This set of readings begs for a fire and brimstone polemic on class warfare. But alas, you will have to settle for something equally revolutionary, but a little less fiery.
While Jesus follows in a long line of prophets in the history of Israel, he veered off quite a bit from the ethical prescriptions that earlier prophets doled out liberally.
From my point of view, Jesus made a huge effort to avoid ethical prescriptions.
What Jesus did do was emphasize relationships, his relationship with the God he called Abba, his relationship with his followers, his followers relationships with one another, and his relationship with the world (“I will draw the whole world to myself”).
Our scripture today has its foundation in the relationship called covenant.
Let’s start with our well-known gospel passage and work back from there.
In popular literature and movies and TV almost everyone I know appreciates a story that ends with poetic justice or a reversal of fortunes.
Our scripture from the prophet Amos and the Gospel according to Luke offer testimony that poetic justice or reversal of fortune was appreciated in story-telling for a long, long time if not since the dawn of human interaction. As emotionally satisfying as these story endings were and are, we must all wonder if there may be a little bit more to the stories.
Are we to ally ourselves with Lazarus and to hell with the rich man? Literally?
Are we to vilify only the rich who indulge in conspicuous consumptions as are depicted in the “Woe to you” accusations of Amos?
What about the rich who spend almost nothing on themselves, but accumulate wealth or capital in order to wield power or usurp power?
What about the rich who amass more wealth only to pass it on to their heirs? What about the rich who are trapped in a cycle of fear, always anxious to protect the wealth amassed with no time or energy to enjoy life?
Lazarus and the rich man are both children of Abraham, so they each are related to the other through the covenant Yahweh made with Abraham.
The covenant responsibilities that the wealthy have toward the needy kinsman are very clear in the Torah.
Since the Israelites could not see God or even pronounce God’s name, God needed a representative, and that representative was the poor.
If a descendant of Abraham ignored the plight of a poor person, the covenant was violated.
This is clear in the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and throughout the books of the prophets.
So how could such a clear and forceful rendering of the covenant expectation be forgotten?
Complacency often accompanies wealth because we are lulled into a false sense of security or because the parent of all lies leads us to believe that our wealth is a sign of our superiority or of how meritorious we are or of how much God favors us.
The widening gulf between the rich and the poor in our own nation begs for prophetic voices to speak up.
Instead we receive a frequent dose of partisan bickering over who is the true champion of the so-called middle-class.
The famous, or infamous, community organizer, Saul Alinsky, referred to the “have’s”, the “have not’s” and the “have a little, want more’s”.
In many respects the role of the prophet is to reclaim the language or the rhetoric that has been warped and corrupted by propaganda that maintains an unhealthy, and even deadly, status quo.
Religious leaders can sometimes be that voice, but more often the voice arises from the sidelines or margins.
The prophet Amos was a herder by occupation, obviously a very keen observer of the society around him. Jesus arises from very humble surroundings; “can anything good come from Nazareth?”, the big city folks say when they want to dismiss him. So who will speak the prophetic truth in our own time?
The answer seems, look to the margins.
Pope Francis frequently urges the faithful, and particularly the clergy, to go out to the margins.
That must be where the truth lives.
I do not want to paint a romantic picture here of what any of us might find living at the margins or even visiting the margins of society.
It is frequently not pretty.
The outcasts frequently do not seem appreciative of our good efforts.
The substance-dependent person resists treatment; the mentally ill person resents our version of reality; the severely learning-disabled person doesn’t seem to “get” the importance of our interventions.
Are any of these reasons to throw up our hands and say, “What’s the use?”
As St. Vincent de Paul wrote:
Even though the poor are often rough and unrefined, we must not judge them from external appearances nor from the mental gifts they seem to have received. On the contrary, if you consider the poor in the light of faith, then you will observe that they are taking the place of the Son of God who chose to be poor.
Although in his passion he almost lost the appearance of a man and was considered a fool by the Gentiles and a stumbling block by the Jews, he showed them that his mission was to preach to the poor: He sent me to preach the good news to the poor. We also ought to have this same spirit and imitate Christ’s actions, that is, we must take care of the poor, console them, help them, support their cause.
Since Christ willed to be born poor, he chose for himself disciples who were poor. He made himself the servant of the poor and shared their poverty. He went so far as to say that he would consider every deed which either helps or harms the poor as done for or against himself. Since God surely loves the poor, he also loves those who love the poor. For when one person holds another dear, he also includes in his affection anyone who loves or serves the one he loves. That is why we hope that God will love us for the sake of the poor. So when we visit the poor and needy, we try to understand the poor and weak. We sympathize with them so fully that we can echo Paul’s words: I have become all things to all men.
Therefore, we must try to be stirred by our neighbors’ worries and distress. We must beg God to pour into our hearts sentiments of pity and compassion and to fill them again and again with these dispositions.
It is our duty to prefer the service of the poor to everything else and to offer such service as quickly as possible. If a needy person requires medicine or other help during prayer time, do whatever has to be done with peace of mind. Offer the deed to God as your prayer. Do not become upset or feel guilty because you interrupted your prayer to serve the poor. God is not neglected if you leave him for such service. One of God’s works is merely interrupted so that another can be carried out. So when you leave prayer to serve some poor person, remember that this very service is performed for God. Charity is certainly greater than any rule. Moreover, all rules must lead to charity. Since she is a noble mistress, we must do whatever she commands. With renewed devotion, then, we must serve the poor, especially outcasts and beggars. They have been given to us as our masters and patrons.
This excerpt from the writings of St. Vincent de Paul (Epist. 2546: Correspondence, entretiens, documents, Paris 1922-1925, 7) is used in the Roman Office of Readings for the Feast (liturgical memorial) of Saint Vincent de Paul on September 27. St. Vincent was born in Gascoy, France, in 1581. He was ordained a priest and went to Paris where he was stationed in a parish. He founded the Congregation of the Mission to supervise the formation of priests and to give support to the poor. With the help of Saint Louise de Marillac, he also founded the Congregation of the Daughters of Charity. He died at Paris in 1660.
Our challenge as prophets today and everyday is to reclaim the language of covenant relationship, to reclaim the rhetoric so that the wealthy do recognize their responsibility to be truly generous and so that all of us see our needy sisters and brothers as representatives of Yahweh.
There are virtues that we can cultivate that will assist us in this.
Paul in today’s reading from 1 Timothy spells some of them out.
I will repeat them now with brief explanation and recommend that each of us leave this assembly today committed to cultivate just one of them for the remainder of the day.
TRUST IN GOD
GOODWILL TOWARD OTHERS
MEEKNESS THAT WILL INHERIT THE EARTH
Grant peace to the world and let every land flourish in justice and security, we pray …
Teach us today to recognize you in all people, especially in the poor and in those who mourn, we pray …
Grant those with great wealth complete detachment from material possessions and focused commitment to improve the lives of the poor, we pray …
Grant world leaders all the diplomatic skills they need to avert wars and a total commitment to preserving our natural resources for generations to come, we pray …
In thanksgiving for women and men committed to living in monastic communities, and in particular, thanks for the Benedictine Women of Madison, we pray …
Look kindly on all who put their trust in our prayers, fill them with every bodily and spiritual grace, we pray …
Creator of unfailing light, give that same light to those who call to you. May our lips praise you; our lives proclaim your goodness; our work give you honor, and our voices celebrate you for ever.