Jesus tells the story of a rich man who is content to live comfortably with the great chasm between his success and a poor man’s predicament. At his own gate each day, the man passes a beggar named Lazarus, who is covered in sores and waits with the hope that he might be satisfied with something that falls from the rich man’s table. But as Jesus describes the rich man, he sees neither Lazarus nor his plight. Ironically, when the rich man dies and is suffering in Hades with his own agony and aspirations, he still chooses to view Lazarus as inferior, worthy only of being a servant. “Father Abraham, have mercy on me,” he pleads, “and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony.”(1) Twice he makes it clear in his requests that he sees the man who sat at his gate as subordinate at best. Having refused all his days to see the waiting Lazarus as a fellow soul, a suffering neighbor, the chasms the rich man allowed in life had now grown fixed in death.
Another story that emerges from the life of Jesus came before he was old enough to tell stories of his own. The prophet Isaiah told of a child who would be born for the people, a son given to the world with authority resting on his shoulders. Hundreds of years later, in Mary and Joseph of Nazareth, this prophecy was being fulfilled: The angel had appeared. A child was born. The magi had come. The ancient story was taking shape in a field in Bethlehem. But when Herod learned from the magi that a king would be born, he gave orders to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under. At this murderous edict, another prophecy, this one spoken through the prophet Jeremiah, was sadly fulfilled: “A voice is heard in Ramah, mourning and great weeping; Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”(2) While the escape of Mary and Joseph to Egypt allowed Jesus to tell the story of Lazarus years later, the cost, as Rachel and all the mothers’ who didn’t escape knew well, was wrenchingly great.
Of the many objections to Christianity, one that stands out in my mind as troubling is the argument that to be Christian is to withdraw from the world around us, to follow fairy tales with wishful hearts and myths that insist we stop thinking and believe that all will be right in the end because God says so. In such a vein, Karl Marx depicts Christianity as a kind of drug that anesthetizes people to the suffering in the world and the wretchedness of life. Likewise, in Sigmund Freud’s estimation, belief in God functions as an infantile dream that helps us evade the pain and helplessness we both feel and see around us. I don’t find these critiques and others like them troubling because I find them accurate of the kingdom Jesus described in any way. I find them troubling because so many Christians live as if Freud and Marx are quite right in their analyses.
In our impervious boxes and minimalist depictions of the Christian story, we can comfortably live as if in our own world, blind and unconcerned with the world of suffering around us, intent to tell our feel-good stories while withdrawing from the harder scenes of life. In fact, to pretend as if Christianity does not at times function as a wishful escape from the world is perhaps another kind of wishful thinking. There are some critiques of Christianity we ignore at our own peril.
But in reality the stories Jesus left us with reach unapologetically beyond wishful thinking; his proclamations of the kingdom among us are far from declarations of escapism. The story of Rachel weeping for her slaughtered children and Lazarus waiting in agony at the gate of someone who could make a difference are two stories among many that refuse to let us sweep the suffering of the world under the rug of unimportance. The fact that they are included in the gospel that brings us the hope of Christ is not only what makes that hope endurable, but what proves Freud and Marx entirely wrong. Jesus embodies the kind of hope that can reach even the most hopeless among us. He hasn’t overlooked the suffering of the world anymore than he has invited his followers to do so. It is a part of the very story he tells; it is a story written on his own scarred hands and feet.
Thus, precisely because the faith Christians proclaim is not a drug that anesthetizes or a dream that deludes, we must tell the whole story and not merely the parts that lessen our own pain. We must also live as people watchful and ready to be near those who weep and wait—the poor, the demoralized, and the suffering. There are far too many Rachels who are still weeping and Lazaruses who are still waiting, waiting for men and women of faith to inhabit the good news they proclaim, to live into the startlingly real identity of Christ himself.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) Luke 16:24.
(2) Jeremiah 31:15, Matthew 2:16-18.