It surprises me that people do not get upset, even angry, when they hear some of your parables. This Sunday’s Gospel is a case in point. Do we instinctively protect ourselves by adapting the text so that it is not nearly as confrontational as the naked text would seem to be? Please tell me that is not what I do. Chances are the first audience that heard you tell this parable, the Pharisees, heard it the way you meant it. They didn’t have those defense mechanisms in place. The story was like a punch in the gut. No wonder they became so angry with you that they wanted to see you put to death.
Do I breathe a sigh of relief because someone else is the focus of the telling? Again, please let that not be so. What challenges the Pharisees you mean to challenge all of us who are listening, be we of the crowds or the disciples. It occurs to me that anger at hearing your parable could well be a grace prompting me to change so that I will conform more closely to people whose lives are rooted in the Gospel, people who seriously want to imitate you as we walk with you on the Way.
The Prophet Amos, in the first reading castigates the complacent in Zion. My dictionary defines complacency as self-satisfaction especially when accompanied by unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies. Amos addresses those among God’s chosen people who have made it, as we would say today, the elite of society. They are the successful ones who are able to partake of the best that life can offer – the finest meats and wines and the best furnishings that money can by. They are arty and pretentious. There is nothing particularly sinful about what they are doing. They might even have been thanking God with every bite or sip for the good fortune with which God blessed them. Those of us hearing Amos today might miss that some of what they feast upon ought to be given to God in temple sacrifice. Aside from that dereliction there is nothing blatantly sinful in what they are doing. To what is Amos trying to awaken the complacent in Zion? I can almost hear you telling me to listen carefully, too.
Your proclamation of the two great commandments in the Law suddenly comes to mind. Love God with your entire being. Love your neighbor as you love yourself. You linked the two commandments and made them one. You make it impossible to fulfill the one without fulfilling the other.
Is that what Amos is getting at here? This people with all their indulgence in lavishness are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph! Here, Joseph means all of the people, especially the poor, the widows and the orphans who are supposed to be the objects of their special care. The rich, in effect, separate the love of God from the love of neighbor. Is Amos saying that the self-indulgence by the rich will bring about the collapse of the nation? He warns that the rich will be the first to be led off in exile when the nation collapses. If they are the first, that means they will be enslaved even before their poor counterparts are led away.
Do you want us, listening today, to remember that historically Israel was strongest when the people were most zealous about living the Law as God’s people? The nation weakened when the people became fascinated by the gods of the Gentiles and no longer followed the Law. Complacency made them unaware of actual dangers and deficiencies.
Amos prepares me to hear you tell the story about a rich man who feasted sumptuously every day. The man probably was blind to the physical hazards from that kind of habitual diet. While some people today would cringe, those were the days when full figures and masculine girth were signs of material success. What you are telling us is that the man was also blind to the moral deficiencies of his lifestyle.
Why is it that when people hear this parable most often they assume all kinds of evils in the man’s life? You don’t mention any of those. You don’t say anything about licentiousness. We are tempted to think that he must be thoroughly corrupt. Why else would he end up where he does after death? The only evil you voice in the man’s life is the fact that he was blind to Lazarus, the beggar at this rich man’s doorpost.
Now you take us to the netherworld – Hades, Sheol, or hell in our parlance. What a difference in perspective comes to us. Lazarus has died and now is embraced by Abraham (the God-figure). The rich man also has died. From his place of torment he can see the transformed Lazarus. Abraham informs him that he is where he is as a consequence of the life of luxury he lived while Lazarus lived in want. While that may be so, does the rich man maintain his attitude of superiority over Lazarus? Is that why he asks Father Abraham to have Lazarus tend to his needs? He wants Lazarus to do his bidding and bring him a sip of water to slake his thirst. You in your parable say that is not possible. It is clear that the rich man does not realize how deep and wide is the chasm that separates the two worlds or how permanent is his present situation.
Do you intend us to hear a moment of awakening for the rich man in what he asks next? Perhaps he is aware of someone else in his universe. He asks that Lazarus be sent to the man’s brothers to warn them to change their lives lest they suffer the fate. Father Abraham reminds Dives, as the rich man is often called, that they have Moses’ and the prophets’ teachings that should serve as warnings. Let them listen to Moses and the prophets and respond accordingly. Dives says the brothers may be ignoring all the teachings up to this point in their lives as he did in his, but they will listen if Lazarus from among the dead goes to them.
If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead. So ends your parable. Luke wrote his Gospel in light of your resurrection. Is the parable’s conclusion saying that Dives’ request of Father Abraham is granted when you triumph over death and rise to new life? You returned to call us to live a new and different kind of life, a life of justice, love, and peace. Did Dives’ brothers listen? Did they respond? Have people in every age listened and responded? Will we?
How long will you be patient with us, with me? Sunday after Sunday your followers come together to listen to Moses and the prophets and to the Gospel in our Liturgy of the Word. You mean the readings to confront us, even unsettle us. You mean them to warn us. Our starving spirits are nourished at the Table of the Word. As uncomfortable as I might be made by what I hear, I am meant to take the Word to heart and be transformed by it. My sisters and brothers and I are shown time after time that we are to love God with our entire beings and our neighbors as ourselves. I think I can hear you saying that there must be more than a notional response. If Dives had been asked about Amos, or Moses, or any of the prophets, he probably would have been able to quote them and say that he accepted their teachings. But the teachings did not change Dives’ heart. He could love God with all sincerity and ignore the beggar at his doorpost. We listen to you who have come back from the grave. You command us to love God and to love one another as I have loved you. I have to listen as you tell me that love must be practical or it is not love at all.
I just read a statement by a fairly well known Catholic writer announcing that she is giving up being a Christian. She gave as her reasons what we would call the sins of the Church, the way the Church is perceived in these times. Judgmental. Condemning. Divisive. Clerical. Sexist. Her words. It is true that what the woman says is simplistic and un-nuanced. But it is also apparent that she is not turning her back on you, but on the Church as she hears the Churches message to be today.
I wonder if she will be comforted by Pope Francis’s preaching and teaching about the reforms he longs to see in the Church. Loudly and clearly he is challenging your people to see Lazarus at our doorposts. That is what he must mean by a poorer church serving the needs of the poor. Decisions that are made must work toward justice for the poor and seek a more equitable distribution of the world’s goods. The chasm that separates the wealthy from the poor, the wealthy nations from the developing nations must be narrowed. You do not want the differences that separate to be the primary theme of ecclesial declarations, but rather what unites us in God ought to be the proclamation. Why did some shudder when the pope declared that there are many ways to heaven and that even the atheist can go there? And Muslims, too. And Blacks and Whites and Asians. Males and females and members of the LGBT community. When strangers come among us, your desire is that the first thing they experience is God’s love that embraces all, that wills the salvation of all.
So, once again we will go from your Table of the Word to your Table of the Eucharist. We will give thanks to God as we renew your dying and rising in the Bread that is broken and the Cup that is poured out. Once again you will encourage us to take your promise to heart that whenever we do this you are present. Then we will be transformed just as are the bread and wine. If we believe you who have come back to us from among the dead, we will understand that we are sent to live that reality until you come again in glory.
It is important for me to pay attention to whom you are speaking when you tell a parable. You intend the stories to unsettle your audience as you teach about discipleship or the coming Kingdom. Sometimes you speak to the crowds, those gathered around you who have not yet decided whether to follow you, and put squarely before them the cost of discipleship. Sometimes, as in this Sunday’s Liturgy of the Word, your parable is addressed to the disciples. To spell out clearly for them what you expect as disciples live out their vocation.
If you are speaking to disciples, I have to accept that you are speaking to me. The instinct might be to be guarded or defensive because I know from experience that your parables can be problematic and that instinct might be for me to think that surely your are not talking to me. Perhaps, but on the other hand. So I accept that you want me to be open to the implications of this story in which you praise craftiness and even dishonesty. There is something for me to learn and take to heart. I am still on the Way after all.
What do you want me to do with this? The master reprimands the steward, the one in charge of the estate, for squandering his property. That is an interesting choice of words. Last week that was what the Prodigal Son was accused of doing, squandering his inheritance. The word means to spend wastefully and foolishly. In both cases, the foolish spending involved what was entrusted to them. There was reconciliation for the son last week. This week there are praises for the dishonest steward when he acts prudently.
Once the master confronts the steward and demands an accounting, he concludes that his station in life is about to be drastically reduced. One day he lives as one of the entitled. The next day may well find him living the life of a pauper. A prince one day, he will be a commoner the next. Recognizing his own limitations, that is, that he can neither accept being a common laborer nor someone who sits and begs, he determines to ingratiate himself with those who are indebted to the master. He calls them in, one by one, and slashes their bills, making it easier for them to repay and get out of debt. Some commentators say that he simply removed from their tab what he had added that would come to him upon payment. That is what tax collectors did to tax bills. They added to the tax assessment in order to make their living.
Other commentators say he recognized which side his bread was buttered on, as we would say today, and reduced what the master could expect to retrieve from his debtors. It is possible that the master did not know what was owed. You want me to hear that the steward would do anything to make friends to receive him in his desperation.
What am I to take from this as I hear the master commend the steward for his prudence? You are not praising dishonesty. You praise the steward, recognizing the precarious situation he is now in, for doing what he has to have friends once he is thrown out of his position.
You want your disciples to be prudent with what has been entrusted to us. You entrust the Kingdom to disciples. We are supposed to understand that our living the Good News and imitating you is meant to prepare the way for the Kingdom’s entry into the lives of those we meet. We disciples should be as determined in our ministry as the steward was in his endeavors. Of course the obvious difference is that the steward was self-serving. Disciples are to pour out their very selves in service of others. Some could see that as squandering, couldn’t they? But you do not want disciples to serve so that we will be received into earthly mansions, (alas, some might fit that characteristic); rather you want us to keep our eyes fixed on the goal. At the end of our ministries we will be welcomed by the poor we have served into the heavenly mansion prepared for us.
I am grateful that you spelled out the implications of the parable for the disciples. Those implications have to do with the response to worldly wealth. Some are mistaken in thinking that you condemn wealth. Paul did not tell Timothy that money is the root of all evil; rather, he said that the love of money is. For the wealthy, what is important is what they do with their wealth. The negative implications of squandering would apply. But do you laugh at those who stand outside in long lines through the darkest and dreariest of nights just so that they can be among the first to buy the latest electronic gadget? I think I will be able to go to my grace in peace even if I never play Pokémon. Encouraging are the stories of the billionaires bequeathing the bulk of their fortunes to charitable causes.
You do expect us to give of our wealth, great or meager as it might be, to tithe of our wealth to ease the needs of the poor.
I read a story about the late actor, Tony Randall. He had a successful acting career and fortune followed. He gave an interview in which he said that he never wanted to take his wealth for granted, nor did he think that his success gave him importance. On those occasions when he thought he was getting a swelled head and taking himself too seriously, he would journey to some impoverished are like Calcutta and walk among the poorest of the poor. There he would come face to face with his powerlessness to do anything to alleviate the situation. He knew that if he gave something to a beggar, the rest would throttle the recipient and wrest the pittance from him. I wish the interview had gone a step farther to say what portion of Randall’s wealth he did give to charity.
I have to pray for poor Bernie Madoff, a man whose name will live in infamy. While he is not the only one to plot and become ruthless in the pursuit of worldly wealth, he can stand as the epitome of what you warn about regarding succumbing to the love of money. There is always the possibility that Madoff thought his Ponzi scheme would work. But it seems more likely that his lust for money stifled his conscience as he bilked wealth from friends, charities, and strangers alike, promising that they would see amazing returns from entrusting their fortunes to him. Turned out in disgrace as he was when the scheme collapsed, and were he not in prison, who would have received him and offered him shelter in his impoverished state? What consolation can there be for him knowing that one son committed suicide because of the scandal, and the other died of cancer. Do you weep for him and others like him?
Your herald, Pope Francis, reminds us that it is the poor we serve and to whose needs we contribute who will be the ones to pray in our behalf when they reach the heavenly kingdom before us. They are the ones who will receive us into glory. We don’t have to go to the other side of that coin. You want us to stay with the positive challenge and its reward.
You have anointed Francis as today’s Prophet Amos in this Sunday’s first reading. Like Amos, the pope rages against hypocrisy and blindness to the needs of the poor. Both are searing in the condemnation of a religious people whose observances and practices are hollow. The call is to give praise and honor to God and to work for justice for the poor. Francis calls for a poorer church serving the needs of the poor.
From the emphasis that you place on the embracing of poverty as part of the call to discipleship, I have to hear that worldly wealth poses a danger for us. I have to ask what is most important in my life. You cannot serve both God and mammon. My dictionary says that mammon is material wealth having a debasing influence. There are people who seem unable to talk about anything else but money and their desire for more. Were one to wonder what is most important in their lives, the conclusion could well be that money, mammon, is. Where does God come in? Second place? You have taught us that we cannot be slaves to wealth and faithful servants.
Following the Liturgy of the Word, the Assembly continues on to Eucharist. We gather around the table, the primary symbol of your presence, united as your Body to again give thanks to God as we renew your dying and rising in bread and wine. Your dying is self-emptying. You give your body to be eaten and your blood to be drunk by those who stand in need.
In the Communion Procession, we approach open and empty handed to receive the Bread and drink from the Cup. We come in our hunger and poverty to be filled and strengthened so that we can continue to be your faithful stewards in service of your Good News. We come to be transformed by what we take and eat so that we can be sent to continue to meet the needs of the poor in whom we recognize you in your passion.
Lord, you are the master who has gone on a journey and entrusted us as stewards of the kingdom. We pray that when you return in glory, you will find us your faithful and trustworthy stewards, your servants and followers of the Good News you announce.
I was taught that when I listen to your parables I should place myself in them. Then I should look to the audience to whom you are speaking and take note whether you are speaking to crowds, those undecided about you, or to disciples, those who have made their decision to accept your invitation to follow you on the Way. In this sequence you are in the midst of the detested tax collectors and others judged to be sinners. Your association with these types eventually got you into trouble. “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them,” was the accusation that contributed most to your downfall.
These parables in this Sunday’s Liturgy of the Word about the shepherd’s quest for the lost sheep, the woman’s search for the lost coin, and the story of the Prodigal Son, are not addressed to the shunned ones. Your intended audience is those who are upset by the company you are keeping. The Pharisees and scribes are seriously concerned with the Law and strive to live by it exactly. They are judgmental about those who seem not to be keeping the Law with due diligence. Your associations scandalize them.
If I imagine myself to be one of the characters in a parable, I wonder how I would react in the situation you describe. What is the point that you are trying to make? In these Gospel parables, are you telling the hearers to let their preconceptions about God be challenged by the images you conger? Are you telling me to stop thinking that I understand how unconditionally God loves human kind?
The difficulty for the judgmental is that, if they take you seriously, you make God seem foolish, God’s reactions, excessive. You say to them, what one among you wouldn’t act in this way? They shudder, wondering what sane individual would respond like the shepherd, the woman, or the Prodigal Son’s father? It doesn’t make sense to leave 99 sheep untended in the desert and go searching for a lost lamb. It doesn’t make sense to have such an exaggerated and costly reaction to the finding of a lost coin. It doesn’t make sense to be so lavish in the outpouring of affection on a wastrel son whose excesses have resulted in the squandering of a fortune, to say nothing of debasing the family name and reputation. It doesn’t make sense to the judgmental, but what a consolation to those who have a sense of their own sinfulness and their heartfelt need for forgiveness, reconciliation, and acceptance.
You begin these parables by asking the Pharisees, the scribes and me which one of us wouldn’t act in the same way as the shepherd, the woman, and the father do? Perhaps I could be that fond of a lamb, separated from the flock, that I would brave the wilds in search of it. But would I leave the rest untended? Would I get that excited about finding a lost coin? Would I be that lavish in the moment of reunion with someone who had betrayed me? I wish I could give an unqualified assent to this, but, as I said, I wonder.
Since I know myself to be a sinner, I find it more comfortable to be one of the lost in the parables. I find great solace in imagining being sought out, rejoiced over, and welcomed home again. It is a matter of perspective.
There is a lot to ruminate over in the Prodigal Son parable, especially since you do not give us all the answers. How one hears the parable probably depends on how that same one fills in the blanks that you purposely left. Take the Prodigal, for example. You don’t tell us much about the life he lived while he was in the foreign land other than that he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation. It is left to the judgmental older brother to interpret dissipation as trafficking with prostitutes. But did he? You don’t tell us because that doesn’t matter. It isn’t the sin that is important, but the desolation the Prodigal feels as his desperation makes him long to share the pig’s slop.
Was he really repentant? Is it by design that his plea in rehearsal is different from the one voiced in his father’s embrace. As he watched the pigs, he thought he would be willing to be treated like one of your hired workers when he returned home. Perhaps the father did not give him enough time to finish all he wanted to say because that did not seem important to the father either.
Can anyone ever adequately express sorrow for sin or repentance? What mattered to the father was that the son for whom he had searched every evening, looking down the road with longing as the sun set, his son, once lost, was found, once dead, was alive again. He didn’t mind making a spectacle of himself as he ran down the street to embrace this one he loved.
Someone speculated that you are the Prodigal Son in the parable. You thought equality with God was not something to be grasped at, but rather, you emptied yourself of that to become one of us. You dissipated the divine fortune to become sin among us and so did not fit the popular expectations for the Messiah and were rejected, condemned, and nailed to the cross. It is in Luke’s Gospel that you cry out from the cross, Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. In that moment of abject poverty you leap into the void that is death only to be caught up in the arms of the Father whose will you always sought, whose image you are.
What about the older son? You say at the outset of the story that when the younger son asked for his inheritance now, as if he could not wait for the father to die, the father divided the inheritance between the two sons. The older son had his share of the inheritance all along. He remained the firstborn. His brother’s sad saga had no impact on the amount that had come to him. Was it the father who forced him to serve the father’s needs? Did the son resent each day’s responsibilities? Did he think of his life as one of drudgery, like that of a slave? His resentment is so intense that he cannot even refer to the returning prodigal as his brother. In his mind the prodigal is this son of yours.
I find tears in my eyes as I think of the implications of this parable. Sin remains sin – whatever the Prodigal’s might have been, whatever mine might be. But God’s love is greater than even my worst sin; therefore there is no room for despair. God rejoices always with the one who was lost and is found, who was dead and has come to life again.
Pope Francis declared that this year is the Year of Mercy. I wish that there would be evidence of the church’s being so profligate with the bestowing of mercy that those ultra observant ones would fume and be scandalized by such an outpouring of love on their brothers and sisters. Your dying and rising makes this possible. I am filled with joy as one of the forgiven. I want to tell each person that I meet of this wonderful love so that they will recognize that it is for them, too.