26th Sunday of the Year — September 26, 1971 — CNR
Somewhere around the year 750 B.C., worshippers had gathered at the Israelite shrine at Bethel for one of their religious feasts. They could come with a certain sense of ease, confident that the professional prophets at the shrine would give them little reason to question their impatience to have the feast over so they could return to their businesses, untroubled by doubt, secure in the fittingness of their wealth. Perhaps it was not until he began to speak, that they noticed a rather strange figure, a man from the rural south, a cattleman or farmer. Probably they would not have been surprised at what he began to say, for in a series of six short judgments he predicts doom on Israel’s neighbors and enemies. But then, the sharper among them may have noted that these nations are condemned, not for their idolatry or pagan vice, but rather “for inhuman cruelty, for enslaving and obliterating a people, for the denial of compassion and the claims of brotherhood, for the subordination of human life to material gain, and for impiety and the profanation of human dignity” (Vawter, Conscience of Israel, p. 81).
All of them, however, waited to hear which nation would be mentioned in the seventh, the most important place. And all of them must have been surprised to hear him begin:
For the three crimes, the four crimes of Israel
I have made my decree and will not relent:
because they sell the just for money,
and the poor for a pair of sandals,
because they trample on the lowly
and push the poor from their path,
because they stretch themselves out on clothes given
and drink the wine of the people they have fined (Amos 2:6-8).
Israel is the greatest of these sinful peoples, and the doom pronounced on her is the heavier for the fact that she alone was chosen by God as his people:
For you alone have I cared among the nations of the world,
therefore will I punish you for your iniquities.
Israel’s sin is her ingratitude, her carelessness of the favor or the Lord.
The book of Amos is a remarkable book. It is short, but sharp, an irresistible proof that the political and the economic cannot escape the judgement of a biblical religion. It has a remarkable pertinence for us today, both as Christians and as Americans; parallels leap to mind, and one finds oneself under judgement as once were the Israelites at Bethel. Hear again the first reading!
Woe to the complacent in Zion!
Lying upon beds of ivory,
stretched comfortably on your couches,
feasting on lambs from the flock and fatted calves,
plucking the strings of the lute,
drinking wine by the bowlful,
larding yourselves with the richest of oils,
not caring about the ruin of Joseph.
“Not caring about the ruin of Joseph”:Amos is not referring to future ruin, but to the present plight of his people, the ruin which escapes the view of men made insensitive by the luxurious self-indulgence of their lives. They have turned their good fortune into some proof of their good standing before God, although Amos says “they cram their palaces full by harshness and extortion.” And it is because of their self-deception and dishonesty that Amos delivers the strongest indictment of hypocrisy in the Bible;
I hate, I spurn your pilgrim-feasts;
I take no delight in your sacred ceremonies.
When you present yoursacrifices and offerings
I will not accept them.
Spare me the sound of your songs;
I cannot endure the music of your lutes.
Let justice roll on like a river
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
Seek good and not evil,
that you may live,
that the Lord the God of hosts may be firmly on your side,
as you say he is.
Hate evil and love good;
enthrone justice in the courts;
it may be that the Lord the God of hosts
will be gracious to the survivors of Joseph.
The book is, as I said, an uncomfortably relevant one. To whom does he speak? To a fat and prosperous and uncaring people. What does he indict? Neglect of the poor; exploitation of the powerless; cheating in business; injustice in the law courts; the justification of arrogant violence in the name of God. It is an indictment we in this country do not easily escape, both looking within and looking without to the “Third World.”
Amos was a man of black and white. Little hope breaks through into his vision. He even thinks that the effort “to defer the day of misfortune” will only “hasten the reign of violence.” It is easy to say that things are not so black and white, that things are much more complicated, that it is not all that easy to change the national and international relationships that keep the poor poor and make the rich richer. And I suppose all that is true. But if it is true that things are complicated and some good is mixed in with evil, then it is all the more urgent to be forced to come up short against the massive evil in our good, to be forced to acknowledge that we must be about its elimination if these sacred ceremonies of ours, this music of ours, these sacrifices and offerings of ours are not also to be spurned and hated by the very God we boast we can call Father.
26th Sunday of the Year – September 29, 1974 – CNR
Again this week, the readings embody the Gospel in a judgment upon indifferent wealth, the theme which we explored last Sunday. The mockery of a religiosity made comfortable by its blindness, excoriated by the prophet Amos, is rebuked by the Lord in the story of Lazarus and the rich man.
That story has its climax, of course, in the imagined scene in which an unbridgeable abyss separates the two men in their final destiny. A similar abyss had, of course, separated them during their lives, Lazarus lying in beggar’s clothes, covered with sores, outside the gate of a man richly clothed, who feasted splendidly every day. No smaller abyss separates the rich and poor today.
That abyss is one of the valleys which the Gospel was intended to fill in, that there might be a highway for the Lord. That it has not been filled in yet, but if anything deepened, is one of the great tragedies of Christian history. Men continue to look to all the things that can separate others from themselves; wealth, racial or ethnic background, sex, and differences even more trivial still are erected into ultimate distinctions to serve as barriers to a free flowing of human intelligence and affection. Honest and even dealing with every person is too risky, laden with threats of too much sacrifice, for us to attempt it, and we retreat gratefully back into the comfortable confines of class and group bias.
The rich man begged Father Abraham to free his brothers from such bondage, and in reply Abraham cited Moses and the prophets. In those great figures the brothers could have found the condemnation of their life, though, of course, they had failed to see it or hear it. Well then, surely a resurrection from the dead would wake them to their danger. Abraham’s reply was not just a word to that man; from our standpoint today, it takes on the features of a prophecy: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if one should rise from the dead.” Well, One has risen from the dead, and they are not yet convinced.
We might inquire where we, as individuals, or as a community, or as a nation, or even as a Church, have helped to hollow out the abyss that removes our brothers and sisters far enough from our sight for us not to have to bother about them. And if we find such sad abysses, let us reflect that one infinitely deeper and wider once separated us from God and that he was willing to fill it in with his love, so that we who were poor and wretched in our sin, now may dwell and feast in God’s own house, at his own table.
26TH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR – OCTOBER 1, 1995 – BLESSED SACRAMENT
We have heard today another one of those uncomfortable pages of the Bible: the story of Dives, the rich man, and Lazarus, the beggar. The reversal of their lots in the next life is not a novel drama, recurring as it does in other popular religious literature of antiquity. The parable has been used at times in the past as a comfort for people: you may be wretched in this life, but you will be compensated in the next.
But it seems that the point of the story lies instead in the final exchange between Dives and Abraham: “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone should rise from the dead.” That final comment seems to have been confirmed in a good deal of Christian history, when people who claimed to believe in the Jesus who rose from the dead still were not convinced that they had obligations to the Lazaruses in their midst. Even spectacular miracles are not going to move people whose eyes are that blind and whose hearts are that cold.
About thirty years ago, Barbara Ward, Lady Jackson, tried to revive this parable and to apply it to the enormous disparity between wealthy and impoverished peoples in our own day. It was, she pointed out, nations claiming a Christian tradition that were still insensitive to the Lazarus who lay starving outside their gates. Things have not greatly improved since then, as we might judge for ourselves by thinking of any number of places on the globe or indeed in our own country.
Jesus is not trying to make a political point, at least not in the sense of a specific political agenda; and I believe it is impossible to derive immediately from his parable consequences that would force us to conclude that a particular proposal is the only Christian way to address serious problems. But the parable certainly forges another link between claims to love and serve God and willingness to come to the aid of the poor. In his parable of the Last Judgment Jesus will even go so far as to imply that we may judge how we would respond to him were we to encounter him face-to-face by thinking of how we are already reacting to the hungry and thirsty, the sick and the homeless, the imprisoned whom we do encounter: in encountering them, he says, we are encountering him: “What you do for them you do for me.” Or we may think of the sharp words of the First Epistle of John: “If any one has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart to him, how does God’s love abide in him?” “If any one says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also.”
At a time when our nation is considering major changes in the way the poor are being provided aid, it is important to recognize that to remove government from this task must not mean to remove society from it, must not mean to remove ourselves from it. It remains a great scandal that there is such disparity in our world between the wealthy minority and the impoverished majority. It is something that should offend our sense of common humanity, that it is our own brothers and sisters who are going hungry, living in poverty, enduring various injustices. And if a sense of our common humanity doesn’t move us, then surely Moses and the prophets should; and if they don’t move us, should not Christ’s self-identification with the wretched of the earth move us? Or are we also waiting for some special revelation–someone to return from the dead–to move us? If we are waiting for some such dramatic moment, then we fall under Christ’s indictment today.
How we are to respond to his call today Christ leaves to us to discover: there is no Democratic or Republican answer implied in this parable. But what it does not allow us is simply to fall back again into complacency, into convenient forgetfulness of all the Lazaruses in our world, even in our city. This Gospel is not about abstract religious truths, truths with no consequences for how we live our lives, for the purposes we pursue, for what we do with blessings received. This Gospel is about the world we inhabit, the city we inhabit, the society we construct, the very selves we become. Were it taken seriously not only would our own individual lives be different, but so would our society and our world, and there would be fewer people like Lazarus suffering outside our houses of comfort.
26TH SUNDAY OF THE YEAR – SEPTEMBER 30, 2001 – BLESSED SACRAMENT
The parable we have just heard portrayed a theme already familiar in the ancient world–the reversal of the conditions of the rich and poor. It has been familiar in the Christian tradition as the story of Dives and Lazarus–Dives, the Latin word for “rich,” having become the wealthy man’s name.
You will note that the stress does not fall on piety. Nothing is said about the virtue of Lazarus; he is simply said to be miserably poor. Nor is anything said about the rich man’s having gained his wealth by unjust means; his main sin was simple indifference to the contrast between his sumptuous living and the starving beggar at the gate. The parable is not an indictment of wealth as such, but neither is it a glorification of poverty, nor a motive for the kind of smug resignation expressed in the verse of the hymn, “All Things Bright and Beautiful”:
The rich man in his castle
The poor man at his gate
He made them high and lowly
And ordered their estate.
The rich man suffers in the next life because of his indifference to the starving Lazarus. In the dialogue between him and Father Abraham, he begs to be allowed to go back to warn his five brothers, and is told that they should have learned from Moses and the prophets what he had not learned: their obligation to share their wealth. In other words–the Jewish tradition had enough guidance and warnings in it. But then, lest any Christians begin to feel self-satisfied, after the rich man says that the brothers would listen to someone from the dead, Jesus says: “If they won’t listen to Moses and the prophets, they won’t be persuaded even if someone should rise from the dead.” Luke was writing this Gospel to a Christian Church, a community who did believe precisely that one had risen from the dead, and with that the full force of the parable falls upon Christians also.
About thirty years ago, the internationally known economist Barbara Ward used the parable to describe the disparity between the wealth of the North Atlantic countries and the poverty of so many countries in the southern hemisphere. We are Dives, she said, and those countries are Lazarus; and she pointed out that the wealthiest nations were those of a Christian tradition to which this parable and its lesson should not be unfamiliar. She was writing in the context of what was then known as the Decade of Development, which did not in fact end in the reduction of the gap between wealthy and poor nations. Her voice needs to be heard again and still, because the disparity still exists.
God knows the problem is complex, and I do not know how to solve it; I don’t think bishops do; I don’t think the pope does; nor is it their role to try to solve it. But on the Sunday that this Gospel is read, it is surely necessary for the Church to remind us, to remind leaders of nations, that it is a scandal that this disparity exists, that in this day and age there should be people literally starving to death: it is sinful, objectively sinful, in the profound sense that it is something that should not be, that need not be, that is not fated, that can be addressed. One doesn’t have to engage in a great condemnation of the capitalist west or indulge in some latter-day Luddism to insist, nevertheless, that indifference and resignation can also be sins. In this day and age, in this parable we are Dives.
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 the Great 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 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 find Lazarus every day; we see him even if we aren’t looking for him.”