Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Does it Matter How We Treat Others? The 26th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Does it matter how we treat others?  What does my neighbor’s suffering have to do with me?  Can I continue living in comfort while bypassing those around me who are in misery?   
These are questions that the Readings for this Sunday raise, and to which they provide uncomfortable answers.  Let’s read and let the Holy Spirit move us outside our comfort zone.

1.  The First Reading is Am 6:1a, 4-7:

Thus says the LORD the God of hosts:
Woe to the complacent in Zion!
Lying upon beds of ivory,
stretched comfortably on their couches,
they eat lambs taken from the flock,
and calves from the stall!

Improvising to the music of the harp,
like David, they devise their own accompaniment.
They drink wine from bowls
and anoint themselves with the best oils;
yet they are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph!
Therefore, now they shall be the first to go into exile,
and their wanton revelry shall be done away with.

Amos is one of the oldest of the literary (writing) prophets.  A Judean (from the southern kingdom) who was sent to northern Israel, he is best remembered for his strident denunciations of the social injustices of his day. 

In today’s passage, Amos rebukes the aristocracy of Jerusalem, the wealthy elite, who led lives of comfort and leisure in the capital city of the southern kingdom but were “not made ill by the collapse of Joseph,” that is, cared nothing for the fact that their fellow Israelites to the north (Joseph=the northern kingdom) were being decimated, impoverished, and killed by repeated incursions of enemy armies.  The fact that ten of the twelve tribes of the LORD were being faced with exile and extinction did not make an impression on these wealthy southerners.  As a result, Amos prophecies that they will share the same fate as their northern cousins: “They shall be the first to go into exile!”  So it came to be: when Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon later invaded Judea on multiple occasions (605, 597, & 587 BC), he exiled the Judean people, starting with the wealthiest. 

2.  The Responsorial Psalm is Ps 146:7, 8-9, 9-10:

R. (1b) Praise the Lord, my soul!
Blessed he who keeps faith forever,
secures justice for the oppressed,
gives food to the hungry.
The LORD sets captives free.
R. Praise the Lord, my soul!
The LORD gives sight to the blind.
The LORD raises up those who were bowed down;
the LORD loves the just.
The LORD protects strangers.
R. Praise the Lord, my soul!
The fatherless and the widow he sustains,
but the way of the wicked he thwarts.
The LORD shall reign forever;
your God, O Zion, through all generations. Alleluia.
R. Praise the Lord, my soul!

Psalm 146 is the first of five “Alleluia” psalms that end the psalter.  Each begins with the Hebrew word “Hallelu-Yah,” a second-masculine-plural imperative meaning “Praise the LORD!”  This set of five psalms is like repeated tympanny beats and trumpet fanfares at the end of a great symphony.  They close out the psalter with a raucous chorus of praise.

This Psalm stresses the character of the LORD, the God of Israel:  He is on the side of the poor, the downtrodden, those who are weak, vulnerable and innocent.  This is the character of the God we worship.

Not everyone believes in a god is like this.  Other religions and other persons worship a god of power, a god who “helps those who help themselves, a god who looks out for his own interests and expects you to do the same.

The ancient Israelite Psalmist was making a daring statement by saying the Creator had particular concern for the weak.  We can see strong lines of continuity between this psalm and the ministry of Jesus, especially Jesus' teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, summarized by the Beatitudes.  Notice how in this psalm the “LORD reigning forever,” i.e. the kingdom of God, is linked to the comforting of the downtrodden, just as in the Beatitudes.

3. The Second Reading is 1 Tm 6:11-16:

But you, man of God, pursue righteousness,
devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.
Compete well for the faith.
Lay hold of eternal life, to which you were called
when you made the noble confession in the presence of many witnesses.
I charge you before God, who gives life to all things,
and before Christ Jesus,
who gave testimony under Pontius Pilate for the noble confession,
to keep the commandment without stain or reproach
until the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ
that the blessed and only ruler
will make manifest at the proper time,
the King of kings and Lord of lords,
who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light,
and whom no human being has seen or can see.
To him be honor and eternal power. Amen.

The Second Reading proceeds on its way semi-continuously through Paul’s letters to individuals.  Here we reach the conclusion of St. Paul’s first letter to Timothy, and listen to his concluding charge to his young protégé.

Although this Reading was not chosen for thematic agreement with the Gospel, nonetheless we see a commonality in theme.  St. Paul links the virtues of compassion with the kingdom of God.  He exhorts Timothy to practice “righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.”  These virtues, especially “love, patience, and gentleness,” forbid us to be callous toward those in need, harsh with the downtrodden, brusque with the uneducated.  The practice of these virtues, St. Paul insists, is linked to one day beholding “our Lord Jesus Christ, that blessed and only ruler … the King of Kings and Lord of lords.”  Yes, Jesus Christ is omnipotent and eternal God, who cares for the weak, the poor, the shamed, the rejected, the ridiculed, the slow, the feeble.  Blessed are those who practice “love patience, and gentleness” toward such, for they will enter the kingdom of this omnipotent king.

4.  The Gospel is Lk 16:19-31:

Jesus said to the Pharisees:
"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, covered with sores, who 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.
When the poor man died,
he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham.
The rich man also died and was buried,
and from the netherworld, where he was in torment,
he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off
and Lazarus at his side.
And 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.'
Abraham 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.
Moreover, 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.’
He said, 'Then I beg you, father,
send him to my father's house, for I have five brothers,
so that he may warn them,
lest they too come to this place of torment.'
But Abraham replied, 'They have Moses and the prophets.
Let them listen to them.'
He said, 'Oh no, father Abraham,
but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.'
Then Abraham said, 'If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets,
neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.'"

Several things attract our attention about this Gospel.  First of all, we notice that the parable of the “Rich Man and Lazarus” is often employed in debates about purgatory, with some Protestants insisting that it disproves this doctrine, and some Catholics suggesting that it actually supports it.

Jewish views of the afterlife at the time of our Lord held that those who died went to the netherworld (Sheol in classical Hebrew or Hades in Greek) where they awaited the Day of Judgment.  Within the netherworld there were places of comfort as well as places of pain.  The “bosom of Abraham” was the best part of the netherworld, a pleasant land where the righteous enjoyed the consolation of their ancestors, particularly Abraham himself.  The “bosom of Abraham” was separated by rivers or chasms from the rest of the netherworld where others received punishments appropriate to their sins.

In this parable, then, both the rich man and Lazarus are awaiting the final judgment, and neither is in heaven nor in hell.  They are in Sheol, the place of the dead.  It is to this Sheol or Hades that Christ descended to usher the righteous into the presence of God, i.e. heaven.

Does the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus have bearing on the doctrine of purgatory?  It does indirectly.  Jewish faith held that it was possible to intercede for those in the netherworld awaiting judgment (2 Macc 12:44-45; Apocalypse of Zephaniah 11:1-2).  In fact, in some Jewish writings of the period, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Jewish saints) intercede for the dead awaiting judgment.  So we can say that the Christian doctrine of purgatory (an intermediate place or state of purification for those who die in God's friendship but still attached to sin) is rooted in ancient Jewish faith.  The Rich Man of the parable is in a state similar to purgatory—he is experiencing suffering, but he has not been condemned to hell and is still able to communicate with the righteous (which would not be possible in hell).

Let’s turn to the moral meaning of the passage.  The Rich Man is receiving punishment in the afterlife because of his sins, and the parable implies that his primary sin was his utter disregard for the welfare of a fellow Israelite, Lazarus, who begged at the door of his house in utter squalor, lacking even basic necessities.  In this attitude he parallels the wealthy elite of Jerusalem from the First Reading, who were not in the least distressed by the decimation of their cousins to the north.  Jesus is condemning the callousness of those who live lives of self-indulgence while ignoring the needs of the poor, especially the poor of their own community, or their own community of faith.

The conclusion of the dialogue between Abraham and the Rich Man is interesting.  The Rich Man pleads with Abraham to send someone to warn his brothers, but Abraham responds, “They have Moses and the Prophets.  If they will not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded if someone rises from the dead.”

“Moses and the Prophets” is a reference to the sum total of Jewish Scripture, often referred to as the “Law and the Prophets.”  Both Moses and the prophets (like Amos above!) stressed the importance of practicing economic justice and charity toward the widow, the orphan, the stranger, and the poor kinsman (see Deut 15, Lev 25).  Those that did not heed God’s prophets had hard hearts, and even a resurrection would not persuade them, because their impediment to repentance was not some rational objection to the existence or power of God, but an attachment to riches. 

Jesus words were prophetic.  As it turns out, the wealthy of Jerusalem are not persuaded by the resurrection of Lazarus (!) in the Gospel of John, just as they were not moved to repentance by the Scriptures.  John records the aftermath of the resurrection of Lazarus:

John 11: 46 but some of [the Judeans] went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done.  47 So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council, and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs.  48 If we let him go on thus, every one will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” ….  53 So from that day on they took counsel how to put him to death.

We also note how Jesus ties his own ministry as one who “rises from the dead” with belief in the testimony of “Moses and the Prophets.”  In doing so, Jesus rules out any form of Christianity which tries to reject the Old Testament, the Scriptures of Israel (i.e. Marcionism).  On a personal note, this was the text that persuaded me to become an Old Testament scholar, since Jesus ties belief in the resurrection (i.e. Christian faith) to confidence in the prophets of Israel (i.e. the Old Testament).

Sometimes we are tempted to think, “If only God would pour out manifestations of His power, then evangelism would be easier.  We would convert the nation.”  But Jesus teaches us to think more realistically about miracles.  After three years of the most remarkable miracle ministry in the history of the human race, Jesus still found himself abandoned by even his closest followers at the time of his greatest need.  Even after his resurrection, the officials to whom that miracle were reported paid the guards to suppress the news (Matt 28:11-15)!

Miracles gather crowds, but they only occasionally lead to the conversion of heart that Jesus seeks.  Those that are hardened by greed, lust, or other passions can always find a way to explain a miracle away, and even if they can’t, they will simply ignore it or regard it as an inexplicable fluke.  There have been public miracles in modern times witnessed by thousands (like the apparitions in Zeitoun, Egypt) that still haven’t led to mass conversion.

So what do the Readings say to us this Lord’s Day?  Firstly, to repent of any self-indulgence in our own lifestyle, and any lack of generosity toward the poor, especially those closest to us.  Secondly, to start paying heed to the Scriptures today by turning to God in conversion, rather than waiting for some sign, some apparition, some “act of God” to wake us up. 

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