Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Scripture Readings: Is 5:1-7; Phil 4:6-9; Mt 21:33-43
Confucius, lying on his deathbed, confessed to a disciple, “I have not been able to transform the essence of what is noble into deed.” I’m sure many of us can identify with that sentiment; I know I can. But I believe that one of the things that drew me here drew each of us: an attraction to the noble.
Confucius may have thought of the noble as a standard of being that was personally accomplished. Perhaps it had a tinge of a competitive sport. For us it requires the grace of God. As for any serious Christian, the noble was a way of relating to God. Worship is serious business to us. What makes some call Christians “hypocrites” except their intuitive understanding that to worship means to give all of oneself? That total self-donation is the noble that inspired us and made us receptive to a way of life that might transform that inspiration into deed…at least some of the time! We call that attraction, that inspiration a “vocation,” a call to follow the self-giving Jesus Christ and make a noble response. Today, St. Paul tells the Philippians and us how that is done.
It is done by kenosis, by self-emptying for the good of others. Noted Pauline scholar Michael J. Gorman calls this section of Philippians Paul’s “Master Story.” The pattern pervades all of Paul’s writings either explicitly or implicitly. The pattern of the Master Story gives us the key to the imitation of Christ. “Although He was in the form of God, He did not exploit equality with God, but emptied Himself…” The sense of the text is that Christ existed as someone with a certain status who did not do one thing, but did do something else, specifically, acts of self-humbling and self-emptying. And He did this freely. It is a path of downward mobility in sharp contrast to the Roman elite’s upward-bound race for honors.
The key, the pattern for those who want to follow Christ is, “Although one has a certain status, he does not selfishly exploit it for personal gain, but gives himself unselfishly for the good of others.” And one does this freely. “Although (x)…not (y)…but (z)” is the pattern for followers of Christ.
For those attracted by the noble, this is appealing. But appeal does not give power. Jesus could do it because He was free of Original Sin. We, burdened by this self-centeredness, find it pretty near impossible. Yet we admire it and therein is the grace of God. We are given the grace of admiration—attraction to the noble—rather than resentment, the compulsive discounting of the noble and those who represent it. This admiration aids our receptivity. Our receptivity confirms our status as serious Christians with the freedom to sacrifice self for the good of others. So Gorman makes the case that the Greek word for “although” can also be translated “because”; “Because He was in the form of God…”. “Because we are serious Christians, we do not act for selfish gain, but we act unselfishly for the good of others.” When being a Christian is one’s identity, then the imitation of Christ is non-negotiable. Those whose freedom is defined by being in Christ must be conformed to Christ. This means we show a love for God, neighbor, and enemies and a God-like mercy and compassion. It also means we show a Christ-like self-sacrifice. The guiding principle for conformity then is “Because we are in Christ, we do not act for selfish gain, but we act selflessly for the good of others.”
And when this seems too difficult, we must remember the conclusion to the Master Story: “Because of this God greatly exalted Him.”
Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Scripture Readings: Amos 6:1a, 4-7; l Tim. 6:11-16; Lk 16:19-31
Good teachers (and good homilists) often use stories and examples to convey the message or truth they want to express. The stories lure the listener into some unfamiliar territory that they might resist at a more conceptual level. They follow the speaker into new ground that can have the effect of changing their ways of experiencing reality, that initial construal of how things are. Like all artists, they help us to see what was right in front of us, but which we didn’t really see. Sometimes they have to exaggerate or even make a character grotesque. Flannery O’Connor has written that the grotesque has become so natural and normal to us, that the writer has to move to violent forms to jar us into seeing.
Jesus addressed today’s story to the Pharisees who were described a few (v. 14) verses earlier. They heard what Jesus said, but they were lovers of money and sneered at him. Jesus is trying to subvert their stance of social and religious entitlement and lead them into a new way of construing and imagining reality. We are well aware of the security and prestige that having ample money can bring. We can strut with confidence if our wallet is stuffed with money and credit cards. Doors are open to us. We have lots of options and independence. We get respect from others lower on the economic scale. For the Israelites (and Pharisees) of Jesus’ time, wealth was also a sign of God’s blessing and approval. Does it get better?
The contrast is graphically portrayed in the figure of poor Lazarus. Like Lazarus, the poor have no voice. He says nothing. They have no options and choices and the chances of mere survival shrink each day. They are the disposable ones of society, better kept out of sight. They have no use and do not contribute to the good functioning of society. They are so limited in what they can do and hope for that they are inevitably victims of exploitation and abuse. Even the dogs used to come and lick his sores. This is not a Walt Disney puppy showing some affection. The unclean scavengers of the streets had free access to slake their thirst at his cost. Does it get worse?
The wealthy have the resources to overcome limits and improve their situation. That is the way it is. The very technology we develop creates greater numbers of those left behind, those without the resources to keep up. The deep conviction that this is all there is drives us to expand what we have. The sting of limitation prods us to achieve The More. That is the way it is. Either you buy into it (the best way to describe a commitment today) or you are left out and behind. The poor cannot benefit from this system. And the face of the poor includes far more than the financially destitute. Our society creates throngs of people unable to find a place where they belong: the elderly, the physically and emotionally disabled, the unloved, and rejected. The spike in suicides and homicides should alert us to a malfunctioning of the way we live with each other. The environment itself has become victim to the conquests of our technological prowess.
The story of Jesus is meant to undermine the naive conviction and credence we give to these self-destructive myths. The two figures he draws in exaggerated proportions are meant to waken us to self-knowledge. We are reluctant to look at either figure. The rich man encased in self-indulgence and obsessed with his own luxury and pleasure is perhaps too natural for us to be shocked. But it is obscene and revolting as any gruesome picture. It is only the excess, too much of a good thing, that is the problem, we tell ourselves. I could manage it better, with appropriate restraint. But it is an image of ease and buffered self-care that our consumer society has etched even more deeply in our sensibilities. It is an attractive one. But it is as dehumanizing as the dehumanizing effects of destitution. What stalls or checks the impulse we have to possess, accumulate, and control? That is the way it is. Do we see ourselves when we look at the rich man?
We find it difficult to look into the face of Lazarus. Lazarus is the person who can’t fit in and who can’t get in. He was lying at his door. We are uncomfortable with the description of his troubles. The sight of abject pain and horror is unpalatable and often unbearable. The abject is obscene, should be kept out of sight, off the stage. Why do we find it so hard to come face to face with the poor? Our first reaction is to be overwhelmed and paralyzed. The problems seem infinite and beyond remedy. Since no response seems adequate, we deny all responsibility and cover our eyes with indifference. The face of poverty reveals the endemic injustice and disorder of our world. Security is fragile and temporary. I am as vulnerable as that poor person. At some level, we are aware that a hair’s breadth separates us from the poor. How many homeless people have said, I never thought this would happen to me. And, finally, there is the discovery that I am that poor person facing me. This is the identity we resist, but which is the path into a new way of being in the world. There is still the opportunity to tip our fingers in water and cool the tongue of those in suffering. Our capacity to engage with suffering at whatever miniscule level slowly lures us into that story which says the poor are blessed, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
We are called to face the one who has come and been made an object of abject disgrace and disfigurement. We celebrate his dying in the hope that we will understand the law and the prophets which say he comes to life and appears in suffering and poverty. This is a knowing and believing that the world can only sneer at. It is a knowing and believing which manifests the presence of God already risen in the midst of struggle and suffering. It is crossing the chasm between those who receive good things and those who receive what is bad. It is knowing what to do before our story reaches an irreversible conclusion.
Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Scripture Readings: Amos 6:1a, 4-7; 1 Tim 6:11-16; Lk 16:19-31
I am positively sure that no one here stretches comfortably on ivory couches. No one here drinks wine from bowls. No one here knowingly lets a Lazarus languish at his front door without lifting a hand to help him. For us, someone has risen from the dead and now a Hope both grim and fearless has overtaken us wholesale. Catholics are charity unlimited for all in deed—kindness, relief, comfort, and avenues of escape. I think of the parish ministries of our archdiocese, of the religious women among our youth and victims of human trafficking, of the lay men and women, agents of Catholic Charities, present in prisons, with immigrants, the homeless, the unemployed; I think of Catholic Workers and the young Jesuit and Benedictine volunteers. These men and women are “competing well in the faith,” as Saint Paul exhorts Timothy to do. In the Lazaruses of our world—and God knows who they are, in number taken all together the population of entire countries—the King of kings who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no human being has seen or can see, we do see and serve with the humble works of mercy, anointing dirty feet, binding wounds, educating minds, inflaming hearts to love and goodness, creating community out of chaos.
It is not so much that the rich man in the Gospel closes his heart to the poor man, Lazarus; he does not even notice him. Saint Teresa of Calcutta used to say, “The greatest disease . . . is being unwanted . . . . There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love.” The rich man has no name. In not seeing Lazarus, he fails to know himself. We can ask about ourselves, if those in our family, in our community, among our work associates to whom we could offer a little love are just unseen and unacknowledged presences at the doorstep of our lives.
The Works of Mercy are nothing more than the little bit of love Catholics and all Christians are both called to give by our baptism and empowered to give by the Sacrament of the Eucharist, Jesus the little bit of bread, his Life, given for us and for all.
Our Catholic tradition teaches that the right to life is fundamental and includes a right to food, clothing, shelter, rest, medical care, and essential social services. A basic moral test is how our most vulnerable members are getting on. As the rich man did not understand, the poor have the first claim on our personal and social resources. A Catholic knows, as the rich man did not, that solidarity requires the rich to aid poor, commands respect for different cultures, demands justice in international relationships, and calls on all to live in peace with one another.
The rich man was worried about the eternal fate of his brothers. It was a nice thought but a little late and more than a little futile. For him, religion was a private affair, a matter of saving your soul. But as Pope Francis says in Joy of the Gospel, “Religion cannot be limited just to getting you ready for heaven. God desires the happiness of all his children upon this earth. God created all things so that all might enjoy and benefit from them; so Christian conversion demands attention to everything that concerns the social order and the common good” (EG 182).
We say of God in our Responsorial Psalm: “He secures justice for the oppressed, sets captives free, protects the stranger.” It would be too much to ask that these phrases refer to a candidate for political office. Because they don’t and never can, is why we have a God.God is Hope, and only where there is hope can there be justice, freedom, and security. Only where there is hope can there be protection of life, can there be love. Without hope there is despair, anger, resentment, and greed; there is wanton disregard for the rights and life of the other. That is why we need God. Only where there is God can there be justice for the oppressed, freedom for captives, and protection of the stranger. Only where there is God will you pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness. There would never have been Mother Theresa, Peter Claver, Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day, nor those wonderful Jesuit and Benedictine volunteers, had there been no God for them, as there is for us on this Sunday when we gather to celebrate the victory of Life and of Love.