Homily for the 18th Sunday After Pentecost, Sept. 26, 2010
Today’s readings are about things we don’t want to see, and how God finds ways to confront and challenge us to face the truth about our fears to find a deeper level of meaning and security in a life of faith.
In the first reading, Jeremiah is locked away in jail, even as the prophecies he made about the fall of Jerusalem are coming true.
In the Gospel reading, Jesus teaches about a rich man who hardened his heart so he wouldn’t notice, or feel guilty, about a sick and homeless man who languished at the rich man’s gate.
And in the Epistle reading, Paul teaches a young church leader that as attractive as it may look, being worldly and powerful is a very dangerous way, that “those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires.” In other words, we can easily become blind to the dangers of ambition, envy and greed, and lose sight of the virtue of living a modest and sustainable life.
The famous priest-activist Daniel Berrigan said: “The opposite of love is not hatred but indifference.” This is the indifference that expresses itself as apathy, complacency, lack of concern, ethical inertia, and hardness of heart. Indifference says “I don’t care” in the face of pressing need and suffering. Indifference says, “It’s not my problem” while the community and the environment around us disintegrates. Christianity teaches another way, and that can be uncomfortable at times.
If you take the New Testament at all seriously you can’t avoid the message that if you put anything (any THING) ahead of God in your priorities and loves, you are choosing to diminish the fullness of life for yourself and those around you. Actually, you can avoid it (and many do), by ignoring the Gospel, by refusing to pay attention to it, and by distancing yourself from its painful truth the way the rich man distanced himself from the man at his gate.
Why was the rich man condemned? Not because he was rich but because he shut the door in the face of someone in need – he ignored someone right at his door and became indifferent, cold, uncaring – when it was in his power to do something for this man. The rich man was condemned also, and equally seriously, because in closing his heart to the poor man, he became poor himself – poor in spirit, poor in compassion. You can’t behave that way, that is, you can’t develop that harsh and callous approach, without shrivelling your own soul, and that is ultimately destructive not only to the strangers outside your gate but to those near you, as today’s Gospel suggests. The rich man’s poverty is deadlier, because, as Jesus tells it, the rich man’s entire family end up trapped in a hell of their own making. It was not like God condemned them to be there; they chose to be there.
We have all run into people who for one reason or another have become heartless, unfeeling, and seem to have lost the human touch – who seem to live without any regard for what happens to people or the planet – but pay a lot of attention to their bank accounts and investments and possessions.
Jesus teaches about a rich guy who, on a daily basis, can find it in himself to walk past a man who has nothing, perhaps initially working out some clever justifications for their relative positions in life, but eventually becoming virtually blind to the fact that the poor man is there at all. It’s a situation people in every society can understand, but Jesus extends the story to its ultimate conclusion, speculating on what happens to the souls of people who choose such a path. Choosing to live for personal gratification, and without any sense of consequences of our choices, may look good in the moment, but the warning in the story is that it gradually isolates us within this hell of our own making, and creates a gap between us and others that is virtually impossible to overcome.
As the parable suggests so truly, often it is too late that people realize the ugly hole they have dug for themselves, and what hard, unloving and isolated people they have become, all because they chose to make money and success their “god,” and rejected God’s appeal and opportunity, in the presence of the marginalized, to become kind and loving.
St Paul advises Timothy: “As for those who … are rich, command them not to be arrogant, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything we need.” We all have choices about how we choose to understand God and the meaning and value and purpose of life. In any given society, there’s always an underlying theology that suggests that wealthy people are the ones blessed by God, or the universe, or whatever people call it, while the poor are somehow bad or deserving of their fate. Some individuals and even societies develop such a hostility toward the poor and the weak that they not only refuse to help them but create harsh laws that allow the have’s never to have to come face-to-face with the have-not’s.
We can see that scenario in our own time, and we can also see it beginning to unravel, as it becomes harder and harder to avoid the needs, the claims and the physical presence, of those who once were invisible, outside our gates.
One of the important things that the people of Israel were obliged to learn by experience, was what it meant to be in the place of the victim, as well as on the side of the victor. Their tradition constantly reminded them that they, too, had once been enslaved, and oppressed.
Jesus’ teaching is completely counter-intuitive, and counter-cultural, as he teaches that we must identify with the poor, and not with the rich and powerful. Our ambition is to discover the kingdom of God, which is meant to include and appreciate everyone. To be attached to things, positions, or status, or fixed on one way of life, can not only burden us and restrict our freedom, but blind us to the virtues of other ways of being. Jesus taught that we gain nothing from loving those who are exactly the same as us, and urges us to love our enemies, and invite the poor into our fellowship, because he knew that our lives are enriched and stretched when we push past the limitations and conventions created by fear, ignorance and complacency.
In our time there has been a definite shift in the focus of Christian teaching from mere sympathy and token charity to challenging the system, challenging the attitudes and structures that allow injustices and inequities that favour certain people and condemn and marginalize others. If you read the Gospels, and then picture those scenarios in the situations around you, I think you will discover that in virtually every situation you imagine, you will always find Jesus standing beside the poor and the rejected, not pitying them, but relating to them, honouring them, loving them, and giving them a new lease on life.
We are so blessed! We live in a country, at a time in history, which affords us a vastly better standard of living than almost everyone who has ever lived, and better than 80% of the people on the planet now. It’s worth celebrating, and it’s important to resist the temptation to selfishness, entitlement and indifference. It’s not that we don’t deserve a good life; it’s that “they” do as well. As St. Paul said, “if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these.”
I’ve always identified with people who are shoved to the margins, who are feared, misunderstood, unappreciated and rejected, simply because they don’t fit the conventions and fads of the moment, and because people choose to be blind to the goodness and light that is in them. You may remember a movie call The Elephant man, which was the re-telling of the true story of John Merrick, who was afflicted by a disfiguring disease. His head especially, but also his whole body, expect for his left arm, was covered by huge tumours. He was thrown out in the streets by his own family, unable to work because people mocked him so much, ended up being an exhibit in what they used to call a “freak show,” and later as a kind of lab specimen for curious medical students. A young man in his 20’s, he was consigned to the margins and shadows of society, and would only venture out at night, wearing a bag over his head. One pivotal scene in the movie shows him being pursued through the streets by a mob of curious mockers, and he finally turns on them and screams, “I am not an animal! I am a human being!” The Gospel urges us to examine why we push certain people away from us, and to re-dedicate ourselves to a more compassionate and considerate life.
To begin to see, to be willing to look at reality and not be hypnotized by the materialistic fantasies of our culture, is the beginning of enlightenment, the beginning of the new creation, the rebirth, that is God’s gifts to all who will receive it. It enables us to see ourselves in others, and also the image of God in them. Mother Teresa, a modern-day saint, prophetically urged people to learn how to see Christ in the faces of the poor, despite his “distressing disguise.” She also said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”
According to the Gospels, at the judgement, the righteous will answer Christ: “’Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family,* you did it to me’” (see Matthew Ch. 25).
Jesus urges us to pay attention to the fear and insecurity which push us into alienation from one another and from the creation itself, and work to heal the spiritual poverty of division and isolation. According to the Gospel, an essential goal of the Christian life is working to bridge the gaps that alienation creates, before they become impassable.
RCL appointed readings: Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15 The word that came to Jeremiah from the LORD in the tenth year of King Zedekiah of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadrezzar. At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and the prophet Jeremiah was confined in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah, where King Zedekiah of Judah had confined him. Jeremiah said, The word of the LORD came to me: Hanamel son of your uncle Shallum is going to come to you and say, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.” Then my cousin Hanamel came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the LORD, and said to me, “Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself.” Then I knew that this was the word of the LORD. And I bought the field at Anathoth from my cousin Hanamel, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions, and the open copy; and I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of my cousin Hanamel, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard. In their presence I charged Baruch, saying, Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware jar, in order that they may last for a long time. For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.
1 Timothy 6:6-19 Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains. But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life, to which you were called and for which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. In the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep the commandment without spot or blame until the manifestation of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will bring about at the right time–he who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords. It is he alone who has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see; to him be honor and eternal dominion. Amen. As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.
Luke 16:19-31 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried. In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side. He called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.’ He said, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house– for I have five brothers–that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.’
Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.’ He said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.'”