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26th Sunday, Year C | Overcoming Indifference


The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, Illumination from the Codex Aureus of Echternach, 1035-1040, German National Museum, Nürnberg. Top panel: Lazarus at the rich man’s door Middle panel: Lazarus’ soul is carried to Paradise by two angels; Lazarus in Abraham’s bosom Bottom panel: Dives’ soul is carried off by two devils to Hell; Dives is tortured in Hades.

This week’s Gospel from Luke 16 should be compulsory reading for all.  Jesus tells a parable in which he contrasts a poor man, Lazarus, ‘covered with sores’, who goes hungry and unnoticed outside the gate of a rich man who enjoys a life of ease and comfort.  After the rich man dies, he finds himself in torment in Hades, not because of any particular cruelty he has meted out, but merely because he has been totally indifferent to the suffering of the man who lay at his gate.  Abraham says to him, “My son, remember that during your life good things came your way, just as bad things came the way of Lazarus.  Now he is being comforted while you are in agony.”

It’s easy in a country like Australia which has an advanced system of welfare and safety nets, to avoid being confronted with real poverty.  And sometimes, social welfare systems are so generous that they have the unintended effect of cementing and rewarding dysfunctional behaviours.  Hence the current conversation about whether school attendance should be a requirement for receiving family welfare.  But it is largely because Australia was founded on the sort of Judaeo-Christian principles explained in this parable and in the first reading from the prophet Amos, that it has had such a commitment to justice and a fair go for everyone.

At the moment I am in Cape Town, South Africa, where it almost impossible to be unaware of the poor around you, and there is a huge gulf between the haves and the have-nots.  I am well aware that I am more like the rich man in the parable when I am visiting here, so I am making an effort not to be indifferent.

On my way to Mass in the morning, I pass by a small park where I used to play as a child.  In this park lives a woman called Ursula, often accompanied by her friend Anthony.  Both Ursula and Anthony have mental health problems.  As I arrive, Anthony is sweeping the soil around the park bench, behind which is a bundle of plastic bags containing all their worldly goods.

“Good morning, Ursula.  How are you today?”  “Hello lady.  Can’t complain.”  “It looks as if it might rain today.  Where do you go if it rains?”  “I stay here.  I come from Somerset East, but I live here now.”  “I can see someone has given you some chicken.  Are you going to cook it?”  “No it’s cooked already.”  (It looks raw and it still in a polystyrene meat tray.)  “Oh well, here’s a sandwich for your breakfast, if you like.”  “Thank you, lady, I appreciate it.” “Hope you have a lovely day.”

Then there is Martin, who has come to South Africa from the DRC.  Every morning, Martin comes to Mass at Nazareth House, and picks up a sandwich from the nuns at the convent in exchange for some light duties.  After Mass, Martin walks up the steep hill to the Kwikspar, wheeling his travel luggage behind him, and all the way, carrying on a lively conversation with himself in French.  I think the Kwikspar might give away some out-of-code items.  At night, Martin stays at one of the homeless shelters which fortunately are available in this area for those who want to make use of them.

The third friend I have made here is one of the carers at Nazareth House.  I will call her Nomandla (not her real name).  Nomandla’s problem is an example of the structural problems in the South African wage system.  For 15 twelve-hour days a month, Nomandla earns R3,000 (that’s about AUD300).  So her weekly wage is approximately R750 or $75.  How is this possibly a living wage?  Nomandla is also supporting her son, who is studying at UWC to be a lawyer and will graduate in 2018.  Nomandla has a grade 12 education, but because of family circumstances, never had the opportunity to study further.  She would like to upgrade her skills and study nursing as soon as her son has graduated.  I am hoping I can help Nomandla achieve this goal.  If anyone is interested in this, I like the idea of direct action without going through all the administration costs involved in charitable donations, so please contact me.

I should also mention that Catholic Welfare and Development have a number of outreach programs here in the Western Cape, if you would like to donate to them.

Today’s readings:

Word format: year-c-26th-sunday-2016

Pdf format: year-c-26th-sunday-2016

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26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B | Pope Francis the Crafty

Read in the light of Pope Francis’s addresses to the UN and the US Congress, our Gospel for today encourages us to see the bigger picture.  The Gospel of Mark (9:38-43) tells us, “Anyone who is not against us is for us.”  So let’s not condemn the world, but give it a chance to be ‘for us’.

Today’s readings:

Word format:Year B 26th Sunday 2015

Pdf format:Year B 26th Sunday 2015

Pope Francis has been much in the news this week, and there’s an interesting article on him by Daniel Burke for CNN.  In it, he quotes from Rev. Angel Rossi, whom Pope Francis has referred to as his ‘spiritual son’.  He describes Pope Francis in these words:

He is humble but confident, a disciplined rule-breaker. He is quiet but freely speaks his mind. He is deeply spiritual, but crafty — a cross between a desert saint and a shrewd politician. He is a man of power and action, who spends a great deal of time in prayer and contemplation.

I like that word ‘crafty’, not in the sense of underhandedly sneaky, but in the Biblical sense of:

Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves (Matthew 10:16)

Let us be in no doubt that we are in a war, but the war is not against humans.  The war is against the devil and his evil army, who delight in human dysfunction and want to drag us all down to hell.  No doubt, Pope Francis has been meditating on his primary responsibility, that is winning souls for Christ. He has to be both ‘crafty’ and ‘wise’ about it.  Some Catholic commentators have been bemoaning the fact that Pope Francis has not spoken out sufficiently clearly on the evils of our time.  But like Jesus in today’s Gospel, Pope Francis’s tactics involve  some PSYOP – Psychological Operations; he wants to ‘hearts-and-minds’ the people, in the language of military strategy used in various conflicts (the Malayan Emergency and the Vietnam and  Iraq Wars come to mind).

Pope Francis understands people’s psychology.  In current American society, the people on the right of politics think they have the monopoly on God (I’m thinking pro-life and pro-traditional marriage causes).  Pope Francis sees the need for connecting with the left as well where he can find points that fit in with Catholic social teaching (migrants, the environment, the death penalty).  He knows that if he spends his time appearing like a member of the GOP, a swathe of people on the left won’t hear his core message. Not only that, but he knows no-one will listen to him if his personal behaviour contradicts what he is preaching.  Everyone loves to poke fun at a hypocrite.  So first he tries to remove the splinter from his own eye by avoiding ostentation in his choices of housing, transport and clothing, and in his willingness to embrace the disfigured, the homeless and the weak.

Pope Francis is trying to weave a positive narrative of human dignity, the solidarity of all humans, subsidiarity and the common good.  He deliberately uses subtle and hope-filled language, so that nobody could accuse him of being hateful.  Here are some quotes from the speech to US congress, showing how carefully The Holy Father chooses his words (I have added my plainspeak in red).

A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members, especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk. Legislative activity is always based on care for the people.

Moses provides us with a good synthesis of your work: you are asked to protect, by means of the law, the image and likeness fashioned by God on every human face.  (Subtext: Don’t forget the unborn, like those babies exploited by Planned Parenthood.)

I also want to dialogue with all those young people who are working to realize their great and noble aspirations, who are not led astray by facile proposals, and who face difficult situations, often as a result of immaturity on the part of many adults.  (Subtext: children caught up in broken families, whose parents are not willing to make personal sacrifices but put their own selfish desires first )

Building a future of freedom requires love of the common good and cooperation in a spirit of subsidiarity and solidarity. (Subtext: Beware the mob who gangs up on any portion of society or who seek to remove religious freedoms.)

A delicate balance is required to combat violence perpetrated in the name of a religion, an ideology or an economic system, while also safeguarding religious freedom, intellectual freedom and individual freedoms(Hint to Obama: please safeguard the religious freedom of those who oppose your Obamacare package, like the Little Sisters of the Poor.)

The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide it into these two camps. We know that in the attempt to be freed of the enemy without, we can be tempted to feed the enemy within. To imitate the hatred and violence of tyrants and murderers is the best way to take their place.  (Subtext: let’s be careful that the language we use is always charitable)

 The challenges facing us today call for a renewal of that spirit of cooperation, which has accomplished so much good throughout the history of the United States. The complexity, the gravity and the urgency of these challenges demand that we pool our resources and talents, and resolve to support one another, with respect for our differences and our convictions of conscience. (Subtext: do not make laws that interfere with freedom of conscience!)

In this land, the various religious denominations have greatly contributed to building and strengthening society. It is important that today, as in the past, the voice of faith continue to be heard, for it is a voice of fraternity and love, which tries to bring out the best in each person and in each society.  (Subtext: religion isn’t something that should be restricted to the private domain, as some atheists would prefer.)

Politics is, instead, an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build as one the greatest common good: that of a community which sacrifices particular interests in order to share, in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life.  (Subtext: we need to sacrifice our selfishness to achieve what is best for society as a whole … for example, lying about and changing the meaning of marriage will only bring grief and more dysfunction to future generations.)

Building a nation calls us to recognize that we must constantly relate to others, rejecting a mindset of hostility in order to adopt one of reciprocal subsidiarity, in a constant effort to do our best. (Play nicely, children!)

We must not be taken aback by their numbers, but rather view them as persons, seeing their faces and listening to their stories, trying to respond as best we can to their situation. To respond in a way which is always humane, just and fraternal. We need to avoid a common temptation nowadays: to discard whatever proves troublesome.  (Subtext: don’t be afraid of migrants and that they will rob you of your comfort.  Figure out a way to cater for them.)

In a word, if we want security, let us give security; if we want life, let us give life; if we want opportunities, let us provide opportunities. The yardstick we use for others will be the yardstick which time will use for us. The Golden Rule also reminds us of our responsibility to protect and defend human life at every stage of its development.  (Subtext: No abortion, no euthanasia!)

In Laudato Si’, I call for a courageous and responsible effort to “redirect our steps” (ibid., 61), and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity.  (Subtext: The environmentalists have a point!  We need to care for God’s creation.)

It is my wish that throughout my visit the family should be a recurrent theme. How essential the family has been to the building of this country! And how worthy it remains of our support and encouragement! Yet I cannot hide my concern for the family, which is threatened, perhaps as never before, from within and without. Fundamental relationships are being called into question, as is the very basis of marriage and the family. I can only reiterate the importance and, above all, the richness and the beauty of family life.  (And he said this without mentioning divorce, contraception or homosexual acts.  Take note, Catholics, on how to promote the beauty of the family without sounding scornful of others.)

I would like to call attention to those family members who are the most vulnerable, the young. For many of them, a future filled with countless possibilities beckons, yet so many others seem disoriented and aimless, trapped in a hopeless maze of violence, abuse and despair. Their problems are our problems. We cannot avoid them. We need to face them together, to talk about them and to seek effective solutions rather than getting bogged down in discussions. At the risk of oversimplifying, we might say that we live in a culture which pressures young people not to start a family, because they lack possibilities for the future. Yet this same culture presents others with so many options that they too are dissuaded from starting a family.  (Subtext: People who live without the joy of the Gospel become trapped in a life of meaninglessness and despair.  Let us help them to recover the truth!)

Let us pray for all Catholics to be able to transmit the joy of the Gospel!  And for a scripture study on today’s readings, read Dr John Bergsma’s commentary.