The day of reckoning awaits the unjust

  • September 17, 2010
26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) Sept. 26 (Amos 6:1, 4-7; Psalm 146; 1 Timothy 6:11-16; Luke 16:19-31)

Tough times are rarely equally tough for everyone. Even during the present economic crisis the sales of extreme luxury cars has actually increased. The beautiful people have continued to play, CEOs of failing companies have continued to receive fabulous bonuses and oil companies have raked in record profits.

At the same time many have lost jobs, savings, homes, businesses and self-respect. In this regard the eighth century BC — the time of Amos — is not much different from our own time. The image painted by Amos is reminiscent of many Hollywood biblical epics — staggering luxury and self-indulgence without a thought to the suffering or well-being of others. Archeologists have actually recovered some of the described objects — ivory beds and drinking bowls — so this is not something dreamed up by the prophet.

The rich and powerful in this prophecy seem oblivious to the impending disaster. The same sort of blindness and lack of awareness gripped the nobility and upper classes before the French and Russian revolutions and they were swept away in the cataclysmic events that followed.

In the case of Amos, the disaster and chastisement is dealt by a people widely hated and feared for their cruelty and ruthlessness, the Assyrians. In 722 BC they destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel and deported the upper classes to other parts of the Assyrian empire. The theme of justice is continued from last week’s passage from Amos and is found in many other places in the Old Testament.

The spiritual health of the nation is measured by how the poor and the defenseless are treated. Luxury and wealth must not be at the expense of the well-being of others and there must be an equitable distribution of the bounty of the land and the fruits of labour. It is a lesson that we are still struggling to learn. But we should know this: we live in a moral universe and injustice is not allowed to continue indefinitely — the reckoning always comes.

Wouldn’t we all like to see the tables turned and the “bad guys” get their just desserts? Luke plays on this very human desire with a vivid story that was the ancient equivalent of a fire-and-brimstone sermon. There were no Assyrians looming on the horizon but there was death, and no one escapes that.

These post-mortem justice stories were quite common in the ancient world. In fact, there is one from ancient Egypt that is very similar to the one that Luke uses. They all served to drive home an essential point: you can’t take it with you, and if you do not behave with decency, compassion and justice in this life, your wealth will be useless in the world to come. Not only that, you will pay dearly for your behaviour on Earth — so wake up!

The greedy and selfish rich man in the story is absolutely clueless. Lazarus does not even appear on his radar screen — the poor and needy are invisible, even though the pitiful poor man lies at his gate every day. He is not so much cruel as completely devoid of compassion and humanity. So he is content to continue to stuff his face while poor Lazarus starves and lives out his days in misery. But everything is turned upside-down in the afterlife. Lazarus at last has comfort and peace while the rich man is suffering torment. Now he notices Lazarus and tries to bark out orders: Bring me some water! But both his wealth and his power have run out and his pleas and orders fall on deaf ears. He must live with the choices he has made and he has created his unhappy situation. Even his entreaties to send someone to warn his brothers so that they will avoid his colossal mistake are unheeded.

The demands of justice and compassion are not new, hidden or esoteric, and they are not too difficult. They are in our religious traditions and they are taught by the great spiritual teachers and prophets of history.

We cannot plead ignorance when indifference is the problem. The passage from 1 Timothy tells us that the immortal God dwells in unapproachable light. But we only understand, know, love and finally reach this God through our very approachable fellow human beings.