Fifty-fourth in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: Amos 6:1a, 4-7; 1 Timothy 6;11-16; Luke 16:19-31
“Compete well for the faith,” Saint Paul writes to his disciple and fellow bishop Timothy in our Second Reading. It may seem an odd turn of phrase; those of us enjoying relatively comfortable lives full of first-world problems don’t often think of our religious faith as something for which we have to compete (Greek agonizein, from agon, conflict or contest – and from which we get the word “agony”). And yet, we know instinctively that we have to fight for the things we believe in sometimes, especially when confronted with people – and maybe desires – that push against those beliefs that we hold to be of prime importance. We do this in our families, in our careers, in our politics, and in many other areas of this world that we know passes away. Why should it be any different for what we believe about our eternal life? And what does it say about our beliefs when we let them get knotted up by our inaction?
In our First Reading, the prophet Amos continues his warnings and reproaches against the Kingdom of Israel, in the decades just before the capture of Samaria and the fall of the north. From his first words, Amos may as well be directing his message to us: “Woe to the complacent!” Those who become too comfortable in their fortunate lot in life fail to challenge even themselves, so when the world starts to cave in around them they’re in no position to defend anyone, including themselves. How many of us spend too much time “stretched comfortably on [our] couches,” eating and drinking and perfuming ourselves and yet “not made ill by the collapse” right outside our doors, right in front of our eyes? How many times have we sat on our resources and just done nothing – not a lot, but even a little done by a lot – to alleviate the suffering and poverty and loneliness that surrounds us? And so when the kingdom falls, the prophets warns, these complacent ones “will be the first to go into exile.” This isn’t simply a physical condemnation, but an emotional and spiritual one as well; every luxury in which they clearly put their faith will be stripped away from them, and they will find God curiously absent because they have sent him away.
One of the most striking examples of this attitude comes to us from today’s Gospel reading, in which Jesus relates the famous parable of the rich man, whom tradition calls Dives (meaning wealthy in Latin), and the beggar Lazarus, who longed for even the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. Both worship the same God, are subject to the same Law, and have received the same prophetic tradition. But both live out that faith in different ways. Dives can’t seem to focus on anything beyond his own dinner table, let alone his front steps, and Lazarus lives with dogs as companions and with a hope awaiting realization. After death the rich man found himself in torment in the netherworld, separated from all he held dear, while the beggar found his comfort at last with Abraham. There is even a great abyss that separates where Dives is from where Lazarus is; the rich man never wanted anything to do with the beggar in this world, and will continue not to have anything to with him in the next. But the rich man’s horror only fully dawns as he begs Abraham to send the spirit of Lazarus to his five brothers who still live, to warn them about the dangers of being complacent and selfish with wealth. He argues that there will added weight to the law of Moses and the warnings of the prophets if someone from the dead would go speak to them. The response that Jesus has Abraham give speaks to us too, and to all who would bear the name of Christian: “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.”
We are not called to be simply nice people; if we were we wouldn’t need God, let alone the Cross. We are called to be people of mercy. We are called to be people who give of ourselves impartially, who facilitate reconciliation between Man and God, who wish to see all lives saved for eternal life just as ours have been saved. This is the point Saint Paul tries to drive home to Timothy in the Second Reading: “But you, man of God, pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience and gentleness.” This is what it means to compete for the faith: to pursue these virtues, to learn to rely on God for strength, and to teach others how to do the same. To “keep the commandment without stain or reproach” doesn’t mean never losing the fight, but it does mean suiting up and going into the ring time and time again. You can’t “[l]ay hold of eternal life” unless you reach out for it. We do that when we reach towards Lazarus and invite him up to the table. We do that when we open our eyes, get up off the couch, and read the signs of the times. We do that when we make friends with dishonest wealth instead of enslaving ourselves to it. We do that, quite simply, when we love our neighbor as ourselves.
As I made my way through these readings, a line from The West Wing came to my mind: “It’s not the [battles] we lose that bother me… It’s the ones we don’t suit up for!” Let’s not let fear of losing keep us from getting in the ring and competing; in this sort of fight, even if we lose we win.