Homily, Ordinary Time Sunday 26C
Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of going on a few different mission trips. One, while I was in college was down to Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, in the years after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. On the other trips, one in Mexico, and one to Belize, I actually served as a priest-chaplain. The general reaction of those who go on these sorts of trips is pretty consistent. We usually come back home saying that the people we served are some of the most joyful people we’ve ever met, even though they seemed to have very little in the way of material possessions. But they have their faith, they have their family and relatives, and they all seem much more attentive to the people that they meet. They also tend to have a much more enjoyable pace of life, able to really enter into each moment of the day, without being in a frenzied rush to move on to the next thing. I’ve heard similar reactions from people who have spent time with different religious orders, like the Missionaries of Charity, the order that Mother Teresa of Calcutta founded, working among the poorest of the poor, and if you’ve been inside their convents, you see that they also live poverty themselves, often without water heaters, air conditioning, or many other things that most of us today tend to view as necessities.
We often forget that according to the standards of most countries in the world, almost all of us here would be considered fairly wealthy. And from the perspective of history, if we’ve never really had to worry and wonder about where our next meal is going to come from, wondering if we’ll have enough just to afford the food we need today or tomorrow to survive, if we’ve never really had to worry about starving to death, we’re definitely among the wealthiest people in the thousands of years of human history. If we have a roof over our heads, food to eat each day, more than one set of clothing, and access to medical care, it’s easy to see that we have much more in common with the unnamed rich man in today’s Gospel rather than having much in common with the poor man Lazarus. It might be that Jesus doesn’t give a name to the rich man precisely because it could be any one of us. If we aren’t challenged by today’s Gospel, then we probably weren’t listening very closely.
When both Lazarus and the rich man die, they essentially just trade places, receiving in the afterlife the opposite of what they had received during their life on earth. And it doesn’t actually say that Lazarus did anything really great to deserve this or that the rich man did anything extraordinarily bad. After they die, Abraham simply says to the rich man, “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.” This reversal is a common theme throughout the Scriptures. God comforts the afflicted, but He afflicts those who are comfortable and complacent. St. Luke includes with the Beatitudes of Christ the corresponding Woes that He pronounces as well, among them, “Woe to you who are rich now, for you have [already] received your consolation.” If God gave us the same offer of reversal at the end of our lives, where do you think most of us would end up? During our time on earth, have we had more in common with those who enjoy their wealth, who dine sumptuously and have lots of different outfits, and all the latest gadgets and toys? Or do we live as one of the poor and afflicted ones, more like Lazarus, waiting for the salvation that comes from God?
How do we live differently as Christians in today’s world? Do we live differently? If someone from the outside would look at what we own, how we spend our money, the vacations we take, the things that we throw away, would they be able to tell that we are followers of the poor man, Jesus of Nazareth? What difference, concretely, does the Gospel make in our lives, in our desires for the latest and greatest, in our frenzy to keep up appearances, or in our efforts at self-denial? Do we include God in the conversation about what we really need and what we want, about our next purchase and whether God might be aware of more pressing needs at our doorstep that we have overlooked?
During Lent, most of us practice self-denial and penance to some extent, but during the rest of the year, what are we doing to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow Christ? Many are not aware of this, but every Friday throughout the year—not just the Fridays during Lent, but every Friday—Catholics are still expected to practice some sort of self-denial or penance, to offer some sacrifice in honor of Christ, who suffered and died on a Friday. It no longer has to be abstaining from meat, as it still is during Lent, but each and every Friday we should be doing something intentional to conform our lives to the Cross of Christ. Just as every Sunday throughout the year is a little Easter as we celebrate the Resurrection of Christ, so also every Friday is to be for us a little Lent as we willingly unite ourselves to the sufferings of Christ.
So what is God calling us to do, to simplify our lives, to rid ourselves of the excess so that we can more readily help those in genuine need, to be less indulgent when it comes to our food, drink, wardrobe, recreation and technology, to conform ourselves to the mystery of the Cross and the poor man from Nazareth? If at the end of our lives, God simply brings about a reversal of fortunes—and not just temporarily, but for the rest of eternity—will he find us living more like the rich man who freely enjoyed the good things of this passing world, living in comfort and security, or will we have more in common with Lazarus, the poor man looking for the comfort that God desires to give? There’s still time for us to change places.