Ignoring the Poor Is a Damnable Sin—A Homily for the 26th Sunday of the Year

This Sunday’s Gospel about the rich man and Lazarus contains some important teachings on judgment and Hell. We live in times in which many consider the teachings on Hell to be untenable. They struggle to understand how a God described as loving, merciful, and forgiving could assign certain souls to Hell forever. Despite the fact that the Doctrine of Hell is taught extensively in Scripture as well as by Jesus Himself, it does not comport well with many modern notions and so many people think that it has to go.

The parable addresses some of the modern concerns about Hell. Prior to looking at the reading, it is important to understand why Hell has to exist. I have written on that topic extensively here.  What follows is a brief summary of that lengthier article.

Hell must exist for one essential reason: respect. God has made us free and respects our freedom to choose His Kingdom or not. The Kingdom of God is not a mere abstraction. It has some very specific values, and these are realized and experienced perfectly in Heaven.

The values of the Kingdom of God include love, kindness, forgiveness, justice to the poor, generosity, humility, mercy, chastity, love of Scripture, love of the truth, worship of God, and the centrality of God.

Unfortunately, there are many people who do not want anything to do with those values, and God will not force them to. Everyone may want to go to Heaven, but Heaven is not merely what we want it to be; it is what it is, as God has set it forth. Heaven is the Kingdom of God and its values in all their fullness.

There are some (many, according to Jesus) who live in a way that consistently demonstrates their lack of interest in Heaven. They do this by showing that they are not interested in one or many of the Kingdom’s values. Hell “has to be” because God respects people’s freedom to choose to live in this way. Because such people demonstrate that they do not want Heaven, God respects their freedom to choose “other arrangements.”

In a way, this is what Jesus says in John’s Gospel, when He states that judgment is about what we prefer: And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil (John 3:19). In the end, you get what you want: light or darkness. Sadly, many prefer the darkness. The day of judgment discloses our final preference; God respects that even if it is not what He would want for us

This leads us to the Gospel, which we will look at in three stages.

I. The Ruin of the Rich Man – As the Gospel opens, we see a rich man (some call him Dives, which simply means “rich”). There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day.

It is clear that he lives very well and has the ability to help the poor man, Lazarus, who is outside his gate. But he does not do so.

The rich man’s sin is not so much one of hate as of indifference. He is living in open rejection of one of the Kingdom’s most important values: love of the poor. His insensitivity is literally a “damnable sin”; it lands him in Hell. His ruin is his insensitivity to the poor.

The care of the poor may be a complicated matter, and there may be different ways of approaching it, but we can we never consider ourselves exempt if it is within our means to help. We cannot avoid judgment for greed and insensitivity. As God said in last week’s reading regarding those who are insensitive to the poor, The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Never will I forget a thing they have done (Amos 8:7). God may well “forget” many of our sins (cf Is 43:23; Heb 8:12), but apparently disregarding the needs of the poor isn’t one of them.

This rich man has repeatedly rejected the Kingdom by his greed and insensitivity. He lands in Hell because he doesn’t want Heaven, where the poor are exalted (cf Luke 1:52).

Abraham explains the great reversal to him: 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.

II. The Rigidity of the Rich Man – You might expect the rich man to have a change of heart and repent, but he does not. Looking up into Heaven, he sees Lazarus next to Abraham, but rather than finally recognizing Lazarus’ dignity and seeking his forgiveness, he tells Abraham to send Lazarus to Hell with a pail of water to refresh him. The rich man still sees Lazarus as beneath him (even though he has to look up to see him); he sees Lazarus as an errand boy.

Notice that the rich man does not ask to be admitted to Heaven! Although he is unhappy with where he is, he still does not seem to desire Heaven and the Kingdom of God with all its values. He has not really changed. He regrets his current torment but does not see Heaven as a solution. Neither does he want to appreciate Lazarus’ exalted state. The rich man wants to draw Lazarus back to the lower place he once occupied.

This helps to explain why Hell is eternal. It would seem that there is a mystery of the human person that we must come to accept: we reach a point in life when our character is forever fixed, when we can no longer change. When exactly this occurs is not clear; perhaps it is at the moment of death itself.

The Fathers of the Church often thought of the human person as clay on a potter’s wheel. As long as it is on the wheel and moist it can be molded, but when the clay is taken off the wheel and placed in the fiery kiln (fire is judgment day (cf 1 Cor 3:15)), its shape is forever fixed.

The rich man manifests this fixed quality. He is unhappy with his torments, even wanting to warn his brothers, but apparently he does not intend to change or somehow he is unable to change.

This is the basis for the teaching that Hell is eternal: once having encountered our fiery judgment, we will no longer be able to change. Our decision against the Kingdom of God and its values (a decision that God, in sadness, respects) will be forever fixed.

III. The Reproof for the Rest of Us – The rich man, though he cannot or will not change, would like to warn his brothers. He thinks that perhaps if Lazarus would rise from the dead and warn them, they would repent!

We are the rich man’s brethren, and we are hereby warned. The rich man wanted exotic measures, but Abraham said,They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.” “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.”

This reply is dripping with irony, given Jesus’ resurrection from the dead.

We should not need miraculous signs to bring us conversion. The phrase “they have Moses and the prophets” is a Jewish way of saying that they have Scripture.

The Scriptures are clear to lay out the way before us. They give us the road map to Heaven and we only need to follow it. We ought not to need an angel or a ghost or some extraordinary sign. The Scriptures and the teachings of the Church should be sufficient.

Their message is clear enough: daily prayer, daily Scripture, weekly Eucharist, frequent confession, and repentance all lead to a change of heart wherein we begin to love the Kingdom of God and its values. We become more merciful, kind, generous, loving toward the poor and needy, patient, chaste, devout, and self-controlled.

Hell exists! It has to exist because we have a free choice to make, and God will respect that choice even if he does not prefer it.

Each of us is free to choose the Kingdom of God—or not. This Gospel makes it clear that our ongoing choices lead to a final, permanent choice, at which time our decision will be forever fixed.

The modern world needs to sober up. There is a Hell and its existence is both reasonable and in conformity with a God who both loves us and respects our freedom.

If you have any non-biblical notions in this regard, consider yourself reproved. Popular or not, Hell is taught, as is the sobering notion that many prefer its darkness to the light of God’s Kingdom.

The care of the poor is very important to God. Look through your closet this week and give away what you can. Look at your financial situation and see if it is pleasing to God. The rich man was not cruel, just insensitive and unaware. How will you and I respond to a Gospel like this?

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Ignoring the Poor Is a Damnable Sin—A Homily for the 26th Sunday of the Year

The Measure You Measure Will Be Measured Back to You, as Seen in an Advertisement

There are many biblical texts that speak of being generous to the poor, for to do brings bountiful blessings. Or, put negatively, if we are stingy, we will come up short in our own blessings.

Consider the following verses:

Here is a promise from the Lord:

Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap (Lk 6:38).

The text goes on to state a clear principle:

For the measure you measure to others, will be measured back to you (Lk 6:38).

The rule of returning proportion:

Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously (2 Cor 9:6).

The Lord the admonishes us with this:

One man gives freely, yet gains even more; another withholds unduly, but comes to poverty (Prov 11:24).

And now a word from our sponsor (a snack manufacturer in the Philippines), illustrating well this text: Who sows sparingly will reap sparingly. You may find that the ad is “clever by half.”

Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say, But Don’t Say It Mean

I’ll admit that I struggle with the concept of “civility.” I keep it as a very firm rule for myself. I try to be clear but also charitable in what I say. I also try to avoid “ad hominem attacks” which are  attacks on the person rather than the argument. I also try to avoid assigning motive when the motive is not clear to me.

But I also admit that there is a great deal of variability in what people consider civil discourse. In some cultures there is a greater tolerance for anger. I remember dating an Italian girl for a brief time back in college. I remember being at her house and how she and her mother could really go at it with a heated debate (usually in Italian – Mama Mia!). But no sooner had they very intensely argued over some particular, say  of preparing the meal,  than they were just fine, as if nothing had happened. Angry discourse was more “normal” for them. Even in this country there are regional differences about civility. In New York and Boston, edgy comments and passionate interruptive  debate are common.  But in the upper midwest and parts of the deep south conversation is more gentle and reserved. At the time of Jesus angry discourse was apparently quite “normal” for Jesus himself engages in a lot of it, even calling them names like, “Hypocrites.” “Brood of Vipers,” “Liars,” “Wicked” etc.  Yet, the same scriptures that record these facts about Jesus teach that he never sinned. Hence, at that time such terms were not considered sinful to utter and must not have been since I am a firm believer that Jesus never sinned. Jesus even engaged in prophetic actions like overturning the tables in the temple courts. No one said he’d done wrong,  they just wondered where he got the authority to do this (cf Mark 11:28). In that culture prophets did things like this. No one liked it,  but just like our culture tolerates some degree of civil disobedience, even reveres it, Jesus’ culture  expected things like this from prophets. Now be careful here. I am not saying it is OK for us to talk like this because Jesus did. We do not live then, we live now and in our culture such dialogue is almost never acceptable. There ARE cultural norms we have to respect to remain in the realm of Charity.

So there seems to be a lot of variability in the concept of civility and civil discourse. In general our culture seems to prefer a gentler style of discourse, with the regional variability I have already mentioned taken into consideration. But we have recently been through a very tough Healthcare debate (battle?) in which the discourse went beyond what many think was civil. Over at the USCCB blog is a posting  which raises concerns about it. I would like to excerpt it here and add some of my own comments in RED. And as always I’d like to know what you think. (You can read the complete and uninterrupted USCCB Blog post here: USCCB Media Blog) Meanwhile here are my excerpts and comments.

The heat in the aftermath of passage of health care reform reveals the depth of feeling among those for and against the landmark bill that affects all Americans. Such heat, however, cannot justify the verbal and physical violence that has ensued. 

If we needed health care because of the crisis affecting the sick, especially the weakest among us, we need even more a move toward civility, if not for our own betterment then at least for the betterment of our children.

 Politics has become a kind of blood sport. News junkies over the weekend heard reports of crowds shouting racist remarks and individuals spitting at African American lawmakers, including John Lewis, who suffered violence years ago when he marched for Civil Rights. Surely he – and all of us – has a right to expect that that chapter of despicable, racist violence long overThis event is not verified or recorded in any of the video from that day. At best it is a story that is going around that we can only hope is untrue. It is reported that Congressman John Lewis did mention hearing some slurs but did not clearly indicate if they were racial slurs or what. Further it is not certain how many,  if any,  engaged in this behavior. Was it one, many, etc. It is not certain. If it did happen it is reprehensible. But likely it involved just one or a few. I do think we have made a lot of progress in this area and that such behavior is not tolerable in our society. The vast majority of those who were against the bill would surely and adamantly agree that any such behavior in this regard was unacceptable. John Lewis is surely a hero of the Civil Rights Movement.  What ever variability there may be in how people size up civility, racial slurs and spitting are beyond any one’s tolerance.

 We’ve seen reports of homes and offices of lawmakers vandalized and heard of death threats. Anonymous messages are being left on voicemails – I even got one from a nun, for goodness sake. If that isn’t proof that we’ve gone astray I don’t know what is. Yes, and for the record this happened on both sides of the debate. Congressman Stupak, interviewed on NBC news indicated receiving threats from pro-choice people when he was holding out due to abortion funding. After the vote the threats switched to the pro-life side! Alas, here too we can only hope that those who make such threats are in the vast minority. It is true however that threats of this nature are a regular part of the lives of public figures, not just politicians, but also media personalities, movie and sports figures, and others.  

 The wonderfully unedited Web may share some blame as it gives free reign to those who say whatever suits their strategic purpose, truthful or not. Their presentations – usually anonymous – underscore a significant failing of the Web, lack of editors and accountability. Ah and here is where it comes home my friends. What is said here has a lot of truth. The anonymous quality of many who participate can lead to much higher levels of unkindness and inaccuracy. If no one know who I am I can say just about anything. In general our discourse at this blog has been civil but we have had our moments. The impersonal quality of a lot of the communication can lead to a kind of forgetfulness that a real person, or person is on the ther side of the screen. Further, writing does not always allow the nuance of the spoken word and personal interaction where tone of voice and facial expression can often supply clarifying data that one is speaking ironically, or facetiously, or just in good fun. True we do have our “emoticons”  like 🙂 and 😉 and LOL! that help but we have to be very careful when we write to remember that much data is lost when the word is only written. Accuracy is also a bit of a problem when the writer  is anonymous for they are less concerned with their reputation and will more likely say inaccurate things that they would otherwise have to verify. Hence our reserve to speak about things we are not sure of  is diminished.

 The intolerance and incivility did not begin with legislation passed Sunday night. It is not unrelated to the divisions that exist in our country and, sadly, even in our church. Yes, how we Catholics speak to each other needs further reflection. It has been my experience that most Catholics are far more passionate about their politics that their faith. This is sad but it also affects the way we speak to one another. We often use political terminology such as right/left; conservative/liberal which may not well apply to the Church settings. I fielded a lot of remarks in the past week accusing the Bishops of being lap dogs for the GOP etc. But I guarantee you when it comes to immigration reform or capital punishment, that others accuse them of being “lap dogs” for the Democrats. What if they were neither? What if they were Catholic and trying to articualte Catholic principles in a polarized world? What seems to happen is that we take a lot of our politics into the Church with us. To be sure there are some very serious divisions in the Church that need often frank discussion and cannot reduce to a “Can’t we all just get along” mentality. Finding the balance is not always easy.

It starts with how we view others – as enemies rather than as fellow travelers on the journey of life. It includes whether or not we’re willing to give another the benefit of the doubt, accepting that their intentions are good, even if their goals differ from ours. It involves accepting the fact that each of us is a child of God and precious to Him and our brother or sister. – Well said.

Last Tuesday, March 23, Cardinal Francis George, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, noted the bishops’ disappointment that the health reform legislation did not include all they sought….Even in disappointment, the bishops were civil and generous. Their position is worth emulating.

[There is] a maxim attributed to St. Augustine, “In essentials, unity, in non-essentials diversity, in all things charity.” In all things charity surely is the message we all need today. It’s not a bad start to Holy Week.

So, there it is. How exactly to define civility in every instance is not always clear. An old answer to these hard to define things is “I know when I see it.” So perhaps it is more art than science to define civility But it is clearly getting edged out, to be sure. In an era when shared values and reverence for a shared and immutable truth have been largely jettisoned what we end up with is power struggle. Such a scenario is usually ugly.

In the Black Community where I minister there is an expression, “Now don’t go and make me lose my religion!” What it usually means is that we can get so wrapped up in our anger and frustration that we cast off charity, which is the highest call of our faith. We need to check ourselves occasionally. In a world increasingly hostile,  where do we stand?  It may be true that, as we discussed above, there are some cultural differences when it comes to what is acceptable in discourse. But in the end charity and civility cannot be wholly cast aside. Say what you mean, mean what you say, but don’t say it mean. And whatever you do make sure you don’t lose your religion!  🙂

Here is a video I have posted before showing the “angry” style of Jesus culture. He is no wilting flower here nor are his listeners shy about expressing their opinion. Our culture is not generally very accepting of such discourse.

The Forgotten Principle of Social Justice

In many discussions of Catholic Social Justice Teaching, the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity are often prominent. Solidarity is the principle wherein I am my brother’s keeper and I cannot simply ignore the needs of others or injustices experienced by them. When others suffer I suffer too. When others are treated unjustly so am I. Hence I am compelled to act on behalf of others who suffer actual injustice or who experience poverty. Subsidiarity is the principle wherein we ought to solve these social ills and injustices at the lowest level possible. Making everything a “federal case” is not wise and can lead to worse injustices and to a loss of legitimate freedom. Further “biggie-wow”  solutions are often impersonal and often ill suited to the particular needs of a given community. Some problems do require federal Government solutions but others are better suited to state, local, church or family based solutions.

But a third principle in the Catechism is almost never mentioned and that is the principle of the “Universal Desintation of Goods.”  The Catechism treats of this principle under its analysis of the 7th Commandment not to steal. Here is what it has to say:

In the beginning God entrusted the earth and its resources to the common stewardship of mankind to take care of them, master them by labor, and enjoy their fruits. The goods of creation are destined for the whole human race. … The appropriation of property is legitimate for guaranteeing the freedom and dignity of persons and for helping each of them to meet his basic needs and the needs of those in his charge. It should allow for a natural solidarity to develop between men. [But] the right to private property, acquired or received in a just way, does not do away with the original gift of the earth to the whole of mankind. The universal destination of goods remains primordial, even if the promotion of the common good requires respect for the right to private property and its exercise. [Hence] in his use of things man should regard the external goods he legitimately owns not merely as exclusive to himself but common to others also, in the sense that they can benefit others as well as himself.”The ownership of any property makes its holder a steward of Providence, with the task of making it fruitful and communicating its benefits to others, first of all his family. (CCC # 2402-2404)

So in effect, all the goods of this earth belong to all the people of this earth. We need to uphold the concept of private property which is an efficient way to deploy the goods of this earth and link them to to an enlightened self-interest. But we cannot allow private property to overrule the more basic truth that everything belongs to God and it is his will that his property benefit all. Hence, whatever I have I ought to use to benefit others, beginning with my family but not ending there. Maybe it is raw capital or entrepreneurial opportunities that I can turn into job opportunities for others. Maybe it is savings that I consistently set aside for my kids college one day, maybe it is simply the fact that I have money to spend which then enters the economy and creates markets which create jobs and incomes for others. But the bottom line is that my money is not simply my money. My talents are not simply my talents. My gifts are not simply mine. All these are given to me not only for me but for others. If I have two coats, perhaps one belongs to the poor. If I have excess money perhaps it can benefit others. This need not be in a simplistic sort of way which merely gives it away indiscriminately. Perhaps I can invest in way that helps it grow so that, down the line even more can benefit. But the bottom line is that I should be thinking that this money, or these talents, or these things are not just mine. How can I use them to benefit others and to create greater opportunities?

Now here comes the tough point. To fail significantly in any of these regards is a form of theft! First of all we rob God. All the things we have really belong to him. Now if I use his stuff in ways that he doesn’t approve, in ways that are against his will, I am stealing from him. Suppose you loan me your car to go to the store nearby. Fine, no theft there. But now suppose I took your car and started drag racing with it. Or suppose I decided to use it to go off to California for a trip. Now this would be theft since you did not give me your car to use with any of this in mind. To use your things against your will is a form of theft. Well, if God gives us his creation to use then it is clear if I start hoarding it, or refuse to use it for the good of others in some way then it is clear I am using his things against his will. I am stealing.

Further, I am stealing from the poor who have a rightful claim to some of what I have. Wait a minute you say, they didn’t earn it! Well, what the Catechism says is that it belongs to them in the first place since God gave all the good of the earth for all the people of the earth. It is true that we should be able to benefit from the work we do and that there is such a thing as earning and enjoying the fruits of our labor. This is just but it cannot ultimately cancel the fact that everything I have belongs to God and that he intends for everyone to enjoy the fruits of this world. If I have two coats, one of them belongs to the poor and I ought to generously return it to its owner.

Please understand neither I nor the Catechism is denying personal property rights. But what the principle of the universal destination of all goods does is to balance, not cancel, personal property rights. No one, especially the government,  ought to be able to come and merely take your stuff. It’s yours viz a viz them. However, we ought to be more mindful that what I have is not absolutely mine. It is all God’s and he intends for the poor and needy to be blessed as well.

So, when was the last time you thought that everything you “have” really belongs to God. When have you thought to ponder what God might have you do with all “your stuff?” When was the last time you looked into your closet and thought, “A lot of this stuff really belongs to the poor?”

Think about it. Remember its about balance. It’s not communism, or socialism or that the State should control things. It’s NOT about there being no such thing as private property. There is private property. But it is about balance, like most things orthodox. Its about remembering to balance the concept of “my stuff” with the concept that it’s really God’s stuff and that some of it belongs to the poor by God’s will who gave everything for all.

Fr. Barron does a pretty good job of sorting all this out as he reviews the latest (crazy) Michael Moore movie.