This is, without a doubt, a very hard set of readings for us to
listen to. The words of Jesus and the prophet Amos seem to challenge the
very core of our existence as lower middle, middle, and upper middle class
citizens of this nation and the world.
We have to ask ourselves, "What was the sin of the rich man? The
fact that he was rich? What did he do that put him in the torment of the
netherworld after he died?
Apparently, it wasn't because he did SOMETHING. He didn't order his
security guards to have Lazarus removed from his doorway. He didn't
verbally abuse him. Jesus doesn't give us any indication that the rich man
was evil. He didn't do anything harmful to Lazarus. But that seems to be
the point of the whole parable: the rich man did nothing wrong, he simply
did NOTHING. His sin was one that is especially dangerous to those of us
who are religiously observant: the failure to observe the needs of others.
In the eyes of Jesus, the omission of good is as grave a sin as the
commission of evil. It was the complacency that Amos talked about in the
The tragedy of Sept. 11 seems to have shaken us out of our
complacency for a time. We've all opened our hearts AND our wallets to help
the families of the victims in one way or another. Our federal government
is planning on spending upwards of 40 billion dollars to help New York City
and the families affected by the tragedy recover as well as to help bail
out the airline industry. All of this is well and good. Due to
circumstances beyond their control, tens of thousands of Americans have
seen their lives and existence fall apart. An industry vital to our economy
is bleeding red ink. And we've all come together, individually and
collectively as a nation to help them in their time of need.
But what will happen when this crisis is over? Will we fall back
into the comfortableness of our moral complacency? What does it take to get
us, not only to take notice of the Lazarus' of the world, but to take
action for them? Surely the rich man noticed Lazarus lying outside his
door, although he might claim never to have seen him - just like we do -
"Well I didn't know!"
There was an article in this past week's Post-Gazette by a Matthew
Miller that pointed out there are many other situations in which even
larger numbers of people suffer through no fault of their own. He cites two
examples. In the first, he points out that 10 million urban children
languish in failing schools that we know will blight their lives. These
kids had nothing to do with the system in which they're being "educated."
In Miller's words: "Osama bin Laden couldn't have hatched a more nefarious
scheme to assure them bleak futures."
In his second example he pointed out that millions of Americans
earn poverty level wages despite working full time. The union jobs that
once gave less skilled Americans a path to the middle class are gone,
leaving many people unable to support their families even with two jobs.
Those are just two examples. I'm sure it wouldn't take long for all
of us to come up with a longer list.
But in light of today's gospel, I have to ask, how come we can
instinctively open our hearts and wallets and urge massive government
intervention in the face of this month's crisis, yet we can allow millions
of people to suffer on a long term basis with barely any public outcry - or
at least none that is consistant or intense enough to do anything serious
about it. Just think how tall we could stand in the eyes of the world - and
of God - if we, as a people and as a nation, could become as galvanized in
repairing the greater, but less visible, ills of our nation once this
current crisis has passed; if we could harness this current spirit of
togetherness and put it in the service of building an even more perfect
Or will the words of Amos come back to haunt us: "Woe to the
complacent in Zion! Lying upon beds of ivory, stretched comfortably on
their couches, they eat lambs taken from the flock, and calves from the
stall! Improvising to the music of the harp."
Speaking of improvising to the music of the harp, Chris and I took
a trip to Cleveland a week or so ago to see the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
(How's that for a segueway?) There's probably something of interest there
for anyone who came of age during the last fifty years or so. But the
exhibits are all kind of a sanitized version of rock and roll, all prettied
up for public and rated "G" for family consumption. It focuses mostly on
the music itself and the musical influences that came together to create
all the different genres of rock that we're familiar with today. And I
guess that's as it should be given the mission of the place, but it seems
to me future generations would benefit by knowing something of the lives of
excess that ended many a musical career way too soon.
But that's not why I bring this up. Before I left for Cleveland I
had been doing some research on another popular young man who came from a
wealthy family. He liked to sing and party and carouse around with his
buddies and, like many of the artists enshrined next to Lake Erie,
experienced war, and like them, it had a profound influence on his life. He
took this gospel we heard today and lived it in a most radical way,
renouncing his wealth and living with the poor and outcasts of society.
This man is a saint whose feast day we are going to celebrate this week.
Now up at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the top two floors are
devoted to a special exhibit honoring an artist that was always a favorite
of mine. Although he didn't become wealthy until later in life, he too
liked to sing and did his share of partying and carousing around. He also
didn't like what he saw in war (though he never fought in one himself) and
like the other man, it influenced his music and his life. But certainly not
to the radical degree of the first man. Yet, if our secular culture could
have saints, this man would be a secular saint. In fact, his exhibit was
sort of like going to see his "relics." You could look through a piece of
protective glass at an unopened paper bag that held his clothes and
possessions the day he was "martyred." You could see his wedding clothes,
his leather jacket and his many glasses. They had his bed, some of his
report cards, guitars and pianos, many of his original handwritten lyrics
and some of the outfits he wore when he was with the Beatles. Of course I'm
talking about John Lennon. The saint whose feast day we're gonna celebrate
this week is St. Francis of Assisi.
After the tragedy of Sept. 11 people around the country wanted to
hear Lennon's song "Imagine." Most of you know it: "Imagine there's no
heaven, it's easy if you try, no hell below us, above us only sky. Imagine
no possesions, it's easy if you can, no need for greed or hunger, a
brotherhood of man."
I noticed that there's a great deal of difference between that and
the famous prayer of St. Francis: "Lord, make me an instrument of your
peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; where there is injury,
pardon; where there is doubt, faith; where there is despair, let me sow
hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. Lennon's
song doesn't challenge us PERSONALLY. It makes no demands on us to change
so that the world might change. It's kind of a pie-in-the-sky, dreamer,
kind of thing that, even if we can accomplish this utopian world at all,
suggests that we can do it ourselves and even be better off if God were
left out of the picture entirely.
Francis, on the other hand, invokes the Lord, praying for HIS
peace, a greater peace than we could ever know ourselves and he not only
imagined no possesions, he stripped off all his fashionable clothes,
renounced his family and walked out of town buck naked to live with the
poorest of the poor.
Lennon only takes us so far into his utopian vision of peace,
musing about a world of peace as we lie complacently on our couches with
full stomachs and listening to music. We, as a society, can be comfortable
with that vision.
Francis leads us to the extreme, challenging us to change ourselves
and therefore the world around us so that we'll know God's peace in eternal
Most of us here probably find ourselves somewhere in the middle,
somewhere between being comfortable and total self-giving. With the current
crisis we probably find ourselves leaning toward Francis' challenge to
become God's instruments of peace, but where will our hearts be when this
crisis is over?