ISAIAH 2:1-5 | ROMANS 13:11-14 | MATTHEW 24:37-44
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 passage 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 political 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 untrustworthy 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 Palestine 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 delivered 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 transformed 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 in from every part of the world. The divisions and hostilities that have kept people and nations apart have dissolved. 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 borders no longer exist so that “the nations” may freely stream into 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 borders 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!”
2 SAMUEL 5:1-3 | COLOSSIANS 1:12-20 | LUKE 23:35-43
We’re privileged to witness one of the most intimate moments in the life of Jesus. Luke captures the moment for us. It’s Friday, the day after Jesus celebrated the Passover with his disciples. It’s Good Friday. Jesus has been nailed to the cross bar and lifted up. There are two insurgents being executed with him. One on a cross to his left and the other to his right. There isn’t anything awesome about the scene. It’s gruesome and ugly. It’s bloody and sadistic.
The religious leaders have banded together near the execution site. They’re grandstanding, shouting so that the crowd, and the people walking past the site, can clearly hear them. “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the Chosen One, the Christ of God.” The guards assigned to the execution begin to join in the jeering and the mockery. The whole thing is a macabre circus for them as they listen to the shouts of the religious leaders, and read Pilate’s sarcastic decree of execution. So, they shout, too. “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.”
In the midst of this madness, one of the crucified begins to join in with the religious leaders and the guards. “Are you not the Messiah. Save yourself and us!” His voice is constricted by pain and the terrible anger that rages inside of him. His choice to fight for the liberation of Israel brought him to his cross. The socalled Messiah being crucified with him did nothing to further the liberation of Israel, yet the focus is on this holy loser.
Then, another voice can be heard. A rebuke comes from the other cross. “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.”
A few hours ago, Judas, a once follower of Jesus, embraced him, and kissed him. Now, a new disciple, a crucified disciple, turns toward Jesus to kiss him. For a few moments, the shouts, the rebukes, the noise, the suffering stops. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus’ words kiss him in return. “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
I shut out the world and its noise.
I look beyond my suffering and the suffering of my human family.
I kiss the Lord of life.
I let my heart speak.
Jesus, Christ, my King,
remember me when you come into your kingdom.
MALACHI 3:19-20A | 2 THESSALONIANS 3:7-12 | LUKE 21:5-19
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the end of the liturgical year becomes a metaphor for the end of the world as we know it. Our world with its violence, its greed and power lust, its injustice, and its oppression will be exposed, judged and purified. We can clearly see this theme in the readings for this Sunday.
In the passage from the prophet Malachi we hear his prophecy of a day of universal judgment. “Lo, the day is coming, blazing like an oven, when all the proud and all evildoers will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire.” He concludes his prophecy, however, with a word of hope. “But for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays.”
In the gospel passage, Jesus was teaching in the temple and overheard people commenting on the beauty and opulence of the temple. He remarked, “All that you see here – the days will come when there will not be a stone upon another stone that will not be thrown down.” He then continued his teaching using language very similar to Malachi’s.
He cautioned his disciples not to be terrified when they heard of wars and insurrections because nations and kingdoms would inevitably rise against each other. There would be powerful earthquakes, famines, and plagues from place to place. There would even be mighty signs in the sky. In addition, another dynamic would be taking place as these events were unfolding. Jesus’
disciples would be seized and imprisoned. They would even be handed over by friends and relatives. They would be hated because of their association with him. Some of them would be put to death. But this would not be the end of the world.
Malachi’s prophecy recognized the darkness of the world we live in, but it also looked to a world purified of injustice and oppression, of war and violence. We Christians, always hopeful, anticipate “a new heaven and a new earth,” a world in harmony with God, a new Eden. However, this new world won’t be forced on us. There won’t be a great rapture during which bad people would be obliterated and good people rise into the heavens.
We Christians hold that the new world will come to life though our self-sacrifice – our living, not for ourselves, but for others. This is the central teaching of Jesus. He modeled this teaching when he washed his disciples feet. He modeled it when he took up the cross. He asked us to follow him. To do what he did. To live as he lived. To continue his mission.
The new world will reveal itself gradually through the loving and sacrificial lives of people like you and me – people who take to heart what Jesus taught and modeled in his own life. In spite of the dismal condition of our world today, we can’t lose hope. We must be devoted to the vision of a new world. We must, no matter what it will cost us, live our lives for others.
2 MACCABEES 7:1-2, 9-14 | 2 THESSALONIANS 2:16-3:5 | LUKE 20:27-28, 34-38
In all honesty, I completely understand if you think that this is a “who cares” gospel passage. Jesus and the Sadducees (whoever they are) are arguing with Jesus about the resurrection of the dead. Jesus finds a way to shut them up, and this makes the scribes (whoever they are) happy. Basta! Let’s move on to the next chapter. But I see an opportunity here to learn more about the world Jesus lived in and had to negotiate.
Also, what Jesus is teaching is pertinent today. I know quite a few Catholics who don’t believe in an afterlife. Think of the Catholic cultures that carry out lifelong mourning customs. A good example is the millions of widows who wear black for the rest of their lives. That doesn’t give testimony to a joyful afterlife with God. Let’s find out who the players are in this scene. Who are the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the scribes?
The Pharisees weren’t a political party. They were content with any government that allowed them to carry on with their religious observances. When it came to doctrine, the Pharisees accepted all the scriptures, the Law of Moses, the first five books of the Old Testament, and the writings of the prophets. They also accepted as doctrine the thousands of regulations and rules that had been passed on orally over the centuries. They held on dearly to the ceremonial laws such as the sabbath regulations and hand washings. They believed in the resurrection of the dead and in angels and spirits. They hoped for the coming of a messiah who would begin a golden age for Israel.
The Sadducees were the rich aristocrats of the Jewish world. Many of them were also priests. To maintain their wealth and social status they collaborated with the Roman occupation. They rejected the thought of a coming Messiah because it would certainly have overturned their privileged life style. Religiously, they accepted as doctrine only the Law of Moses, not the prophets. They held that there was no resurrection of the dead, no spirits and no angels.
The scribes were the professional lawyers. It was their
duty to know the scriptures – every chapter and verse, and memorized the oral tradition. They drafted legal documents such a marriage contracts, divorce decrees, loans, inheritances, mortgages and the sale of property. They literally copied the law, and during the time of the prophets also served as personal secretaries. If anyone had a question about the law, they asked a scribe for an answer. Philosophically, they tended to link themselves with the Pharisees.
In today’s gospel passage we see the Sadducees ganging up on Jesus, the latest messianic figure to appear in Israel. They brought up an outdated, and no longer practiced law, Deuteronomy 25: 5-6. “When brothers live together, and one of them dies without a son, the widow of the deceased shall not marry anyone outside the family; but her husband’s brother shall go to her and perform the duty of a brother-in-law by marrying her. The first-born son she bears shall continue the line of the deceased brother, that his name not be blotted out from Israel.”
They contrived a situation in which seven brothers were forced to marry their deceased brother’s widow, but each of them died before providing the widow with a son. Their question, attacking the notion of an afterlife, asked which of all these brothers would be the widow’s official husband in heaven. The question was meant to be a mockery of the thought of afterlife, but Jesus decided to answer them. “The children of this age marry and remarry; but those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. They can no longer die for they are like angels; and they are the children of God because they are the ones who will rise.” He then backed up what he said with a reference to the book of Exodus (Ex 3:6) in which God identified himself to Moses as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God “is not God of the dead, but of the living, for in him all are alive.” I hope that my short explanation of the Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes will be helpful when you read the New Testament. It’s important to understand the religious and political tensions that surrounded Jesus. It helps us achieve a deeper insight into his teachings. Also, I encourage you to think about Jesus’ message to the Sadducees. What’s your understanding and beliefs regarding resurrection and afterlife? As we move through Fall, the Sunday liturgies give us many Gospel passages that encourage our reflection on death and afterlife. In today’s passage, Jesus said that we become children of God when we pass over. He also said, “In my Father’s house there are many mansions.” But what do teachings like these mean to you, personally?
WISDOM 11:22-12-:2 | 2 THESSALONIANS 1:11-2:2 | LUKE 19:1-10
Today we hear a story about a short man who is (literally) up a tree. Zacchaeus is well known by the people of Jericho, and the many traders and 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 beautiful 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 because the major trade route of the Middle East passes through the Jordan Valley and Jericho. Zacchaeus is one of the tax collectors who taxed goods as they passed through on their way to markets throughout the empire.
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 restore 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, socialize with him. But in an instant everything changes. Jesus, the healer and holy man, has just called him by his name! He wants to go 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 absolution. “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 ourselves 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 merchants, 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.
SIRACH 35:12-14, 16-18 | 2 TIMOTHY 4:6-8, 16-18 | LUKE 18:9-14
We’re continuing our reflection on prayer this week. Last week’s gospel passage was a teaching about the efficacy of stamina in prayer – never give up. In this week’s passage, Jesus spun another parable exposing a serious blockage to prayer’s efficacy. It’s about two men praying in the temple.
One was an ultra-orthodox Pharisee. The literal meaning of the word Pharisee is: “one who is separated.” The members of this religious sect saw themselves as separate from the rest of humanity because of the depth of their commitment to the minutiae of the law. This Pharisee’s commitment was impressive. He fasted twice a week. Jewish law prescribed only one obligatory fast day, Yom Kippur. He gave tithes on everything he owned. The law prescribed tithing only produce. The Pharisee’s prayer that day consisted of reminding God how he stood apart from the rest of humanity. He even looked with disgust at the tax collector who was praying near him. “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector.”
The tax collector’s prayer was very different. He “would not even raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast and prayed, ‘O God be merciful to me a sinner.’” In fact, a more accurate translation of the tax collector’s prayer would be: “O God, be merciful to me THE sinner.”
The Pharisee’s prayer boasted of his elevated status among other Jews because he fasted more often and more intensely, and because he tithed more lavishly than the ordinary people. The Pharisee wore his religion on his sleeve, and he was damn proud of himself! He wasn’t praying. He was boasting.
In the eyes of his fellow Jews, the tax collector was judged as a national traitor because he collected taxes for the Roman occupiers. He most likely, as was all too common in Jesus’ day, extorted more than enough money to cover the tax to Rome. The extra money went into his pocket. Rome didn’t care as long as the taxes kept flowing in. His prayer came from a heart full of sorrow and contrition. He stood alone and naked before God – he was THE sinner. He gave no excuses. He simply stood before God in humility and sorrow.
The parable told us that the tax collector was justified; the Pharisee was not. In other words, the tax collector was healed – his spirit was redirected toward the divine life. The Pharisee left the temple bloated by his own self-importance and spiritual narcissism.
Jesus was teaching us that fruitful prayer must be honest prayer. We can not, and should not, ever compare our spiritual lives to others. When we pray, we need not hide anything from ourselves or God. When we pray openly and honestly, we expose our weaknesses, our strengths, our joys, our sorrows, our successes and our failures.
An open heart is the path to God, and God’s path to us. That’s what it means to be justified to take the life-long journey of spiritual healing.
EXODUS 17:8-13 | 2 TIMOTHY 3:14-4:2. | LUKE 18:1-8
We have another parable for our reflection today. Right up front, we’re given an interpretation. “Jesus told his disciples a parable about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary.” We then go on to hear of a widow who’s nagging a corrupt judge to render a just decision regarding her case. We have to remember that in Jesus’ day the Roman judges in Palestine were generally corrupt. Being a poor widow, she wouldn’t have the money to pay him off, so she nagged him so much, and with such intensity that, fearing for his safety, he rendered a just decision for her.
OK. When you’re praying FOR something, never give up. The parable is teaching us that God WILL answer your prayer. But don’t you find it strange how Jesus concluded this teaching? “But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” I thought about this a lot. A memory came to me that I’d like to share with you.
My uncle never married and lived with his mother his entire life. He was alcoholic. My grandmother prayed for him every day. I know she did because she asked me to pray for him, too. She had tremendous faith. She went to Mass every day and often brought me to rosary and benediction in the afternoon. God was her rock, the solid foundation she stood on. Two weeks after she died at the age of 78, her son died. Did God answer her prayers?
I look at it this way. My grandmother was a pillar of strength. She prayed. She wept. She never gave up on God. Her faith in God kept her going and kept her strong. She was the pillar her son clung to for many years of his life though he would never had admitted it. She died a valiant woman. My uncle died a son who never lost his mother’s love. My uncle died healed and redeemed by that love.
God’s love is a mystery. When our faith compels us to pray for one another, to pray for peace, to pray for healing, we dip our hands into that mystery. We sign ourselves with it. That’s the faith the son of Man will search out. That’s the faith that redeems the world.
2 KINGS 5:14-17. |. 2 TIMOTHY 2:8-13 | LUKE 17:11-19
We often turn to this account of the ten lepers who were cured by Jesus. We read it on Thanksgiving Day as a reminder to be thankful for all God has given us. But that sentiment, though good and noble, only brushes the surface of its teaching. Let’s look at the passage closely.
Jesus was making his last journey to Jerusalem. He’ll be arrested there and executed. He and his disciples were making their way through Galilee, the northern most area of what today we call Israel, just west of the Golan Heights. Jesus grew up there in Nazareth. The group was heading south to Jerusalem in Judea and were going to make their way through unfriendly Samaria. The hatred between Jews and Samaritans could be attested to by a gauche custom that Jews had if they were unfortunate enough to pass through Samaritan territory. Upon leaving, they would take off their sandals and beat the unclean dust of Samaria from them so they wouldn’t pollute the pure soil of Israel with it.
The group was about to go through the town gate. They were most likely planning to buy provisions or, perhaps, to spend the night. They suddenly heard voices shouting out, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us.” A group of lepers had spotted him. They may have had a camp outside the town since they were forbidden to enter. Even at this moment they were some fifty yards away and as was the custom.
Jesus shouted back at them. “Go. Show yourselves to the priests.” Only a priest, after examining a leper, had the authority to declare a person cured and therefore admitted back into society.
The group of lepers started to walk away, presumably going to the priests. As they walked away they were cured. The blotches and ulcers dried up leaving no trace of the disease. One of the lepers realized that he was cured and returned to Jesus to offer profound thanks. Jesus told the leper, “Stand up and go! Your faith has saved you.” The ten lepers were cured. One was saved. What’s going on here.
Luke’s gospel is interesting in that it stresses the theme of journey. After Mary was told that she was to be the mother of the Messiah she traveled to her cousin Elizabeth. Mary traveled again to Bethlehem where she gave birth to her child. She traveled with
Jesus and Joseph to Egypt when Herod was determined to kill her child. When he came to adulthood Jesus traveled the length and breadth of Judea, Galilee and Samaria. He also traveled to the areas we today call Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. Along the way, he and his disciples stopped to have dinner with a variety of people, friends and foes alike. He taught along the way and healed people along the way. Some literally followed him, others followed him by changing their hearts. Some were cured.
These ten lepers were sent on a journey to present themselves to the priests. From there they would return to society. But one returned to Jesus before he went to the priests. This was a special person. He wasn’t a Jew. He was rejected by society because of his illness, and was rejected by the Jews because he was a Samaritan. He wasn’t just cured he was saved. He was saved when his journey brought him back to Jesus to give thanks.
Luke’s theme of journey, meeting Jesus along paths of life, is an important part of this account. This man’s journey had led him away from the comfort of society and family to the horrible isolation of leprosy. He knew Jesus was a healer and so he screamed out to him for help. But unlike the other nine he took another road. He took short journey back to Jesus. He knelt down and gave thanks.
This journey is oh so subtle, but so beautiful. To give thanks, efharisto in Greek, would have rung a bell in the ear of every first century Christian. This was a reference to the Eucharistic gathering of the Christian community. This social outcast, this man in need of healing, found his way home. He was saved. He recognized Jesus, reached out to him and was healed by him, and when he opened his heart in thanksgiving he became one with the great community of thanksgiving, the Eucharistic community.
We’re all parts of various communities. But one is especially life-giving, the Christian community. In our gatherings we meet Jesus in the teachings he delivers to us. We’re strengthened to continue our journey when he feeds us with himself, the bread of life. We’re healed and saved when, like the leper, we return over and over again to give thanks.
Today’s gospel passage begins with the disciples petitioning Jesus. “Increase our faith!” They’re saying this with their hands thrown up in the air in despair. Jesus had just told them that they must always forgive a brother who has wronged them. He put a number on it – seven times – even seven times in one day! The rabbis taught that a person would be perfect if they forgave a brother three times. Jesus doubled that number and added another one for good measure. He was serious about it. The ability to forgive was essential for his disciples. He followed up by noting a common practice.
When the master of the house sees his slaves coming in from the fields at the end of the day, he doesn’t ask them to sit at his table and have dinner with him. He expects them to begin making his dinner and then serving him and his family. They will eat later.
Jesus’ example understandably rubs us the wrong way. But his message behind the example needs to be heard, and should challenge us just as it challenged his disciples that day. We, too, should be throwing our hands up in the air crying, “Lord, increase our faith!”
Forgive. Forgive. Forgive. Work. Work. Work.
Jesus is warning all of us that being a Christian is hard work. Living the life of a disciple is a challenge every day. There’s a teaching, there’s a parable meant for every single one of us. That’s why we read them over and over again every time we celebrate our Eucharist. Every time we hear them, we hear something new. We’re challenged in a new way.
I spend a good deal of time writing these reflections every week. My working to discover the deeper meaning of an event or a teaching isn’t a work of scholarly research. It’s my audience with Jesus. Sometimes he consoles me. Sometimes he heals me. Sometimes he challenges my faith. I struggle with him and his message before I share anything with you.
“When you have done all you were commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.’”
This last line of the gospel passage isn’t meant to be a guilt trip. It’s a plea not to give up. Every single day of our lives offer an opportunity to grow. We won’t be finished growing until we hear him say, “Come, you blessed of my Father; inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
“There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day. And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who would gladly eaten his fill of scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. Dogs even used to come and lick his sores.”
That’s how today’s parable begins. In Jesus day it was common for wealthy families to enjoy open air dining. Sometimes, their dining area, though elevated, was visible from the street. That’s the picture we’ve given as the setting for this parable.
The wealthy man loved to entertain. He loved to wear the highest quality, and most stylish clothes. Most likely, his guests did, too. He loved food, too, and was lavish in what he served. Dinner was always party time. These banquets were formal events, so people reclined on lounges around a central low-standing table. There was no silverware. People used thin slices of bread to scoop the food from the common dishes. Occasionally, food would fall to the floor only to the snatched up by the house lap dogs that had free reign of the residence.
Lazarus, a sick beggar, would lie on the side of the road watching the revelers. Not only was he suffering from the open sores on his body, he suffered the all-consuming pain of malnutrition.
Jesus then took this scene and replayed it in a spiritual plane. The scene was quite different. It
became a reverse reality revealing the inner life of each person. The rich man was suffering “torment.” In the gospels it’s often described by the phrase “wailing and gnashing of teeth.” He had imprisoned himself in an empty isolated world experiencing the horrible, incurable, suffering of regret, of missed opportunity, of failure, of soul loss. The rich man was trapped within himself. Part of his suffering was that he saw another world far off, and saw Lazarus there. Lazarus who had ascended was seated beside Abraham, the greatest of the patriarchs. The wretched, suffering man he never noticed was in glory.
Even the dogs in the rich man house reached out to Lazarus. They comforted him by licking his sores. The rich man never saw Lazarus lying along the road. The rich man never saw the sores, never saw the outlines of Lazarus’ ribs. His wealth wasn’t his problem. Loving food wasn’t his problem. Partying wasn’t his problem. He was self-absorbed. He never developed the freedom of spirit to care for others. Little by little his soul starved to death.
The moral of this parable is simple, and disturbing. If we don’t see, if we don’t feel, if we don’t care, we’ll starve to death. That’s soul loss. This spiritual principle doesn’t only apply to an individual. It’s social and communal as well. If a nation refuses to see, refuses to care, refuses to feel, it too will die. It will lose its soul.
As the gospels say, “Let the one who has ears to hear, hear.”