Saving your life and losing it: Reading Luke with Oscar Romero

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August 14, 2013 by jmar198013

“There was a certain rich man who clothed himself in purple and fine linen, and who feasted luxuriously every day. At his gate lay a certain poor man named Lazarus who was covered with sores. Lazarus longed to eat the crumbs that fell from the rich man’s table. Instead, dogs would come and lick his sores.

“The poor man died and was carried by angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. While being tormented in the place of the dead, he looked up and saw Abraham at a distance with Lazarus at his side. He shouted, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I’m suffering in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received good things, whereas Lazarus received terrible things. Now Lazarus is being comforted and you are in great pain. Moreover, a great crevasse has been fixed between us and you. Those who wish to cross over from here to you cannot. Neither can anyone cross from there to us.’

“The rich man said, ‘Then I beg you, Father, send Lazarus to my father’s house. I have five brothers. He needs to warn them so that they don’t come to this place of agony.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets. They must listen to them.’ The rich man said, ‘No, Father Abraham! But if someone from the dead goes to them, they will change their hearts and lives.’ Abraham said, ‘If they don’t listen to Moses and the Prophets, then neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.’” (Luke 16.19-31 CEB)

Ian Pollock, “The Rich Man and Lazarus” (2000). From Pollock’s “Parables of Christ” series.

“A certain rich man’s land produced a bountiful crop. He said to himself, What will I do? I have no place to store my harvest! Then he thought, Here’s what I’ll do. I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. That’s where I’ll store all my grain and goods. I’ll say to myself, You have stored up plenty of goods, enough for several years. Take it easy! Eat, drink, and enjoy yourself. But God said to him, ‘Fool, tonight you will die. Now who will get the things you have prepared for yourself?’ (Luke 12.16-20 CEB)

All who want to save their lives will lose them. But all who lose their lives because of me will save them. What advantage do people have if they gain the whole world for themselves yet perish or lose their lives? (Luke 9.24-25 CEB)

In the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Jesus tells his disciples about generic rich guy who lived in a gated community. He lived in a gated community because he didn’t want to deal with unwashed bags of skin and bone like Lazarus. Lazarus was covered in sores and probably smelled rancid. The rich guy knew Lazarus was out there, just outside his gate. But he just didn’t give a tinker’s damn. If Lazarus had made better choices with his life; if he’d gone to college; if he’d gotten a good job; if he’d fostered a well-connected social network; if he’d saved and invested–if only he’d had the good sense to secure his life as the rich man had done–he wouldn’t be in this state. Maybe someone suggested to the rich guy, “Look, you’re so rich you use bread for napkins. Couldn’t you at least throw that poor guy out there the bread you’ve wiped your mouth on?” And the rich guy replied, “No, for this will only enable his laziness. Give a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach him to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime. It is patently stupid to feed the poor. If they would just get jobs, they could contribute to the market and that would benefit everyone.” The rich man probably assumed that he had earned the right not to have to be bothered by the likes of Lazarus. Besides, Lazarus was creepy–all those oozing sores and whatnot. Yikes. Just not appropriate for polite society. And so the rich guy lived in a gated community. The gate formed a great chasm which Lazarus could not cross, and which the rich man would not.

So the rich man and Lazarus both died (one would assume Lazarus expired first). And Lazarus is gathered in safely at Abraham’s side, while the rich man wakes up in the fiery abyss. Did the rich man go to hell because he was rich? No–that would be class warfare. The rich man went to hell because he murdered Lazarus. Because he let someone starve to death or die of exposure or whatever right outside his gated community.

Apparently not realizing that he could no longer bargain or negotiate as he had done in life, the rich man says to Abraham: Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I’m suffering in this flame. But Abraham says no. “Lazarus lives in a gated community now, rich guy. He can’t be bothered by the likes of you.”

In another of the parables Luke gives us, Jesus talks about another generic rich dude. This guy’s land yields an awesome harvest one year. He has a terrific problem on his hands: what to do with all this stuff? Feed the poor in the surrounding villages? No, that would only enable them.  Here’s what I’ll do, the rich man tells himself. I’ll tear down my barns and build bigger ones. That’s where I’ll store all my grain and goods. Then I’ll retire early, sitting on all this loot! But God knows what the rich guy doesn’t: the rich guy’s days are numbered. Fool, tonight you will die, says God. Now who will get the things you have prepared for yourself? Did God kill the rich man for being rich? No, God doesn’t punish success. Rather, God knew that when the rich guy clogged his arteries and died from his perpetual feasting, no one would remember him. His relatives would fight over his things in court, but no one would miss the old gasbag.

These two parables, I think, serve as beautiful commentaries on Jesus’ word that, All who want to save their lives will lose them. The generic rich guys of these parables thought that they could secure their lives by wealth. A gated community grants you the privilege of not having to be confronted by homelessness, disease, suffering. You don’t have to mingle with people who have leprosy and AIDS and halitosis. Infinite barns of food and cellars full of oceans of wine means you don’t have to be confronted with starvation. If you don’t have to witness hunger and humiliation and disease day to day, you might begin to assume that you could be immune from them. The rich men in these parables had worked hard trying to save their lives. But they were lost. Jesus continues: What advantage do people have if they gain the whole world for themselves yet perish or lose their lives? These rich men perished. Jesus didn’t even remember their names. They were lost to history. Because they holed themselves up in gated communities, behind mountains of mammon, no one noticed when they died. No one remembered them. Despite all the stuff they had amassed, it turns out that they had taken more than they had given. In the scope of history, their debits far exceeded their credits. Their lives had defaulted. And they died paupers of the soul–forgotten. Lost to memory.

Oscar Romero said of Jesus’ words in Luke 9.24-25:

Those who, in the biblical phrase, would save their lives – that is, those who want to get along, who don’t want commitments, who don’t want to get into problems, who want to stay outside of a situation that demands the involvement of all of us – they will lose their lives.

What a terrible thing to have lived quite comfortably, with no suffering, not getting involved in problems, quite tranquil, quite settled, with good connections politically, economically, socially–lacking nothing, having everything.

To what good?

They will lose their lives.

We tend to think of Jesus’ warning about losing your life as a word only–or at least, mostly–for the life to come. The parables of the rich man and Lazarus and of the rich fool do record matters of eternal consequence. But the loss of your life is something you can experience while still alive. If we want to choose a path of life that stands outside of history–just getting along, free of commitments, not wanting to be involved in the problems of our time–then we have removed ourselves from the unfolding story of our time. I believe Jesus is suggesting that our commitments in this life, our participation in the events of our time, resonate in God’s time. To attempt to secure our lives in gated communities, by consumerist living, by the military-industrial complex–however–represents a way of life that is really about living above history. We assume that life is a commodity like money and can be saved in a vault. But the return on investments made to secure our lives is, in fact, that our lives are lost.
But there is an alternative. For Jesus also says, But all who lose their lives because of me will save them. Romero paraphrased Jesus’ words thus:

“But those who for love of me uproot themselves and accompany the people and go with the poor in their suffering and become incarnated and feel as their own the pain and the abuse –they will secure their lives, because my Father will reward them.” (The Violence of Love, compiled and translated by James R. Brockman, 142. Copyright 2011 by The Plough Publishing House. Used with permission)

This just goes to show that you can’t divorce the person of Christ from the work of Christ. Salvation is not an abstract proposition. It is not a bargain exchange with God. Salvation is embodied, and it means going with Jesus.

And going with Jesus can lead us to scary and dangerous places. By all objective measures, going with Jesus may very well appear to involve losing your life–throwing it away to follow a Galilean rabble-rouser who got himself killed in this world. But to so lose our lives, Jesus tells them, is the only real way to secure them.
The life of the apostle Paul is a good embodiment of this truth. He had a secure life. A Roman citizen, a good Jewish boy, on the fast track to success, with excellent standing among the Jewish elite. He was going somewhere. He could have had a comfortable life of bullying Christians and exegeting thorny passages with the other rabbis and playing golf on Sundays. But instead he decided to follow Jesus and live in near-poverty amid dangerous and perverted Gentiles and get himself killed. Thing is, if he had gone on trying to secure his life on the fast track to success, no one would remember his name today. His life would be lost–to history. To memory. To time.
What does all this mean for us? I humbly suggest that we Christians who live in the modern, secular, liberal West often just want to get along in this world. We want to believe that we can make commitments that we don’t have to suffer for. We do not know how to be involved in situations that demand the sacrifice of our lives. And I don’t even mean situations that will literally kill us. I mean those that will inconvenience us, that will make us give up our plans, that we fear will contaminate us. I mean that our lives become gated communities.
I mean that our churches become gated communities.
I mean that churches ante up a quarter million dollars to place ten-story crosses on their campuses. And when someone humbly suggests that maybe the church could have divested itself of its lucre by investing in the Lazaruses of our time, they are met with, “Jesus said there’ll always be poor people.”
To avoid the fate of the anonymous rich men Jesus presents in his parables, he says we have to give up our lives to him. His claim on our lives leads us to go to Lazarus in whatever guise we might find him in, shoo away the dogs, and start the nasty and tedious work of cleaning his sores with our own hands. That, says Jesus, is the only way to really live.
Oscar Romero, who spoke compelling words about losing and finding our lives, was only preaching what he practiced. Romero spoke up for Christians in El Salvador who were being threatened, bullied, tortured, and murdered by government death squads. Those Christians had given their lives in service to their poor, suffering, and mistreated neighbors. They were being persecuted and killed for loving their neighbors as Jesus said their neighbors ought to be loved. Each week he would give a public radio address where he would name Salvadoran Christians who had been tortured, murdered, or “disappeared.” And he would forthrightly proclaim who was responsible for these acts. Romero was shot dead by agents of the government’s death squads on March 24th, 1980, in the midst of a worship service.
oscarromero
Lucky for us, we Americans live in a liberal secular democracy. Preaching like Oscar Romero probably won’t get you shot here. But it might get you fired.
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5 thoughts on “Saving your life and losing it: Reading Luke with Oscar Romero

  1. Jack says:

    Straight to permanent notes. Thanks, Jeremy.

  2. jmar198013 says:

    “Straight to permanent notes” = the highest compliment one can receive from Jack Hairston. Thank you, Jack.

  3. christopher says:

    Best read in a very long time. Such a needed message for this opulence we have spun around us with all the superficial justifications. How does one read this and go and lead the same life. I am alrady on this train it this will put me on a new trajectory. Thanks so much for writing this truly inspiring piece.

  4. Superb. Just superb. Hits me right where I need it today.

  5. […] the needy or canceling debts. Earlier in Luke’s Gospel—Luke 12.15ff—Jesus told a story about a rich man who had a fantastic harvest, and decided to build bigger barns to store it in. But that very night, he died—all his stuff did […]

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