A reflection on the readings for September 25, 2022 — the Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Oysters are ugly, strange-looking little animals. Like so many things throughout the world, they seem like they could be from another planet.
But, as you know, out of those strange little shellfish comes one of the most prized and beautiful substances known to man…the pearl. An oyster creates a pearl when some irritant becomes lodged inside the pearl. The oyster begins to cover the irritant with a substance known as nacre, which, over time, creates the beautiful pearl. Irritation in the oyster eventually creates one of the most prized substances in the animal kingdom.
Irritation and discomfort are precisely what we do not find in the rich man in today’s parable. It’s not that the rich man does something evil; he doesn’t kick Lazarus, he doesn’t curse at him or throw him off his property, he just doesn’t care. He steps over poor Lazarus laid out on his doorstep every day, never giving him a second thought.
This is not just a parable about heaven and hell; that’s not the only unbridgeable gap about which Luke is talking. This parable reveals the unbridgeable gap of apathy, of not caring. Of the absence of concern, the lack of irritation when faced with poverty. The rich man in the parable, and we never learn his name, is so walled up in his palace of wealth, in his sumptuous feasts, in his fine clothes and worldly comforts, that he is alone. He is isolated from the human condition. He is isolated from a relationship with others and with God. He feels nothing about the plight of his neighbor and continues to live his life with concern only for himself.
The prophet Amos certainly takes a swing at confronting complacency among the Israelites who are “Lying upon beds of ivory, stretched comfortably on their couches.” I’m not sure why a bed of ivory is supposed to be a sign of comfort and ease, but I’m reasonably confident that I am supposed to think it is. Amos, perhaps more than any other prophet, condemns the treatment the poor receive among God’s chosen people and would be very comfortable with Jesus’ treatment of the rich man in today’s parable. There is something else going on here, though.
Amos made his contemporaries uncomfortable because he called them to task for their sins and told them they weren’t special. Amos preaches that if they are complacent because they are assured their special relationship with God will shield them from the consequences of their indifference, then they are in for quite a shock. They may be the chosen people, but their oppression of the poor will still lead to their downfall. This segues into an aspect of the Lazarus parable that may not be immediately apparent. The rich man’s status as a Son of Abraham is insufficient to lead to his salvation. His maltreatment of the beggar at his door has created a chasm not bridged by his religious affiliation alone.
Comfort comes from different sources and can appear in various forms. It is always a dangerous proposition. Noticing injustice and poverty and acting to remedy it may make us uncomfortable and disconcert us, but that discomfort is necessary. It must spur us into action and service, which will benefit not only the one we care for but also our own soul. Viewing our own salvation as something to be worked out in fear and trembling is less comfortable than sitting in righteous superiority over the other. Still, it is the only approach that can lead to salvation. Living a life that seeks comfort above all cuts us off from all legitimate criticism and hinders development in holiness. Do not grow complacent in material or spiritual comfort; spurn it. Do not avoid the discomfort that comes from service or spiritual self-examination; embrace it. It is irritation, not comfort, that forms pearls.
Image: By I, Manfred Heyde, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2325855
Fr. Alex Roche is the pastor of St. Maria Goretti Catholic Church in Laflin, Pennsylvania and serves as the director of vocations for the Diocese of Scranton. Ordained in 2012, he has a Licentiate in Sacred Theology from the Pontifical Lateran University. He went to college with a girl who went to high school with the niece of the guy who played Al in Quantum Leap.
You can listen to his podcast at www.wadicherith.com.