My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, in the readings given us by Mother Church today we are presented with some strong word-pictures made all the more striking by their resemblance to modern-day excesses in our Western society:
Woe to the complacent in Zion! Lying upon beds of ivory, stretched comfortably on their couches, they eat lambs taken from the flock, and calves from the stall! Improvising to the music of the harp, like David, they devise their own accompaniment. They drink wine from bowls and anoint themselves with the best oils.
St. Paul had that sort of life-style in mind when, earlier in the letter from which our second reading was taken, he taught his converts:
Those who want to be rich are falling into temptation and a trap, and into many foolish and harmful desires which plunge them into ruin and destruction; for the love of money is the root of all evils, and some people in their desire for it have strayed from the faith and have pierced themselves with many pains. But you, man of God, avoid all this. Instead, pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness. Compete well for the faith; lay hold of eternal life, to which you were called.
This same theme was taken up again in our Gospel reading, where Jesus, in His parable of a luxuriant rich man with a poor beggar at his gate, names the poor man Lazarus but gives no name to the rich man, almost as if He was too disgusted to dignify with an honourable name one leading such a life:
There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day, and lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores which the dogs used to come and lick.
Jesus brought His parable to its climax after both the rich man (whom we have traditionally referred to as ‘Dives’ from the Latin word meaning ‘rich’) and Lazarus had died, thereby revealing to us where such revelling in luxury and pleasures ultimately leads:
The rich man cried out: ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am suffering torment in these flames.' Abraham replied, '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.’
Why did Jesus give a parable with Abraham as the heavenly figure? Perhaps, because He was, at that time, speaking to some Pharisees; for earlier we are told:
The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, derided Jesus. (Luke 16:14)
It would seem, therefore, that Jesus was saying to them: ‘You who trust in your descent from Abraham and yet love money so much, it is not I who will ultimately condemn your behaviour. No, it will be Abraham -- in whom you trust and boast -- whom you will find both unwilling and unable to help you when you come to reap your retribution of punishment for pleasure and humiliation for pride.’ For Jesus has Abraham answer Lazarus’ appeal on behalf of his brothers, with the words:
They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.
Once again, in another confrontational encounter with certain Pharisees, Jesus invokes Moses in much the same way as today He mentions Abraham:
Do not think that I shall accuse you to the Father; there is one who accuses you -- Moses, in whom you trust, for he wrote about me. (John 5:45)
So, attacking His pharisaic adversaries root and branch – proud descendants of Abraham and dedicated adherents to the Law of Moses – all who heard Jesus learned that those who would give their lives over to selfish pride, pleasure, and plenty, would ultimately pay the price, no matter who they might now seem to be.
Moreover, notice how, in the parable, Abraham explained the situation to Dives:
My child, remember that you received what was good (from God) during your lifetime, while Lazarus likewise received what was bad (from men); but now he is comforted here whereas you are tormented.
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, those words are also for us. The God we worship is holy and just, and the gifts He gives us are -- all of them -- good, they are all blessings: strength or beauty, intellectual or physical capabilities, attractive personality or strength of character, a sensitive and understanding nature or an independent and courageous spirit. But if, in the course of our earthly life, we choose to put these good things to sinful use -- be it by totally absorbing ourselves in personal enjoyment of them as did our rich man (why should we name him?) who never even noticed Lazarus lying at his gate in abject poverty, or by diverting them from their original and primal purpose of giving glory to God and service to society -- into instruments for personal aggrandizement and individual advantage, then such misuse will meet with sure punishment after death. Strength is debased by the bully and the thug, beauty is sullied by the siren or the tart; intelligence is abused by the criminal and personal charm betrayed by the fraudster.
Mother Church and our society have suffered long from the gentle-Jesus people who have made our Christian, Catholic, faith at times seem spineless, toothless, and totally unable to inspire or challenge anyone. And yet, just as, in the Old Testament, there was no way back for Esau who sold his birthright for a bowl of pottage, even though he pleaded with tears to his father Isaac; so too, in Jesus' New Testament parable, there is no repeal for Dives in hell, not even a hearing for his prayer on behalf of his brothers.
Money, of itself, is not evil; but it is, as Jesus said, ‘a tainted thing’. Jesus spoke of money in that way because, for the most part, the making of much money comes from dishonest practices and leads to sinful indulgence. But for an age such as ours, where ideals are so low and worldly goods seem so attractive, we should perhaps allow as much as we can and condemn only what it totally unacceptable. Therefore let me simply repeat the Christian and Catholic teaching: money and money-making are not intrinsically evil; indeed, honest making of money can bring the great blessing of employment for others, while money personally possessed can be used to benefit others in need, as Jesus Himself had just said:
Make friends for yourselves by unrighteous mammon, that when you fail, they may receive you into an everlasting home. (Luke 16:9)
Nevertheless, People of God, we Catholics should not allow ourselves to be deceived neither should we deceive ourselves: a life spent trying to get, enjoy, and pile up money, is an evil life. Some, there are, who -- vaguely recognizing this in the vestiges of their conscience -- try, by token gestures and chosen words, to deceive both themselves and others; however, to these Jesus says:
You justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts; for what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God. (v. 15)
There are others, less devious perhaps, but more pathetic, who like to think there is safety in numbers; and who, clinging to that gentle-Jesus sort of attitude I mentioned before, cloud their minds with such thoughts as: "Surely all those other people can't be condemned!" The answer is, of course, that we do not know who or how many will be condemned, but we do know for certain that Jesus once said:
Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it. (Matthew 7:13-14)
People of God, we are a people whose recent development is marked out clearly by the changes in our appreciation and understanding of the Latin word "caritas” and our translation of it as “charity". "Charity" originally meant heavenly love; it was God-given and was inimitable. The word was then changed to "love", and it’s meaning was understood, first of all, as noble human love, the love of friendship and married love; then, because a downward slope easily becomes slippery, the word ‘love’ in popular use gradually came to signify the sexual expression of all sorts of human relationships, even the most aberrant. Finally today, it is used to designate any and every emotional exuberance: be it that of parents who ‘let their children decide for themselves’ in all things; or of the abortionists ever willing to indulge any weeping prospective-mother by having her child pay for her ‘mistakes’; or of those promoting the right to assisted death for the sick and elderly regardless of the threat such a ‘right’ could easily become for others selfishly considered ‘old and useless’. For all such people the words discipline, self-control, sacrifice, patience, trust, and supremely, faithfulness, are almost dirty words, said to be unsympathetic and inhuman, certainly inadmissible and totally unacceptable as descriptions of a way of life.
You justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts; what is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God.
People of God, we should try to appreciate our Faith -- in the integrity of its truth and beauty, its strength and sheer goodness -- ever more and more. We should try to appreciate it better in order that we might come to love it more, indeed with our whole mind, heart, soul, and strength, so that we might give it free and full expression in our lives by refusing to accommodate ourselves to that pervading shallowness of modern society which, for so many, smothers the true light of faith and the real beauty of love, just as it enervates the sure strength of self-discipline and the deep joy of self-sacrifice.