Abraham’s bosom

Psalm 146; Luke 16: 19–31, preached by Rev. Jane McBride on September 25, 2022

Rock’a my soul in the bosom of Abraham,

Rock’a my soul in the bosom of Abraham,

Rock’a my soul in the bosom of Abraham,

Oh, rock’a my soul.

So high you can’t get over it;

So low you can’t get under it, 

So wide you can’t get around it, 

Oh, rock’a my soul.

Thank you for singing along with me! That was a song published in 1867 in a volume called A Volume of Slave Songs. If you followed the words, you discovered the interpretive framework I am using to identify the positive message in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, from Luke’s gospel. 

Unfortunately, there is also a negative message in the parable. It is called anti-Semitism. Clues are found scattered through the story. Sally, in her questions about the parable, has found these out. First, the heavenly banquet host is Father Abraham, not the God who created everything. Father Abraham is the founder of God’s covenanted people of Israel. He is not God. Then there’s Abraham’s absolute refusal to send a cup of water to the suffering rich man, and Abraham’s refusal to send a word of warning to the rich man’s five brothers. They have Moses and the prophets, Abraham says. It’s cruel. It’s a bit like Marie Antoinette’s famous quote, “Let them eat cake.” Then there’s Father Abraham’s clincher: “They will not believe; even if somebody comes back from the dead.” A thinly veiled reference to the Christian belief in the resurrection and appearances of the crucified Jesus.

How do I get anti-Semitism from all this? Biblical scholars believe that Luke’s gospel was written from Rome, and thus addressed to a Roman audience. How best to commend the growing Jesus communities in the heart of the Roman Empire. Blame the Jews! Vilify the Jews!! If you want to read a more blatant ani-Semitism, read the fourth gospel, John’s gospel, where the Jewish leaders are constantly plotting how to do away with Jesus.

My friends, we must always take care to read New Testament texts with a skeptical eye as well as an appreciative eye. The bible is not great literature, and it is not dictated, word for word, by God. The bible contains profoundly true and beautiful passages, but it contains a lot of verbiage that is not. The bible only becomes God’s word for us as we wrestle with its historical context.

In spite of that caution, there is a positive affirmation in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. That meaning is better expressed in the slave song, “Rock-my Soul in the Bosom of Abraham.” Abraham’s bosom is a phrase from the King James Version, not modern English versions who speak of the “side of Abraham.” I prefer the 1611 King James Version because it conveys better the loving and nourishing dimensions of God’s grace. Divine love is always right there, waiting to embrace us and strengthen us for the journey. It is not a permanent resting place, but a place of renewed energy for the calling embedded in that grace—to love God and neighbor, to act on behalf of the poor, and to labor for justice and faithful stewardship of creation. While we are free to say, “No thank you. I have enough problems of my own,” that love stays right there, beckoning, welcoming and pursuing.

The parable and the song stress a positive theme in Luke’s gospel, the promise of a reversal of fortune, where the rich beggar becomes the honored guest at the feast, and the rich man is not on the guest list.

What, then, does the parable of the rich man and Lazarus mean for us today, for those of us trying to follow Jesus? It means, quite simply, that we are to attend to the poor and act on their behalf. Simple enough, right? But not easy, as difficult as confronting white privilege in our souls and systems?

Why so hard? During his later years, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reconfigured his campaign, calling it a Poor Peoples Campaign. Support slipped. Why? Racial justice makes a moral claim hard to ignore. Poverty does not. In fact, a certain amount of poverty is required by the economic and political system in which we live, and which inhabits our souls. Thanks to free market capitalism and social Darwinism rolled into a toxic package here in the US called American exceptionalism.  

The consequences are tragically familiar. Six hundred eight-nine million people in the whole world live in poverty. In the United States the figure is 34 million, or 11% of the American population. Not surprisingly, eight of the poorest nations in the world are in Africa, former European colonies (surprise, surprise), but also with limited natural resources. Their poverty seems intractable, inevitable. But we dare not give in to such hopelessness.

For those of us trying to follow Jesus, there are three obligations laid on our consciences from this parable. The first is an inner transformation of awareness of poor people and the systems keeping them that way. The second is personal commitment of each of us to do something on behalf of the poor. And the third is political action in support of policies and practices that support the poor. That may the most difficult of all.

The first obligation is to experience a transformation of our awareness of poverty. This will be much like transformations of consciousness about misogyny, racism, and white privilege. Not easy. We have strong built-in resistance. But it can be done. We might be helped by Roman Catholic moral theology. In 1968 Father Pedro Arrupe, then Jesuit Superior General, coined the phrase, “God’s preferential option for the poor,” in a letter to Latin American liberation theologians. This might offend our belief that God should be more evenhanded. Sally made this point in her remark about the permanent condemnation of the rich man in the parable. But how could God not have a preferential option for the poor when so many are miserable and dying, while the few rich and powerful lord it over the poor?

The second obligation is to take direct action for the poor. We do that at First Church through our work at the food shelf, the Lexington Commons, St. Stephen’s shelter at Christmas, Meals on Wheels, and the community kitchen. Even if we are not able to volunteer there, we can all write a check and sign petitions.

The third obligation is to work in the political system to create a robust safety net for the poorest. Such a safety net should include universal health care and a guaranteed annual income. Our nation is rich enough to do that, but much of our national wealth is locked up, you know where. We lack the political will to consider such measures because our minds are infected with pro-capitalism warnings about destroying initiative and encouraging sloth, and fostering an underclass of lazy people living on the dole. A good book for imagining new political possibilities is called Christian Socialism—the Promise of an Almost Forgotten Tradition, published in 2021 by Philip Turner and Stanley Hauerwas.

Bernie Sanders! Don’t go away! Hang in there! Amen