Where you are going, you will need friends.

The title is today’s text.  With no context at all, it seems at least plausible.  When we get down to it, the context I will supply for “where you are going” will be the fact that we are all mortal.  The context Luke provides for this reflection will require something better than “plausible.”

I have been interested lately in some of Jesus’s teachings that are emphasized quite strongly in Luke.  I have two things in mind.  The first is this: how does Luke’s portrayal of Jesus represent the relationship of this life with the next life?  The second is, if that’s the way life is (and death and the continuing “life” after that), how would the prudent man or woman prepare for it?[1] 

Let’s start with an example so clear that it is right at the edge of silly.  A group of middle school children is going on a field trip to see an old growth forest.  Everyone was issued a big bag of potato chips and told the chips could be eaten whenever the children chose.  Group A ate theirs on the way to the forest; Group B saved theirs until the trip home.  I think that is Luke’s notion of the relationship between this life and the next.  You can eat ‘em now or you can eat ‘em later.

Still staying with the potato chips, let’s look at Luke, Chapter 6 and consider two fragments from “the Sermon on the Plain,” Luke’ version of Matthew’s “Sermon on the Mount.”  Somewhere in the middle of verse 20, there is this line: “Blessed are you who are hungry now for you shall have your fill.”  And down in verse 25, “Alas for you who have plenty to eat now: you shall go hungry.”

Those two sentiments—a benediction and a malediction—pivot on the expression “you have already had yours” in verse 24.  Clearly, this is in response to the unhappiness of the children who ate their chips on the way to the forest and now have none to eat.[2]  “You already ate yours,” is the response.  Now is the time for those who saved theirs to enjoy them.[3]

compensation 1Some will surely say that simplifies things unconscionably.  Yes, it does.  In the economic world of Luke’s time, it was thought that there was a fixed amount of wealth to be had.  If I had a lot, the effect would be that you would have very little.  There is none of the ever expanding pie of capitalism here; nothing of “a rising tide floats all boats.”  If you have wealth, you took it from me and my fellow proletarians.

You will note that this translates the snack example into a matter of moral worth.  The poor are morally good in this way of looking at it and the rich morally bad.  Let’s look at the parable of the successful farmer in Chapter 12.

“Then he told them a parable, ‘There was once a rich man who, having had a good harvest from his land, thought to himself, “What am I to do? I have not enough room to store my crops.”  Then he said, “This is what I will do: I will pull down my barns and build bigger ones, and store all my grain and my goods in them,  and I will say to my soul: My soul, you have plenty of good things laid by for many years to come; take things easy, eat, drink, have a good time.”  But God said to him, “Fool! This very night the demand will be made for your soul; and this hoard of yours, whose will it be then?”  So it is when someone stores up treasure for himself instead of becoming rich in the sight of God.’ “

He had a really good harvest that year.  We don’t know why.  Normally, in his culture, you would compensation 2expect him to take the poverty of the other farmers—or, more likely, farm hands—into account.  We are all brothers in the Covenant after all.  Three for me and one for you; five for me, and one for you.  That’s what a rich man should do.  The fact that he did not do it does not mean that he goes to everlasting punishment.  It does mean that he has put all his emphasis on getting and keeping as much wealth as he could and the hell with everybody else.  Jesus said, “So you emphasized accumulation to the exclusion of everything else and now you are going to die and everything you accumulated will go to other people.”  That’s what Jesus did say.  He could have said, “If you had shared it, you would have done a lot of good for a lot of people and wouldn’t be one whit worse off yourself.”  Being, you know, dead in either case.

Now we move into the question of having friends.  In Luke’s vision, the rich are going to the uncomfortably warm and solitary end of Sheol and the poor to the blissfully cool and social end.  Looking at the story that is often called Lazarus and the rich man we find the compensatory character of the next life affirmed and we begin to see how nice it would be to have a friend.

“There was a rich man who used to dress in purple and fine linen and feast magnificently every day.  And at his gate there used to lie a poor man called Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to fill himself with what fell from the rich man’s table.  Even dogs came and licked his sores.  Now it happened that the poor man died and was carried away by the angels into Abraham’s embrace.  The rich man also died and was buried.

“In his torment in Hades, he looked up and saw Abraham a long way off with Lazarus in his embrace.  So he cried out, “Father Abraham, pity me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in agony in these flames.”  Abraham said, “My son, remember that during your life you had your fill of good things, just as Lazarus had his fill of bad.  Now he is being comforted here while you are in agony.”

Let’s consider, then, what the rich man—who is accused of no fault at all in this life—could have done.  He could have made Lazarus a beneficiary.  He could have made a friend.  Had he done that, he would have had someone in the next life who would put in a good word for him.  Nothing in this story says the rich man had any bad feelings about Lazarus.  I am sure he didn’t notice him at all.

I will go now into unrelieved fantasy.  You don’t have to follow if you don’t want to.  Notice that Lazarus has no speaking part at all.  He does not ask for table scraps, although we are told that he wanted them.  He does not intervene with Father Abraham either.  Abraham says, “My son, remember that during your life you had your fill of god things, just as Lazarus his fill of bad.  Now he is being comforted here while you are in agony.” Lazarus who, in this fantasy, could have interceded on the rich man’s behalf, says not a word.  The rich man has not won Lazarus’s favor and what will happen to the rich man otherwise, does happen.

Imagine that the rich man likes eating Chinese and one day, in his fortune cookie, he found this bit of wisdom, “Where you are going, you are going to need friends.”  He puzzles over it a little.  It is long for a “fortune.”  Then he returns to the Kung Pao Chicken with no thought to “where he is going.”

This is a choice the rich man made.  It was very likely so much a part of his daily life that it didn’t seem to be a choice at all.  It is, in that way, like many of the opportunities for choice that we all encounter.  But it is not the choice he would have had to make; he could have chosen otherwise.  And, in fact, in Luke’s next parable, a real scoundrel makes a much better choice.  Biblical scholars have found this parable challenging, but in the context I have provided for it, it is not problem at all.

“He also said to his disciples, ‘There was a rich man and he had a steward who was denounced to him for being wasteful with his property.  He called for the man and said, “What is this I hear about you? Draw me up an account of your stewardship because you are not to be my steward any longer.”  Then the steward said to himself, “Now that my master is taking the stewardship from me, what am I to do? Dig? I am not strong enough. Go begging? I should be too ashamed.  Ah, I know what I will do to make sure that when I am dismissed from office there will be some to welcome me into their homes.”  ‘Then he called his master’s debtors one by one. To the first he said, “How much do you owe my master?”  “One hundred measures of oil,” he said. The steward said, “Here, take your bond; sit down and quickly write fifty.”  To another he said, “And you, sir, how much do you owe?” “One hundred measures of wheat,” he said. The steward said, “Here, take your bond and write eighty.”  ‘The master praised the dishonest steward for his astuteness. “

 compensation 5A steward is responsible for the use of his master’s financial holdings.  That is his job.  This particular steward has not been doing the job.  He has been skimming off profits for himself.  He has been discovered and now he is going to be fired.  But before that happens, the steward calls the major debtors into the office and cheats his master yet again.[4] 

No one says this is a good thing to do, but what it has in its favor is what the rich man in the first parable failed at.  The steward looks at the life he is now living and sees that it is coming to an end.  He knows that where he is going, he is going to need the active welcome of the poor—those who were in debt to his master—so he goes out and gets it.  He uses the resources he has in his present life to invest in “the life to come,” in his case, a life on the streets.

Pretty smart, says Luke.  He was not blinded by his current wealth and power to the fact that he is going to lose it all.  Not being blinded, he takes the initiative to prepare a welcome for himself.  He knows, in short, that where he is going, he will need friends.

A proverb cited in 1Timothy has it that “the love of money is the root of all evils.”  In these three Lucan parables, the question is whether the presence of money blinds you to the friends you could make in the next life. 

First Parable:  Jesus doesn’t raise that question about the man who built bigger barns, but the case could be made that if he shared his bountiful harvest with his neighbors, they would vouch for him in the next life.  In the next life, according to Luke’s picture, the poor neighbors will be in the good end of Sheol and the agribusiness tycoon in the bad end. 

Second Parable: The rich man did not attend, the way he might have, to the need to cultivate Lazarus’s friendship.  When the crucial moment comes, Lazarus says not a word on the rich man’s behalf. 

Third Parable: The fraudulent steward uses money—not his own money, but this is no time to be picky—to attend to what really matters.  He invests it in “the next life,” and when he gets there, all those poor debtors will vouch for him.  He will have a friend.

It doesn’t strike me as a consistent teaching of the gospels that there will be an economically compensatory afterlife.  On the other hand, I do think that all the gospels teach that the permanent things—“the life of the ages,” John calls it in Chapter 3—is more important than the ephemeral things of this life, to which we pay so much attention.

Here is the best summary of the point I have seen. compensation 4


[1] I am not counseling prudence, by the way.  I am only trying to see how clear I can make the implications of putting prudence first.

[2] According to Luke, “the trip home” takes a great deal longer than the trip out, but I want to keep my potato chip analogy and unequal trips are just too complicated.

[3] Actually, God provides the chips for the poor children on the way back, but you can’t make a story tell everything at once.

[4] That’s what Raymond Brown thinks.  His good friend, Joseph Fitzmyer, thinks otherwise.  Fitzmyer thinks that what the steward does is to reduce the debts by the amount of his commission.  That’s what the footnotes in the New Jerusalem Bible say as well. It doesn’t really matter from a theological standpoint, but it is good for me to see noted biblical scholars and good friends come down on opposite sides of the fence.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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