Twenty-sixth Sunday of the Year – September 26, 2010 – St. John’s
A hymn perhaps familiar to you, “All Things Bright and Beautiful,” praises God for all the lovely things he has made: flowers and birds; mountains and rivers; sunsets and mornings; winter’s cold and summer’s sun: “the Lord God made them all.” The concluding verse ran: “God gave us eyes to see them, / And lips that we might tell / How great is God Almighty, / Who has made all things well.” One of the original verses is hardly ever sung: “The rich man in his castle / The poor man at his gate. / God made them, high or lowly, / And ordered their estate.” That is, the distribution of wealth and poverty was part of the natural order of things, the creation of the God “who has made all things well.”
For the last two months we have been hearing a different view of wealth and power in our Gospel readings, all taken from St. Luke’s Gospel in which it plays a very important role. In early August we heard the parable of the wealthy land-owner who tore down his old barns and built new and bigger ones, only to die just as he was preparing to enjoy his wealth. Two weeks ago, we heard Jesus warning us that we could not serve two masters, we could not serve both God and mammon. And today we hear the parable of Lazarus and the rich man whose fortunes in this life are reversed in the next. The parable illustrates what St. Luke had made clear in his version of the Beatitudes, which has not only the blessing of Jesus: “Blessed are you poor; the reign of God is yours,” but also his curse: “Woe to you rich, for your consolation is now.” The theme is repeated enough in the New Testament that it ought to make wealthy Christians more than a little nervous.
Early Christian writers made much of today’s story. St. Augustine noted something we might overlook: “That rich man’s name was known to people, but not the poor man’s. To the contrary, the Lord Jesus gives the poor man’s name, but not the rich man’s.” Already a sign that God’s scale of merit differs from ours. St. Augustine went on to describe the wealthy man, enjoying his earthly delights, constantly grabbing in order to increase his possessions, “drawing to himself the leaden weight that would cause him to drown. That great weight dragged him all the way down to hell…, for he had not heeded the words of Jesus: ‘Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened; for my yoke is easy and my burden light.’ Christ’s burden is wings, and on those wings that poor man flew away into the bosom of Abraham.”
Two centuries later, St. Gregory was reminding his people that we encounter many Lazaruses: “they lie in front of your doors and they need the crumbs that fall from the table where you have had your fill. If we look for him, we find Lazarus every day; we see him even if we don’t look for him.” Yes, he admitted, some of the people who annoy us by their begging may be unworthy, but it’s hard to tell who the unworthy ones are, and we don’t really know which of them in fact may be Christ himself.
And then, a century and a half ago, Cardinal Newman invoked this story in a sermon on the danger that riches represent for Christians. The danger lies in that we can start relying more on our wealth, and the power we think it gives us, than on God. Wealth and the indulgence it enables can also render us insensitive to real values, dull our spiritual senses, in other words. Consider what it is that you would be most reluctant to give up for Christ’s sake, if fidelity to his call and his law required it. What is it? And what steps would you take to avoid having to give it up? What possessions of yours actually possess you, govern you? From which attachments might we have to be freed? What in our lives is weighing us down, preventing us from spreading our wings and flying?
We live in a society and culture that tends to emphasize the individual, the single person with his or her talents, opportunities, successes or failures. There is something good about this, in that it emphasizes that we are, each of us, responsible for what we make of ourselves, how we define ourselves by the choices of a lifetime. But this individualism can also lead us to think that our relationships with others are something secondary, links that don’t really matter intrinsically to us. It can lead us to overlook how much we owe to others. Of course, we don’t forget that we were born of the union of our father and mother, but we may overlook that besides by our mother’s physical womb, we were also shaped and nourished by what St. Augustine called the maternal womb of our society and culture. In other words, even our jealous insistence on our individual rights and self-responsibility we have derived from the communities and societies in which we were born and grew to maturity. Our very individualism is itself a creature of our culture and society.
And just as we are the children of others, in both those senses, so also we are brothers and sisters to one another in our common humanity and, for us Christians, in virtue of our having been adopted as God’s children together. God has a particular care for each one of us, but he has called us together in a union so real and so intimate that St. Paul could speak of it as the very body of Christ. Because we are members of his body, we are members of each other, so that when one of us suffers all of us should feel the pain and when one of us rejoices all of us may be glad.
This is one of the great gifts that we as Christians can bring to the larger society in which we live: the awareness of being embedded in community and of being responsible not only for our single selves but for one another, too. It is a sensitivity that we ought to develop and nourish at all levels, beginning with our families and small communities like this parish or this village. But it should extend farther also, and not only out to the whole of our American society, but also to our brothers and sisters all over the world. The rich man was not bothered by Lazarus lying at his doorstep. Well, does it bother us, both as Christians and as Americans, that every day tens of thousands of people die–are dying as I speak–from hunger and from preventable diseases. A well-known economist Barbara Ward insisted on this incessantly some fifty years ago. In her book Rich Nations and Poor Nations, she applied today’s parable internationally, seeing poor, hungry, sore-covered Lazarus in underdeveloped nations, and the rich man as nations too often indifferent in their taken-for-granted comfort. We Christians may not always have an answer to the enormous problems, but we can at least prevent people from forgetting that Lazarus still lies at our doorstep, as much in need as ever. As St. Gregory said, “If we look for him, we can find Lazarus every day; we’ll see him even if we aren’t looking for him.”