SHOCK! REVIVE! (26th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Catholic Homily and Gospel Reflection for the
26th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C
September 30, 2007

Selfish revelry and callous complacency hit us hard as we focus on the first and third readings of today. Amos, the great prophet of social justice, proclaims woe: “Woe to the complacent in Zion!” Such was the rich men’s complacency as to engage in behavior that could only be described as insensitive opulence in the midst of so much want … wallowing in beds inlaid with precious and expensive ivory … lolling around in couches as they dined on tender and choice cut meats that were supposed to be a very rare treat for ordinary mortals in his time … guzzling wine not in ordinary goblets, but in wide rimmed bowls that were designed to give maximum inebriation … sporting perfumed oils that presumably led to amorous, sensual liaisons with women after being satiated with food, wine and song … the list could go on. They all pointed to the ultimate in carrion comfort.

But there is more than just selfish revelry and callous complacency in the Gospel passage of today. The gospel seems to take up the cause a notch higher for our consideration. Christ, in a sense, ups the ante for us, to give maximum impact on a life-changing lesson that may fall on deaf ears then – and even more so – now, living as we are in a narcissistic and self-centered world of what Rolheiser refers to as a time of “unbridled restlessness” and unabated consumerism.

More than just selfishness is referred to in the gospel. But neither is the story reducible to callousness and complacency. It is not just one more “morality play” that capitalizes on the hapless plight of the poor and the wretched in our midst, and on how their lack of fortune clashes with that of the fortunate rich in our midst. No … the story of the Lord is not meant merely to shock us for a short while, only for us to go back to our merry uncaring ways soon after the initial shock of reality wears off.

Christ’s story is not meant to shock the hearers although there is more than just a little of a shock value for dramatic effect. As a good story teller, as a good teacher, Christ does have a way with some shocking and stunning stories like this one … like the story of the prodigal son and the resentful older brother.

The story that revolves around great reversals of fortune does shock and stun us – as it probably shocked and stunned the Pharisees. But the great value of Christ’s story of today lies not on whether we are shocked or stunned beyond belief.

Our mass media crazed world is filled with shocking and stunning news almost to the day. We see images of untold and unspeakable human tragedies regularly. We see human suffering of all shapes and sizes and magnitudes at predictable intervals … tsunamis, earthquakes, famine, wars, terroristic acts that hurt, maim, and kill innocent bystanders and people out in the streets to earn their honest daily bread.

But their shock value is all but gone. They have ceased to capture our naturally compassionate hearts, and all they do is to feed our endlessly curious minds with facts and figures that don’t move us to action. For all they do is show us. Beyond showing and telling, such gory images that fill our senses to satiety, don’t lead us to careful reflection that ought to lead us, in turn, to a process that could only be described as a process that softens the soul.

Softening of the soul … this is what the rich man of the gospel did not have … in life, as well as in death. One would think that in death, he would have looked at Lazarus in a less patronizing, less selfish, way. But no … old habits die hard. Selfishness and narcissistic self-centeredness, not necessarily an opulent and insensitive lifestyle, is what did the rich man in. It is what damned him to that wretched state. In death, like in life, the rich man continued to look down on Lazarus as someone who was there to meet his needs, and those of the persons he cared for. Never in the parable is it mentioned that the rich looked on Lazarus and considered him as more than somebody to be at their lowly service.

We are called today to go beyond mere shallow shock value to go by our Sunday reflection. We are certainly shocked that the Artic solid slabs of icy fortresses are now melting away to the glee of shippers who can now cut their travel time considerably as they can do away with the circuitous route via the Panama canal. We were more than just shocked at the “inconvenient truth” that Al Gore showed the whole world last year with his stunning news. We are shocked by what Alan Greenspan told America and the rest of the world – that American’s incursion into Iraq only had to do with oil plain and simple … period! We continue to be shocked everyday by new and fresh revelations of gross acts of massive graft and corruption that would put Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves to shame. In the Philippines context, right after the former President Estrada was convicted of the lower courts of plunder, we were shocked to wake up days after to the realization that Ali Baba might have been routed and banished, but not the Forty Thieves that still man all branches of government, especially the executive and legislative branches! News of a cloak and dagger operation of international proportions hatched not in smoke-filled backrooms but in the fairways of Wack-Wack (Manila) and Shenzen in China continue to shock us beyond belief.

But as Peter Seeger of yore crooned so many years ago … “when will they ever learn, when will they ever learn?” Where have all the money gone … long time passing? Where have all the money gone, long time ago. Where have all the money gone? Gone to the grafters everyone … when will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?

But we have learned to withstand and be callous to shocks like these. This is why I insist that today’s liturgy goes beyond shocking us. The Liturgy that makes us look back and revisit old stories about God’s saving interventions in the lives of his Chosen People is not just a backward glance to what is past. No … liturgically speaking, the past is the prologue to our present. We look back. We reclaim the story of God’s people, in order for us to look forward, to make sense of our unfolding story in the present, and the future. Like oarsmen, we row facing backward, in order to move forward.

The rich man’s story, in relation to the shocking story of reversals involving Lazarus and the erstwhile rich and complacent man, is the story too of our lives. And being shocked about it won’t clinch it for us. Being merely awed by it won’t make us better people.

We need more than just the element of shock. We need reflection that softens the soul and makes us part ways with rigid unbending categories that keep us enslaved to the glories of the past. The rich man had an abundance of such “glories of the past.” In death, he even thought he could still order Lazarus around to run him errands.

At this point, I am reminded of a funny – if, shallow – commercial ad for a brand of bath soap that was popular in the early 80s, when Unilever wasn’t yet the giant multinational company that it now is. Shock! …. Revive! Yes, it is OK for us to be shocked and stunned by this dramatic story of reversals. But initial shock should pave the way to our being revived … revived and re-energized enough to follow what St. Paul today counsels Timothy: “Pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.”

National Shrine of Mary Help of Christians
September 24, 2007 – 4:15 pm


[Dundalk, MD - September 26, 2004]

Old habits die hard. The unnamed rich man, used to opulence, comfort, and luxury, with a train of servants ever on the ready to do as bidden at any given time, could not shake off the supercilious and superior attitude of the selfish rich … no, not even in death: “Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue … 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.” Even in death, he looked at Lazarus the poor man as someone who ought to serve his every wish.

Last Sunday, we were introduced to a selfish and insensitive, though undoubtedly smart, steward who used his abilities in pursuit of his personal ends. This Sunday, the liturgy confronts us with people of the same ilk – rich individuals whom both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures condemn, not exactly for being rich, but for being “complacent,” for being so unconcerned at, and unmoved by, the pressing needs of others, especially those who have less in life. As usual, the feisty Amos minces no words as he thunders prophetically: “Woe to the complacent in Zion! … They drink wine from bowls and anoint themselves with the best oils; yet, they are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph! … their wanton revelry shall be done away with.”

Once more, Scriptures remind us of the inherent danger of riches, and the very real and proximate possibility for people who wallow in them, to be blinded, to be rendered insensitive, to become so callous to others’ needs as to merit such powerful words from the prophets of old, and the wake-up call of the Gospel account’s story of reversals of fortune for Lazarus and the rich man.

In fairness to the rich man, he most likely grew up not knowing any better. The field of the Sociology of Knowledge, among other things, tells us that our social status, our experience, the people we usually hang out with on a daily basis, the shows we watch, the restaurants we usually go to, the crowd we belong to – they all shape who we are, what we perceive, and what we think. They shape our “cognitive maps,” our mental maps of what we say is reality. “Tell me who your friends are and I will tell you who you are.” Reality is filtered by our social status, by our place up the ladder of wealth, social influence, and daily experience.

No wonder the unnamed rich man still saw Lazarus as a servant. Once a servant, always a servant. Talk about the rich man’s burden … being caught in such a narrow, self-centered perspective that sees one’s good and only one’s benefit as the ultimate value. Talk about being enslaved by “ignorance,” by one’s prejudices, one’s biases, and one’s self-serving concerns … “send him to my father’s house.”
Again, here we have a clear case of “what happened then” and “what happens now” – both arenas of human experience to which Scripture in the Liturgy is brought to bear so that God’s Word may shed light on our current experience here and now. This is what homily is all about. It is all about “breaking the bread of God’s Word” in such a way that Tradition (Scripture), human experience, and culture are put together in a meaningful way, through a method called “correlation,” for us to reflect and discern on God’s will for us in the current conditions of our times.

In our days, there are plenty of rich people. There, too, are even more poor people. “The poor you will always have with you.” As we have seen, rich people are not condemned for being rich. And poor people are not glorified just because they are poor. But Scripture does condemn people, rich and poor alike, who never go beyond their selfish concerns, who do not transcend their narrow, and enslaving ignorance, and who never grow beyond their fixations, prejudices, and biases. Take it from St. Paul who counsels Timothy, who by any standard, already has reached some level of “holiness.” “But you, man of God, pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.”

We who belong to a sports-crazed culture (the people of Baltimore are simply grief-stricken at the defeat of the Ravens in the NFL season opening game against Cleveland’s Browns, while those who root for the Redskins are rejoicing at their victory against the Buccaneers) ought to understand St. Paul very well. What he says sounds like some watchwords we are familiar with …“No rest, till Everest!” “No pain, no gain!” … “Compete well for the faith,” St. Paul tells Timothy, using images of training and discipline reminiscent of athletes in the Olympiad.

I would like to suggest that the “training” that most of us need to do in the spiritual life is what the Bible calls “metanoia,” conversion, or more precisely, a change of mind and heart. In the Philippines, where the people are neatly divided in just two classes (the middle class have all but disappeared) – the rich and the poor, the crying need is for both to be able to “see” objective reality, a reality of a society that is imprisoned by so much structural evil and cultural evil that stand in the way of social transformation that the Gospels speak of. The rich need to see beyond their narrow concerns. The poor also need to know that certain cultural values and attitudes make for a specie of “cultural malaise” that also inhibits progress and social development. Both the rich and the poor need conversion. Both the rich and the poor need to work hand in hand to hasten the coming of the Kingdom of God. In the United States, and the rest of the first world cultures, the training most needed is that of opening up to the reality of the gross imbalances in the distribution of wealth and opportunities, the reality of a world that is bent down by the weight of so much demand for natural resources that are unreplenishable, resources that are, by and large, used and abused by the wasteful ways of people whose knowledge does not go beyond the level of what “everyone else does.” Perched comfortably atop the rung of world power, most individuals would not have the moral sophistication to think of the needs of their weaker counterparts. Used to a life of affluence, many first world people would not know how to react to a situation of abject want and utter misery. For many, the next best reaction is either to patronize or to ignore altogether and shrug one’s shoulders.

If we go by the evidence of the Scriptures, however, more responsibility is expected of those who have been given more. More is to be expected from those who have the greater means to effect change. But one thing is sure … all of us are called to this change of heart and mind. All are called to conversion, and all are expected to engage in the work of personal and social transformation.

What the Scriptures condemn is not riches. What they do condemn is the indifference, the nonchalance, the lack of commitment to causes, and the total disregard of others needs and concerns. What happened in Amos’ times, is what happens even now. For whether we find ourselves on the side of the rich man, or on the side of Lazarus, we do find our “comfort zones.” We do find our niches of indifference. The poor can give in to resignation and total dependence. The rich can just take resort to convenient blindness and blissful insouciance. Both can resort to the blaming game. One side blames the poor for being lazy. The other side blames the rich for being abusive and for flaunting their wealth. Both blame government. All blame the “system,” whatever that means. And, in the meantime, the corrupt politicians are laughing their way to the banks (in Switzerland or Lichtenstein). And everyone is mired in his or her own narrow, personal concerns.

Today’s liturgy would have no more of this. Today’s readings would have us all, rich and poor alike, take notice of that covenant responsibility to which we, as a people, have been called by God. When God called us to a relationship, He called people, plain and simple. He did not call rich and poor, but just persons without labels. He called you and I. And He still calls us and reminds us to “pursue righteousness.”