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Homily notes: 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C, 29 September 2019

Fr Brendan Byrne SJ  |  19 September 2019

Lectionary readings
First reading:
Amos 6:1, 4-7
Psalm: 145(146):6-10
Second reading: 1 Timothy 6:11-16
Gospel: Luke 16:19-31

There is a sharp social justice focus in the Scripture today.

In the First Reading, from Amos 6:1, 2-7, the prophet vividly depicts the luxurious and idle life of the wealthy in the Northern Kingdom of Israel. In their complacency they are ignorant and unheeding of the fate that is soon to overtake them.

The parable that forms the Gospel, from Luke 16:19-31, is the only one in which a character – here the poor man Lazarus – is named. In many ways, what we have is not strictly a parable at all but a kind of exemplary story, based on a popular folk tale.

We are not told that the rich man is notably wicked or vicious in any particular way. The focus falls solely on the fact that, absorbed in his comfortable life, he simply does not notice the poor beggar lying in such need at his door. By the same token, we are not told that Lazarus is notably virtuous or deserving. It is simply his desperate situation that will attract the attention of God.

NOTION OF A GREAT REVERSAL

The drama of the parable swings upon the notion of a great reversal that is to take place. We have heard about such a reversal earlier in Luke’s gospel – in Mary’s Magnificat (1:51-53) and in the Beatitudes (6:20-26). Within the story itself the reversal takes place when both characters – the rich man and the poor beggar, Lazarus – die. The rich man is carted off to Hades, the poor man is gently conveyed (by angels) to Abraham’s bosom. These “destinations” reflect conventional imagery of the afterlife existent at the time, which the parable presupposes. They need not be dwelt upon in preaching, as though the parable had something important to communicate regarding Hell as a place of fiery torment and so forth.

The chief point that the parable makes is that across the change from this life to the next the fixed nature of the situation remains. In the situation on earth, the rich man’s indifference ensured that absolutely no crumb of sustenance or comfort passed from his table to the beggar outside. Lazarus longed for food, even a crumb, but there was no “crossing over” from one side to another. Now, in the afterlife situation there is exactly the same stand-off – only now it is the rich man who has the longing and the poor man who is in comfort. The former longs for a drop of water to assuage his terrible thirst, but, as Abraham sadly explains, Lazarus can be of no help to him now. As before, there is no “crossing over” from one side to the other. The fixity that the rich man’s complacency established in the former situation has encased an eternal fixity that cannot be dissolved. He had not been hospitable to Lazarus. Now Lazarus cannot be hospitable to him.

BLINDNESS TO NEEDS

The problem is not so much the rich man’s wealth and luxury in itself but, as so often in Luke’s gospel, the fact that living such a life blinded the man to the need of a fellow human being and to wider social responsibility. The opportunity to attend to such obligations will not last forever. When God acts on behalf of the poor and all is reversed, the rich will find themselves trapped in a painful and unchangeable predicament of their own making.

Ultimately, then, the parable is about conversion and about the difficulty that riches and luxury put in its way. This becomes clearer in the epilogue following the main story. Realising the hopelessness of his own situation, the man wants Lazarus sent on an errand to warn his five brothers before they too end up in the same fate. Abraham suggests that what they need to hear is contained already in the Scriptures (OT), which contain ample warnings about the need to care for the widow, the orphan, the needy stranger at the door (Deut 10:18; 24:19, 21; 27:19; Ps 94:6; Isa 1:7; Jer 22:3; Zech 7:10; etc.). But the rich man knows that this will not be enough to change his brothers. Knowingly, Abraham replies, “If they do not listen to scripture, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead”. In the story the one who would come back from the dead would of course be Lazarus. Christian readers, however, would not fail to hear an allusion to the risen Lord.

GOSPEL OF SOCIAL JUSTICE

The story points up the difficulty that even believers have in hearing the gospel of social justice. It does not cease to grow in relevance in a world where so much of the population sits like Lazarus outside the door.

In the Second Reading, 1 Timothy 6:11-16, Paul reminds the young church leader Timothy of his responsibilities in view of both the past example and the future coming of Christ.

 

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