Sunday, September 29, 2013

Year C Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

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

Our readings today seek to challenge our complacency by telling us in no uncertain terms what it truly means to follow Christ, what it means to lose your life for His sake, seeking to bring about what we continually pray for: that God’s will be done on earth as in heaven.

Last week we heard Amos’ denunciation of the rich of Israel, who obtained their wealth through dishonest business practices, thus denying people the just fruits of their labor. This week we read about the luxurious lifestyle that such dishonest practices afforded these same rich, who Amos denounced for trampling “upon the needy and the poor of the land” (Amos 8:4).

It is important to note that not all people who enjoy financial success have profited by cheating, or that all wealthy people neglect the common good. Such an assertion is simply false. But as perhaps the wealthiest society in world history, we often seem very unconcerned about anything that does not involve our own prosperity and/or satisfy our wants and desires. What our readings today zero in on is the very human tendency to be concerned only with our own welfare, to define our interests, be they personal, national, or religious, only by what benefits us as individuals, as a nation, or even as the Church.

So provoked was he by this neglect of the poor that Amos gave 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 the prosperity of these rich folks depended.

My friends, we live at a time when the gap between the rich and the poor is increasing both globally, as well as in our own country, a state-of-affairs that has only gotten worse these past five years, since the global financial meltdown, which was clearly the result of just the kind of greed Amos denounced in ancient Israel. During his recent visit to the town of Cagliari, on the island of Sardinia, a place, like so many poor places worldwide, that has disproportionately suffered over these past five years, speaking to a group of workers, Pope Francis made what I can only call a prophetic denunciation:

Referring to the suffering caused by the seemingly universal idolization of money, the Holy Father said that this is not only a problem in Italy or in certain European countries, but “is the result of a global decision, of an economic system… centered on an idol called ‘money.’”

“God,” the pope continued, “did not want an idol to be at the center of the world but man, men and women who would keep the world going with their work. Yet now, in this system devoid of ethics, at the center there is an idol and the world has become an idolater of this ‘god-money.’ Money is in command! Money lays down the law!"

The recently departed Episcopal priest and writer, Robert Farrar Capon once began a homily he delivered in a wealthy parish in the Hamptons, a well-known playground of the East coast rich, by setting a $20 bill on fire and saying, “I have just defied your God.”

By telling the story of Lazarus and the rich man, Jesus, the ultimate prophet, considerably upped 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 Law, 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 characterize so much of the Lord’s 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, as we all must, 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 the life of a Christian. It is Abraham who refuses to allow Lazarus to do so, pointing out the chasm between them, which represents God's justice.

Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that calling for a Church closer to the poor, a less worldly Church, is a new thing, first conceived of and called for in recent months. Why, just this past Friday, we observed the memorial of that champion and servant of the poor, St. Vincent de Paul. During his last Apostolic Visit to his native Germany, speaking to a large group of that country’s most influential Catholics, those engaged in politics, commerce, culture, etc., Pope Benedict noted that history teaches us that “when the Church becomes less worldly, her missionary witness shines more brightly.” He went on to observe, “When the Church is liberated from material and political burdens and privileges,” she is able to “reach out more effectively and in a truly Christian way to the whole world” and live “more freely her vocation to the ministry of divine worship and service of neighbor.”

What did Pope Benedict mean by living our “vocation to the ministry of divine worship and service of neighbor”? I think he meant something like this- Mass is not an end in itself. This is clearly shown by the fact that the word “Mass” comes from the Latin word missa, meaning to be dismissed, or, more in keeping with our baptismal vocation, to be sent. After all, one of the marks of Christ’s Church is that it is apostolic, which means it is composed of those the Lord calls only in order to send. Do we not call Catholic ministries “apostolates?” My friends, if the love we seek to show God through our worship does not translate into a deeper love for our neighbor, expressed through loving service for the sake of God’s kingdom, then there is a huge gap in our lives that needs to be filled.

In his 1967 encyclical, Populorum progressio, Pope Paul rhetorically asked how the love of God abides in a person “who has the goods of this world and sees his brother in need and closes his heart to him” (par. 23). He then cited St. Ambrose, who, writing to a rich man, insisted, “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” (par. 23, which cites Ambrose's De Nabute c. 12, n. 53). On this basis Pope Paul concluded, “No one may appropriate surplus goods solely for his own private use when others lack the bare necessities of life” (par. 23). Jesus tells us in a very clear way that when people lack life’s necessities it is not, properly speaking, an act of charity to give them what they need to live, but an act of justice. He also reminds us that God’s justice will ultimately be realized.

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