The Path of Life

The Path of Life

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The truth of human dignity

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time—Year C
Amos 6:1a, 4-7; 1Timothy 6:11-16; Luke 16:19-31
“God hates me,” laments a police detective played by Danny Glover in the 1987 film Lethal Weapon—after he is paired with a partner perceived as suicidal. “Hate him back,” says his new partner, played by Mel Gibson, angrily exhaling cigarette smoke through his nostrils. “It works for me.”
Gibson’s character is terribly distraught, lonely, and bitter over the recent death of his wife in a traffic accident. Hating God back for this injustice is definitely not working for him; he is a man on the brink. What brings him back and restores some semblance of balance to his life is the close relationship he develops with Glover’s character and his family.
In any event, the exchange above from the beginning of the film, unfortunately, reflects a common misconception—both in Jesus’ time and in ours. Too often, material prosperity, personal well-being, and popular acclaim are associated (even among the most “pious” of Christians, or believers within other religious traditions) with divine blessing and favor. Those who have it well, it seems, are being rewarded for their goodness. Meanwhile, material adversity, ill-health and/or personal tragedy, and public disavowal are seen as signs of God’s disapproval. Those who don’t have it so well, it seems, are being punished for their wickedness.
Although such a flawed point of view persists in many subtle forms throughout human history up to the present moment, it is not what Jesus taught at all. This is abundantly clear, especially, in Luke’s Gospel. In Luke 13:1-5, Jesus refers to contemporary tragedies in making the point that the awful things that sometimes happen in life don’t necessarily beset people because they are morally deficient or have lost favor with God. His point is that death awaits us all, good and bad, and we must strive to live in anticipation of that moment of judgment, which will arrive regardless of the particular circumstances.
In addition, Jesus promises an eventual and everlasting reversal of fortune for the poor, the lowly, and the outcast in his “Beatitudes and Woes” discourse (Luke 6:20-26; “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God”). What is more, as God Among Us, Jesus voluntarily (and amazingly!) became poor, emptying himself of divine glory to appear in human likeness (cf. Philippians 2:6-11), suffering in solidarity with us. In Luke 4:16-21, he reads a passage from the prophet Isaiah—“He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor”—and declares that this refers to himself—“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Then, as we know, he demonstrates all this in vivid fashion during his ministry on earth, not as a nobleman among kings, but as a poor guest among sinners (Luke 5:32).
Finally, uniting himself so closely with us that he experiences the human sense of utter abandonment, pain, and futility (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Mark 15:34), Jesus dies on a cross, and is raised on the third day. Before ascending into heaven, he charges his disciples (then and now) to continue the work he began, promising the assistance of the Holy Spirit.
That is not a God who hates, but one who infinitely loves—one who wishes to bring about the redemption and welfare of each and every single human being he has created (cf. 1Timothy 2:4). God—who IS Love (cf. 1John 4:16)—does not hate, mistreat, or abandon anyone. Human beings do that—individually and collectively. As Jesus demonstrated on the cross, in our pain and sorrow, we may sometimes feel as though we have been abandoned, but God promises to redeem the human condition and turn its ugliness into ultimate and everlasting good—something we often can’t see as it’s occurring. By stripping himself of divine glory in Jesus Christ, the Triune God promises to restore the dignity of the human person to its proper place.
Ultimately, this is what Jesus is trying to get across in today’s Gospel (Luke 16:19-31). Whether rich or poor, healthy or ill, with status or without, all human beings are made in the image and likeness of God. The rich man was not condemned because he was wealthy, but because his deluded self-satisfaction (cf. Luke 12:15-34; 18:18-30), self-indulgence, and false sense of superiority during this life blinded him to the human dignity of Lazarus, the poor man covered with sores lying at his very door.
Lazarus suffered horribly due to the rich man’s excess and indifference—not because God hated him. The rich man was being called as God’s instrument of mercy to provide for Lazarus from his abundance, to recognize their common human dignity. Since the rich man failed to do this, God’s love (fulfilling the spirit of the Beatitudes) saw to it that when Lazarus died, he “was carried away by the angels to the bosom of Abraham” and comforted. God also loved the rich man, and he also died, but his refusal to recognize Lazarus’ God-given human dignity condemned him to hell. His choice had been freely made during his earthly life, and it was too late to change his mind afterward.
The rich man was the one who hated. During their lifetimes, he stepped over (or upon!) Lazarus each day while on the way to his next sumptuous feast without giving him so much as table scraps. After all, he might have reasoned, “God favors me become I am so well-off; this man at my door has brought down God’s punishment upon himself.” So, in the next life, their fortunes are reversed—ironically, and tragically, for the rich man.
In the end, wealth, health, and influence in this life count for nothing—except to the extent that they are utilized for doing God’s work of restoring the dignity of the human person. The poor, the lowly, and the outcast have the inside track to the Kingdom of God. For everyone else, it will be more difficult than for a camel passing through the eye of a needle (cf. Luke 18:25) unless we recognize Christ, who is all and in all (cf. Colossians 3:11; Matthew 25:40).
As Blessed Pope John Paul II said in a homily during a visit to the United States in 1979:
We cannot stand idly by, enjoying our own riches and freedom, if, in any place the Lazarus of [today] stands at our doors. In the light of the parable of Christ, riches and freedom mean a special responsibility. Riches and freedom create a special obligation. And so, in the name of the solidarity that binds us all together in a common humanity, I again proclaim the dignity of every human person: the rich man and Lazarus are both human beings, both of them equally created in the image and likeness of God, both of them equally redeemed by Christ, at a great price, the price of the ‘precious blood of Christ’ (1Peter 1:19).

So, if you are the “rich man” in today’s Gospel, who is the “Lazarus” in your life, and how might you recognize in him or her your common human dignity?
And, if you are Lazarus in today’s Gospel, may your lot be relieved by those with the means. Whatever the case might be, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the Kingdom of God.”

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