It's always time for ethical action

  • September 25, 2007

Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C), Sept. 30 (Amos 6:1, 4-7; Psalm 146; 1 Timothy 6:11-16; Luke 16:19-31)

The scene of decadence painted by the prophet Amos resembles an old Hollywood Bible movie. It is interesting that most prophetic tirades focus on economic injustice and ill-treatment of the poor and vulnerable. While that is certainly a major part of this denunciation, its main concern is the way the wealthy and political elite of the Northern Kingdom of Israel are living.

In particular, their sin is living that way and not grieving for the decline and imminent demise of their nation. Their sin is one of indifference and self-absorption, for they have used their wealth to insulate themselves from the plight of the poor in their land.

There is another layer to that sin: self-deception. Their wealth gave them a false sense of security. Security should have come from acting with a sense of justice and being right with God. Within a generation moral and spiritual corruption had taken their toll and the Kingdom of Israel was invaded and destroyed by the brutal Assyrians.

The warning is also applicable to modern nations. Power and wealth can make many people tone deaf to the cries of the poor and those who are ground up by the system. An addiction to a high standard of living and what we consider to be essential for happiness can make that callousness even more acute.

Dom Helder Câmara, former archbishop of Recife and champion of the poor, once remarked that when he fed the hungry, people called him a saint, but when he asked why they were hungry, they called him a Communist. The reason is more than just greed; it is the absence of love and the rule of the ego. There is more than enough on this earth for everyone, if we practise generosity and sharing. Beyond that, we would experience the happiness and transformation that results from generosity and love.

The author of Timothy gives us a clue on how we can accomplish that: pursuing righteousness, godliness, faith, love and gentleness. All of these qualities are expressed in how we treat others, especially those in need. There can really be no holiness in splendid isolation or in avoidance of others. Jesus alone possesses immortality and He dwells with God in unapproachable light. But by living in constant pursuit of these qualities, we can in a sense be there with Him even while we are still on the way.

“If only I had known!” is the lament of many who find themselves suffering the negative consequences of their actions. But if they had known, would their behaviour have been any different? The rich man in Luke’s story is much like the people in the first reading. His face is buried in the trough so deeply that he does not notice or care about the plight of Lazarus the beggar. The beggar dies, then the rich man, who finds himself in Hades in torment and thirst while Lazarus is with Abraham.

The rich man, used to throwing his weight around, begins barking orders: Lazarus is to bring him something to drink. But now the rude shock: his script is no good in Hades; in fact, he is now the one who is powerless and suffering.

The rich man’s plea that someone be sent to his relatives to warn them so they will not suffer the same fate is met with flat refusal. They have their warning in the form of their tradition: Moses and the prophets. Beyond that, nothing is required — and nothing is possible. To those whose hearts are withered, even someone returning from the dead would not make much of an impression. But for those who listen to the law of God written on the hearts, regardless of their beliefs or religious tradition, no proof or warning is necessary.

Dom Helder Câmara put it well: “It is very easy at Mass to say, ‘Peace be with you’ to the person standing next to you; but after that we each go home and the other person is forgotten. If the other people were really our brothers and sisters and we knew they were ill, in misery, perhaps even dying of hunger, we would do all we possibly could for them and more...”

We stand or fall together. The time for positive ethical action is always now.