A few months ago, a section of the Chicago Sun-Times Sunday edition bannered the headline "Promise of a new Dawn." The article that followed described a new model Rolls Royce with a starting price of $340,000. It's already sold out through the 2017 model year.
That machine, essentially nothing more than a combination of four tires, an engine, two doors, seats, a steering wheel, and gas and brake pedals, could easily stand in as today's equivalent of the ivory inlaid couches that made Amos cry out in grief and anger in today's first reading.
|Twenty-sixth Sunday in
|Amos 6:1a, 4-7
1 Timothy 6:11-16
Today's Liturgy of the Word opens with Amos quoting God: "Woe to the complacent." Even with all the drama of hearing God shout, the last word is the key. The real tragedy Amos sees around him is complacency.
It's not that there's anything wrong with going to a good party -- Jesus was famous for enjoying them. The trouble was that for these people, feasting had become their life, and they didn't perceive the misery that was all around them. As Amos lamented: "They are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph!"
The crux of Amos' problem was that he had hopes for something different, something that would break the cycles of blindness and consumption. He wanted the comfortable to get a real sensual appreciation of the misery around them, but they were smart enough to avoid it because they knew it would nauseate them.
It would have been as sickening as catching a drift of the aroma permeating an underpass-turned-dormitory by the homeless. It would have been as disturbing as contemplating a couple of 13-year-old girls walking through their inner-city neighborhood, a segregated urban subdivision peppered by broken windows and abandoned houses, trash and bullet-littered parks, and burned-out street lights. It would have been as disgusting as the idea of drinking the water of one of our major rivers.
Such experiences are enough to ruin anyone's appetite. So the complacent avoided them.
Complementing Amos' protest, we hear Jesus' story of Lazarus and the rich man. Lazarus would have fit perfectly in the scenes described above if he hadn't been able to stake out a place in front of the mansion. One sees the advance of our civilization; now we have gated communities and vagrancy laws. The rich man in Jesus' story had to learn to look the other way, but our urban planning has made it possible to speed right past Lazarus' neighborhoods on the interstate highways.
Nevertheless, the result is the same: Lazarus remains invisible.
Knowing that, Jesus decided to tell a ghost story to disturb our peace. He addressed it to the upright of the upright, the Pharisees, folks equivalent to the pillars of the parish, the clergy and religious. After setting the scene by describing the gross inequality we've all learned to ignore or live with, he went on to say the unspeakable: Everyone, even you and I, absolutely everyone is going to die. The time is going to come when we can't change things, when there can be no more revisions to our story.
Then, weaving a narrative that would later inspire Charles Dickens, Jesus told a tale from places beyond the grave. There was Lazarus, luxuriating in the love he had always deserved, while the once wealthy, now dead man had to raise his eyes to get even a glimpse of it. As if for the first time, the rich man almost saw him.
But what he really saw was not Lazarus, but what Lazarus had. The rich man had allowed his humanity to become so impoverished that even after dying he remained blind, insensitive to the connections that bind everyone and everything together.
Unable to escape his paradigm of power relations, he begged for pity from Abraham, assuming that he was still influential enough to be sent a servant. All he accomplished by that was to deepen the chasm he had created between himself and others.
His final gambit, "Send him to warn my brothers," was nothing more than an extension of his sense of class and hereditary privilege. Moses and the prophets were there for everyone to know. No amount of fright from the realm of the dead, no threat, is capable of teaching one to love.
What is necessary is a change of the vocabulary. We have to learn to speak lovingly of "you" and "we" instead of just "me." Our concept of "ours" must grow beyond the narrowness of clan and class to include those to whom the Creator refers as "mine."
When that happens, death will appear as a promise instead of a threat, and we'll not be content until that promise comes true in the real new dawn.
[Mary M. McGlone, a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet, is currently writing a history of the Sisters of St. Joseph in the U.S.]