Fr Billy Swan
Dear friends. In 2004, I spent the summer in Zambia in Africa on mission with the Irish Christian Brothers. It was an unforgettable experience. One day, I was walking through a village outside the capital Lusaka when I was approached by several people, one after the other who were looking for money. I also had the feeling of being followed and stared at. Then it hit me. I probably had more money in my pocket that day than they would see in a month or even a year. In their eyes I was the equivalent in wealth to Bill Gates. I began to feel unsettled and uncomfortable with this perception. Was this good for me? Absolutely! Why? Because in the words of the first reading, ‘Woe to those who are ensconced so snugly’. At times we all need a shake-up and to be challenged. Water that is stagnant goes smelly. Only water that is stirred up stays fresh.
From all the readings of the liturgical year, few are as challenging and shake us up as much as those we have just heard. And this is how it should be and what God wants – to see things in a new way and to be shaken out of indifference and blindness. At the heart of the first reading and the Gospel is the indifference of humans to each other, particularly the indifference of the wealthy towards the poor. And it was this for this indifference that the rich man in the Gospel is condemned. He wasn’t condemned because he was wealthy but because he didn’t share. In the Gospel story, the rich man and Lazarus are separated in this life by a gate and in the next life by ‘a great gulf that has been fixed’. And it is the separation by these barriers that leads to such torment. The real tragedy of the story is that both men never really met or shared what one had to offer the other. Lazarus needed the rich man’s wealth to help him out of his poverty. But the rich man needed Lazarus to save him from hell. But Lazarus stayed in poverty and the rich man went to hell. It was too late.
For us it isn’t too late. We still have the prophets and the Gospels. They warn us that when we lock ourselves into worlds of indulgence, ego and self-sufficiency then there is a real danger of losing our soul in this life and the next. Wealth for its own sake dehumanises us like poverty. It locks us away into a lonely world where we may be comfortable but terribly empty inside. If and when we meet the poor and allow them to impact on us and challenge us, they will benefit from us but we too will benefit from them. Here is the real challenge of the Gospel – to come together as a community in mutual respect where barriers fall, respect and understanding grows and joy flows by sharing with those we come to see as our brothers and sisters. To move towards this ideal asks big questions of us. Who is the Lazarus at our gate? Are we hearing the cry of the poor? What can we do in this community, to make even a small practical contribution to addressing a social justice issue in our area? What are the barriers that need to fall to make this happen? What we decide to do is not nearly as important as the fact that we make a start.
In the village in Zambia, I came to know some of the people who had approached me that day looking for help. I shared with them what I could but received from them even more – the joy of God in a people that St Paul describes in the second reading as ‘filled with faith and love, patient and gentle’. Separation kills. Togetherness gives life. This is the real message of the readings today.