Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C
September 25, 2022 – 10:30 AM
Saint Cecilia Catholic Community, Palm Springs, CA
Rev. David Justin Lynch
Amos 6:1a;4-7 | Psalm 148:7-10
I Timothy 6:11-16 | Luke 16:19-31
+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN.
Many people have told me that I ask too many questions. They tell me that rather than engaging in a conversation, they feel that I am interrogating them. Indeed, my three prior professions, that of a reporter, an investigator, and then a lawyer, had one thing in common: I was expected to ask many questions. Thousands and thousands of times, I conducted interviews for news stories, did investigative interrogations for insurance claims, and deposed witnesses in lawsuits.
So you should not be surprised that, when I glanced through today’s readings, I found me asking many questions. Some of them are: what do we do about poor people; what are the consequences if we don’t do anything; and does what we do in this life affect what happens to us in the next life? These are all important questions. And they are questions without easy answers.
You who are on Facebook will recall that Facebook has as one of its choices for relationship status is “it’s complicated.” The answers to all of these questions arise from our relationship with God, who is, by nature, more complicated than anyone or anything. Anything to do with God is, by nature, complicated, because who God is, what God does, and why God does what God does is ultimately a mystery, not something we can readily define in human, terrestrial terms. So the best answers to the questions I raised are, “it’s complicated.”
In addition to our relationship with God, these questions about poor people and the next life also touch on our relationships with other people. Not only is God complicated, but people are as well. This is not surprising, considering we are all created in God’s image. The answers to the questions raised today are, indeed, complicated because not only do they involve many philosophical issues but also our feelings. As the mental health profession will tell us, feelings play a significant role in our lives.
Today we consider our feelings about poor people. By poor, I refer to those whose lack of resources has meant that they don’t live in dignity. They are hungry. They either are homeless or live in substandard housing. They have untreated medical conditions. All of this arises from their lack of money.
Jesus told us, “the poor will always be with you.” Jesus, as always, is correct. Walk down a street in most major cities in the United States. You will see people lying in doorways and on sidewalk benches. You will see people living in tent cities in public parks, on sidewalks, and on vacant lots. The gut-level reactions of those observing these scenes fall into predominately three categories.
One view is that poor people are poor is their own fault because they are lazy and stupid, and if only they would work hard and make smart decisions, they would not be poor. Those who like that viewpoint hold survival of the fittest as a core value. They think that each individual person is responsible for their own survival and that no one else, particularly the government, has a duty to help anyone else. Therefore, just worry about yourself and do nothing, or if you feel so inclined, engage in private philanthropic endeavors. That sounds more than a bit harsh, doesn’t it?
A second view is that people are hungry, homeless, and sick because we as a society have neglected to provide them with the necessities of life. Those with this view contend that humanity as a whole has a duty to support everyone else, even those who are lazy and make bad decisions. I am somewhat sympathetic to this idea, as I regard shelter, food, medical care, and education, as basic human rights. But this view has its downsides as well. It leads to higher taxes. And it affirms and enables those who engage in unwise decisions about their own lives.
A third view is that an inherent characteristic of human society is that it is socially stratified, that economic inequality will always exist, and that while anti-poverty programs are helpful to some people in some situations, no programs, whether public or private, will ever fully solve the poverty problem. What this view, however, ignores is precisely the point Jesus was making in today’s Gospel: that failure to care about the least among us has consequences.
In today’s Gospel, we have two characters, Lazarus and a rich man whom the text does not name. Tradition, however, names him “Dives,” the Latin word for wealthy. Dives was well-fed and dressed in the finest clothes. At the gate to his home was poor and hungry Lazarus, whom Dives ignored.
The scriptures today focus on the “chasm” that can exist between those who are rich and those who are poor – between those who have lots of power and control, like Dives, and those who have little power and control, like Lazarus. The fact is, money creates chasms.
The more money you have, the more control you have over your life. We live in a world filled with chasms that divide people and prevent all of God’s people from enjoying justice and peace.
We live in a world with a great divide between rich nations and the poor nations of the developing world.
We live in a world with a great divide between nations and corporations that make policy and those who are at the mercy of their policies.
We live in a world with a great divide between corporate executives paid millions of dollars and employees who barely make a living wage.
We live in a world with a great divide between those who seek to accumulate possessions for themselves and those who focus their lives on others.
In today’s Gospel reading, we find three images:
The first is the image of the rich, “stretched comfortably on their couches and dressed in purple and linen and feasting splendidly every day.”
The second image is of the “beggar named Lazarus who was covered with sores which the dogs came and licked.” The parable tells us that “Lazarus longed to eat the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table.”
The third image is that of God, who supports, lifts up, heals, protects, and feeds the oppressed, the hungry, captives, the blind, strangers, the fatherless, and the widow.
The story presents two meal scenes.
The first scene is that of Dives dining sumptuously, while Lazarus remains a conspicuous non-diner at the gate outside the home of Dives.
The second scene, that of the afterlife of both individuals, shows Lazarus “in the bosom of Abraham.” The phrase “in the bosom of” refers to the position of honor at a banquet, the place where a favored guest reclines next to the host. As you may recall, the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” traditionally believed to be John, reclined next to Jesus at the Last Supper.
When both Dives and Lazarus have died, Lazarus is pictured enjoying the first place at the heavenly banquet, while the rich man is now clearly the one on the outside looking inside.
What we see here is yet another example of the Great Reversal, when the last shall be first, and the first shall be last when the poor shall become rich, and the rich shall become poor. We find this theme throughout the Gospels, particularly in Luke.
Of the four New Testament gospels, Luke stands alone with a heightened concern for the poor and underprivileged in society. I call Luke “the Gospel of the Great Reversal.” Luke is the only Gospel that, taken as a whole, aims toward redressing the social evils of poverty.
Indeed, in the first chapter of Luke, we find the Song of Mary, commonly known as the Magnificat, where Our Lady proclaims that God will put down the mighty from their seat and exalt the humble and meek, filling the hungry with good things and sending the rich empty away.
Later on in the Gospel according to Luke, Jesus repeated the words found in Third Isaiah when he began his ministry by reading, “the Spirit of God anointed the prophet to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to prisoners.”
In Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, we hear Jesus saying,
“Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied.”
“Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”
“But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.
“Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry.
“Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.”
Those words come to fruition in the story of Dives and Lazarus. Throughout their earthly lives, Dives and Lazarus did not interact with one another. They both accepted their lot in life as something permanent, at least on earth. But in the afterlife, that changed. Dives now wants Lazarus to help him. Finally, they have a conversation.
Lazarus ended up in the loving care of Abraham, while Dives was tortured in the fires of the netherworld. Dives cried out in his suffering, begging Abraham for relief. But Abraham said, more or less, “Sorry, Dives, you had it good in your earthly life while Lazarus suffered. Now there is nothing I can do for you.”
I will leave to the mystics the question of whether our actions in this life regarding how we treat the poor have consequences in the next life. No one really knows for sure what happens in the next world. We can speculate, but we will never truly know.
Therefore, this morning, I am not going to look at this question from an eschatological perspective, that is, in terms of the traditional four last things, death, judgment, heaven, and hell, but rather as a this-world situation that requires our urgent attention. What I am saying, however, is that we ignore the least among us at our own peril.
There are real-world, tangible consequences to ignoring the concerns of the least among us. Not taking care of the poor does not mean that only the poor suffer. It means that we all suffer.
Poverty is linked to substandard housing, homelessness, hunger, inadequate child care, and lack of access to health care.
Under-resourced schools place poor children and teens at greater risk for poor academic achievement, dropping out of school, behavioral and socioemotional problems, and developmental delays.
Widespread poverty ultimately impacts businesses. People with more money increase the demand for goods and services, and they behave themselves when interacting in a commercial setting. Better educated and more thoroughly socialized employees are productive additions to the bottom line of any business.
A great chasm between the richest one percent and the poorest of the poor also makes everyone less secure. Here’s why. Desperate people don’t think of morality. They think of survival. Whether certain actions are right or wrong does not matter when your life is on the line. Poverty is the root cause of many crimes, such as theft, human trafficking, and the selling of contraband items like street drugs and counterfeit merchandise.
Impoverished neighborhoods breed despair, frustration, anger, and hopelessness. These characteristics increase the incidence of criminal acts. When given the option of working for minimum pay or making big money committing crimes like burglary and robbery, many people choose the latter since it allows them to escape poverty.
In real life, many people who are poor see crime as their only means of escape. When somebody is trying to make ends meet on a daily basis, he or she may turn to illegal activities. The reality is that if your children are hungry and you don’t have enough money to feed them, you may resort to shoplifting to provide for your family.
You may believe that the only option to escape homelessness is to make money through criminal activities if you are unable to pay your rent. Individuals who are poor and unable to earn enough to meet their basic needs get frustrated and stressed, leading them to commit crimes of despair.
Thus, we have more crime. I’m not saying any of this to excuse criminal acts. But there is a big difference, indeed, a chasm, between those who commit crimes to survive and white-collar criminals who bilk unsuspecting investors out of their life savings to fund a luxurious lifestyle.
Unfortunately, many of the one-percenters see those who have less than they do as existing for the benefit of the one-percent, either as workers for them or consumers buying their products and services. Such thinking does not recognize that all humanity was created in God’s image. God looks at all of us the same way. We all share a common humanity. None of us have a right to enslave or exploit someone else.
In today’s Gospel, all Dives needed to know to save himself from misery could be found in the Hebrew scriptures, with which he was no doubt familiar.
If he looked in Third Isaiah, Dives would find the words,
“Is this not, rather, the fast that I choose: …sharing your bread with the hungry, bringing the afflicted and the homeless into your house; Clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own flesh?
In the Book of Leviticus, Dives would see,
“You shall not strip your vineyard bare, neither shall you gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard. You shall leave them for the poor…If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall support him.”
Dives would also find that Chapter fifteen of the Book of Deuteronomy makes very clear what his moral obligation to Lazarus is:
“There shall be no one needy among you… If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor…Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for, on this account, the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake.”
Therefore, to say that Dives was not a student of scripture would be an understatement. Jesus told this story from the viewpoint of the practicing Jew that he was. Jesus would no doubt be familiar with the Jewish tradition called tzedakah, meaning “righteousness.” The idea is one shows one is justified before God by giving to those in need. However, the concept of tzedakah differs from the idea of love and care for others arising from one’s heart. Tzedakah is considered a moral obligation.
The moral teaching of Jesus reaffirms the covenant code outlined in the Torah and affirmed by the prophets. In today’s First Reading from the prophet Amos, we hear a prophetic warning to the rich as Amos talks about self-indulgent wealthy people who have become oblivious to the decline of their society. Amos is most critical of the wealthy who live in luxury but give nothing back to the community. That’s exactly how Dives lived. Everything for himself, nothing for Lazarus. And how did Dives end up? In eternal misery.
Today’s scriptures invite us to reflect on wealth. There is nothing wrong with being rich if you care for the poor. Yes, you do have an obligation to do that, but in our self-centered society, people tend to do that out of guilt, not as a moral obligation like tzedakah, a concept Christians would be wise to teach as a doctrine, if not as a dogma.
Certainly, as a society, we in the United States enjoy vast wealth compared to other countries, even if it is not always distributed evenly. Even in the midst of all the economic problems, the United States is still the wealthiest country on the planet. The amount of self-indulgence and coddling we receive every single day far surpasses anything described in today’s readings.
Today’s readings raise more questions than they answer. Among them:
What will it take for you and me to open our eyes to those who need us, who lack the love of God as channeled through us?
Where would you find Lazarus today? What would he or she look like?
Do you recognize and care for him or her as God’s beloved child, or do you try to get to the other side of the street when you see him or her coming?
Just as Lazarus was at the Gate of Dives, people are at the gates of our lives, but we keep the door bolted shut or exit through another door and walk briskly past without pausing to avoid eye contact with the reality of poverty.
We need to ask ourselves:
What responsibility do we have to do something with our wealth to benefit the common good?
When do we have a responsibility to say that we have enough?
When do we have a responsibility to give to those who have little?
There are no one-size-fits-all answers, and certainly, no easy answers, to any of these questions. We are not a church that tells you what to think. We are a church that tells you to think for yourself. So I invite each and everyone one of you to seriously ponder these questions and, if necessary, ask more questions.
In this parable, we are those five siblings of Dives. In the news we see every day on television and read on the internet, we who are still alive have been warned about the urgent situation of the poor among us.
God looks at everyone in the same way. We are all laborers in the same vineyard. Ultimately we are all flesh and blood. We share a common humanity. Like those five siblings of Dives, we have Moses and the prophets; we have the scriptures; but we also have Jesus, who taught us,
“Whatever you did for one of these very poor people, you did to me.”