How do we tolerate Marley’s ghost?

This is the season in which millions of people will watch with joy some version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

It is interesting to me that we can watch this story and approve of its viewing in a world in which any talk of judgment is labeled as destructive to the mission of the church and the gospel of Jesus Christ. The central arc of this story is a redemption story driven home by the horrible fate awaiting Ebeneezer Scrooge if he does not repent. Granted, an eternity walking the Earth as a ghost burdened by heavy chain is not hell fire, but can there be any doubt that Scrooge’s reform is set in motion by the prospect of the wrath to come?

It strikes me as a deeply Christian parable. But make no mistake, it is a story that stands in deep judgment of Ebeneezer Scrooge and flinches not an inch at the punishment his heart’s unholiness deserves.

How can we reckon this with the popular response to judgment?

In our creed we say Jesus will judge the living and the dead. The Bible certainly says the same thing.

Although some people have popularized the idea that their is no judgment, I cannot agree with such ideas, no matter how appealing. I can’t agree because such a sentiment makes void so much of scripture and church teaching. It also seriously undermines the claim that God is just and faithful, a keeper of promises. The notion that there is no punishment for the wicked strikes me as a hope that only the comfortable hold dear.

The oppressed pray for justice. The oppressors and their anesthetized allies plead for a “reasonable” god, who does not hear the cries arising from Egypt and Babylon.

Isn’t Marley’s ghost nothing more than the convicting spirit of the Holy Ghost? Why do we reject conviction in the church but enjoy it on our television and computer screens?

No ghost of Christmas past?

He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on 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.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ (Luke 16:24-26, NRSV)

This week’s gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary defies cuddly interpretations. To use a phrase from the coach of my favorite NFL team, this parable bowls you over like a rolling ball of butcher knives.

I cannot escape that verse that we might call the anti-prosperity gospel: You got your good stuff in life. Now, you get agony.

Here Luke forces on us the sharp-edged version of the beatitudes. In Matthew, we are told the poor in spirit are blessed, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Luke is having none of that spiritualization:

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God … But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. (Luke 6: 20b, 24)

The rich man in the parable has been given riches and now is in agony because he did not use them the way God wanted them used. His heart was captured by things God finds an abomination (Luke 16:15), instead of being captured by love for his neighbor. While he feasted in luxury, Lazarus starved on his doorstep. And now, the rich man gets fire and agony.

Unable to save himself, the rich man thinks he might help his family. When I read these words, Marley’s ghost from the Christmas Carol materializes before my eyes. This is the same story. The damned Marley seeks to warn his old partner Ebeneezer before it is too late. And it takes not one but three ghosts — four if you count Marley — to get the point across.

The parable says such ghosts will not do the job. Not even the resurrected Lazarus will do it. No, instead, the rich man’s brothers should read their Torah and Prophets more closely and take them to heart.

‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ (Luke 16:29, NRSV)

The first book I ever read on preaching — and in many ways the one I still lean on the most — instructs us to always look for the word of grace in the text. It asks, for whom is this text good news? My answer: For the poor and hungry and wounded in the streets; for those who thought they needed ghosts and miracles and did not realize that Moses and the prophets were enough.

This week as this text is read in church, do we hear with the ears of the rich man or with Lazarus? Do we hear the parable at all? Or are we like those who will not repent even if a man were to rise from the dead to send us the message?

He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’ (Luke 16:31, NRSV)

Come to me, where chains will never bind you

In Eugene Peterson’s Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, he discusses the meaning of the term “salvation” this way:

Salvation is the act of God in which we are rescued from the consequences of our sin (bondage, fragmentation) and put into a position to live in free, open, loving relationships with God and our neighbors.

Perhaps it is the season, but the mental image that came to my mind as I was reading was Jacob Marley from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” the ghost bound in chains stalking through eternity. What we need to be saved from, in Peterson’s description, are the damaging consequences sin has for our soul and our life. It is not that we need to be sprung free from a jury trial we are destined to lose, but that we need to be cut free from the chains we have clamped to our body and soul.

In Dickens’ story, Scrooge is not only spared an eternal fate but also he is given again the ability to love and take joy in his fellow creatures. He revels in Christmas. He lead the party. He overflows with love for humanity. This is the real salvation in that story, and, if I read Peterson properly, it is how we should understand Christian salvation itself.

In the musical Les Misérables, coming soon as what looks like an awesome movie, we hear this theme of salvation in the final scene. The spirit of the dead Fantine sings to the old and dying Jean Valjean a hauting song about rest and peace after a life of struggle. Her line is one that rings in my memory ever since the first time I heard it on stage. “Come to me, where chains will never bind you. All your grief, at last, at last behind you.” This is salvation. In Les Miz, it is not found until the final act. The promise of Christianity, however, is that such salvation is near, close at hand, if we will receive it.