PURSUING RIGHTEOUSNESS


Catholic Homily / Sunday Reflections
26th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C
Sept. 26, 2010


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, so it seems in practice. 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 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, on the one hand, can give in to resignation and total dependence. The rich, on the other hand, 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.”

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