Scott Jones: Live and Let Die


I came across a column that David Brooks wrote earlier this year. It went viral, and in the opening paragraph he explains his reason for writing it. He says:

"Four years ago, in the midst of the Obama presidency, I published a book called The Road to Character. American culture seemed to be in decent shape and my focus was on how individuals can deepen their inner lives. This week, in the midst of the Trump presidency, I've got another book, The Second Mountain. It's become clear in the interim that things are not in good shape, that our problems are societal. The whole country is going through some sort of spiritual and emotional crisis. College mental health facilities are swamped, suicide rates are spiking, the president's repulsive behavior is tolerated or even celebrated by tens of millions of Americans. At the root of it all is the following problem: We've created a culture based on lies."

In the piece, Brooks identifies the five biggest lies our culture tells, the ones he sees at the heart of our culture's shared spiritual sickness. He lists them:

1.     Career success is fulfilling;

2.     I can make myself happy;

3.     Life is an individual journey;

4.     You have to find your own truth, and

5.     Rich and successful people are worth more than poorer and less successful people.

His brief exposition of the Fifth Lie is penetrating and really identifies a central thread that runs through all of the aforementioned ones. It's worth quoting him at length here.

"We pretend we don't tell this lie (the 5th one), but our whole meritocracy points to it. In fact, the meritocracy contains a skein of lies. The message of the meritocracy is that you are what you accomplish. The false promise of the meritocracy is that you can earn dignity by attaching yourself to prestigious brands. The emotion of the meritocracy is conditional love - that if you perform well, people will love you. The sociology of the meritocracy is that society is organized around a set of inner rings with the high achievers inside and everyone else further out. The anthropology of the meritocracy is that you are not a soul to be saved but a set of skills to be maximized. No wonder it's so hard to be a young adult today. No wonder our society is fragmenting. We've taken the lies of hyper-individualism and we've made them the unspoken assumptions that govern how we live."

I once heard a prominent evangelical preacher say that when sophisticates in the metropolitan area where he preaches asked him if he believes in a hell with literal fire and brimstone, he says, "Of course not." They're usually shocked because he's got a reputation as a conservative evangelical. He says, "Of course not." He thinks all that fire and brimstone talk is just a metaphor for something far worse.

The hit 80's sitcom Cheers had one of the catchiest theme songs in television history. The lyrics describe what most of us are looking for most of the time, if we're honest.

Making your way in the world today

Takes everything you got

Taking a break from all your worries

It sure would help a lot.

Wouldn't you like to get away?

Sometimes you want to go

Where everybody knows your name.

And they're always glad you came.

You want to be where you can see

The troubles are all the same.

You want to be where everybody knows your name.

You want to go where people know

The people are all the same.

You want to go where everybody knows your name.

We all want to go where somebody knows our name. We want to have a name and we want to be known by it. The mistake comes when we think we can make a name for ourselves, one worth knowing that will lead to us being known.

The parable in Luke 16 is the only one where a character is actually named. It's the only parable where Jesus names a character - Lazarus. Lazarus is someone that lost the meritocratic race. He was a pathetic figure. He's destitute, hungry, full of sores. If one's life circumstances reflected one's spiritual destiny, Lazarus would seem about as far from the Kingdom of Heaven as one could get. But the meaning of his name is instructive here. What does this man's name mean, the only named character in the parables of Jesus? God is my help. That is what his name means.

His situation put him in a place where a name could only be received, not achieved. He had nothing to make a name for himself - nothing to brag about - nothing which he could hold out that would give him a name worth knowing. And what a name it is. Contrast this to the rich man in the parable, who remains unnamed. He is more reminiscent of those wandering East of Eden that we find in Genesis 11:4, when they say, "Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.'

These two men's paths seemed to have crossed regularly in their lives, although the Rich Man probably went out of his way to avoid the likes of Lazarus. They both die and find themselves separated by an unbridgeable chasm in the afterlife. Lazarus is in Abraham's bosom, while the Rich Man is in a place of torment.

What's interesting is that it's exactly the things that put the Rich Man in the place of torment that keep him there. He still thinks he's someone of import and significance. He thinks he's in a place to call shots and give orders. He still thinks himself to be above Lazarus. He makes requests from a sense of entitlement, but not once does he really ask for mercy and accept that the name he made for himself actually made him nameless, he's just some rich guy. He can't bear to make God his help, and thus he remains just some rich guy trapped in the mess that his relentless pursuit of the good life got him into.

Death and Resurrection isn't just the story of the Passion Week. It's through line in so many of the parables and teachings of Jesus. This one is no exception, Lazarus looks like one of life's losers, while the Rich Man looks like one of life's winners. And yet, beyond the vale Lazarus seems to have won. But how? By simply accepting that he's dead. That's the only way to Resurrection. The Rich Man can't accept that he's dead. He bargains and attempts to wriggle his way out of the situation with reckless abandon. His inability to accept death precludes him from a possible Resurrection life. Only the dead get resurrected.

In some ways this parable anticipates the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. There Jesus tells a story of two men who are dead in their sins. The Publican acknowledges and accepts his deadness and is justified, while the Pharisee denies and rejects his condition and is condemned.

Ultimately, we will either receive the name Lazarus, by accepting our deadness and trusting the God who raises the dead to be our help, or we will attempt to make a name for ourselves and remain nameless and immune to being raised up to new life.

I heard a story a couple of years ago about a pastor in Chicago. He's a friend of a friend, it's an actual story. He had a nice family including his oldest son who had just graduated high school, who he loved very much. After his son graduated high school he started to distance himself from his family and plunged headlong into the drug culture in Chicago. Over a year goes by. They don't hear from him. They don't hear from him in over 18 months. And then one Saturday night at 2:00 a.m., actually more like Sunday morning, they get a call and it's the police. "We have your son. He's had a DUI. You have to come pick him up."

The pastor gets out of bed, goes down to the precinct, and explains who he is and that he's here for his son. They look at him perplexed. They have no idea what's he's talking about. OK, it's Chicago, I'm sure there's a lot of precincts. So, he goes to the next precinct. Same thing. They have no idea what he's talking about. He goes to two more precincts. All of a sudden, it's 4:00 a.m. Church is in a few hours. He's not going to go back to asleep. So, he decides to go the last place he remembers his son living, which was in a derelict part of town, it was a crack house.

He goes in and people are sleeping all over the place. He looks around and he locates his son sleeping on a mattress in a back room. At 5:00 a.m. in this hell hole his heart breaks. He falls to his knees, then he kisses his son. And then he gets up and leaves.

About four months later the son shows up at the house. Then he shows up again three weeks later. Then again two weeks later. Soon, he's there all the time. Slowly, he's integrated back into the life of the family. His father asked him one day what the heck happened. What transpired that took you out of the life you were in?

The son said, "Dad, don't you know? It was that night. You know the night you got the call. It was one of my friends playing a prank on you. We all laughed thinking about how you, getting ready for church, would have to spend your night in precincts looking for me - imagining the look on your face when you go to the officer's desk.

"But the one thing we never imagined is that you'd come to the house where I lived. Dad, we saw you coming down the street and we all dove for the beds. I wasn't asleep that night. When you walked into my room and found me, I knew you'd be so furious at me. I was readying myself for you to kick me as hard as you could. You want to know what changed me? You didn't kick me. You kissed me. You kissed me and that changed everything."

The Kiss of God. That's what saves us. And to receive it, we need do nothing but acknowledge our deadness and receive it. When we attempt to make a name rather than receive it, God's presence feels like it's kicking us. But when we take the name Lazarus and God is our help, the Kiss of God raises the dead.