Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Amos 6:1a, 4-7 | 1 Tm 6:11-16 | Luke 16:19-31
Oh God, who manifests your almighty power above all by pardoning and showing mercy, bestow, we pray, your grace abundantly upon us and make those hastening to attain your promise heirs to the treasures of heaven. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
One of the things that I have discovered late in life, and I teach it as often as I can, it’s the whole notion of human nature and how it evolves, how we come into the world and what we’re expected to do while we’re here. One of the most interesting things about human nature, when it’s in its more raw form, let’s say, closer to where we came from in terms of the animal world, but it’s primary concern is self-preservation. It often feels isolated and separated from others. It doesn’t have a strong sense of connection, and its primary concern is, “How am I going to survive?” When you go from that low form all the way up to the highest form, which I believe is the essence of all religions, but in particular, Christianity really does stress it, and that is we get to the place where our primary concern is for others. And the reason we’re here, the primary reason we’re here, is to take care of them and help them and heal them and support them, an interesting transformation. I know I’ve moved, as all of us have who have been faithful to the tradition of Christianity to the Catholic liturgies, if you’re Catholic and involved in that — there’s something positive about moving us in that direction, even if we’re not that conscious of that’s what we’re doing, but you see in people that are older a much more open, sympathetic, compassionate kind of disposition toward the world. It’s beautiful to watch. One of the things that I think is important about it is, if you look at that as the primary movement of why we’re here, that we go through this process, and I would say children come into the world pretty self-centered. They want to eat, and when they’re not, they’re crying and screaming. Let’s face it. It’s survival, and then we see a change. And what I want to stress then today is that this is the work of — I said it — all religions, but I’d like you to imagine it’s the work that I help you do, that I am involved in, that I want to share with you.
So I want to go to the second reading to start my reflections, because there’s something in it that is very important. First of all, looking back into the full chapter, what we’re looking at is a kind of ordination for Timothy, and Paul is there witnessing it. And he’s being called to serve, and so there’s a strong, kind of liturgical feel to this. Especially the ending is like an exaltation at the end of a major ceremony, praise to God who is accomplishing this. But it’s clear that what Paul is trying to say is that Timothy made a profession in front of others, and he was challenged to do something, to teach, to preach. But the thing it says that he must be dedicated to is the commandment, not the Ten Commandments, not the rules of the church. No, the commandment, and I thought to myself, “What is that?” Well, the obvious thought first is love, but love has so many dimensions. So the one I want to talk about is what we might call sympathy, compassion, empathy, a deep caring for another person. That’s the commandment. That’s what we’re here for, and when you look at the evolution of religion from Old Testament and New Testament, you really do see a radical change in that attitude, because when Christ walked the earth, it was a basic misunderstanding that anyone that was in pain or disease or struggling or a beggar near your house, they were being punished by God. So you weren’t supposed to necessarily pay attention to them or doing anything for them, but what’s interesting about that kind of rule and law — and it may have worked for a long time, but if you develop, if you grow and you evolve in your consciousness, you develop a thing that is a kind of visceral response to someone in pain. We could call it sympathy.
Did you ever notice, when somebody tells somebody about how they went through something really traumatic, lost someone very close to them or went through some really painful thing, the first instinct often that comes to a person is a feeling of, “Oh, I’m sorry.” One person told me that a person said that about their sister’s disease, and they said, “Oh, you caused it?” No, you don’t say you’re sorry because you caused the pain, but you feel sorrow in you because the person is in pain. That’s sympathy. It’s a beautiful quality, and it’s what we’re here to develop and understand more fully and participate in. So let’s go to the first reading then, because it’s really connected to the gospel. It’s one of those statements from the prophets that’s a condemnation of a people who are anything but sympathetic. But what I stress in this is what he’s describing is people who are unconscious but who are liking being unconscious and stay unconscious and party all the time. I love the image of instead of having a glass of wine, they have a bowl of wine, and so they keep themselves drugged, and they keep themselves partying. And the prophet is saying, “This isn’t going to work. This isn’t what human beings are made for, so this is not going to work. So one day it will all be done away with,” meaning, if you’ll just grow up a little bit, you’ll realize that that’s not what you want to be. It reminds me of every 18- and 19-year-old who loves to party. You talk to them in their 70s, and they may say, “Well, it was fun for a while,” but it wasn’t anything they wanted to stay in. So we see this image in that first reading then of there’s something unnatural — maybe not — something counter to the evolution that we’re supposed to be engaged in as we move along, that it’s not to be frozen in a particular time when it’s all about distraction — distraction.
So then we go to the gospel, and if you notice in Luke’s gospel — we’ve been reading it, obviously, this whole season — he’s interesting in these last weeks, because he keeps bringing up things that are kind of shocking, like unless you hate your mother and father, you can’t be in the kingdom, and if you watch somebody cheat so they can take care of themselves, that’s pretty cool. You should follow them, because they do something that shows that they’re conscious of taking care of themselves, things that — what? It doesn’t make sense until you pursue it, but in every case, he’s trying to get us more engaged in the mystery that I call living a spiritual life. It’s not a logical life. It’s not a simple life that has black and white answers everywhere. It’s mercurial. It’s gray. It needs reflection to live in, and so partying is not what we’re here for, but we’re here for something else. So this is, I think, what we’re here for in the gospel. It’s beautiful. I love this story. So there’s a man, Lazarus, and he’s poor. He’s diseased, and he lives on the corner of the street, perhaps, where this rich man lives. And all I can say is —
I don't know if you have the same experience, but in Dallas now, if you drive to a lot of intersections, especially in places of higher income, you’re going to find these beggars on the corner, which is sort of new to me. I’m not used to beggars in Dallas, and I don't know what your feeling is when you see them. All I know is I can’t look at them, and I know that’s not just because I don’t want them to think that I’m reaching for my wallet. But I just have a hard time sitting there and feeling anything like I feel, which is I want to do something for them, and then I think, “Well, maybe they’re faking it. Maybe they’re not.” Then I think, “Well, maybe if everybody gave them five bucks, well, there’d be 20 of them at every stop.” What do you do? I hate it. I just — I don't know. I don’t feel comfortable passing them, and I don’t feel like I’m obligated to do it. So that’s the problem, but I feel something. And I underestimate the power of that feeling. Yeah, I’m sorry for them, but as you evolve and you change, you also develop something else, an inner reaction to somebody who is in pain, and it’s not just sympathy, meaning you know and understand they’re in a some kind of difficult situation, and you would like to help them — sympathy. But it evolves into empathy. Empathy, a word that’s only been in the English language for maybe — well, since 1909, and it’s different than sympathy. Sympathy is you can tell someone is in pain, and you wish they weren’t. Empathy is you actually feel the pain they’re in. You experience it. That moment at the street corner, I feel something like what it must be like to have no home, no place, no food, and it’s an uncomfortable, terrible feeling. And I sort of try to get rid of it, and I’m beginning to realize, that’s not what you do with empathy. That’s wasting it, because it has a mystery, a connection that we need to get in touch with that is so powerful. So let’s go back to the gospel.
Lazarus is there, and he’s ignored. And I would say the rich man has a lot of diversions, and he’s just not really interested. He’s never been told that he should care for these people. In fact, I would just think that there’s no real connection when they see people like this. They just don’t feel anything, no sympathy, and then he dies. Lazarus dies. The rich man dies, and then the whole story changes, the parable. It’s beautiful. What I find fascinating is you’re told there’s a great chasm between where this man is now who suffered, and I’m sure he had compassion and empathy for his brothers and sisters who were fellow beggars. I’m sure they commiserated and helped each other, but the rich man, he had no connection, no connection with the struggle that they were having. So I’m going to call him unconscious, unaware, just simply turned off, and when you’re turned off, when you’re not seeing who you really are, not developing your true nature, you are miles and miles and miles away, light miles away from somebody who has developed a keen sense of compassion, sympathy and especially empathy. You’re like two different creatures, and the thing I find so fascinating about the rich man is when he realizes that he’s made a mistake, he doesn’t say, “Abraham, please give us some water,” or, “Abraham, please go and talk to my — get the prophets to talk to my brothers.” He asks Abraham to tell Lazarus to do it. Isn’t that interesting? I never noticed that before. “Get Lazarus, who I ignored all this time, get him to come down and give me just a drop of water, and if he can’t do that, well, at least go to my friends, my brothers and tell them that this is a terrible thing we’ve done. Open them to what we should have been like. If somebody comes from the dead, they’re bound to do it.” What an ironic twist at the end of the story. If somebody would come back from the dead and tell them that everything he said was true and that he is a man filled with empathy and compassion, he would be the one. He would be the one to convince everybody. And I think it’s so beautiful that Abraham just gives you this insight. “No, if you don’t have this, what little you have, you’ll lose. No, they won’t listen, not even if they come back from the dead,” predicting, of course, the way many responded, many Jews, to the resurrection of Jesus, but here’s the key. Here’s the secret. The empathy that Jesus had on the cross for everybody that was there and looking at them and seeing the horrible thing they were doing to him, he said, “Oh Father, I feel so sorry for them. They don’t know what they’re doing.” When you have that kind of empathy and care for someone, and Jesus had it, as a way of being, it was the source of all of his healing. It healed people. Feeling someone’s pain heals their pain. I don't know how that works. I would love to talk about it for a couple of hours, but again, it’s going to get into that gray, mysterious place. But I know that’s the heart of what this story is about.
The people who have suffering are more likely to be the ones who care. The rich man was right in saying, “Ask Lazarus to do it,” because he probably understood what it feels like to be begging for something. And so it’s a beautiful reflection on the evolution of human nature that, when we get to a point where we feel truly what another goes through, we don’t have to fix them. We just know somehow that that disposition that we have for them, that connection pours life into them, the life of God in the person with empathy into the person that is in need. It’s so comforting to me, and even now I know, after this homily, which I haven’t heard before either, I don't know if I’ll feel like I’m wasting my energy sitting there trying — I will believe I’m wasting my energies when I won’t act on the empathy I have. I want to make it a prayer that this person is somehow gifted with whatever he needs to not be a beggar, to not be there on that corner and to have the life that he really wants to have.
Father, our nature, the nature you’ve given us, if we can find it, discover it, fall in love with it, want it to develop, want it to grow into the life-giving presence that you want us to be to each other, basing our power on your presence in us but knowing that we are the instrument to bring that presence to another, bless us with this great evolutionary gift of empathy, and let us be healers, not judgmental, not angry, not afraid but capable of bringing life to those around us. Amen.