1st Reading: Amos 6:1, 4-7
Amos laments the wealthy who care nothing for the poor
Alas for those who are at ease in Zion, and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria, the notables of the first of the nations, to whom the house of Israel resorts! Alas for those who lie on beds of ivory, and lounge on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock, and calves from the stall; who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp, and like David improvise on instruments of music; who drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph! Therefore they shall now be the first to go into exile, and the revelry of the loungers shall pass away.
2nd Reading: 1 Timothy 6:11-16
Christians should keep the faith they have professed
But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses.
In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will bring about at the right time-he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.
Gospel: Luke 16:19-31
From Hades Mr. Rich (Dives) sees Mr. Poor (Lazarus) sitting at Abraham’s side
(Jesus said to the Pharisees): “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried.
In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’
He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house- for I have five brothers-that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’ Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”
Unpacking the Lazarus Riddle
An approach in preaching this gospel would be to open out some of the details of the parable; one could open by telling a modern story of such a change of fortune. Cinderella is a common fairy tale that has the same basic plot. She is poor and oppressed, but her state is changed by her fairy godmother and then she is enthroned as the Princess. Jesus used such a story to get home his message. Then the story could be expanded upon, bringing some details that the 21st century listener might not notice. The beggar’s name gives us a hint as to his inner attitude. He is called Lazarus, or Eliezer, God will help. The beggar is the man who puts his trust in the Lord and longs for him. The rich man is nameless. He is everyone who closes his heart in the face of the human misery that confrots us daily. The rich man has sumptious food and is clothed in unusually elaborate garments. But his guilt is not mentioned. He did not refuse the poor man anything. He just ignored him. The poor man longed to be filled, but his desire was not fulfilled. The bread that fell was the bread that the guests of the wealthy man used to wipe their fingers clean. It was not even being served to them to be consumed.
Lazarus goes to heaven and basks in the company of Abraham, to whom God’s brightest promises were made. The poor wretch, whose poverty on earth was misinterpreted as punishment for his sins, is welcomed by the angels of God. The rich man descends into the darkness and emptiness of the grave. The sermon could focus on the ultimate settling of accounts, to level off all social injustices. It could stress the need to be aware of the poor on our own doorsteps, who are lacking of the necessities for a decent life? The rich man did not really deny the existence of Lazarus, he just ignored it, or felt it was in the normal scheme of things. In the richer countries, kept aware by the media of their domestic economic problems, there can be an ostrich mentality that ignores the dire needs of the outside world. The promise of life after death should not be used as an anaesthetic to dull the need to work for justice in the real world.
Another option is to start with the state of the rich man in Hades. He has fallen from his real privileged position as a son of Abraham. The rich man did not really listen to the message of the prophets. Abraham says that the five brothers will not be able to change their way of life if they do not do so through listening to God’s word. The sermon could tackle the falseness of ethereal devotions that stress the extraordinary but ignore the social implications of the real gospel. The circumstances of each community will be important in how this gospel of justice in faith is to be preached.
With Empty Hands
The parable of “Mr. Rich and Mr. Poor” is a warning for prosperous people in our prosperous countries. Indifference to the needs of the poor is against the gospel. The gospel contrasts the two attitudes, that of Lazarus, the image of the poor, the downtrodden, those left penniless by the greed of the wealthy and the tax-collectors, and whose only hope was in the mercy of God, and on the other hand that of the rich man, clothed extravagantly, and feasting magnificently every day, self-sufficient, not seeing any need whatsoever to beg for God’s mercy.
Help is at hand for the poor, who for a short while share in Christ’s sufferings so as to share in his glory. For as St Paul tells us, “What we suffer in this life can’t be compared to the glory which is awaiting us.” But for anyone who stores up treasure in this world instead of becoming rich in the sight of God, death brings the realisation that his life was wasted, that his spirit wants to be possessed by God, but cannot do so because it has become fixed in its ways. As a man lives, so shall he die.
How should we set about ensuring that we are on the way to heaven? Firstly, desire it above all else. “There is one thing I ask of the Lord; for this I long; to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life” (Ps 26). Secondly, to try to bear life’s crosses with patience and faith. Thirdly, to use this world without becoming engrossed in it, as St Paul says, “because the world as we know it is passing away.” (1 Cor 7:31). Take each day as a gift and try to live it well. The closer we live to God in our daily lives the more intense will be our longing to see him face to face. With the Psalmist we will find ourselves saying, “my soul thirsts for God, the God of my life. When can I enter and see the face of God” (Ps 42).
Celebrity, Revelry and Neglect
As respect for religion diminishes the secular calendar grows. We are all aware now of Father’s Day and Mother’s Day and all the other days designated for certain dates. We shouldn’t really complain, as many of our religious feasts were originally pagan festivals that we baptised. Now it would seem the process is being reversed. The latest addition to our secular calendar is Animal Day early in October. While we don’t begrudge our fur and feathered friends a little bit of special attention the annual expenditure on pet animals is now enormous. Dogs and other household pets are no longer fed on the scraps that fall from our tables, as they were in former times. Advertising for dog-food and cat-food gives an indication of how dramatically our pets’ eating habits have changed. With what we spend on them, we could feed all of the poor people who are dying of starvation.
If when we listen to today’s gospel about Lazarus and the rich man, we tend to identify with Lazarus, we miss the whole point of the story. We, collectively, are the rich man. In Europe we have a mountain of beef, a mountain of cereals, a mountain of butter, a lake of wine and a lake of milk, that cost us a fortune to maintain. These are only the crumbs that fall from our table. Amos” warning is aimed directly at us: “Woe to those ensconced snugly in Zion.” The problem about being collectively responsible for the world’s starving masses is that we can so easily shrug off our personal responsibility. You may be living in a bed-sitter with few comforts or struggling to meet the mortgage repayments on your home. Yet all the services we benefit from, our public transport system, our education, our health services etc. derive from the rich man’s club to which we belong. We dine at the rich man’s table.
Much of our wealth derives from the natural resources our forefathers looted from the Third World. We still take their primary resources for a pittance, like the tea and coffee we drink, and sell it back to them at exorbitant prices. And now, adding insult to injury, our ships are plying the seas in search of a Third World country willing to accept our toxic waste. Having robbed them of their riches we are now returning our rubbish to them.
If we are beginning to wake up to the danger it not because our conscience has finally got to us, but because we realise that we are spoiling our own world. Our revelry is coming home to roost. In that memorable phrase of Amos, “the revelry is over.” Our world is too small to bear such inequalities. Unless we share our table with the world’s hungry, we will all end up in a hell of our own creation.