WOE TO THE COMPLACENT IN ZION!... THEY WILL BE THE FIRST TO GO INTO EXILE
Sunday, September 25, 2016
Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
19“There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day.20And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,21who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. Dogs even used to come and lick his sores.22When the poor man died, he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried,23and from the netherworld, where he was in torment, he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side.24And he cried out, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am suffering torment in these flames.’25Abraham replied, ‘My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.26Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go from our side to yours or from your side to ours.’27He said, ‘Then I beg you, father, send him to my father’s house,28for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they too come to this place of torment.’29But Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.’30 He said, ‘Oh no, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’31Then Abraham said, ‘If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.’”
Other readings: Amos 6:1-7; Psalm 146:7-10; 1 Timothy 6:11-16
As I indicated last week, this is the third Sunday in which money and riches are the leading thread of the parable narrated in the Gospel. And this is also the third time in which the message does not refer, strictly speaking, to economy or poverty as such. In the parable of the Prodigal Son, the stress is on the possibility of reconciliation, in spite of our abandoning God; he was like a father, ready and willing to accept the lost sheep. Last week the disloyal administrator represented the energy and interest the children of this world put into their affairs, in contrast with the children of the light, believers, who seem to make few efforts to enter the Kingdom of God through the narrow gate. Today, the text from Luke makes us feel uneasy, as it does not match with the ideas of the Old Testament … and seems to forget our New Testament conception of grace, merit and reward.
Let us go step by step. The parable does not match the basic idea of Israel concerning riches. Psalms offers us a good number of examples. Psalm 112 says: "Blessed the man who fears the Lord…" because if that condition is fulfilled, his justice and fidelity will make him a happy husband and father, and "Wealth and riches shall be in his house.…" We can find similar ideas in Psalm 128 which sings the praises of the man who obeys the Lord, for he "will be blessed and prosper," accompanied by his fruitful wife and their children. As a last example we can consider Psalm 37 as a real summary of the blessings that will be bestowed on the just … as well as the calamites that will fall on the wicked. This general vision of earthly retribution explains the disconcertment experienced by the author of Job, whose disgrace and misfortune cannot be understood from that theological viewpoint. The parable, then, does not fit into the old scheme. If Lazarus was a good man, why should he suffer? If riches were a sign of blessings on the just man, why did our "rich man" go to Hades? Curiously, even in Hades, the rich man remains "a rich man" and still thinks Lazarus can "be sent" about as if he were a servant.
But even from the perspective of the New Testament, the parable remains "too close" to the Old Testament mentality. There is no judgment pronounced or any reason given for the fate of these two men … unless we accept literally the central verses of Luke's "Magnificat" (1:51-53), "The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty."
There are more details that make it hard for us to find a rational explanation for the final fate of each character. We cannot think of the "rich man" as an unjust man, whose fortune was amassed by unfair means, and no particular sin is mentioned that might justify his being sent to Hades. As for Lazarus, there is not a single word about his being a pious, observant Jew. Is their final fate the result of pure chance or of the capricious decision of God? Is it simply a question of turning everything upside down? Perhaps there is an explanation in Amos' words from our first reading, which I use as the headline for today's Lectio. The sin of the rich man in the parable is the same as that committed by the inhabitants of Zion: ignoring the suffering of their brothers and sisters (although the rich man knew Lazarus by his name), caring about their own business, living in leisure and comfort without paying attention to what happens at their own doorpost. Their situation, says the prophet, will change very soon and "they shall be the first to go into exile." Selfish ignorance of the needs of others makes one almost as guilty as provoking that situation of injustice or taking advantage of it.
From this perspective, we should turn our eyes to the first Christian community. Although Luke may idealize the young Church, the group of Christians he describes seems to care about one another, share what they have, live in a brotherly environment. Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-36, even if they are idealized, offer us descriptions of what must have been the vision they had in mind for their community, (while including the failures and shortcomings Luke himself does not ignore or hide). History follows its paths and, after twenty centuries of Church life, the reality of our parishes and communities is far from that ideal. Socio-political and economic conditions are not the same. But, do we keep that ideal of the first Christian community? Can we find in our own communities situations similar to that of the rich man and Lazarus? Do we know about the real social and economic conditions of the brother or sister who sits beside us on the same pew in church? How could we improve the anonymous reality we share at the same time and in the same place where we share the Body and Blood of the Lord?
Let us pray for this world of ours, divided by hurting differences between human beings in all realms of life, from the economy to education, housing or medical services: that we, Christians, witnesses to Christ, may be signs and builders of a world where all humans may share the fruits of the earth and the calling to salvation. Do not let your prayer be as abstract as I have formulated it, but think of concrete situations, cases or persons that you know personally.
The deepest problem in the cases of the "complacent of Zion" and the rich man of the parable was blindness concerning the sufferings, and even the existence, of those around them. Although you cannot completely solve the problems of poverty and isolation in your neighborhood, couldn't you take some steps to be informed about that reality? Your pastor or the social workers in your parish or Christian community can provide you with details, names and places. Then, try to do something to bring some help to the "Lazarus" who is living close to you.
Reflections written by Rev. Fr. Mariano Perrón, Roman Catholic priest, Archdiocese of Madrid, Spain