/image/411/12132_Притча_о_Лазаре._1886.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9882122

Luke 16:19-31 | Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Only one character has a name out of all of the parables that Jesus told, and his name is Lazarus. That is almost as remarkable as the fact that the miracle of raising the other Lazarus from the dead is only told in the Gospel of John; the synoptic gospels—Mark, Matthew and Luke—never mention it. That other Lazarus is raised from the dead, being four days in the grave, and it gets no mention. Yet here in Luke, the only place the parable of the rich man is told, the poor beggar gets the same name.

To be fair, in the oldest manuscript (P75) containing this story, the rich man is said to be known “by the name of Neues…” The Vulgate translation gave us ‘Dives’, but that simply means “rich man” and was not intended as a name. Elsewhere, the rich man is as nameless as the Pharaoh of Exodus.

By Meister des Codex Aureus Epternacensis - The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=155243
Lazarus and the Rich Man, Codex Aureus of Echternach, c. 1030-1050

Maybe the poor man is called Lazarus because there is a mention of resurrection: ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ If there is a link between the Lazarus of John’s Gospel and this parable, it is tenuous.

Ironically, the main action of the story takes place after this Lazarus is dead.

The imagery of this parable contributes to our notions of heaven and hell. Of course, it is not clear that Lazarus and the rich man are in different places—they might be in the same overall place, a Hades something like the notion of the afterlife we find in Greek mythology but separated into different areas, like the dead who come to speak to the Greek hero Odysseus in Homer’s story. It could also be that the parable is describing heaven and hell after all, with the surprising aspect of making each visible from the other but divided by a chasm that cannot be crossed.

It is a mistake to take any of these details literally. As in any mythological tale or great story, the point is truth, not facts. (Facts may be true, but they are not truth, not the kind of truth that can make life worth living.) Abraham, the gate keeper figure of this parable, might have been Saint Peter had the parable been told a few centuries later—the role is the same as in later notional tales where Peter is the gatekeeper of heaven.

One oddity of the story is the lack of detail regarding why the rich man is condemned, and there’s a second oddity in the peculiar detail that is present:

But Abraham said, ‘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.’

Anyone who believes that wealth is a sign of God’s blessing and that poverty a sign of the lack of it, an idea that emerged early in Old Testament thought but one that the prophets thoroughly trashed and discarded (a theological trajectory of understanding moves through scripture), should hear a word of warning. We assume that the rich man’s offenses are self-absorption and a lack of compassion for Lazarus. What the Abraham character (and therefore Jesus) tells us is more straightforward but perplexing—the rich man received good things in his lifetime, but Lazarus only suffered. There is a sense of balance, but there is little that matches up with any expectations of a final judgment and of God’s justice. Still, there is one more aspect of the rich man’s life that is mentioned, and it may be the critical element of the entire parable. He did not believe.

The rich man’s response to God, or rather the lack of it, is the true basis for his present condition. In fact, it is because of this same indifference on the part of his brothers that the rich man begs Abraham to send Lazarus to warn them. Surely, the rich man says, they will believe if someone rises from the dead.

Here is the early kerygma of the Church, the proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus and the demand that faithful people respond to it. The demand is not simply to live a moral life, not to feed the hungry or help the poor: those are baseline behaviors expected of any decent person. The critical matter in the Christian proclamation is the response to the presence of God as witnessed in the resurrection of Jesus. Of course, anyone responding to such love in God would also respond to a poor man starving on the steps.

Hendrick ter Brugghen [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The Rich Man and Lazarus, by Hendrick ter Brugghen, 1625
Feeding Lazarus would have made the rich man more of a decent human being. It would not have addressed the central question Jesus is posing—how do we respond to the presence of God? To put it another way, why are we going to feed Lazarus? Because it is the decent thing? Because there but for grace and accident of birth or opportunity go we? Or are we going to feed Lazarus because we recognize the presence of God in the person of the beggar at our gate?

Boundaries, chasms, and gates fill this story. The rich man reclines inside his walls, beyond his gates, unreachable by the beggar Lazarus who lies dying outside. Then the rich man is in torment inside the walls of death, outside the gateway of life, watched by Lazarus, who never speaks a word throughout the entire parable.

The other Lazarus of John’s Gospel lay dead inside a tomb, cut off by the dual obstacles of stone and of death. In that story, Jesus removed the stone, but he stood outside and called to Lazarus. What if that Lazarus had been like this rich man and all his brothers and refused to respond? What if Lazarus had closed his ears, refused to listen to the echo of Jesus’ voice reaching into the darkness of that tomb, calling him back to life?

We might wonder the same thing about ourselves. We might stop to listen, and go to see who is waiting outside the walls we have built.

By Fyodor Andreyevich Bronnikov - http://etnaa.mylivepage.ru/image/411/12132_Притча_о_Лазаре._1886.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9882122
Lazarus at the Gate of the Rich Man, Fyodor Andreyevich Bronnikov, 1886