Sep 28, 2013

26th Sunday: Complacency and Chasms

(Tissot: Lazarus the beggar)
"And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus . . . "

The word for Sunday:

Amos 6: 1a, 4-7
I Tim 6: 11-16
Lk 16: 19-31

One may be tempted by the readings this Sunday to excoriate the good people of God in the pews with some sort of guilt trip.  “Don’t you care about the poor!” “Don’t you know that the almighty dollar is not an idol to be worshipped?” “Stop being so greedy and share some of your wealth with those less fortunate.” “Who is the Lazarus among us?”

My general experience over the years, however, is that most folks in the pews are not greedy or selfish.  They are aware of the needs of the less fortunate and want to help in some way. They contribute food, money and time to assist. They support organizations that are of service to those who truly need compassion.  In fact I knew of a man who would contribute financially to just about every charitable request he received in the mail.  His kitchen table was covered with envelopes and requests for a variety of worthy causes. He just couldn’t say “no” to anyone so he contributed something to everybody.  

What impact, then, do the readings have upon the well-meaning and those who do share? We can always do a better job at being more open-minded, more compassionate and sensitive to a person’s plight and more generous with time, talent and treasure.  Yet, how blind or complacent is the average regular Catholic to the needs of the poor? We priests often find ourselves preaching to the choir as the saying goes.

It may be a bit of a comfort to know that both the first reading and the Gospel passage this weekend are addressed to the Pharisees.  They were notorious for dividing people into categories: those whom God blessed and those he didn’t.  The poor – tough luck for in fact they are unclean and may well deserve their lot. Care for the poor, widows and orphans were so obvious a great social wound but do you think they even cared? Does that mean that we who generally do care, therefore, are off the hook?

Yet, the well-known Gospel passage (Lk 16: 19-31) this Sunday of the rich man and the poor beggar at his door named Lazarus, and the complacency of the rich man, even after death, is once again an extreme example given by Jesus to emphasize the blindness that even the “choir” may have to go beyond the minimum.

Dorothy Day, the devoted social justice activist and devout Catholic once wrote: “We need always to be thinking and writing about poverty, for if we are not among the victims its reality fades from us. We must talk about poverty, because people insulated by their own comfort lost sight of it.”

Her words are timely in light of our Holy Father Pope Francis and his constant mantra about the poor and our need as the good people of God to reach out and go beyond our own borders to find the lost sheep.  These are uncomfortable words in one way.  I may have good intentions and give to worthy causes.  I may even offer volunteer time at a food bank, which is more than many.  I have so many other commitments that consume my day to day life.

And interestingly, the Gospel doesn’t exactly say that in life the rich man was a greedy, selfish person.  But by implication it states: “There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day. And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus . . . who would have gladly eaten . . . the scraps that feel from the man’s table . . .” Then, the poor man died and later the rich man died.  After death, they found judgment.  Because he was rich and had plenty was the rich man “. . . suffering torment in these flames . . .”? (Notice the rich man is not named but the poor man is named). Is he judged for what he had?

The first reading from the prophet Amos 6: 1a, 4-7 may provide a clue here.  It begins: “Woe to the complacent in Zion! Lying upon beds of ivory, stretched comfortably on their couches, they eat lambs from the flock . . . yet they are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph . . .” It strikes me the key word is “complacent.”

One definition of the word complacent, which may indeed strike us here as the take away message this Sunday, is: “Contented to a fault; self-satisfied and unconcerned.”

The point is that the rich man could have easily helped to alleviate the suffering of the poor Lazarus right in front of his face each day – but by implication we see that he did nothing.  In fact, his complacency made him self-satisfied and unconcerned. Therein lies a great sin; a “great chasm” as we hear in the Gospel imagery. 

For us, who do care this Gospel challenges us to wonder if we really do care.  Do we care enough to offer a band aid or engage on some level in concrete help? Have I convinced myself that my monthly/yearly contribution to my favorite charity is really all I can do? Is my yearly contribution of canned food at my local parish Thanksgiving Mass a significant way to feed Lazarus at my door? All of these are good things but the readings call us to, as Dorothy Day recommended to never “stop thinking or writing about poverty.”

While I don’t believe that we are called to save the world or solve world poverty or hunger, it is significant that our weekly celebration of the Eucharist, our food for the journey, does not end when we walk out the doors of the Church.  Each of us, out of our particular position in life (our vocation) must be aware of complacency. We all can and must do something to shorten the great chasm between people which causes pain, suffering, dis-respect, hunger, poverty, and danger.
While we may tend to put groups of people into neat societal order – wealthy, middle class, and poor – the Eucharist calls us to carry the grace we have received at Mass out to make a difference; to be effective witnesses of Gospel justice as God does indeed care about how we bridge the “great chasm” that we often find between us. 
O God, who manifest your almighty power
above all by pardoning and showing mercy,
bestow, we pray, your grace abundantly upon us
and make those hastening to attain your promises
heirs to the treasures of heaven.

(Collect for Sunday – Roman Missal)