Today we begin the new liturgical year with a spirit of anticipation and unbridled hope! Today we begin Advent. The first scripture of the day is taken from the inaugural prophecy of Isaiah. For Christians, it’s perhaps the most well known pas- sage of the Old Testament.
It would be helpful to put Isaiah’s prophecy into an historical context. In the year 736BC a young king, Ahaz, succeeded to the throne of Judah inheriting a serious politi- cal situation. The king of Damascus and the king of Israel tried to persuade him to join them in an alliance against the king of Assyria. When Ahaz refused, they declared war on Judah. The king reached out to Assyria for help.
Isaiah tried to dissuade him, begging him to rely on God’s faithfulness, not on untrust – worthy political alliances. To persuade him he delivered his famous oracle of a messianic time to come. We’re reading this oracle today.
Ahaz agreed to an alliance that put Judah under Assyrian protection. Assyria used it, however, as an opportunity to annex the northern kingdom, Israel, in 734BC. Samaria fell in
721BC.When Hezekiah succeeded Ahaz as king in 716BC, he reached out to Egypt to support him in a revolt against Assyria. The result was disastrous. The Assyrian forces devastated Pales- tine in 701BC. Only Jerusalem survived destruction.
The fear and uncertainty must have been traumatic for the Jewish leadership and the general population during
those years. It’s in this context that Isaiah de- livered his first prophecy. It began with a lament for Jerusalem, symbolic of the rulers of Judah.
“The faithful city, what a harlot she has become! Zion, once full of fair judgment, where saving justice used to dwell, but now assassins! Your silver has turned to dross, your wine is watered. Your princes are rebels, accomplices of brigands. All of them greedy for presents and eager for bribes, they show no justice to the orphan, and the widow’s cause never reaches them.” (Isaiah 1:22-24)
This lament over the corruption of Judah and Jerusalem is followed by a vision of a new world – a Messianic time. In the vision Jerusalem is trans- formed from the place of corruption to the glorious kingdom of God. The temple mount, Zion, the Lord’s house, is seen flooded by people streaming from every part of the world. The divisions and hostilities that have kept people and nations apart have dis- solved. The Lord’s house welcomes everyone, Jew and Gentile alike.
This is a revolutionary image. The word “nations” is goyim in Hebrew. It has a much broader meaning than various countries. It means all those people who aren’t Jews – who aren’t God’s chosen people. In the Jewish vocabulary it’s the disparaging word for “them,” those who aren’t one of us. In the Messianic Time there will be no them and us. National boarders no longer exist so that “the nations” may freely stream to the Lord’s house. The prophecy goes on:
“They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not rise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.”
What a prophecy! Imagine – a world with no national boarders to defend – a world with no wars – a world at peace – a world in which God’s house is its only capital!
Isaiah’s prophecy leads us into Advent, but we must prepare ourselves for this procession to the house of God. We’re asked to shed our crippling cynicism. We’re asked to envision the corruption all around us as a thing of the past. We’re encouraged to abandon our narrow and divisive notions of nation, race and creed. We’re asked to open our eyes to the new world of the Messianic time. We are asked to take a spiritual step into that bright new world, and “walk in the light of the Lord!”
We don’t often think about kingship today, a concept foreign to us, yet one we must ponder if we’re to understand the depth of the feast we’re celebrating.
In the first scripture reading of the day, taken from the Second Book of Samuel, we’re given an
account of the tribes of Israel gathering to anoint David as their King. They declare
him as their shepherd, their protector, and their commander. David will
eventually betray this trust by using his sacred position to orchestrate the death of one of his most trusted commanders in order to take his wife as his own. We learn, through David, that the exalted position of kingship can easily become self-serving, and even tragically destructive.
St. Paul, in his Letter to the Colossians, the second reading for the day, breaks into a rhapsodic hymn of praise as he describes Jesus being lifted up as the Christ. He pro- claims Jesus the image of the invisible God, and the first born of all creation. He
tells us that he is be- fore all things, and in him all things hold together. Through him we have redemption. “For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell, and through him to rec- oncile all things for him, making peace by the blood of his cross.” In awe and wonder, Saint Paul describes the King- ship of Christ crucified.
In the Gospel passage Luke sets a scene that stands as the antithesis of the tribes of Israel gather-
ing to anoint David as their King. The proclamation of execution nailed to the cross is as clear as any written statement could be: “This is the King of the Jews.” As the people gather around Jesus as he hangs on the cross, they taunt him shouting, “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the chosen one, the Christ of God.”
On the cross Jesus teaches us that true and authentic Kingship does not bring with it absolute power over people. Rather, Kingship demands the total emptying of the self. Jesus was anointed King on the
cross. That act of self-giving lifted Jesus up to the Father as Christ. His anointing aa Christ is what we celebrate today.
The Feast of Christ the King reminds us that, as children of God, we’ve too have been anointed “king.” Whether a political figure, a CEO, the principal of a school, a manager, a teacher, physician, mother, father, guardian, or priest, each one of us is invited to raise our eyes to gaze on Jesus as our model – Jesus on the cross. If we empty ourselves as he did, if we live for others and not ourselves, he will say to us what he said to the criminal crucified with him, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
We’re one week away from the last Sunday of the Church’s liturgical year. In preparation, the scriptures direct us to reflect on a powerful theme, the sec- ond coming of Christ. We first read the prophet Malachi’s description of the coming of the Son of Man, a “day blazing like an oven.” It will be a time of global purification preceding the coming of the Messiah and the establishment of a new world.
The passage from Luke’s Gospel builds upon this theme by presenting Jesus’ teaching on his second coming. He presents it as a time of judgment and cosmic purification “when nation will
rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom…and awesome sights and mighty signs will come from the sky.” But Jesus warns his followers that be- fore the great purification “they will seize and persecute you…because
of my name.”
The Church uses this theme at the end of the year to encourage us to look at our chaotic world with a judgmental eye. Our world wasn’t meant to be a place of “war, famine and persecution.” What have we done to it?! We’re killing each other by the millions as we wrestle for power. We’re ravaging the earth with our strip mining and fracking, polluting our waters and destroying our forests. We’re choking on our garbage, and suffocating ourselves with car and plane emissions. So many of our politicians have lost concern for the common good, and many of our religious leaders are blind guides.
As we end the year we judge our past. But in two weeks, on the first Sunday of Advent, we’ll begin a new year by listening to Isaiah’s prophecy of the new world. “They shall beat their swords into plow- shares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again…let us walk in the light of the Lord!” No matter how dark the world looks to us today, we will begin the New Year with hope, and the resolve to work for the coming of the Kingdom.
Lord Jesus, you ask that I continue your mission by becoming, like you, the light of the world. Send your powerful Spirit to guide and strengthen me. May I, with your help, be a source of hope in the darkness of this chaotic world. Help me to persevere and be strong even though I may be “hated by all because of your name.” Use me to prepare the world for the coming of your kingdom.
Autumn has finally begun to show her face in the Big Apple. Spending the mornings at the Convent of the Sacred Heart where I minister as chaplain, I can view a great panorama of Central Park from the roof of the building. The red and yellow leaves shimmer with a wonderful muted light that only Autumn seems to be able to provide. Soon the leaves will blanket the ground – preparing the earth for its long winter’s sleep.
We’ve just paid homage to the arrival of Fall with three consecutive days of celebration: Halloween, All Saints Day and All Souls Day. But we continue reflecting on the sentiment of these three days for a month, until the beginning of our new Liturgical Year on the First Sunday of Advent. This week’s Gospel passage is in line with this Autumnal celebration. We’re thinking about life after death. This is introduced into the Liturgy through Luke’s account of a confrontation between Jesus and the Sadducees.
The Sadducees and the Pharisees were the two politi- cal/religious parties in Palestine at the time of Jesus. The Sadducees were the aristocratic ruling class, and were even more conservative than the Pharisees. They only acknowledged the first five books of the bible as truly revealed by God. They held that there was no resurrection of the dead, and that angels and spirits did not exist. They were in direct opposition to the Pharisees who were the more liberal political party. They accepted in its entirety what we call the Old Testament, and believed in the resurrection of the dead and the existence of angels and spirits. The two parties put aside their differences and united against Jesus.
In the passage today, the Sadducees attacked Jesus on his beliefs in the resurrection. In a question, they contrived a situation in which a man
died leaving his wife childless. They dug up an ancient and archaic Jewish law that obliged the brother of a deceased man to marry his brother’s wife in order to father an heir for him. They made the story extra ridiculous by saying that the man’s seven brothers married the woman but each died before they could produce an heir. Their question to Jesus was this: “In the resurrection whose wife will this woman be?”
Jesus’ answer was quit clear. At the resurrection there will be no marriage. We become like angels. We become the children of God. He went on to remind them of the scene from the book of Exodus when God spoke to Moses from the burning bush. Moses asked who was speaking to him. God said, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and God of Jacob.” Jesus went on to say that, “He is the God not of the dead but of the living, for to him all are alive.” In other words, death is not final. We live on.
The Church took this teaching of Jesus and linked it to a very popular pre-Christian, Gaelic celebration, Samhain (pronounced sow -in). The Church made it a three-day event: Halloween, All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Samhain marked the day of the year when it was believed that the veil between the corporal world and the spiritual world was at its thinnest. It developed a spooky and fantastical side but, at its core, it celebrated the continuity of our lives in the material world and in the spiritual world on the other side of the veil.
The Church followed up by remembering all the Saints who have been crowned in heavenly glory. Then, in the feast of All Souls, it encourages us to remember our friends and relatives who have recently passed through the veil.
Reflecting on Mother Nature’s winter sleep, the Church invites us to celebrate the fullness of our lives, here, in the earthly kingdom and, when we pass over, in the spiritual kingdom of God. As this world retreats into winter hibernation, we ponder the day of our pass-over and resurrection.
Today we hear a story about a short man who is (literally) up a tree. Zacchaeus is well known by the wealthy people of Jericho, and the many merchants who pass through with their goods, because he’s the city’s tax collector. We’re told that he’s “a wealthy man,” which is a nice way of saying he’s an extortionist. Being a tax collector under the Roman occupation, he’s labeled a traitor and a thief, and is shunned by the city’s population.
Before we go on with the story, let’s get a better picture of this important town. Jericho lies about 15 miles northeast of Jerusalem. It’s an ancient city going back as far as 9,000 BC. It’s an oasis and enjoys the title, “the city of palms.” Because of its mild weather and beau- tiful springs, it attracts the rich and powerful. Herod has a summer palace there, and many
wealthy people from Jerusalem have villas there. It’s also important be- cause the major trade route of the Middle East passes through the Jor- dan Valley and Jericho. Zacchaeus is one of the tax collectors who taxed goods as they passed through on their way to markets throughout the em- pire.
Because Jericho is home to the rich and famous, celebrity seekers and the curious tend to mill along the roads entering and leaving the city. Beggars line the roads, too. Jesus, on his approach to Jericho that day, met a blind man who begged him to re- store his sight. “Jesus told him, ‘Have sight; your faith has saved you.’ He
immediately received his sight and followed Jesus, giving glory to God.” This new follower is among the crowd when Jesus enters the city and meets up with Zacchaeus.
Here’s the picture. Jesus of Nazareth, a well know personality in the Jewish world, has just entered the city after curing a blind man. There’s a noisy and sizable crowd following him. Zacchaeus sees the crowd approaching, and wants to get a glimpse of Jesus. But being too short to see over the crowd, and probably being elbowed by people who wanted to keep him away, Zacchaeus runs ahead and climbs a sycamore tree to get a good view of the healer from Nazareth. Lo and behold, when Jesus comes to the sycamore he stops. He looks up. Seeing little Zacchaeus hanging on to the branches, he says the most remarkable thing: “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I
must stay in your home.”
People hate Zacchaeus. He’s lived a life of
corruption. He’s wealthy, but so what. He’s an outcast to his own people. Only his fellow outcasts, sinners and tax collectors, social- ize with him. But in an instant everything changes. Jesus, the healer and holy man, has just called him by his name! He wants to come to his home! From this moment on, Zacchaeus’ life will never be the same.
Immediately, the crowd begins to grumble because Jesus has invited himself to a sinner’s home, but little Zacchaeus stands up to them. Climbing down from the tree, he makes a public confession by announcing the amends he will make for his sins. “Behold, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I will repay it four-times over.” Without any hesitation Jesus gives him ab- solution. “Today, salvation has come to this house.” He then reasserts Zacchaeus into the community. He tells the crowd, “This man, too, is a descendant of Abraham.” Jesus follows this up with an important universal teaching. He announces to the crowd that, “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost.”
We mustn’t forget this teaching. Each of us, at one time or another, will find our- selves up a tree, in spiritual crisis. We might feel that we’re trapped in a life with no direction, no future. Asking God for help isn’t enough to change things. Sometimes we have to claim our part in creating the crisis, and we have to take aggressive steps to change. It’s never easy.
The blind man on the road to Jericho shouted out into the darkness that he wanted to see. Jesus heard him, recognized the depth of his faith, and announced his cure. Zacchaeus had extorted the mer- chants, and betrayed his people. The day Jesus came to town, his faith gave him the courage to publically confess his sins, and make amends to the community. By getting out on a limb, he was finally able to see Jesus. He took a chance, and Jesus entered his life that day.
The message for us is quite simple. Take a chance. Go out on a limb. It’s an important part of our spiritual lives. It can bring us healing. It can bring us a new life.
When it came to telling the truth, Jesus didn’t hold anything back. He was especially blunt with the religious leaders. For them, scrupulously following the rules and regulations of the law was the benchmark of true religion and what made a person righteous. Jesus often challenged their
teaching. Today’s parable is one of his most direct criticisms. Luke tells us that, “Jesus addressed this parable to those who were convinced of their own righteous- ness and despised everyone else.”
Right off the bat, Jesus focused the story on a particular group, the Pharisees, an ultraorthodox group that evolved from the scribes and sages and adhered to the strictest observance of the law. They reveled in their orthodoxy, and even took on themselves the name Pharisee, which means: “one who is separated.” They were haughty, and believed that, when it came to religion, they were better than most people.
In the parable Jesus juxtaposes a Pharisee and a tax collector. Remember that in the political climate of the day the tax collector was looked upon with loathing. Let’s face it, every- one hates paying taxes – and the tax collector would naturally carry the brunt of that hatred. But there’s more to the position of tax collector. Palestine was occupied by a foreign power,
Rome, and was taxed heavily. The tax collector was, by definition, a traitor be- cause he worked as an instrument of a foreign government to the detriment of his own people. Jesus begins the parable with a description of the Pharisee’s prayer.
He took a position in the temple where he could be easily seen by the people and spoke aloud. “O God, thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector.” The picture I get from this one sentence is of a man looking over a crowd of worshipers with his nostrils flared as if smelling something quite disgusting. He’s haughty and filled with deepest disdain for the people he sees. His gaze rests on the hated tax collector. He immediately
voices a prayer thanking God that he isn’t like the tax collector. The Pharisee goes on to inform God of the depth of his commitment to the law. “I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.”
Jesus then focuses the parable on the tax collector who has found a private place to pray away from the people. He doesn’t dare look up to heaven. He bows his head, and begins to beat his breast as a sign of his sinfulness and repentance. He then quietly and simply pours out his heart. “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
In this simple scene Jesus spins a teach- ing about the power of truth and the emptiness of self-delusion. The Pharisee proclaims himself the model of righteousness, bragging that he’s not dishonest, or greedy. He’s certainly not like this tax collector. How very true! In his prayer, the tax collector pours out his heart, honestly, and humbly con- fesses his frailty and struggles. He prays truthfully, and is rewarded. He returns home justified.
The Pharisee, on the other hand, is an empty shell of a person. He has abandoned his heart and soul. He doesn’t pray to God – he prays to the idol he has created. He worships himself and invites others to worship him. He did not go home justified. He went home more inflated and less alive.
Jesus ends the parable by warning us that “whoever exalts himself will be hum- bled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” The parable is giving us a very simple teaching. When you or I honestly open up and, in painful humility, present our wounded and broken selves to God, God’s healing love rushes into our hearts. Will all our wounds disappear? Some will. Some won’t. Will we no longer be broken people? Maybe not! What will happen is much more important. God’s love of us will assist us in truly loving ourselves.
The Pharisee was in love with a false image of himself. That kind of idolatry doesn’t invite God’s healing love. Only our honest self- assessment, no matter how bad we may seem to ourselves, opens the floodgates of God’s healing love. When we accept ourselves for the broken and limited individuals we are, we can lay down our heads and rest peacefully in the knowledge that God loves who we are.
The parable of the Persistent Widow follows an extended teaching that Jesus delivered to his apostles about the coming of the Kingdom of God. It’s important that we reflect on this parable in the context of this teaching.
The apostles once asked Jesus to teach them to pray. So he spoke the prayer that we all know so well, the Lord’s Prayer. It contains the phrase: “Your Kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” These two phrases contain an excellent definition of the Kingdom of God. It is among us and, the same time, is evolving into full maturity when earth will have achieved perfect harmony with the will of God.
The Kingdom was set in motion at the first moment of creation when, God, from within the “inapproachable light,” commanded “Let there be light.” This light was carried and nurtured by people of good faith, the prophets and the people of the covenant. In the fullness of time, Jesus, at his resurrection, was anointed Christ, “the light of the world.” He impressed upon his disciples their role in the coming of the Kingdom when he declared to them: “You are the light of the world!” He was commissioning them, and those who would follow them in faith, to carry the light until the day of the Kingdom’s fulfillment when God will be “all in all.”
In the parable, the Persistent Widow is the image of the Poor in Spirit, all of us, the community of believers that continually witness to the light through our way of life and our prayer. As such, we never cease battling against the darkness that grips the world,
represented by the corrupt judge who “neither feared God nor respected any human being.” In the par- able, Jesus stresses that this life-long task demands constant and unshakeable dedication on our part. We must “pray always without becoming weary.” This prayer is the divine light we treasure within us. It’s the persistent Christ-light that shines in the darkness. It’s the light that can never be overcome. It’s the Kingdom of God among us moving towards its fulfillment.
As I gaze on the Eucharistic Christ, I see the light of divine love. As I am fed by the Eucharistic Christ, I feel his light grow within me. As I carry the Christ- light with me, I bring the light of the Kingdom into the darkness. Lord Jesus Christ, let your light shine in me today and every day. May your Kingdom come.
The first scripture we hear today is taken from the Second Book of Kings. It relates the story of a highly esteemed and respected Syrian army commander, Naaman. Sadly, he suffered from leprosy. His wife’s slave, a Jewish girl captured during a raid on Israel, told her mistress that there was a prophet in Samaria who could cure her master. Naaman responded to her suggestion. He went to the king of Syria who gave him a letter of introduction to the king of Israel along with gifts of ten silver talents, six thousand gold pieces and ten festal garments. Naaman and his retinue then set out to Israel. After delivering the letter of introduction and the gifts to the king, he went to the house of Elisha the prophet.
Naaman was told, through a messenger from Elisha, to bathe seven times in the Jordan River. He became enraged because the prophet didn’t come out to greet him personally, and that he was told to bathe in the Jordan, a river much inferior to the rivers of Syria. However, his slaves encouraged him to perform the simple task. What did he have to
lose. He bathed in the river seven times and was cured. He sent word to Elisha that he would, from that day on, wor- ship only the God of Israel.
The Gospel relates the story of Jesus curing a band of ten lepers. Unlike the highly respected Naaman, these men were social outcasts. The law prohibited them from approach- ing anyone, including family. They had to keep their distance from all healthy people. So, “they stood at a distance from him and raised their voices, saying, ‘Jesus, Master! Have pity on us.’” He told them to go and show themselves to the priests. This
was to receive from them an official declaration of health, and the freedom to return to their former lives. One of them, realizing that he was cured, be- gan to glorify God. He came to Jesus, threw himself at his feet, and thanked him. The man was a Samaritan.
Both of these accounts remind us of the importance of faith. Naaman discovered the true God through his healing. Jesus told the Samaritan who returned to give thanks that his faith had saved him.
Both of these stories focus on the outsider – the person who doesn’t fit in or isn’t in harmony with the society around him. Naaman wasn’t a Jew. His country had been in conflict with Israel. Yet he dis- covered a new life by entering the faith life of his enemy.
The Samaritan, despised by Jews, and separated from his own people because of his illness, found salvation and healing because his faith made him strong enough to reach out to the Jewish prophet, Jesus. Where can we go with these accounts?
We always need to bring the scriptures into our
present-day experiences if they’re going to be a source of spiritual enrichment and guidance. Then perhaps the first question we should ask is, what does the image of the leper evoke for me, personally?
We may not have a physical illness, but we all suffer quietly within ourselves. We all experience what seems like an incurable sense of shame. Think back to your adolescence when you felt ugly, or overweight, or perpetually awkward. It was a period when the slightest comment about you could be the source of tremendous inner pain. You covered up the pain. You smiled in public but wept when you were alone. That adolescent shame rarely leaves us as we immerge into adult- hood. Perhaps we don’t feel it the same way, but it festers quietly within us, and subconsciously affects the way we act and our relationship with others.
Each of us needs inner healing. In one way or another each of us can relate to the painful isolation of the lepers in today’s readings. Each of us can cry out, “Jesus, Master, have pity on me!”
On the societal level we continue to suffer tremendously because of the hidden shame we carry as a society. We don’t seem to be able to unite as a community of diverse people. Just when we think we’ve healed some of our societal wounds like racism and sexism, another painful ulcer appears. Witness the brutality of our immigration policies. Witness the harassment, and sometimes even murder, of transgender people. Our society can cry out, “Jesus, Master! Have pity on us!
Each of us needs to bathe in the Jordan seven times. Each of us needs to cry out for healing from the Master. We haven’t been able to heal ourselves. We have to trust a power greater than our own to heal the inner shame that continues to torment us and our society.
Each of us has to ask ourselves the deep question, “What am I ashamed of?” When we honestly answer that question, we can call out a sincere plea for heal- ing. We have to have faith that the Divine Physical can cure us and our society. We have to have faith that the love of God can cure all our ills. We have to heal our shame in order to free the divine love that is within each of us. We have to ask for heal- ing so that we can all walk in the glory of the children of God.
“If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree,
‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”
We’ve all heard this teaching many times. I don’t know about you, but I question the depth of my faith every day. Right now, as I’m writing this reflection, I’m asking myself, “When was the last time you had enough faith to uproot a tree or to move a mountain?!”
Jesus’ declaration makes me, a supposed man of faith, feel guilty about my lack of faith. I know that Jesus was using hyperbole in this teaching, but still, I don’t feel that I’ve ever done the equivalent of uprooting a mulberry tree or moving a mountain with the power of my faith! I take this teaching as a tremendous personal challenge. I wonder if my faith will
ever grow to the size of a mustard seed. With this personal confession, I’ll move on to the second part of his teaching.
“Who among you would say to your servant who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here immediately and take your place at table?’ Would you not, rather, say to him, ‘Prepare something for me to eat. Put on your apron and wait on me while I eat and drink. You may eat and drink when I am finished?’ Is he grateful to that servant be- cause he did what he was commanded? So should it be with you. When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are un- profitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.’”
The second part of this teaching doesn’t leave me feeling as guilty as the first part. I work very hard. But often, I put too much on my plate, and so don’t always do my best. There’s a discipline that I lack. I rarely say no. I feel guilty about this, too.
When I first entered the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament as an impressionable teen- ager, I was impressed by an image our founder used to focus our call to serve Jesus. He asked us to be like the vigil candle that burns before the Blessed Sacrament. Its flame can continue to be a sentinel of faith only because the candle gives up its life to feed it. When I feel the stress, and sometimes pain, of working, I often think of the image of the candle. It helps me renew my energy and I keep going.
These are my thoughts about the gospel passage today. I’m sharing these personal thoughts with you to encourage you in your own reflections. Faith is a very personal matter. You have your own, very special and
unique experience of faith. You hear the call to be God’s servant in your own way, and your response is unique to you.
Try not to let any feelings of guilt you may experience as you reflect on these teachings paralyze you from taking a positive step as a disciple of Jesus. I’ve always found that my feelings of guilt were a hindrance to my accepting God’s loving call. Don’t let negative feelings dis- tract you from what Jesus taught us: that God is love. He clearly manifested that in his own life.
The two teachings we’re thinking about to- day, faith and service, point us to his call to love as God loves – unconditionally and sacrificially. To teach that we’re here on earth to serve God, means we’re on earth to love. That’s the challenge we all face as his disciples.
This week’s Gospel relates the well- known parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. It begins by giving us a glimpse of “the gilded age” in Jesus’ time. “There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day.” The palatial homes of the wealthy were built in a way that would flaunt their riches. Wealthy city- dwellers had dining rooms that were often slightly elevated from the street level and opened-aired. In the hot climate this afforded cool evening breezes to blow through. It also allowed the “common peo ple” to get a glimpse of the lifestyle of the rich and famous.
Lazarus, a beggar who was covered with sores, found a place on the street below the dining room. He would watch the master of the house and his guests feast day after day, his mouth watering and his stomach growling all the while. His only companions were the street dogs who would approach him, and kindly lick his sores.
The scene quickly shifts. Both Lazarus and the rich man have died. We need to understand the concept of death that was prevalent at the time of Jesus to understand this scene. At his death, the rich man found himself in the netherworld. This isn’t what we would portray as hell, though the rich man speaks of being tormented in fire. The netherworld was the underground abode of the dead. Jesus often described this as the place where there was, “wailing and gnashing of teeth.” It’s the place of tremendous regret. There, the rich man suffered with the memories of missed opportunities. Distracted by his wealth and daily feast- ing, he had no sympathy for the hungry and sick beggar peering into his dining room every day. And so, unlike Lazarus, he wasn’t “carried by angels to the bosom of Abraham.” He was brought to the abode of the dead.
The heart of the parable consists of a dialogue between the rich man and Abraham. The rich man looks up and, way in the distance, sees Lazarus at Abraham’s side. His self-absorption still in high gear, he calls out to Abraham to send Lazarus, like a servant, to relieve his suffering with a drop of water.
With touching compassion, Abraham addresses him as, “my child,” and explains to him that Laza- rus is being comforted for his long suffering, while he is tormented by the terrible emptiness of his life of selfishness and excess. Abraham goes on to tell him that by ignoring the suffering of others he had dug a huge chasm around himself, stranding him- self in a place of painful isolation.
The rich man suddenly thinks of his five brothers who are living the same selfish life-style. Again,
he asks Abraham to send Lazarus to them to alert them so that they can change their ways. But Abraham tells him that they have all they need. They have the wisdom of the Law and the prophets to direct them. The rich man immediately pro- tests telling Abraham that if Lazarus came from the dead to warn them they would repent and change their ways. Abraham responds to him with compassion and sadness. ”If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.”
The rich man knew the wise teachings of the Law and the prophets. He didn’t take them seriously. He knew the teaching from Deuteronomy, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” but never thought of reaching out to Lazarus who was suffering in the street right below his dining room. In fact, he was so self-absorbed that he didn’t even know Lazarus was there.
This parable, unlike Dickens’ story about Ebenezer Scrooge, doesn’t end with a joyful conversion. Jesus was portraying someone very wealthy. But wealth and extravagance wasn’t his sin, his self-absorption was. It smothered his life. He went to the abode of the dead because he was dead his entire life. He didn’t see the world around him. His narcissism created the “great chasm” that isolated him from the world, a world that was often suffer- ing.
In this parable Jesus is teaching us that, to be truly alive, we must permit ourselves to SEE and FEEL the world around us. This isn’t as easy as it may sound because, when we do so, we’ll often feel uncomfortable. When we see suffering around us it tears at our heart. Sometimes we want to DO something to help but don’t know what to do. We feel impotent. When we see homeless people on our doorstep, or the terrible violence and suffering in the Middle East, the people trapped in the starvation belts across the world, the destruction and death in the Bahamas and Puerto Rico, and the families suffering in the internment camps across the country, the compassion we feel can turn into painful despair. But this shouldn’t prevent us from feeling, from mourning. We have to remember what Jesus taught us. “Blessed are those who mourn.” “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” “Blessed are the merciful.”
There’s always something we can DO, but it will often feel miniscule in comparison to the scope of the suffering we see. But we must continue to SEE it. We must continue to FEEL it. It will keep us alive – alive in spirit and truth. It will prevent the digging of the “great Chasm” around us. It will add the healing ingredient of compassion into our world. One heart at a time, it will change the world.