When Scripture Is Disturbing

The Rich Man and Lazarus

What am I supposed to do with scriptures that disturb me?

I think I’ve mentioned before that I live and study in St. Louis.  Most of my community members are like myself, young Jesuit scholastics who are preparing for ordained ministry in the Church.  One of the ways we prepare is by taking turns preaching within the community.  Once a semester or so every scholastic is asked to pray with the readings of the day and to offer a reflection during Mass.  Afterwards, each of us receive written critiques from fellow scholastics as well as from the priests of the house.

My turn came during this past week, and so I went about preparing in my usual way.  I settled myself into my regular prayer spot (a ridiculously comfortable recliner), and sat quietly for a few minutes before cracking open my battered, highlighted study Bible to the readings on which I was scheduled to preach.

I wasn’t quite ready for them to bother me.  The first (you can read them here, if you’d like) was from the Jeremiah.  “Cursed is the man who trusts in human beings, who seeks his strength in flesh!” bawled the prophet.  And later, “More torturous than all else is the human heart, beyond remedy; who can understand it?”

“Ugh,” I thought, “next please.”  Surely Jesus would have something more reassuring to tell me in the Gospel, wouldn’t he?

No such luck.  The Gospel for the day was about the rich man, the one who ate sumptuously every day and ignored the needs of poor Lazarus, who lay, dogs licking at his sores, at the gates of the rich man’s house.  And it doesn’t get much better from there, because both of the men die, and then the rich man is forced to suffer torment.  I was stumped, but at least I still had time to pray.  Surely that would be fruitful.

Nope.  Praying about the readings only disturbed me more than I had already had been.  Cursed is the one who finds strength in the flesh?  Granted, I (and most people I know) try desperately hard to rely on God’s strength, but is that all-too-human weakness of relying on the flesh so dire as to demand a cursing?  Sad to say, but my prayer over the Gospel wasn’t much better.  I’ve seen just enough of the evils of poverty for my heart to be rent by the image of Lazarus lying hungry and sore.  But I found myself asking, wasn’t the rich man formed by his own culture and circumstances?  As I took in the Gospel’s graphic image of the rich man suffering torments, I couldn’t help wondering whether I’d have done any better in his place.  And I couldn’t help being deeply unsettled.

***

I doubt that I’m the only one who’s ever been bothered by scripture.  In fact, in a backwards sort of way, being bothered by scriptures can actually be a good thing.  Being disturbed means that we’re paying attention enough to let God’s Word shake our hearts; shake our reality.

The real question isn’t whether I’m comfortable with this or that reading.  The real question is what will I do when these readings.  Notice what I did in this case: my first instinct was flight, to run away and pretend that the reading hadn’t happened, to focus on something more comfortable.  I tried to take the easy way out, and there’s a real danger in letting escape become a habit.  If I cultivate the habit of ignoring scripture that makes me uncomfortable, sooner or later I’m going to end up remaking the Gospel into my own image and likeness.

Instead, I want to remember to take that feeling of being disturbed, unsettled, as an opportunity to spend more time with exactly those passages that bother me.  Because God has a tendency to surprise me, and because maybe discomfort will keep me aware of the unexpected ways that God stirs in my prayer.

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