This week’s readings feature two striking stories that highlight the strange, even paradoxical character of living as God’s people in the world and especially the strange world that arises when holy Scriptures in some sense define one’s life. On one hand, Jeremiah’s story is one of the supreme examples of what Hebrews 11 holds up, namely faithfulness towards an unseen reality in the face of what’s plainly obvious to everybody. The brutal reality, of course, chapter 32 lays out in its opening verses: Nebuchadnezzar is in his eighteenth year, and Jerusalem is under siege. Everybody knows what happens when Nebuchadnezzar comes knocking: as Herodotus notes, in his day Nebuchadnezzar was invincible the same way that Cyrus of Persia would be invincible a generation later: no city can withstand him. Jerusalem has passed the “if” and is rapidly approaching “when” Jerusalem becomes Babylonia’s latest victim, and YHWH comes to Jeremiah with a bold command: buy land, and keep the paperwork.
The cliches come to mind too readily: buy some of the deck furniture from the Titanic. Bet heavily on the Washington Generals against the Harlem Globetrotters. Buy your advance tickets for when the Cubs play in the World Series. But then again, this is the same YHWH who commanded Hosea to marry a woman of unfaithfulness, who told Joshua to march around Jericho instead of laying siege, who told Moses to face down the god-king of his world’s supreme military power. Jeremiah has a literary tradition standing toe-to-toe against real and present political reality, and being a prophet, he declares that ultimately the Bible is more real.
Centuries later Jesus tells another story in which the Bible turns out to be more real than what is present and seen. That the story of Lazarus and Dives has become in many circles a proof-text in arguments against universalism is almost as sad as Genesis 1’s conscription in anti-evolution battles: in each case there’s some really good stuff that gets missed when the text is not doing what the text does best. The most fascinating thing about this story is not that there is a place in the afterlife with fire and torment; every Parthian Zoroastrian worth his salt believed in that. What’s fascinating is that the rich man, caring for his own brothers in a way that never would have happened in Dante’s Inferno, begs Abraham to allow him to return to the land of the living, not so that he might escape his doom along with Ebenezer Scrooge, but so that his brothers might see a man returned from the dead, be shocked, and turn their own lives around. And then the shocker comes.
What’s really astonishing, Abraham seems to imply, is not that the dead might return but that God would speak oracles specifically to human beings just so they could live good lives and avoid your fate. And so the story closes. The implications are gigantic: although no Jew of the time would have held Scriptures lightly (certainly not as lightly as many of us moderns do), this passage assigns to them the status of a grand divine scandal, a moment so shocking that anyone with ears to hear should have heard them because of their offense against expectations.
We moderns, thinking that we know so blasted much about “religion,” might see this as a strange move: after all, doesn’t “every religion” have its “holy book” that its adherents read? The answer is, of course, that in the Roman world of Jesus and Paul and Luke, that simply would not have been the working assumption. Certainly the Greeks had their beliefs in the vatic character of poetic madness, and Herodotus gives us several instances of divine oracles coming from Delphi to particular kings and luminaries, and many spiritual traditions have books that they read in public ceremonies, but none of those things is quite like the Torah and the prophets. That the Scriptures issue forth directly from God means that divine contact has become textual, words read not for the sake of educating the people with regards to God but as the vehicle by which God’s own word comes to Israel and by extension to mortals on earth. If the rich man’s brothers have become so drunk with their own comfort that they do not recognize the very words of God, then not even the dead walking can stir them from that slumber.
We Christians should never forget the oddity of divinely-inspired text, the scandal of particular revelation, or the other particulars that make us distinct from those “religions” that came before. May God remind us again and again of the glory and the scandal of being People of the Book.