Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Amos 6:1, 4-7
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 146:7-10
Second Reading: St. Paul’s 1st Letter to Timothy 6:11-16
Gospel: According to St. Luke 16:19-31
In a memorable early scene from Dead Poets Society, English teacher John Keating, played brilliantly by the late Robin Williams, takes his students into the hallway of the school to view the group portraits of all of the past classes of the movie’s fictional Welton Academy. In an attempt to convince them to “seize the day” Keating reminds his young charges that all of those whose faces are staring back at them have become “food for worms.”
Our love of euphemisms masks an inconvenient truth: we are afraid to die. Euphemisms are a verbal form of whistling in the dark. People don’t die – they kick the bucket, buy the farm, cash in their chips, achieve room temperature. The most widely used euphemism for death today seems to be the term “passed,” so incredibly bland that it feels like a euphemism of a euphemism.
Jesus lived in a time when death was a stark part of daily life, and therefore He has the boldness to tell a parable where both main characters die: first Lazarus, the poor man, and then the rich man, usually referred to as Dives. This tale of the afterlife was meant to show the chasm between those who suffer at the hands of others and those who are the others. Lazarus is blissfully seated next to Abraham while Dives is in torment in the underworld.
Dives is surrounded by flames and can’t even purchase a sip of water to relieve his misery. He is totally at the mercy of Lazarus, yet the divide between heaven and hell mirrors the divide between these two men during their earthly lives. Before death Dives would not cross the gap in order to help Lazarus, and now Lazarus could not cross it in order to help Dives.
If only Dives had treated Lazarus differently he would not find himself in this hopeless situation. If only the life of Dives could serve as an example to later generations. But as the parable points out, even if one greater than the prophets came to give an example it would be ignored.
It would be easy to point to the many modern-day Dives among the rich and famous. It would be easy to express scorn at the media who tend to canonize just about all of the ‘beautiful’ people, people “who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day.” Much more difficult is the ability to focus on the person in the mirror and take up the challenge to help any modern-day Lazarus “who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell” from our tables.
The word Dives means “rich,” and that is why the “rich man” of the story is given that name. I cannot hear the word Dives without thinking of St. John Paul II, who in November of 1980 published his second encyclical, Dives in Misericordia. If the rich man of the parable had access to that document he might have come to a different end when he bit the dust. In fact, all he needed – all we need – is to live out the message of the title. All anyone who wants an enjoyable stay at the Horizontal Hilton or the Motel Deep 6 or even the one-room bungalow has to do is be dives in misericordia…rich in mercy, since mercy appears to be the one currency with which you can pay for your eternal accommodations.