Monday, September 27, 2010

More thoughts on the rich man and Lazarus

One of the things that struck me about the story of the rich man and Lazarus after I had prepared my homily is how selfish the rich man is throughout the story. In life, he only cares about his own comfort and in death he will do and say anything to get out of torment and return to his good life.

The thing is, I don't think most people, myself included, notice when we are being. In the past, I've worked with some of the most selfish people in the world. And these were church workers. They would only do projects if they could be in charge of them and stand at a microphone at some point to take credit for what they'd done.They would scream about collaboration and working together while only showing up to and working on their own projects. It seemed like collaboration meant that people should stop what they're doing and work with them on what they're doing. And, in the heart of it, on more than one occasion, I had to face the fact that I was behaving the exact same way as they were.

So what can I learn from the rich man and Lazarus to help me not fall into this trap in the future. In other words, what should the rich man have done for Lazarus? In some ways, all the rich man was doing was going about his daily life and expecting Lazarus to do the same. There's no sense from the story that Lazarus ever asked for help. There's no sense that the rich man had even the slightest bit of knowledge about the plight of Lazarus. Is that the real "crime" of the rich man? That he didn't pay attention to one Lazarus at his door who longed to eat the scraps that fell from his table? It would have been easier to change that attitude back then. He could have asked Lazarus to be a servant and paid him in food. There weren't labor laws. There weren't unions. The government didn't "interfere" in what you did as an employer. But, let's say that he just basically didn't need Lazarus. He's got more than enough servants as it is. Lazarus would just go from laying outside the house to laying inside it. Sure, he would have been more comfortable but why is that the responsibility of the rich man? Wouldn't his house have simply become filled with Lazaruses eating the scraps from his table?

Some have seen in this parable a call from God to divest ourselves of any unnecessary property. Basically, they say that we should not have so much in our lives when there are so many in this world that have nothing. I totally agree that is one message from the parable. Yet, a parable is given that name because it is more like an onion than a stop sign. It doesn't just have a one-for-one corresponding meaning but, instead, has layers of meaning that get stronger and stronger the deeper you go. And, for me, a slightly stinkier part of this story is that the rich man still only views other people as servants to make his life easier. The first time he pays any attention to Lazarus was when he asked Abraham to send him on an water errand. I imagine, however, that the rich man would say that he's not selfish at all. He didn't know about Lazarus during his life and now, instead of wanting to get out of Sheol, he simply wants to leave to tell his brothers to avoid the place. He simply wants to be the hero that keeps his 5 brothers from coming to this place. I bet that if you pointed out the very thing that Jesus pointed out, that if they won't listen to the wisdom of their religion they aren't going to listen to anyone, that he would still just want to get the hell out and go where his brothers are.

How many Lazaruses are out there that we cannot see because we are so focused on our own comfort or the way we think our lives should go?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Don’t forgot that once you were foreigners in a foreign land

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ

Grace and Peace to you in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit on this beautiful Sabbath eve/day. One of my favorite things to do on my day off is go camping. When I was growing up, my parents had a small Winnebago that my family would pile in to take weekend getaways with friends and escape the telephone, television, and other complications of life in order to focus on building our own little community. My parents would sleep in the camper but one mark of getting older and more mature was being able to sleep in a tent next to the camper. One of the first major purchases I made shortly after I was ordained was to buy a small pop-up camper, sort of a tent on wheels. I have since purchased a slightly larger one with hard sides but I still feel like it’s important to feel like I’m sleeping in a tent so the area I sleep in is actually made of tent like material. But, my reasoning why is slightly different than when I was a kid.

One of the things I experienced in Israel was what the Jewish festival of Sukkoth. Sukkoth is a religious feast in which the Jewish people sleep outside in makeshift tents made of bamboo rods and palm branches to remind themselves of what it was like for their ancestors wandering in the desert. They’re not supposed to have electricity or telephones. They’re even supposed to leave one side of the tent open so that they have to experience nature fully. It’s literally supposed to be roughing it.

Our readings today seem both particularly apt and particularly challenging to us this weekend. All three in their own ways warn of the challenges of living a good life. In the first reading, we heard that the people who have such a luxurious life that they can sleep on couches with ivory decorations, who feast on the animals that should be reserved for sacrifice, will be the first ones sent into the struggle of living in exile. It’s this same reversal that happens to the rich man in the gospel today. To quote the statement of heavenly Abraham, “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.” Part of what is being told here is a principle of Catholic social justice called Preferential Option for the Poor. This concept says that, as Catholics, we need to make sure that those on the margins of society, those who often have no voice, are taken care of. We need to do this both on the parish level and on the personal level. In other words, even though each of our parishes supports the less fortunate in one way or another, each of us as individuals need to make sure we aren’t stepping over the poor at our door on the way to other things. We need to give preference to feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, and clothing the naked before we worry about having a second car or having the latest piece of technology and we need to make sure our Government also takes care of the poor.

But another part that is challenging us today as Catholics is that we shouldn’t become so comfortable in our lives that we forget where we came from. Many of you don’t know that there was an entire political party in this country known as the “No Nothing Party” built on the notion that Catholics shouldn’t be allowed here because, if we are, the pope will try to take control. Some of you remember the remnants of this attitude that President John F. Kennedy had to deal with when he was elected. In some ways, we have not only forgotten what it was like for our German, Irish, and Czech ancestors to come to this country when that attitude was prevalent, but now we’ve moved from being the persecuted to being the persecutors. I hear a lot of people who speak poorly of Mexican immigrants because they speak a different language and have different traditions. Have we become so comfortable as Catholics in this country that we’ve forgotten how our Grandparents and Great grandparents spoke a foreign language and made strange smelling food? Have we become so much like the rich man in the comfort of our houses that we’ve forgotten what it’s like to be Lazarus? Maybe it’s time we rough it for a while to remind outselves.