Twenty Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
I believe it is true to say that there are certain street corners in cities of our country that we may remember with discomfort. It may not be the street corner itself we remember but rather the individuals who felt constrained by the circumstances of their lives to stand on that corner holding up a cardboard sign with the words: Broke. Will Work For Anything.
There was such a busy corner that I remember very clearly as I drove to work each morning in Anchorage, Alaska. Most of the people standing on that corner were Native Alaskans or transients from other states who found it very difficult to secure the sort of work that would support them and their families. I dreaded stopping on that intersection to offer a handout, fearing the blaring of horns from the traffic stacking up behind me. Nonetheless, as I reflect on the people standing on that corner asking for help, I must admit sadly that I gradually got used to it, becoming complacent, even hoping that they might not be there on this day or that the light would remain green long enough for me to easily squeeze through. A shameful admission, I fully admit now.
I must also admit, however, that, unlike the folks standing on that corner, I myself have never been truly poor at any time in my entire life. I have not lived luxuriously, of course, but, at the same time, I have never needed to worry about where I would find my next meal. I have also found it comforting to appease my conscience over the years by helping the needy in whatever way I can.
What does continue to bother me considerably, however is a growing sense of self-complacency: it does not seem to trouble me very much, for instance, that there are many people in the very city where I live who are going hungry every day. Oddly, the fact that I have enough to get along on each day seems to smother my concern for the plight of others. Could it be possible that this may even be a common attitude gradually growing among many people in our country today who need not worry about their future? True or not, it does not seem to assuage my own personal embarrassment.
Having made my personal “act of contrition,” let me turn now to the scriptures for this Twenty Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, that speak so graphically of complacency. The first reading comes to us from the writings of Amos, the 8th Century BC prophet, and a man who felt no hesitancy in pointing out the exaggerated lifestyles of his own people. He paints a vivid picture of conspicuous consumption: beds of ivory, consuming the finest wines, eating specially prepared meats, entertaining themselves with the finest music available. Interestingly, the prophet does not make a personal censure of individual people. He simply uses these glaring examples to point out how embarrassing their lifestyles are to the poor in their very midst. You have become so complacent in the way that you live, says Amos, that you do not even realize that there are poor people living right next door. “Woe to the complacent,” says Amos.
The point Amos is insisting on here is actually a much broader issue, namely that the rich and the unconcerned are actually a threat to the very land of Israel itself.
If we were to draw a contemporary illustration, we could find it in Laudato Si, the pope’s recent instruction on the environment He draws a comparison to the words of the Prophet Amos when he writes “There is an intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet…everything in the world is connected.”
Finally, we come to another graphic story of complacency in Luke’s gospel, the well-known tale of Lazarus the poor man who happens to be lying at the doorstep of a rich man. The disproportion again is overwhelming: the rich man is dressed in finest purple and linen, he feasts on the finest food every day. Lazarus, on the contrary, lies at the gate, ill and starving. Eventually, both men die. The beggar is welcomed into the arms of father Abraham. The rich man finds himself in the flames of punishment, calling out to Abraham for consolation. Too late Abraham replies; the chasm that you created in the world between yourself and the poor man continues even now. Once again, however, as in the earlier story, the author does not criticize the riches as such but rather the chasm they cause between the rich and the poor.
All I can say at this point is that the sight of those people standing on that street corner in Anchorage so long ago still cause me shame, but happily the two stories I have just shared with you have gradually been helping me close the chasm.
Amos 6: 1a, 4-7
1 Timothy 6: 11-16
Luke 16: 19-33