Twenty-sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time, September 29, 2019
Amos the prophet remembered the humble origins of his people:escape from slavery, wandering in deserts, the struggle to be faithful to an invisible God. But some Israelites, including priests and kings, had gotten rich and arrogant, mindless of their past and of their less fortunate neighbors.
An apostle with much seniority reminds a young pastor of two great strengths in his heritage: the nobility of his own conversion, and the nobility of Jesus even as he faced death.
This graphic parable about greed and reversal of fortune ends with an important twist. Jesus predicts some will not reform even if challenged by a messenger come back from the dead.
Our Liturgical Setting: Saint Luke is the evangelist who gives us the most of what Jesus said about the poor, and about how Christians are to treat the poor. Today's gospel, Luke 16:19-31, is the graphic and blunt parable of the unnamed rich man and the beggar Lazarus. The rich man's luxury and disregard for Lazarus is scandalous, but not unprecedented. The first reading shows that the prophet Amos was, in the eighth century B.C.E., just as scandalized as Jesus would be.
The Historical Situation: For a long time, the territory we call the Holy Land was divided between a northern kingdom called Israel and a southern kingdom known as Judah. The city Jerusalem was in Judah. In the northern kingdom, at Bethel (Hebrew for "House of God") there was a very ancient shrine. Its priesthood was older than that established by Moses' brother Aaron. Israel was prosperous, at least for the upper classes, in the 8th century B.C.E., and the Bethel priests were comfortable cronies of the king.
In this milieu lived a man named Amos, street-smart and a savvy observer of the human condition. He knew his tradition. Amos remembered how his people's God had chosen a rag-tag band of slaves in Egypt, made them his own, and led them to freedom. Amos knew that this God of the poor was not happy with the current neglect and exploitation of the poor by the powerful. So he spoke up.
What is, in verse 6, the "collapse of Joseph" that should disturb the complacent but does not? As we saw in last week's first reading, Amos uses the name of a patriarch to represent the nation itself. The people's founder was Abraham, whose son Isaac had a son Jacob (also known as Israel). Jacob's twelve sons became the patriarchs of the twelve tribes of the people Israel. Of the twelve sons, Joseph had a pivotal role in preserving the people as a whole (see Genesis, chapters 37-50).
Preparing your Proclamation: Be sure to read today's gospel before studying the first reading. It will put you in a proper outrage for the proclamation of this prophecy. Just as in last week's selection Amos mocked the secret thoughts of the wicked, today he mocks their luxurious lifestyles. And just as he turned last week from mockery to thunderous judgment in the last sentence, he does it again this time.
So proclaim this like Amos would, with derision in your voice through verse 6, then a slight pause, then with a deep, dark tone as you condemn them to exile in the final verse.
The History Behind the Passage: The letters to Timothy are in the Bible because of their usefulness to all believers, but they contain sections addressed to Timothy himself, such as today's passage. Timothy held a position in the church at Ephesus like the modern office of bishop. He was relatively young, and of mixed Jewish and Gentile parentage. In the letter, the senior apostle Paul (or someone writing in Paul's name; see the introduction to 1 Timothy in The New American Bible), gives the young man advice and encouragement.
The "noble confession in the presence of many witnesses" probably refers to Timothy's baptism or his ordination. The "commandment" may mean the law of God imposed on all, or a special commission given Timothy alone.
Why does the passage begin with "But?" Well, this is the prior verse, 1 Timothy 6:10, source of an often (mis)quoted proverb: "For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains."
Last week's Lector's Notes stated that this was a late letter, composed when the early Christians no longer expected the speedy return of Jesus. This passage shows they still held that expectation ("until the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ"), but its timing is in the hands of God depicted somewhat remotely ("who dwells in unapproachable light, and whom no human being has seen or can see."), as if God is unmoved by our prayers that Jesus come again soon.
(While the verses in the Catholic lectionary do form a coherent whole, it seems the editors missed a chance to tie the second reading to the first and third, with their warnings about the danger of riches. The next three verses of 1 Timothy 6 say "As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.")
The New American Bible translation (commonly used in the Catholic Lectionary in the U.S.A.) has a distressingly limp translation of what should be the memorable verse 12a. "Fight the good fight (for the faith or of the faith)." is the way I remember it. Not too long ago, Christians, especially those in ministry, would greet each other: "How are you? Still fighting the good fight?" The Greek original and the venerated Latin translation of Saint Jerome support this (ἀγωνίζου τὸν καλὸν ἀγῶνα τῆς πίστεως and Certa bonum certamen fidei. So why does the lectionary translation have "Compete well for the faith."? No charitable explanations come to mind.
Preparing your Proclamation: There's a monstrously long sentence you must study carefully, breaking it into fragments and getting the relations between the fragments straight in your mind. In the USCCB web page of the text, the clauses are delimited wisely. You might want to print that section and mark it up. (If you're studying the text from a missalette, it's hopelessly compressed on the page; go to church and make a photocopy or cell-phone photo of the Lectionary page as soon as you can. That's a good idea any week, especially if your eyesight is declining.) You might compare this to another translation, like the Revised New Standard Version (or any of the dozens of other translations available on that web page), or the same N.A.B. translation arranged in distinct verses.
Folio 78 recto from the Codex Aureus of Echternach, Lazarus and Dives. Click here for a larger version of the illustration, and click here for the Wikipedia article about the Codex. Wikipedia says the illustration is in the public domain and comes from: The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.
See here a complete high-resolution digital version of the Codex. It's breathtaking. Navigate to page 158 to see the Lazarus page.
About the names: Except for Lazarus, the gospels don't name the characters in Jesus' parables. Calling the other character "Dives" comes from not knowing your Latin very well. In that language, the word "dives" (pronounced DEE vays) is an adjective that just means rich. Latin can use adjectives as substantives, so "dives" appears in Latin translations of this parable (whose oldest extant source is Greek). The story has been set to music from at least the 17th century to the 21st. I've heard classical music radio announcers call the rich-man character "Dives" in one syllable, as in "one dives into a pool." They really don't know their Latin.
The captions on the three panels are in Latin. Transcribed, I believe they say:
1: DIVITIS IN FORIBUS LAZURUS IACET ULCERE PLENUS
(At a rich man's gates lies Lazarus, full of sores.)
2: HIC PAUPER MORITUR ABRAHAE GREMIOQUE LOCATUR
(Here the pauper dies and is relocated to the bosom (or lap) of Abraham)
3: DIVES OBIT MUNDO DIRO CRUCIANDUS AVERNO
(The rich man dies [and is] punished in the dreadful world of Averno.)
At first I thought the expression "AVERNO" should be read as "INFERNO," which is where Saint Jerome's Vulgate places the rich man. But the Codex vocabulary departs from the Vulgate liberally. And Latin has an adjective, avernus, -a, -um, that means "without birds." My dictionary adds that there's a Lake Avernus, near Cumae, said to be an entrance to the lower world. So the reading "AVERNO" stands. Calling "hellish" a natural place without birds? I can buy that.
This page updated August 1, 2019