Sep 29, 2019: 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

1st Reading – Amos 6:1a, 4-7

Thus says the LORD the God of hosts:
Woe to the complacent in Zion!
Lying upon beds of ivory,
stretched comfortably on their couches,
they eat lambs taken from the flock,
and calves from the stall!
Improvising to the music of the harp,
like David, they devise their own accompaniment.
They drink wine from bowls
and anoint themselves with the best oils;
yet they are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph!
Therefore, now they shall be the first to go into exile,
and their wanton revelry shall be done away with.

In our first reading from Amos, the great prophet of justice is warning the Israelites that their rich lifestyle and their neglect of the poor will result in their experiencing political defeat.

Woe to the complacent in Zion!

The prophet’s condemnation could not be more severe.  He pronounces “Woe!” upon the people — only funeral dirges begin in this way.  The use of such denunciation denotes the degree of the prophet’s disdain: he believes the degenerate nature of his audience indicates that real life has died in them, and so a dirge is appropriate.

Note that he denounces not wealth itself, but the complacency that often accompanies it.

Lying upon beds of ivory,

The specific aspect of their lives that Amos censures is their habit of self-indulgence at feasts.  They lounge on elegant couches luxuriously appointed with costly inlaid ivory.

stretched comfortably on their couches,

Their posture on these couches offers great comfort and encourages them to spend a long time dining.

They eat lambs taken from the flock, and calves from the stall!

The opulence of their surroundings is matched by their menu.  A diet of meat was a rarity in ancient Israel.  Animals constituted the livelihood of most of the people, not their food.  They were important as a means of transportation or as work animals.  They produced the wool and the milk so necessary for life; only rarely was their flesh part of a meal.

Because of the sacred importance of the life-blood of any living thing, the slaughter of animals was considered a religious act.  Here the rich dine on the meat of lambs and calves, the very animals used for sacrifice, so chosen because their meat is tender.

Improvising to the music of the harp, like David, they devise their own accompaniment.

Musical entertainment was provided at meals. With deep sarcasm, Amos mocks their banquet music by comparing it to King David’s, whose music praised God.

They drink wine from bowls and anoint themselves with the best oils;

Nothing is said about the attire of the people who are feasting, but mention is made of the costly oils with which they anoint themselves.  Such perfuming was both a cosmetic practice and a sexual stimulation.

But perhaps the most excessive example of dissolute dining is their manner of drinking wine. Not content to sip from goblets, they guzzle from bowls.  One can only imagine the results of such drinking.

yet they are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph!

After going to great lengths to describe the dissolute character of the wealthy, in contrast, Amos describes the condition of the entire nation with a simple but piercing phrase: “the collapse of Joseph,” a reference to the northern kingdom.  (Since Joseph was the ancestor of the tribes of Ephriam and Manasseh, members of these tribes were frequently referred to as the “sons of Joseph”, or simply “Joseph.”)

Amos is distressed because the affluent entertain themselves with wantonness while the social structure of the northern kingdom of Israel disintegrates.

Therefore, now they shall be the first to go into exile, and their wanton revelry shall be done away with.

The indulgent lifestyle of the idle rich will be cut short, and in an ironic turn of events, those who always thought of themselves first will be the first to be deported into exile. Their inattention to the poor around them will bring about their doom.

2nd Reading – 1 Timothy 6:11-16

But you, man of God, pursue righteousness,
devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.
Compete well for the faith.
Lay hold of eternal life, to which you were called
when you made the noble confession in the presence of many witnesses.
I charge you before God, who gives life to all things,
and before Christ Jesus,
who gave testimony under Pontius Pilate for the noble confession,
to keep the commandment without stain or reproach
until the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ
that the blessed and only ruler
will make manifest at the proper time,
the King of kings and Lord of lords,
who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light,
and whom no human being has seen or can see.
To him be honor and eternal power. Amen.

Today we finish our study of Paul’s first letter to Timothy.  With a personal message, Paul calls Timothy to the responsibilities any Christian would have assumed upon initiation into the Church; however, he expects that Timothy will fulfill them in ways that reflect his pastoral office.

But you, man of God,

The passage begins with an emphatic “But you,” implying that the life to which Paul summons Timothy is in sharp contrast to the lives lived by some unidentified others. The verse immediately before this passage: For the love of money is the root of all evils, and some people in their desire for it have strayed from the faith and have pierced themselves with many pains.

Timothy is a “man of God” in the sense that he has been called to a specific ministry of leadership in the church.  It is a title applied to Moses and the prophets (Deuteronomy 33:1; 1 Samuel 2:27; 1 Kings 12:22, 13:1).

However, Timothy is also a man of God in the sense that he is among the baptized.

pursue righteousness,

The righteousness Timothy is called to pursue is right conduct in human affairs. His position demands total dedication to God and faultless witness to Christ.

devotion,

Devotion is openness to the will of God.

faith, 

Faith is an attitude of trust in God.

love,

Love is benevolence and goodwill toward others.

patience,

Patience, or endurance, is staying power.

and gentleness.

Gentleness is the kind of meekness that will inherit the earth.

Compete well for the faith. Lay hold of eternal life,

Paul employs an image from athletic competition to illustrate the struggle that faithfulness often entails.  He is to perform energetically in order to grasp the prize of eternal life.

This is not to suggest Paul thought one could earn eternal life. Rather, he is working here with a metaphor that, in this particular case, cannot adequately represent both the incomparable desirability and the transcendent character of eternal life.

to which you were called when you made the noble confession in the presence of many witnesses.

A reference to the profession of faith made at baptism.

I charge you before God, who gives life to all things, and before Christ Jesus, who gave testimony under Pontius Pilate for the noble confession, to keep the commandment without stain or reproach

Paul underscores the seriousness of his admonitions, charging Timothy before God and before Christ to obey the commandments.

until the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ that the blessed and only ruler will make manifest at the proper time,

The word used here for Christ’s glorious manifestation is epipháneia, which denotes divine self-disclosure.  Here, it is probably a reference to the Second Coming.

When this great event will transpire is known only by God.

the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, and whom no human being has seen or can see. To him be honor and eternal power. Amen.

This final doxology in praise of God is Hellenistic Jewish in inspiration: the epithets applied to God all come from Jewish tradition and extol the universal and singular authority of God.

The phraseology and structure suggest that these verses were taken from an ancient Christian hymn.

“He, the framer of all creation and maker of our race, became man for our sake, and coming from a holy Virgin’s womb, on earth conversed with men. For us ungrateful servants the master endured death, even death on the cross, that the tyranny of sin might be destroyed, that the former condemnation might be abolished, that the gates of heaven might be open to us again. In this way he has exalted our nature, and set it on the throne of glory, and granted to them that love him an everlasting kingdom and joys beyond all that tongue can tell or ear can hear. He is mighty and the only potentate, King of kings, Lord of lords, whose might is invincible and whose lordship is beyond comparison. He alone is holy and dwells in holiness, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit is glorified. Into this faith I have been baptized.” [Saint John Damascene (died A.D. 749), Barlaam and Ioasaph 24,211]

Gospel – Luke 16:19-31

Jesus said to the Pharisees:
“There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen
and dined sumptuously each day.
And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,
who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps
that fell from the rich man’s table.
Dogs even used to come and lick his sores.
When the poor man died,
he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham.
The rich man also died and was buried,
and from the netherworld, where he was in torment,
he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off
and Lazarus at his side.
And he cried out, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me.
Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue,
for I am suffering torment in these flames.’
Abraham replied,
‘My child, remember that you received
what was good during your lifetime
while Lazarus likewise received what was bad;
but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.
Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established
to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go
from our side to yours or from your side to ours.’
He said, ‘Then I beg you, father,
send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers,
so that he may warn them,
lest they too come to this place of torment.’
But Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets.
Let them listen to them.’
He said, ‘Oh no, father Abraham,
but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’
Then Abraham said, ‘If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets,
neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.’”

Having worked our way through several parables of Jesus, we now arrive at the story of the rich man and Lazarus.  Like many stories in Luke, it is a tale of radical reversals.

The story addresses two errors: 1) denial of the immortality of the soul (and therefore, retribution in the next life), and 2) the belief that material prosperity in this life is a reward for moral uprightness, and adversity is punishment.

This story shows that, immediately after death, the soul is judged by God for all its acts (what we call the “particular judgment”) and is rewarded or punished.  It also teaches the innate dignity of every human person, regardless of social, financial, cultural or religious position. This dignity demands that we help those who are in material or spiritual need.

Jesus said to the Pharisees: “There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen 

The dye needed to make purple garments was obtained from the shellfish murex.  The process of creating this dye was exceedingly expensive and time-consuming; as such, purple was worn only by royalty and other very wealthy individuals. The dye was so cherished that the veil of the Temple was made from this purple.

and dined sumptuously each day. 

At a time when those in the working class were lucky if they got the cheapest cut of meat once a week, this man “dined sumptuously” every day — an indication that he lived in vast luxury.

And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. 

Other translations of the word here for “door” have “gate” or “portico.” The rich man’s home boasted a large entrance, another signal of wealth.

The fact that Lazarus lay begging at the gate of the home means that the rich man would have passed him frequently (if not daily) in blind indifference to his agony. In abject poverty, he longed to eat the scraps from the rich man’s table.

Dogs even used to come and lick his sores.

Jesus goes to great lengths to contrast the lives of these two men.  Lazarus is destitute.  The moral rectitude of the man is not commented upon, but he was clearly unclean: his condition was so debased that the scavenging dogs licked his sores. He was so helpless that he couldn’t chase them away.

Lazarus was not a leper; if that were the case, he would not have been allowed to enter the city.

When the poor man died, he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham.

The choice position at the messianic banquet is to recline with Abraham.

Lazarus was taken to heaven as a reward — not for poverty, but for his trust in God as his help. (The name Lazarus comes from the Hebrew for “God is my help.”)

The rich man also died and was buried, and from the netherworld, where he was in torment, he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 

The netherworld is the abode of the dead: sheol (Hebrew)/hades (Greek)/purgatorio (Latin).

He is not in torment for molesting Lazarus in any way: he didn’t.  In a sense, he did nothing wrong; but he did nothing to help the poor.  He was condemned not because luxury is evil, but because of apathy and inattention.

And he cried out, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me.

Note that both men are associated with Abraham and therefore belong to the people of Israel.  This means that although their social conditions were completely opposed, they were bound together by the covenant.  As such, they had responsibilities toward each other, particularly the rich man toward the poor man.

Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am suffering torment in these flames.’

The fact that he refers to Lazarus by name indicates that he was not ignorant of his existence at his front gate for all that time on earth.

Abraham replied, ‘My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented. 

Note that Abraham does not tell the rich man he is being punished for not taking care of the poor; we assume he is in torment for this reason because of Jesus’ previous teaching and because of what will follow.

Abraham simply explains that the positions of the two men have now been reversed. When the rich man was alive and in a position to help Lazarus, he disregarded him. Lazarus is now comforted while the rich man is tormented.

Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go from our side to yours or from your side to ours.’

Further, there is a great chasm between the two men, and Lazarus cannot come to comfort the rich man.

He said, ‘Then I beg you, father, send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they too come to this place of torment.’ 

Now that the rich man is the one in need, he asks that Lazarus first comfort him and then warn his brothers.  Even in death, the man is self-serving!  He treats the saintly Lazarus as an errand-boy, even from the netherworld.

His five brothers continue to roam the earth, looking on the world’s misery but not feeling it, and seeing fellow human beings in pain without involvement.

But Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.’

Abraham reminds the man that his brothers have the same religious tradition he had, a tradition that clearly charges the wealthy to meet the needs of the poor.

He said, ‘Oh no, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

The rich man, not having listened to Moses and the prophets himself, does not think this is enough.

Here we see that this story is about more than the proper use of riches; it is also about whether or not the Pharisees accept the teaching authority of those whom God has sent to them: Moses, the prophets, and Jesus himself.

Between last week’s gospel reading (about the dishonest steward) and this week’s reading, there is an exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees. Although the parable about the dishonest steward had been addressed to his disciples, the Pharisees were also listening:

The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all these things and sneered at him. And he said to them, “You justify yourselves in the sight of others, but God knows your hearts; for what is of human esteem is an abomination in the sight of God.”

Today’s parable is part of that conversation. The part that takes place after the two men die is designed especially for the Pharisees, who reject Jesus and his teaching

Then Abraham said, ‘If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.’”

The parable ends on a very ironic note. Wondrous events like a voice from the grave won’t automatically save people. As Luke will tell us in the Acts of the Apostles, even when Christ rose from the dead, many still did not believe.

Connections and Themes

This week we take up again the question of our responsible management of money and the social relationships that influence it.  The significance of covenant is clearly sketched, as is the harsh reality of judgment.  It is Paul who offers us an alternative way of living that will stave off the punishment that results from disregard of our commitments.

Covenant responsibility.  Both the reading from the prophet Amos and the gospel narrative pointedly condemn the lifestyles of the rich.  Again, it is not wealth itself but the complacency and disregard for others that it too frequently generates that is denounced.  When we are relatively secure and satisfied with the circumstances of our lives, it is easy for us to take these blessings for granted, to think we have a right to all our good fortune.  This is particularly the case in societies that foster a sense of individual opportunity and advancement in contrast to those that are more communal in their perspective.  There we find the sense that “I earned this and so I have a right to enjoy it as I see fit.”

On the other hand, biblical covenant is a communal concept.  It emerges from a society that insists on mutual responsibility.  With the exception of the Davidic covenant established between God and one family (2 Samuel 7:8-17), all biblical covenants presume that God entered into a solemn pact with the entire people. While individuals do have rights and obligations, they carry them as members of the group, not merely as individuals. Furthermore, these rights and obligations flow from the relationships with one another as well as the relationship with God.  It is for this reason that social justice was such a fundamental concern of the prophets in ancient Israel.

These readings are held up before us so we can compare our sense of covenant with that of the people portrayed within them. To what extent have we even been aware of our covenant bond with others? And conscious of it, how faithfully have we carried out our responsibilities? Unlike the people depicted in last Sunday’s readings, those appearing here are not accused of dishonest behavior.  They are not guilty of sins of commission, infractions of the law.  They are guilty of sins of omission, sins that flow from a casualness toward covenant commitment. How do we measure up in this regard?

Judgment. There is a theme in these readings we do not like to face. Although the fundamental image of God is one of mercy and compassion, we cannot disregard the fact of judgment. Amos pronounces a woe against his own people; Abraham declares there is an unbridgeable chasm between the saved and the condemned.  These are harsh condemnations, but they cannot be softened.  Their very harshness lays bare the gravity of indifference to the sorry plight of others.  As we move closer and closer to the end of the liturgical year, we will be reminded of this judgment. Even Paul speaks here of the appearance of the Lord Jesus Christ. Though he does not say that Christ will bring judgment when he comes, the nuances of this idea are there.  Judgment will be determined not primarily in terms of our obedience to the law but in view of our fidelity to covenant commitment.

Pursue righteousness.  Righteousness is a covenant term.  It is a quality of God that is shared with us by means of our covenant bond. Paul admonishes Timothy, and us, to pursue this righteousness, along with devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.  Some of these virtues focus on our relationship with God, but most are directed toward our relationship with others.  Those who are less fortunate are our sisters and brothers. If we take lightly our covenant obligations and allow them to languish at our gates, we will have only ourselves to blame when we find ourselves facing the harsh judgment of God.

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