Musical chairs is one of those children’s games that teaches a wretched lesson.
You probably remember how to play. Somebody arranges chairs in a circle, making sure to have one less chair than there are players.
While a tune plays the participants walk in a circle around the chairs. As soon as the music stops, everyone scrambles for a seat. The person left standing is out. One chair is removed, and the game resumes. The game reaches its final round with two players and one chair. There is only one winner.
The lesson about human community is bleak. To have a place, you have to take it from somebody else. And only a very few are going to get the place that everybody is struggling to get.
I’ll bet nobody ever considered calling this the Kingdom of Heaven game. But musical chairs does bear a dismal resemblance to how our world too frequently works. And Jesus makes it abundantly clear that he has come to do something about that.
Jesus tells a parable featuring an unnamed rich man and the desperately poor Lazarus. The rich man fills his closets with designer threads. He constantly throws lavish parties for celebrities and big shots. Meanwhile, Lazarus huddles in the rich man’s doorway wearing filthy castoffs and gnawing on table scraps foraged from garbage cans.
At his death, angels transport Lazarus to heaven to be with Abraham. We hear that the rich man is buried and suffers torment in Hades.
Interpreters often tell us that the rich man’s fatal sin was his indifference to the needs of Lazarus and the poor generally. And surely turning a blind eye to the suffering of our fellow human falls short of the summary of the law: love God with all you’ve got and love your neighbor as if your own life depended on it.
But Jesus has more in mind here. He’s talking about turning the world upside down. That’s what he means when he says that the Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near. In Luke’s Gospel we learn that Jesus has come to bring about the great reversal.
Before her son’s birth, Mary sings, “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” (Luke 1:52) In his hometown synagogue, Jesus chooses to read from the Isaiah scroll. He comes to bring good news to the poor. (Luke 4:18)
In Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes, Jesus pronounced blessing on the poor in spirit. Luke, by contrast, reports that Jesus says simply, “Blessed are the poor.” (Luke 6:20) The woes he reserves for the rich. (6:24)
The last will be first and the first will be last. (Luke 13:30) The humble will be exalted and the exalted will be humbled. (Luke 18:14)
Jesus is not saying that every rich person is a vile sinner and that each poor person is an icon of saintliness. But neither is he merely saying that the rich should be generous to what we often condescendingly call “the less fortunate.”
The world as we know it is built on structures of higher and lower, inside and outside that distort the order of perfect love that is the Kingdom of Heaven. In God’s perfect reign, no one is any better than anybody else. Everyone has a place of highest honor, and we don’t have to deprive anyone else a seat to get it.
Let’s return to the parable. The rich man looks up at Lazarus from hell. In his misery, he asks Abraham to send Lazarus down from heaven with a little wine and cheese to make things a bit more comfortable. Failing that, he asks Abraham to send Lazarus with a message to his brothers so they will avoid his fate.
The rich man retains his sense of superiority over Lazarus. He doesn’t deign to speak to him directly, even though he apparently knows his name. He views Lazarus as nothing more than a means to his own ends, seeking to use him as a servant and a messenger.
The rich man derives his place in the world by subordinating other people. He is who he is by being better than somebody else and by depriving others access to the very things he takes for granted. For him, that’s just the way things are supposed to be. He feels entitled to his exalted place. That’s why he’s carried his attitude toward Lazarus even into the afterlife.
By contrast, Jesus comes to establish the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth. Under God’s reign, everyone has an exalted status, and yet we don’t have to displace somebody else or subordinate anybody else to have it.
We each get our place from God’s infinite love for us. We take up our place by making certain that those whom God loves also have a place. That happens to be everybody. In the Kingdom of Heaven, there is no shortage of chairs.