No one coasts to salvation: Sunday reflection – HotAir

This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 16:19–31:

Jesus said to the Pharisees:

“There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day. And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. Dogs even used to come and lick his sores. When the poor man died, he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham. The rich man also died and was buried, and from the netherworld, where he was in torment, he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he cried out, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am suffering torment in these flames.’

Abraham replied, ‘My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented. Moreover, between us and you a great chasm is established to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go from our side to yours or from your side to ours.’

He said, ‘Then I beg you, father, send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they too come to this place of torment.’ But Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.’ He said, ‘Oh no, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ Then Abraham said, ‘If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.’”

Ever feel as though you’re so far ahead that you don’t have to try hard to finish the game? That pretty much describes my scholastic career in a nutshell, in fact. I was blessed with an active mind and cursed with an even more active sense of procrastination. I could learn the material, put off the work until it was pointless to submit it, and still eke out passing grades by acing the tests.

In high school, anyway. I discovered the hard way that (a) it was much easier to procrastinate and fail to show up in college, and (b) you couldn’t pass classes without doing the work. You know that old nightmare about showing up for a final exam only to discover it had already taken place? Yeah … that actually happened to me. That’s how bad my laziness and complacency got.

When I read this parable from Jesus to the Pharisees, the image of complacency immediately springs to mind. That becomes especially true in our first reading from Amos, a prophet who tried to rouse the Northern Kingdom from its own complacency just before the Assyrians sacked it and Israel disappeared for millennia into history. In fact, Amos starts his warning in today’s reading (Amos 6:1a, 4-7) by addressing it to the complacent:

Woe to the complacent in Zion! Lying upon beds of ivory, stretched comfortably on their couches, they eat lambs taken from the flock, and calves from the stall! Improvising to the music of the harp, like David, they devise their own accompaniment. They drink wine from bowls and anoint themselves with the best oils; yet they are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph! Therefore, now they shall be the first to go into exile, and their wanton revelry shall be done away with.

The target of this criticism parallels that of Jesus’ parable: the theological and economic ruling cliques of their times. Neither Amos nor Jesus make that explicit, but in both, the images of the damned are those who barely have to work for their food or their luxuries. Their rank alone in the worldly sense makes them immune to the dangers surrounding them — literally in Amos’ warning, in his reference to “the collapse of Joseph” and the kingdom.

Jesus tells His parable directly to the Pharisees, who are about to govern over another destruction within a generation, but retains at least a veneer of symbolism. His antagonist is a generic wealthy man but also of a clear rank; Jesus notes his purple garments, a rarity in those days that generally meant royalty or some other form of high authority or rank. The Pharisees would not have missed that detail. This man of rank not only is complacent in his own wealth, but — different from Amos’ warning — complacent also about the poor in his own neighborhood and presumably under his authority and responsibility. In fact, the rich man of this parable is so complacent about the gifts and power he has that he never really sees Lazarus or his suffering, or if he does, he doesn’t care enough to even offer the slightest share of his own abundance to assist the poor man.

Both passages have plenty of meaning in literal senses, as well as moral and ethics lessons. Jesus’ point about sending a prophet to instruct the rich man’s brothers is all the more pointed based on what later happens in His Passion, but it would have been sharp enough at the time with the reference to the prophets being ignored. What did the prophets attempt to do, repeatedly, time after time? Shake the Israelites and the Judeans from their complacency, and remind them that building temples and sacrificing were not nearly enough to sustain their access to salvation.

Jeremiah’s mission is a sterling example of this attempt to push back against complacency. After the fall of the Northern Kingdom, the Judeans should have listened to the other prophets. However, they convinced themselves that the Lord would not allow the temple to fall, and remained defiantly complacent. Jeremiah worked so hard to rouse them from this state that he got confined to shut him up. Judea fell to the Babylonians, although the Lord assured them — through Jeremiah — that one day they could return, but wiser and less complacent than before.

After Jesus’ Passion and our own acceptance of Him as our personal Savior, it is also easy to fall into complacency. We start out with hearts on fire for Him, but we fall back into old habits, old patterns, and old rationalizations. Our sinful nature requires constant vigilance and commitment, but at the same time it can cause the numbing that comes from comfort — just as with the rich man in Jesus’ parable. We end up focusing on the enjoyment of our own gifts that we become blind to those we could and should help lift up.

Paul writes about vigilance in his epistle to Timothy (1 Tim 6:11-16), our second reading today. It is not enough to receive the faith, Paul writes — one must “compete” for the faith as well to achieve salvation:

But you, man of God, pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness. Compete well for the faith. Lay hold of eternal life, to which you were called when you made the noble confession in the presence of many witnesses.

Note the active verbs Paul uses here: pursue, compete, lay hold. That’s not just good writing, which it definitely is, but it communicates that Christian love is an action and not just a feeling or state of being. It is not enough to “be” righteous — one must “pursue” it at all times. Christianity and salvation require action, overt effort, and constant competition against complacency and the forces that want to overwhelm us with it.

Otherwise, when the test comes, we may find ourselves too late to pass it — just like the wealthy man in Jesus’ parable. That is an awful feeling indeed … as I know only too well, and wish to avoid feeling ever again once, let alone eternally.


The front-page image is a detail from “Lazarus and the Rich Man” by Jacopo Bassano, c. 1550. Currently on display at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Via Wikimedia Commons.

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  

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