taking the words of Jesus seriously

In the fall of 1980, when I was 12 years old, I went with my dad into downtown New Orleans to his office on Magazine Street. Driving down Canal Street, the home of the beautiful and historic Saenger Theatre, I noticed something strange happening, and the Saenger Theatre was the epicenter of it all.

The Grateful Dead was set to play a few nights at the Saenger, which meant that a few days before the first show DeadHeads from everywhere converged upon New Orleans and set up camp along and all around Canal Street. Being a budding student of all things 1960s, this fascinated me to no end. Though I’ve never been an honest-to-goodness tie-dyed-in-the-wool DeadHead, it was about that time that I really became interested in them; it was about that time, in my pre-teen years, that I began listening to the Dead.

Listening to the dead . . .

In perhaps one of the very funniest Three Stooges short films, Shemp dies and then is sent back as a ghost to try to reform the cheating, lying and face-slapping Moe and Larry; assuming, of course, that Moe and Larry will listen to the dead.

Charles Dickens brings Jacob Marley’s ghost back to haunt Ebenezer Scrooge and to announce the coming of the Ghosts of Christmases past, present and future. Why? To bring about a conversion of sorts – a reformation of Scrooge’s greedy, merciless and isolated self; assuming, of course, that Scrooge will listen to the dead.

Listening to the dead . . .

Jesus tells a story about a nameless rich man (see Luke 16:19-31). The rich man, who thoroughly enjoyed everything his money could buy, was blind to the needs of another right outside his window. The rich man was deaf to the cries of a person in great need – crying at the end of the driveway every time the rich man drove by in his top-of-the-line luxury car. He never paid any attention to poor Lazarus reaching out for some assurance that his humanity mattered.

The only thing Lazarus ever got was a good view of the rich man’s DeadHead sticker on the back of his Cadillac.

But little did the rich man know, even with his buildings named in his honor at the universities and denominational offices and local church compounds, that he was blocking out God. For God came to the rich man seeking compassion. God came to the rich man seeking mercy. God came to the rich man seeking mere crumbs from the table. God came to the rich man as one of the very “least of these” – but the rich man never saw; never heard.

By building his barriers to keep his comfortableness in and the uncomfortableness out, he had also put God “out of sight” and therefore “out of mind.”

When both die, though, it is Lazarus that is hanging out with Father Abraham, while the rich man is now suffering down in Hades. The last has been made first. The valley has been brought up and the mountain has been made low.

In the spirit of Uncle Mortimer sending Shemp back from the dead, the rich man begs Father Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to warn and reform his brothers. But, as Jesus points out in the story, people have more than enough opportunities from those living around them to hear the Truth and follow the Way; people simply are not prone to listen to the dead.

People simply are not prone to listen to the dead.

Thousands and thousands of years of teachings and examples of compassion, mercy, community, sacrifice . . .

and thousands and thousands of years of selfishness, greed, isolation, war …

if only we knew that in building our walls and putting up our fences and locking our doors and turning up our radios that we were not only securing ourselves from unpleasant sights, smells and sounds around us, we were also securing ourselves from God himself.

And if we won’t even listen to our Scriptures today …

And if we won’t even heed the words of the prophets today …

why then would we even listen to the dead?

Listening to the dead . . .

I have received only one speeding ticket in all my driving years. Early one morning on my way to work, I was driving along a wide-open four-lane highway with little traffic. A great song came on the radio, and as great songs are wont to do to me, I became entranced. My trance was broken when I noticed the police car right behind me. I got clocked doing a whopping 8 miles-per-hour over the speed limit.

The song? “Baba O’Reilly.” It is a great song of course; but its by The Who. Had I been listening to the Dead, perhaps I never would have gotten into trouble.

If we would just listen to the dead . . .

But then again, so few of us will even listen to the living . . .

Bert Montgomery is a writer, minister and college lecturer living in Starkville, Mississippi. His new book is Psychic Pancakes & Communion Pizza (2011, Smyth & Helwys).

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About The Author


Bert Montgomery grew up outside of New Orleans, lived in Memphis, and dearly loves the state that connects the two. He has interviewed legendary folksinger Arlo Guthrie, members of the Allman Brothers and Tedeschi Trucks Bands, and even the deceased monk Thomas Merton. Bert has written about everything from prayer to great hymns, from gender identity to board games, from horror movies and classic comedies to Mardi Gras and sports, and a whole lot about God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit in the midst of it all. His book include Of Mice and Ministers, Psychic Pancakes & Communion Pizza, and Elvis, Willie, Jesus & Me. His day jobs (most writers have day jobs) involve teaching sociology and religion courses at Mississippi State University and also pastoring University Baptist Church, Starkville.

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