26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
(Luke 16:19-31: the parable of Lazarus and the rich man)
It is quite common in parts of the world and even here, for employees to be absent from work for the purposes of attending funerals. While in westernized world most funerals are scheduled on Saturdays these days, in smaller towns this is not possible for want of good mortuaries. But why a high rate of absenteeism from work due to funerals? For one thing, funerals are communal events and hence people would go for funerals of even mutual friends. However, once I asked one of our staff who was going to the third funeral in one month during her working hours: “Why do you have to go for almost every funeral in town?” Her answer was quite straightforward: “If I do not go for the funeral of others, no one will come for mine.”
There is an underlying norm of morality in her simple answer. Why does she love her neighbor: so that they might love her in return. This norm of morality is also supported by the Hebrew Scriptures: “Do to no one what you would not want done to you” (Tob 4:15), or put positively, “Love your neighbor as yourself (Lev.19:18). In keeping with the Jewish tradition, the evangelist Matthew puts this even in the mouth of Jesus, but in a positive way, which could be more demanding: “So always treat others as you would like them to treat you” (Mt 7:12; see also, Mt 19:16-19:“Love your neighbor as yourself”; Lk 6:31: Treat others as you would like people to treat you).
It is now well known that this maxim is found across almost all religious traditions. There is an ongoing attempt to build a ‘Global Ethic’ based on this principle of the ‘The Golden Rule’ (see for instance, the works of Karen Armstrong). The strong argument for this type of morality is that it is secular, universal, humanistic, rational, and does not require religion or belief in God.
But, how viable is this norm of morality?
During his visit to the UK in 2010, Pope Benedict warned us against an exaggerated secular norm of morality, even citing the atrocities of the godless totalitarian powers of the first part of the 20th century. It should also note that sometimes ethics based on institutional religion rather than God is also dangerous.
We continue to see signs of the danger of building a society and its norm of morality apart from God. Some years ago in Copenhagen during a conference. In several researches and surveys Denmark has emerged as ‘the happiest nation’ in the world. However, even in this happiest nation there are signs of an impending crisis. A professor called it, “The Love Crisis”. According to Prof. Hans Knoop, a love crisis is brewing up in this happy nation which has one of the better social-welfare schemes in the world. People begin to argue: why should I love my neighbor? Why should I be helpful to others? If my neighbor is in need, the state is supposed to take care of them. Why should I even bother? When I am in need, the state will take care of me. I don’t need my neighbor’s help.” (Do you see the wisdom of the Holy Father? In an exaggerated-secular state, the state itself could become a god!)
So, why should I love?
The gospel text of today invites us once again to reflect on the meaning of love and kindness. There is the unnamed rich man who has a poor neighbor named Lazarus. ‘Lazarus’ literally means, ‘God helps’. The poor man is very visible because he lies at the gate of the rich man. Lazarus yearns for the love of his neighbor, which he does not receive. He relies solely on the love of God. The rich man, despite his wealth, is nameless. He thought his purple dress, the fine linen, and the daily feasts (Lk 16:19) could give him happiness and well being. At the end of the story, the positions of the characters is reversed, and the truth is made plain. In the change of life events like death, the rich man is just ‘buried’ while Lazarus is carried to the bosom of Abraham. The rich man has excluded himself from the heavenly banquet. He becomes a victim of the abyss that he had created by his indifference to poor Lazarus. The rich man does have some love for his immediate family – his five brothers – but this isn’t sufficient for him to enjoy lasting happiness and well being.
The parable should not be taken to justify laziness or to discourage hard work. There is no reference to both in the text. There is no glorification of material poverty either. The text is about our attitude to God, and our attitude towards our neighbor. So, does the gospel answer our initial question: Why love?
I think, the gospel text of today teaches us that love and kindness are important for our lasting well being and true happiness. Three things seem to emerge from the text:
1. Love of our immediate family may not be good enough for our general well-being.
There is a difference between love and kindness. Love is primarily a relationship with people whom we know and who are able to respond to our movement towards them. On the other hand, kindness is truly an altruistic attitude of reaching out to someone without expecting anything in return. This is expressed not just in social etiquette, but in affirmative acts of compassion. It is this virtue of compassion that the rich man in the parable of today needed to cultivate.
This spiritual truth that is expressed in the gospel of today is also supported by empirical evidence from social sciences. It has been shown that long-term happiness and wellbeing are correlated to meaningful engagement with people. The inner state of happiness that comes from compassionately reaching out to someone is said to last longer than the subjective state of euphoria that comes from experiences of pleasure.
2. We could become victims of the gap we ourselves create with our neighbors. We begin to deprive ourselves of happiness and well being.
Nations that are said to be happy as a whole are also found to have smaller gap between the rich and the poor. On the other hand, according to some estimates the gap between the poorest nations and richest nations of the world is so huge that with the current growth rates, it could take over 100 years for the poorest nations to reach the present levels of the rich nations. It seems an obvious imperative then that we can ensure global wellbeing and happiness, only when we can reduce the gap between the rich and poor, in our own neighborhood, and in the world at large.
3. Those who truly trust in God will enjoy well being, because they will be able to be compassionate.
Though Jesus in his preaching repeated the Golden Rule proposed by the Law and Prophets (Mt 7:12; Lk 6:31), his invitation to love is based on the experience of the love of God Himself. In Lk 6:36, he would say, “Be compassionate, even as your Father is compassionate.” The measuring rod for my love for the neighbor is not merely my love for myself, but it is the love of God for me. And in the Gospel of John, Jesus is even more articulate (Jn 13:34; also 15:12): “I give you a new commandment: love one another; you must love one another just as I have loved you.” John continues to give a commentary on this in his first epistle: “My dear friends, let us love one another, since love is from God and everyone who loves is a child of God and knows God…. This is the revelation of God’s love for us, that God sent his only Son into the world that we might have life through him. Love consists in this: it is not we who loved God, but God loved us and sent his Son to expiate our sins. My dear friends, if God loved us so much, we too should love one another. (1Jn 4:7-11).
Fr. Franco Pereira, S.D.B.