Graphic by David Chen

We are always our brother’s keeper

  • September 15, 2016

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) Sept. 25 (Amos 6:1a, 4-7; Psalm 146; 1 Timothy 6:11-16; Luke 16:19-31)

The absence of love is indifference, and it is indifference that will bring our world low if we are not more heedful of divine law. 

Continuing the theme of severe economic injustice, the prophet Amos rails against the ostentatious luxury of the upper classes in both Judea and the Northern Kingdom of Israel. It is an old story, repeated throughout history: gross inequalities of power and resources, large scale corruption and brutal regimes. The upper classes had all the luxuries they could ever desire and then some: food, drink, comfort and leisure. The masses of poor below them, on the other hand, had very little of these things if at all. The luxuries were squeezed from those who toiled and were caught in a crushing economic web. To make matters far worse, the elite didn’t even care. The plight of others didn’t even register in their minds and hearts; they lived in a cozy world of their own. 

Amos delivered the bad news: they would be the first to go into exile at the hands of the Assyrians. There would be no singing or revelry then. In a way, this prophetic image also speaks to our own situation. It describes the relative indifference of the wealthier nations of our world towards the poorer ones. Historically, the more developed nations have enjoyed their relative luxury, at least in part, at the expense of poorer nations and colonies. But even within our own societies, great inequality and injustice is widespread. So many lose homes or jobs in hard economic times, while many corporations post record profits. Many find themselves crushed by debt, taxes and skyrocketing prices. But the high-end condos continue to rise, and luxury car dealerships do a thriving business. The social ills that we decry — violence, crime, divorce, addiction — are at least in part related to the pressures of economic inequality, which breeds anger, hopelessness and irresponsibility. Far more than simple charity is asked of us — the call is to build a just and humane society where people are more important than profits. This is terribly threatening to those at the top of the heap. The late Brazilian Archbishop Dom Helder Camara observed wryly that when he fed the poor, people called him a saint, but when he asked why they were poor, they called him a communist. 

The author of 2 Timothy also lived in an unjust and oppressive society. He urged his audience not to forget why they were here, and to remember who was in ultimate control of all things. The blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, dwells with God in unapproachable light but is deeply concerned with our well-being. It is He that will grant us immortality, and it is He for whom we wait. In the meantime, we are to remain focused on the love, holiness and justice to which God constantly calls us. 

The story of the rich man and Lazarus resembles many morality stories from the ancient world that are rich and poor reversal tales. The point is clear: how you treat the poor in this life will follow you into the next. In the story, a rich man gorges himself every day, far beyond necessity, all within sight of a wretchedly poor and starving man. The rich man exercised the worst form of cruelty: he utterly ignored Lazarus. As far as he was concerned, Lazarus didn’t even exist. After death, he found himself in a place of torment, burning up with thirst. Lazarus was far off, in comfort, reclining with Abraham. The rich man’s arrogance had survived death — he wanted to order Lazarus to bring him some water, but Abraham refused his request and explained why. He had created his current situation through his heartless indifference. Abraham even refused the rich man’s plea to warn his brothers so they would not suffer the same fate. Abraham replied that they had the law and the prophets, which was sufficient. 

No one can plead ignorance of the demands of justice and compassion — they are enshrined in all the major religious traditions. After Cain’s murder of his brother, God asked him where his brother was. Cain asked with studied innocence, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” From Genesis to Revelation, God’s answer is a clear and unqualified “Yes!”