Readings for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time: AM 6: 1A, 4-7; PS 146: 7-10; I TM 6: 11-16; LK 16: 19-31
This week’s liturgical readings couldn’t be more relevant to the world that’s unfolding before our eyes. It’s a world where one person dies of hunger every four seconds, while over 215,000 individuals worldwide are now worth more than $50 million.
Ours is also a world where 60% of Republicans find themselves wishing that the United States would officially be declared a Christian nation.
According to today’s readings, it’s not what Republicans think.
If “America” truly became Christian, we’d have to address the issue of hunger on the one hand and extreme wealth on the other. We’d have to deal with the fact (as Richard Wolff argues in the video above) that the tradition in question favors socialism rather than capitalism. We’d be forced to recognize the truth of liberation theology.
Let me show you what I mean by reminding you about liberation theology and then by showing how today’s readings represent a virtual catechism on the movement as the Judeo-Christian tradition’s most authentic interpretation — its enfant terrible so challenging that even popes feared its world changing potential.
Well, you might ask, what is liberation theology?
To answer that question fully, please look at my blog entries under the “liberation theology” button. I’ve written a series on the question. In my blogs, you’ll find that I always define it in a single sentence. Liberation theology is reflection on the following of Christ from the viewpoint of the world’s poor and oppressed. That’s the class of people to which Jesus himself belonged. They constituted the majority of his first followers.
When read from their standpoint, accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds – the entire Bible for that matter – take on depths of meaning and relevance to our contemporary world that are otherwise inaccessible to people like us who live in the heart of the wealthy world.
From the viewpoint of the poor, God passes from being a neutral observer of earth’s injustices to an active participant with the poor as they struggle for justice here on earth. Jesus becomes the personification of that divine commitment to the oppressed. After all, he was poor and oppressed himself. The Roman Empire and its Temple priest collaborators saw to that.
Going back to the Jewish Testament, the Exodus (Yahweh’s liberation of slaves from Egypt) was God’s original and paradigmatic revelation. The whole tradition began there, not in the Garden of Eden.
Moreover, the Jewish prophetic tradition emphasized what we now call “social justice.” Even more, Yeshua of Nazareth appeared in the prophetic tradition, not as a priest or king. Jesus directed his “ministry” to the poor and outcasts. The Gospel of Luke (4: 18-19) has Jesus describing his program in the following words:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
After his death, Jesus’ followers continued along those lines. They lived communally, having sold all their worldly possessions and distributed the proceeds to the poor.
All of that finds vivid expression in today’s liturgy of the word. As I said, it’s a kind of catechism of liberation theology. The reading from Amos the prophet describes the sin that most offends God – wealth disparity in the face of extreme poverty. Amos decries a “wanton revelry” on the part of the wealthy that sounds like the “American Way of Life” or the “Lives of the Rich and Famous” that we Americans find so fascinating.
The prophet describes a rich class that lives like King David himself – in luxurious houses, overeating, drinking wine by the bowlful, and generally ignoring “the collapse of Joseph,” i.e., the poverty of their country’s most destitute. For that, Amos says, the rich will ultimately suffer. All their wealth will be confiscated, and they will be driven into shameful exile.
In railing against the rich and defending the poor, Amos was calling Judah back to the worship of Yahweh whose attributes are described in today’s responsorial psalm. There God is depicted as loving the just and thwarting the ways of the wicked. The psalm describes Yahweh as securing justice for the oppressed, giving food to the hungry, and setting captives free. He gives sight to the blind and protects resident aliens, single mothers, and their children.
Then today’s excerpt from 1st Timothy outlines the characteristics of those who worship that God by following in Jesus’ footsteps. They keep the commandment which is to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.
According to St. Paul, that means pursuing justice and living with devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.
Finally, the gospel selection from Luke chapter 16 dramatizes the sinful relationship between rich and poor and the destinies awaiting both. Luke tells the story of the rich man and “St. Lazarus” who is honored by the poor throughout Latin America and especially in Cuba.
It is significant that Lazarus is given a name in Jesus’ parable. Usually, we know the names of the rich, while it is the poor that remain anonymous. Here matters are reversed. To remedy this anomaly, tradition has assigned the wealthy man a name. He’s called “Dives,” which is simply the Latin word for rich man.
For his part, Lazarus is quintessentially poor, hungry, and lacking medical care. His sores are open and the only attention they receive are from dogs that lick his wounds.
Meanwhile, Dives seems completely unaware of Lazarus’ presence, though the beggar is standing at his very doorstep. Within the sight of Lazarus, the wealthy one stuffs himself with food to such a degree that the scraps falling from his table would be enough to nourish the poor beggar. But not even those crumbs are shared. How could Dives share? He doesn’t even know that Lazarus exists.
So, the two men die, and things are evened out. The rich man goes to hell. We’re not told why. Within the limits of the story, it seems simply for the crime of being rich and unconsciously blind to the presence of the poor. For his part, Lazarus goes to the “bosom of Abraham,” the original Hebrew patriarch.
Lazarus is rewarded. Again, we’re not told why. Within the story, it seems simply because he was poor and Yahweh is partial to the poor, just as he was to the slaves God intervened to save when they were starving in Egypt.
Seated with Abraham, Lazarus feasts and feasts at the eternal banquet hungry people imagine heaven to be. Dives however is consumed by flame in the afterlife. Fire, of course, is the traditional symbol of God’s presence, or purification, and of punishment. This seems to suggest that after death, both Dives and Lazarus find themselves in the presence of God. However what Lazarus experiences as joyful, Dives experiences as tormenting.
And why? Simply, it seems because Dives was rich, and Lazarus was poor.
In the “Ask Prof. Wolff” video posted above, Marxist economist, Richard Wolff responds to the question, “What is the relationship between Christianity and capitalism?”
Prof. Wolff answers perceptively (as does liberation theology) that Christianity started out from its Jewish roots as a slave religion. In fact, the Judeo-Christian tradition is unique in the corpus of great western literature for recording the experience, faith, and hopes of oppressed people.
However, even within the tradition itself, it’s easy to detect a struggle between Israel’s royal classes (epitomized in King David) and their poor subjects (defended by the prophets). More often than not, the royals wanted to wrest away from the poor their experience of God as on the side of the oppressed.
Professor Wolff points out that that sort of “battle of gods” continued far beyond biblical times.
And so, the tradition’s God of the oppressed was co-opted by ruling classes under imperial Rome, and under systems of slavery, feudalism, and now capitalism. In this way, the ruling classes turned a liberator of slaves into the oppressor of the poor.
The Christianity that 60% of Republicans favor celebrates such a God. “He” (sic) is concerned abortion, LGBTQ+, and trans issues – none of which are even mentioned in the Bible. He even supports American nationalism, a “prosperity” understanding of salvation, and an accompanying disregard and even hatred of any Lazarus people dying every four seconds at our very doorstep.
Today’s readings expose the wrongheadedness of all that. And In the process, they suggest the power of Yeshua’s own understanding of God. The readings address and propose wealth-sharing remedies for the planetary hunger and wealth disparities that plague a world divided between a starving St. Lazarus at our gates and the super-satiated Dives that we Christians have become.