26th Sunday of the Year Amos 6:1, 4–7; 1 Timothy 6:11–16; Luke 16:19–31
Schweitzer and the poor We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper. In 1950 a committee representing 17 different nations voted Albert Schweitzer “the man of the century.’’ Two years later, in 1952, Schweitzer was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Schweitzer has been acclaimed the world over as a multiple genius. He was an outstanding philosopher, a reputable theologian, a respected historian, a concert soloist, and a missionary doctor. But the most remarkable thing about him was his deep Christian faith. It was a faith that influenced even the smallest details of his life. At the age of 21, Schweitzer promised himself that he would enjoy art and science until he was 30. Then he would devote the rest of his life to working among the needy in some direct form of service. And so on his 30th birthday, on October 13, 1905, he dropped several letters into a Paris mailbox. They were to his parents and closest friends, informing them that he was going to enroll in the university to get a degree in medicine. After that he was going to Africa to work among the poor as a missionary doctor. The letters created an immediate stir. He says in his book Out of My Life and Thought: “My relatives and friends all joined in expostulating with me on the folly of my enterprise. I was a man, they said, who was burying the talent entrusted to him. . . . A lady who was filled with the modern spirit proved to me that I could do much more by lecturing on behalf of medical help for the natives than I could by the action I contemplated.’’ Nevertheless, Schweitzer stuck to his guns. At the age of 38, he became a full-fledged medical doctor. At the age of 43, he left for Africa where he opened a hospital on the edge of the jungle in what was then called Equatorial Africa. He died there in 1965 at the age of 90. What motivated Albert Schweitzer to turn his back on worldly fame and wealth and work among the poorest of the poor in Africa? He said that one of the influences was his meditation on today’s gospel about the rich man and Lazarus. He said: “It struck me as incomprehensible that I should be allowed to live such a happy life, while so many people around me were wrestling with . . . suffering.’’ And that brings us to the gospel story itself. The sin of the rich man in today’s gospel was not that he ordered Lazarus removed from his property. It wasn’t that the rich man kicked Lazarus or shouted obscenities at him as he passed him. The sin of the rich man was simply that he never noticed Lazarus. He accepted him as a part of the landscape of life. The sin of the rich man was that he accepted, without question, the fact that Lazarus was poor and he himself was rich. The sin of the rich man was not a sin of commission, that is, doing something he shouldn’t have done. The sin of the rich man was a sin of omission, that is, not doing something he should have done. The sin of the rich man was basking in his own personal wealth and not lifting a finger to help Lazarus in his dire need. The sin of the rich man was the same sin that is being committed over and over today. And it’s this sin that’s beginning to cause grave concern not only because of what it’s doing to the poor but also because of what it’s doing to society. John F. Kennedy referred to this concern when he said, “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.’’ In other words, our lack of concern for the poor is destroying not only the poor but also the very moral fabric of our society. Today’s gospel is an invitation to do what Albert Schweitzer did. It’s an invitation to meditate on the story of the rich man and Lazarus and to ask ourselves the same question Schweitzer asked himself: How can we live a happy life while so many other people are suffering? It’s an invitation to meditate on the words of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who said: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.’’ It’s an invitation to take to heart the words of Jesus in today’s gospel. Let’s close with these words of Pope John Paul II. He delivered them during his first visit to the United States in a homily at Yankee Stadium in New York on October 2, 1979. The Holy Father said: “We cannot stand idly by, enjoying our own riches and freedom, if in any place the Lazarus of the 20th century stands at our doors. “In the light of the parable of Christ, riches and freedom mean a special responsibility. Riches and freedom create a special obligation. “And so, in the name of the solidarity that binds us together in a common humanity, I again proclaim the dignity of every human person. “The rich man and Lazarus are both human beings, both of them equally created in the image and likeness of God, both of them equally redeemed by Christ at a great price, the price of the precious blood of Christ. . . . “The poor of the United States and of the world are your brothers and sisters in Christ. You must never be content to leave them just the crumbs of the feast. “You must take of your substance, and not just of your abundance, in order to help them. And you must treat them like guests at your family table.’’
26th Sunday of the Year Amos 6:1, 4–7; 1 Timothy 6:11–16; Luke 16:19–31 “I’ll bet it’s cold in Chicago’’ Lazarus is in our midst today, crying out for help, just as he did in Jesus’ parable. Afew years ago Barbara Varenhorst wrote a book called Real Friends: Becoming the Friend You’d Like to Have. In it she told the story of a woman named Erma. Erma was on her way to the airport. It had been a difficult week, and she was looking forward to being by herself. She arrived at the airport about a half hour before her flight. She went to the assigned gate, sat down, opened a good book, and began to read. It felt so good just to sit there with no one to bother her. Then Erma heard a voice. An elderly woman sitting next to her said, “I’ll bet it’s cold in Chicago.’’ Without looking up from her book, Erma said in a cold voice, “It probably is!’’ The elderly woman continued to talk. Erma continued to give short, unfeeling responses. Then the elderly woman dropped a bombshell. She was taking the body of her dead husband back to Chicago to be buried. He had died suddenly, after 53 years of marriage. Erma’s heart skipped a beat. All of a sudden she realized that the elderly woman sitting next to her was a suffering human being. She was a suffering human being, seeking to be heard. She was a suffering human being who, at that moment, needed another human being so badly that she turned to a complete stranger. The elderly woman was not seeking advice. She was not asking for money. She was simply seeking someone who would listen. Erma put down her book, held the woman’s hand, and listened. And as Erma listened, she suddenly forgot about her own problems. In fact, she felt a sudden surge of strength. Then the boarding call for Chicago came over the public-address system. The two women walked arm in arm to the plane. Then they went to their assigned seats, which were a few rows apart. As Erma folded her coat and put it in the overhead rack, she heard the old woman say to the person in the seat next to her, “I’ll bet it’s cold in Chicago.’’ Erma found herself uttering a prayer. It went like this: “Dear God, please give the person in the seat next to that poor woman the grace to listen patiently and lovingly.’’ That story bears a resemblance to the story in today’s gospel. The gospel story is a simple story about two people. The one is a poor man named Lazarus, who is in dire need. The other is a rich man, in a position to help Lazarus in his need. The needs of the poor man are small, and it would take very little for the rich man to help him. Unfortunately, the rich man never got around to helping Lazarus, as Erma did the elderly woman. The sin for which the rich man suffers after he dies is not that he ordered Lazarus off his property. It is not that he kicked Lazarus each time he passed him. It is not that he yelled obscenities at him whenever he saw him. The sin for which the rich man suffers is simply that he paid no attention to Lazarus. The sin for which the rich man suffers is simply that he ignored Lazarus. It is not a sin of commission— doing something he should not do. It is a sin of omission— not doing something he should have done. The sin for which the rich man suffers is the sin of not lifting a finger to help someone he could have helped with very little effort on his part. And that brings us to ourselves in this church and to our world. Each one of us sees the story of Lazarus being repeated in our world every day. And each one of us sees it repeated at every level of society. And each one of us is concerned about what this is saying about our society. It is saying that there is a growing tendency to place our priorities on things rather than on people, especially needy people. Commenting on this concern and growing tendency, President Dwight D. Eisenhower said years ago: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.’’ President John F. Kennedy went a step further. He was concerned about what this misplaced priority was doing not only to the poor but also to society itself. Commenting on this concern, he said, “If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.’’ In other words, our lack of concern for the poor in our midst is not only destroying them. It is destroying us as well. That brings us to our personal response to this situation. We can respond to it in one of three ways. First, we can do what the rich man in the gospel did. We can close our eyes to the situation, ignore it, pretend it doesn’t exist. Second, we can do what many good people are doing today. They don’t close their eyes to the situation; they speak out against it. But that’s about all they do. Finally, instead of closing our eyes to the situation or instead of cursing the darkness produced by the situation, we can light a candle and do something about it. We can become a part of the “thousand points of light’’ that are forming all over the world— helping the needy on our planet— even if this means doing only what Erma did for the elderly woman in the airport. She did what she could. This is the message the Church sets before us in today’s gospel. This is the challenge Jesus sets before us in today’s liturgy. It is the challenge to take to heart the point of Jesus’ parable about Lazarus. It is the challenge to begin loving one another as Jesus loves us.
26th Sunday of the Year Amos 6:1a, 4–7; 1 Timothy 6:11–16; Luke 16:19–31 Sin of omission We commit the sin of omission by neglecting to do what we ought to do. Jesus said,] “Lazarus . . . used to be brought to the rich man’s door, hoping to eat the bits of food that fell from the rich man’s table.” Luke 16:20–21 Father Albert Hurtado was known in South America as the “apostle to the poor.” His father died when he was only four years old. The Hurtado family was left penniless. Thus Albert learned at an early age what it was like to be poor. When he got to high school, Albert began spending Sunday afternoons in the poorest slum in Santiago, Chile. The streets of the slum were nothing but a sea of mud— no sidewalks, streetlights, or sewers. Bars and brothels flourished. So did swarms of mosquitoes and and armies of rats. Amidst this squalor, young Albert would help the needy in whatever way he could. When Albert went to college, he continued helping the needy, even though he was working his way through school and helping to support his family. Albert entered a Jesuit seminary at age 24 and became a priest. One day he was giving a retreat to a large group of prominent people. Suddenly he stopped speaking. After a long silence he said: “I find it hard to go on. I didn’t sleep last night. And you wouldn’t have either, had you experienced what I did. “I got back to the Jesuit residence late. A freezing rain was falling. Just as I was about to enter the door, I saw a man in shirtsleeves, standing next to a wall. “He was thin and shaking with a fever. When he saw me, he asked if I could give him the price of a bed so that he could spend the night at a local hostel. “It occurred to me that on nights like this, homeless men like him walk the streets . . . and end up sleeping in doorways. Each one of these men is Christ, and we’re doing nothing to help them.” The retreatants left that weekend deeply moved. To make a long story short, the retreatants followed up their retreat in a remarkable way. They organized and financed the construction of a string of hostels across Chile, where the poor could always find temporary shelter. Sometime before Father Hurtado died from cancer at the age of 50, he confided to a close friend that when he looked into the face of the man in the freezing rain, the night before the retreat, he saw the face of Christ. After his death, the hostels in Chile continued to spread across South America. In 1994 Pope John Paul II beatified him. The story of Father Hurtado fits in with today’s Gospel reading about the rich man and Lazarus. The needs of Lazarus were small, and it would have been so easy to help him. The sin of the rich man, therefore, was not that he kicked Lazarus each time he passed him. It was not that he yelled obscenities at him whenever he saw him. It was not that he ordered him removed from his property. The sin of the rich man was that he simply ignored him. It was not a sin of commission— doing something he shouldn’t have done. It was a sin of omission—not doing something he could have done. The sin of the rich man was that he never lifted one finger to help someone who needed help so badly and whom he could have helped so easily. What do the stories of Father Hurtado and of the rich man and Lazarus have to say today to our nation and to ourselves? One of the most provocative responses to that question came some years ago during Pope John Paul’s visit to the United States. In a homily during an outdoor Mass at Yankee Stadium in New York, he said: We cannot stand idly by, enjoying our own riches and freedom, if in any place the Lazarus of the 20th century stands at our door. . . . Riches and freedom create a special obligation. . . . In the name of the solidarity that binds us together in a common humanity, I proclaim the dignity of every human person. The rich man and Lazarus are both human beings, both of them equally created in the image of God, both of them equally redeemed by Christ at a great price, the price of the precious blood of Christ. . . . The poor of the United States and of the world are your brothers and sisters in Christ. You must never be content to leave them just the crumbs of the feast. You must take of your substance, and not just of your abundance, in order to help them. And you must treat them like guests at your family table. What the Holy Father said then is still true today— perhaps even more so. It is the challenge to take to heart the point of Jesus’ parable about Lazarus. It is the challenge to look into our heart and ask the Holy Spirit who dwells there what response we ought to make to it. Let us close with a reflection by Francis Bacon, the great 16th-century British statesman. He wrote: It is not what we eat, but what we digest that makes us strong. It is not what we gain, but what we save that makes us rich. It is not what we read, but what we remember that makes us learn. It is not what we preach, but what we practice that makes us Christians.