26 Sunday of Ordinary Time


Commentary on Amos 6:1a,4-7, 1Timothy 6:11-16 and Luke 16:19-31

TO SOME PEOPLE the story in today’s Gospel may seem quite unfair. A successful man, indicated by the prosperity of his surroundings, is buried in hell. A snivelling beggar, who may have never done a day’s work in his life, ends up in Abraham’s bosom. Is this Christian teaching?

To understand this story properly may involve a radical change in the way we – and the society we belong to – normally thinks. And, importantly for those who wish to be truly Christian, it will involve learning some of the values of Jesus, of the Gospel.

We live in a world which praises achievement and has little time for failure. It starts right in kindergarten with the very first school report. We live in a society, which says people deserve everything they are able to work for and acquire. The materially successful (and in our society is there any other kind of success?) are sometimes heard to say that, if anyone else did what they did, they could be billionaires too. The emphasis is not on what people are but what they can do and on what they can acquire with what they do. How they get it or what the consequences may be for others is not regarded as of great importance.

Another distortion

For us Christians, often as deeply infected with these ideas as anyone, there is another distortion as well. Our way of living our faith can be very individualistic and self-centred. The emphasis is on personal salvation (“saving my soul”) and that is achieved by being a morally good person. Morally good means avoiding actions which are ethically wrong, such as, failing to worship God in the “official” way, committing violent actions against others, behaving in a sexually immoral way (we coyly use the word “impure”), stealing things from people, gossiping maliciously about others, being jealous, envious, angry, resentful… and so on. Seldom in confession do people say: “I was not a loving person” but that they broke rules and disappointed themselves. Seldom do people confess the harm that their sins caused in others. I have never heard a person confess to cheating on taxes, although this is one of the chief ways in which people fail to express solidarity for the less well-off in their community.

As long as I am not aware of doing any of these things, or at least, not doing them in a serious way (“mortal sin”), then I am a “good” person and, if I am a Catholic, then I am “quite a good” Catholic (no need to exaggerate!).

However, this is not really the picture that the Gospel today describes. If we were to base our judgements on the above image of the “good Catholic”, then there was really nothing much wrong with the rich man. All he did was to enjoy his wealth and his good food, his big house, his fashionable and expensive clothes. He did not seem to do any harm to the poor man. He did not drive him away or use abusive language towards him. The rich man was, in fact, quite “charitable”. The poor man was welcome to any of the (surplus) food that fell from the table.

The rich man (and some of us) might ask why the poor man did not just get up and see a doctor about those ulcers on his leg and then go and do a proper day’s work. We have no idea how the rich man became rich. Perhaps he was born into a rich family and inherited his wealth; perhaps it was the result of working long hours over many years. Why should such a man be punished? And, even more strangely, why should the beggar be rewarded?

Why love the poor

Someone has said that God loves the poor, not because they are good, but simply because they are poor, where “poor” means deprived of what is necessary to live a fully human life.

Can we say also that God does not love the rich, not because they are bad, but simply because they are rich? Does one hear cries of “Unfair!”? “What’s wrong with being rich? Everyone wants to be rich and prosperous.” “Just look at the numbers buying lottery tickets every week!” “The rich are people too; they have souls.” “I thought God loves everyone without exception.” And so on.

But is it so unfair? Who is really being unfair? What does “rich” really mean? Indeed that rich man in the parable may have worked very hard to get his money, perhaps he was a good family man who loved his wife and was a good father to his children. Perhaps he went faithfully to the synagogue every Sabbath and observed all the regulations of the Sabbath day. He may have been seen as a very pillar of his community. Yet…as long as that poor man lay uncared for at his feet, the rich man was totally condemned.

Because he did not know what justice means. He did not know what love means. He did not know what a truly human society means. He did not know what religion means.

And perhaps there are thousands of us just like him in the Catholic Church here and all over the world.

Of course, one may say to oneself: “Jesus is not talking about me. I could not be regarded as rich. I am just a tax-paying fixed salary earner.” No, but is such a person looking anxiously to move in the direction of wealth? Does such a person dream of striking it big on the national lottery? Does one dream of finding a short cut to making a killing on the stock exchange some day?

Relativity of wealth

As an individual in our society, I may not (yet) be regarded as rich and we all belong to a society which is regarded as rather prosperous today. But, like most other rich communities, we are living in a society where wealth is very unevenly divided. There are many social problems in our midst affecting both rich and poor. Every social problem is a form of deprivation, a denial of full human living and hence poverty in Gospel terms.

How aware am I of these problems? How aware am I that I am somehow responsible for their elimination? What, in practice, am I contributing to the removal of these problems? Being a personally “good Catholic” is hardly enough.

Again, a lot of our community’s wealth comes from buying and selling to countries of the Third or developing world, where millions continue to live in poverty. Would we dare to say that there is no exploitation going on in our trading practices – perhaps by the very company I work for or companies whose goods I buy? How come our society continues to grow in prosperity while theirs gets deeper and deeper in debt? Is it really only a question of mismanagement and “laziness” on their part?

The rich countries of the North (which include some Asian countries and Australia-New Zealand) sit at their groaning table in purple and silk with champagne and caviar, while the poor of Asia and Africa and Latin America, covered in the wounds of deprivation and exploitation, are shut out. We constantly pat ourselves on the back and look forward to the day when our material standard of living surpasses that of Switzerland or Luxembourg. Is that what we really want to aim at?

Excuses too late

The rich man made the excuse (when it was too late) that he did not realise what was going on. His brothers (also rich?) did not realise either. Let them be warned, he pleaded. Even in hell, the rich man could still only think of his own family and not of all the others to whom he was responsible.

It would be no use warning them, Jesus said. They would not listen every if someone rose from the dead. Ironic words indeed. Jesus has risen from the dead this 2,000 years and how many of us have taken in the message of the Gospel about wealth and poverty? Not a great many, it must be said.

The table with food

One final point. Central to the story is the table laden with food. This is both the symbol of the Kingdom and also points to our Eucharistic table, which we dare to approach every Sunday. If we saw our Sunday Mass in terms of today’s Gospel, we might be more hesitant. We might be less smug about sharing the food of the Lord’s table – even every day.

The rich man made no move whatever to share what he had at the table. He could have done so at either of two levels. First, he could have seen to it that the poor man had enough to eat and he might even have gone further and “donated” medical treatment. This is the level of “charity”, the level most of us feel good about doing. But it is not yet the Gospel.

In the second level, neither of the men can be regarded as rich or poor. They sit down together at the same table and they give and receive and share on a footing of equal dignity the meal and the food. It is quite irrelevant whether one of them is more intelligent, more active, more enterprising, more healthy. What is important is that each cares deeply for the other and sees that the needs of each are taken care of with the resources available. Strangely enough, the poor are usually much better at that than the rich. Which makes one wonder, who in the world are the really rich, enriched and enriching?

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