Monday, October 1, 2007

Year C, Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Amos 6,1a-.4-7 Ps 146,8-10; 1 Tim 6,11-16; Lk 16,19-31

As we continue to recite St. Luke’s Gospel in our liturgies each Sunday, our complacency is challenged and we are constantly reminded, or perhaps told, or really hear for the first time, what it means to be a Christian. This week, as with the past several weeks, our first reading is a powerful passage taken from one of the prophets sent to call Israel back to fidelity with God through the Covenant. Like last week, it is with the words of the prophet Amos that we, like the rich of ancient Israel, are called to account.

Last week we heard Amos’ words to the rich of Israel who obtained their wealth through dishonest business practices, by cheating people and denying them the fruits of their hard labor. This week we read about the luxurious lifestyle that such dishonest practices afford these same rich who "trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land" (Amos 8,4). It is important to note that not all people who enjoy financial success, not even most, have profited by cheating, or that all wealthy people neglect the common good, but as the wealthiest society on the earth, we are often very unconcerned about anything that does not involve our own prosperity and satisfy our wants. What Amos is getting at is the very human tendency to be concerned only with our own welfare to the neglect of the common good, to define our interests, be they personal, national, or religious, only by what benefits us as individuals, nations, or even as Church. Stated simply, we ask again the petulant question Cain asked God while God sought Abel, who Cain had killed: "Am I my brother’s keeper" (Gen 4,9)? We know, at least from our reading of today’s Gospel, that the answer to this question is a resounding, YES!

So provoked was he by this neglect of the poor and of the greater good that Amos gives a warning to Israel, not one to be realized by God suddenly getting angry and shooting lightening bolts out of the sky in the manner of a pagan deity, à la Zeus or Thor, but a warning to be realized as the natural consequence of neglecting the common good, the demise of Israel, the society on whose existence their prosperity depends.

This brings us to today’s Gospel in which Jesus tells the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. By his telling of this story, Jesus, the ultimate prophet, considerably ups Amos’ ante. It is important to note that the audience for this story is a group of Pharisees, the devout Jews who constantly challenged Jesus and his teaching on the Torah, not a group of politicians. So, this teaching is directed first to Israel and by extension the Church. The story of Lazarus and the rich man is a very dramatic story and one without nuance, ambiguity, or paradox, those elements that normally characterize Jesus’ teaching.

Lazarus, a poor beggar, covered with sores, languished outside the gate of the house of the wealthy man, while that man lived well. The rich man completely ignored Lazarus in his suffering, refusing to even give him scraps from his table, which Lazarus would have gladly eaten. Then Lazarus dies and, in due course, the wealthy man dies. Then the tables are turned and the rich man begs Father Abraham to allow Lazarus to ease his suffering, if only just a bit. Notice that it is not Lazarus who refuses to come to the aid of the rich man, such a refusal would be petty revenge, which has no part in Christian life. It is Abraham who refuses to allow Lazarus to do so. This, my friends, is justice. By refusing mercy and failing to be merciful we ask for justice, God’s justice. This story contains the same warning as that given by Amos to ancient Israel, namely that injustice, the neglect of the common good, one symptom of which is gross economic disparity, leads to the unraveling of society, which unraveling is often brought about by violent means.

Earlier this year marked the fortieth anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s controversial encyclical Populorum Progresso that begins with these words: "The progressive development of peoples is an object of deep interest and concern to the Church. This is particularly true in the case of those peoples who are trying to escape the ravages of hunger, poverty, endemic disease and ignorance" (par. 1). Indeed, the development of peoples, known as the common good, remains of deep interest and concern to the Church, as the second part of Deus Caritas Est, recently reminded us. In Populorum Progresso Paul VI wrote prophetically about the justice of which Amos and Jesus Christ both taught, the very justice of God, about which we have received quite an education these past few months from Luke’s Gospel.

In this letter Pope Paul rhetorically asks how the love of God abides in the person "who has the goods of this world and sees his brother in need and closes his heart to him" (par. 23). "Everyone knows," he continues, "that the Fathers of the Church laid down the duty of the rich toward the poor in no uncertain terms" (par. 23). Indeed, St. Ambrose, speaking to the rich, said: "You are not making a gift of what is yours to the poor man, but you are giving him back what is his. You have been appropriating things that are meant to be for the common use of everyone. The earth belongs to everyone, not to the rich" (De Nabute c. 12, n. 53). It is on this basis that Pope Paul concludes that "No one may appropriate surplus goods solely for his own private use when others lack the bare necessities of life." In short, "the right of private property may never be exercised to the detriment of the common good" (par. 23). When people lack life’s necessities it is not, properly speaking, an act of charity to give her what she needs to live, but an act of justice.

Injustice of various kinds, especially the injustice that deprives people of food, clean water, housing, education, and basic health care is the cause of many societal problems with which are daily confronted beginning in our neighborhoods and going all the way up to the international level. That is why we pray for a more equitable distribution of the earth’s bounty and for an end to the injustices that cause so much alienation and anger, especially among the young, who, realizing that they are unable to fulfill their legitimate dreams and aspirations, turn to radicalism and, in extreme cases, even violence and terrorism.

Nonetheless, our efforts, while rooted in prayer, must not be limited to prayer. Our prayer must strengthen us to live in solidarity with those who suffer injustice in order to make present God’s kingdom in this world. There are many ways to live justly and not only by contributing money to worthy causes, as important as that is. We must seek to act justly in our lives, in our homes, especially as parents. Healthy marriages lead to two parent families, which, in turn, lead to happier, healthier, better adjusted children. We must also act justly at school and at work. We must advocate, as befits citizens of a free and prosperous nation, on behalf those who suffer oppression, repression, and deprivation and whose only to desire is to live with human dignity and to provide a promising future to their children. Dear sisters and brothers, One has been raised from the dead, are we persuaded?

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