Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Year of Luke
Download: Twenty-Sixth Sunday of the Year C
A reading from the book of Amos 6:1. 4-7
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 146:6-10. R/. v. 2
A reading from the first letter of St Paul to Timothy 6:11-16
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke
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The Book of Amos begins with these words from the shepherd of Tekoa:
The words of Amos, who was among the shepherds of Tekoa, which he saw concerning Israel in the days of Uzziah king of Judah and in the days of Jeroboam the son of Joash, king of Israel, two years before the earthquake
But “the words of Amos” in verse 1 quickly become a roar of the Lord (“The Lord roars from Zion” in verse 2) and the phrase Thus says the Lord or slight variations occur over 20 times in this short book of 9 chapters. Indeed the very last five words of the book in our translation are … says the Lord your God.
So how do we get from the very first four words of the Book (The words of Amos …) to the very lasts words ( … says the Lord your God)?
To understand where the prophets come from, where they see themselves in relation to God, that is, how they get from “my words” to “the words of the Lord your God”, we would do well to visit the prophet Micaiah, King Ahab, and his very pushy wife, Jezebel.
A key sentence in the story is this:
There was none who sold himself to do what was evil in the sight of the Lord like Ahab, whom Jezebel his wife incited.
I Kings 21:25
When King Ahab of Samaria coveted the vineyard of a neighbour, a man named Naboth,. The vineyard was in the fertile plain of Jezreel and the neighbour stubbornly refused to sell. Ahab wanted to turn the vineyard into a vegetable garden but Naboth insisted that the land was his inheritance from his fathers long back and he was not going to let it go out of the family. King Ahab’s response—and you can judge his spoiled child mentality from what we are told—is graphically exposed:
… Ahab went into his house vexed and sullen because of what Naboth the Jezreelite had said to him, for he had said, “I will not give you the inheritance of my fathers.” And he lay down on his bed and turned away his face [to the wall?] and would eat no food. I Kings 21:4
So Jezebel has Naboth murdered. The details are told in I Kings 21:5-16. Read the nasty plot she contrived that ended in the stoning of a good and honest man. The prophet Elijah, an old enemy of the king, told him to his face that God would not stand for making people sin in order to satisfy royal depravity. Jezebel would be eaten by dogs within the walls of the city of Jezreel and Ahab would die in battle. To explain how death came to this pair of villains we have to meet the prophet Micaiah and his determination to speak truth to power. The story illustrates well how prophets positioned themselves to hear the word of God and to be filled with “the Spirit of the Lord”.
Please read the whole of I Kings 21 and 22 to learn the details of a horrible crime and to learn how prophets when they spoke were able to shout Thus says the Lord!
Briefly told, what happened was that Syria occupied land belonging to Israel and the kings of Israel and, as the war made its way into its fourth year Israel and Judah sought to form an alliance to end the Syrian occupation.
Jehoshaphat, the King of Judah, agreed to join Ahab, the King of Israel, in the military enterprise. But Jehoshaphat advised that before undertaking such a dangerous mission they ought to “inquire first for the word of the Lord”. To do so, of course, meant consulting prophets, the very people who spoke on behalf of God. Prophets were assembled, about four hundred men, and Jehoshaphat put the matter before them:
“Shall I go to battle against Ramoth-gilead, or shall I refrain?” And they said, “Go up, for the Lord will give it into the hand of the king.” I Kings 21:6
But Jehoshaphat was a cautious man and asked if there was not one other prophet of the Lord who might clinch the matter. Ahab replied that there was such a man but he always prophesied against royal policy and the less heard from him the better. But Jehoshaphat insisted and so, after some to-do, Micaiah the son of Imlah, with heavy irony, gave his judgement:
And when he had come to the king, the king said to him, “Micaiah, shall we go to Ramoth-gilead to battle, or shall we refrain?” And he answered him, “Go up and triumph; the Lord will give it into the hand of the king.
1 Kings 22:15
But everyone could hear the mocking irony in Micaiah’s voice and he spelled the truth out for all to hear:
And he said, “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, as sheep that have no shepherd. And the Lord said, ‘These have no master; let each return to his home in peace’.”
1 Kings 22:17
Then Micaiah explained how he had come to know what would happen and what was in store for the two kings and their armies:
Micaiah said, “Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left; and the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead? ’ And one said one thing, and another said another. Then a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, saying, ‘I will entice him. ’ And the Lord said to him, ‘By what means? ’ And he said, ‘I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets. ’ And he said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so. ’ Now therefore behold, the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the Lord has declared disaster for you.
I Kings 22:19-24
The prophet understands that the place where the word of the Lord is heard is in the court of heaven, in the very residence of God. That is where prophets are privileged to be and where they hear privileged information. That is where they discover how humanity must live if it is to align itself with God’s care for the world. If what is done on earth is what is willed in heaven, then what the prophets proclaim is how it can be done.
Of course, this is entirely imaginary. First, there is no heaven court modelled as it were on a royal court on earth. There is no King with a heavenly court made up of spirits serving in a hierarchical order, Seraphim at the top, the ministers of the crown, and angels, the lowly messengers running around like telegram boys.
But this is how prophets tried to explain the mysterious spiritual powers which, whether they were willing or not, compelled them to speak truth to power, wherever that power lay. What is certain is that true prophets were men and women who prayed, who meditated on God’s word, who looked at social structures from the bottom up, and, above all, who saw into the heart of God and worked to create on earth what it saw in that sacred heart, the holy place where all our destinies are revealed.
Consider how Isaiah explains his call to be a prophet:
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!
And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”
And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.” And he said, “Go, and say to this people …
Isaiah, the prophet who initiated three centuries of prophetical oversight and intervention, knew well the world to which he was ordained to speak. It is a world remarkably like our own. Three hundred years after Isaiah died, his disciples still proclaimed the achievements of human sin. For this is what humanity has achieved:
your iniquities have made a separation
between you and your God,
and your sins have hidden his face from you
so that he does not hear.
For your hands are defiled with blood
and your fingers with iniquity;
your lips have spoken lies;
your tongue mutters wickedness.
What we might call the ideology of prophets is that the prophet heard a call to speak truth to the world and the prophet has to be sure that the call came from God and it was God, and God, alone, who authenticated their words. Prophets were, and are, the conscience of the nation and we who hear them can identify the true from the false. The voice of the prophet is true if it calls on humanity,
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am’.
The prophet always seeks create the conditions whereby God will be at home in our Church and in our world. To undo the separation is consummation devoutly to be wished.
A reading from the book of Amos 6:1. 4-7
Woe to those who are at ease in Zion,
and to those who feel secure on the mountain of Samaria.
Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory
and stretch themselves out on their couches,
and eat lambs from the flock
and calves from the midst of the stall,
who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp
and like David invent for themselves instruments of music,
who drink wine in bowls
and anoint themselves with the finest oils,
but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph!
Therefore they shall now be the first of those who go into exile,
and the revelry of those who stretch themselves out shall pass away.
The word of the Lord.
The irony of it! The ruin of Joseph! We know all about how his brothers sought to rid themselves of Joseph and covered his techni-coloured dream-coat in his blood and sold him into slavery in Egypt. There he spent a lifetime of healing and saving, so much so that “the whole world went to Joseph” and was saved from the ravages of famine. Joseph is the one who saves even the very brothers who sought to be rid of him and his dreams.
So Amos picks the very ancestor who was a saviour, one who was sustained in all his trials by God’s steadfast love (Genesis 39:21), to show up those who lie on beds of ivory and comfortable couches. Eight hundred years before Jesus walked this earth Amos warned those “who trample on the needy, and bring the poor of the land” (Amos 8:4). They are warned: “their revelry will pass away”.
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 146:6-10. R/. v. 2
R/. Praise the Lord, O my soul!
Blessed is the Lord who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed,
who gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets the prisoners free. R/.
The Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the sojourners. R/.
He upholds the widow and the fatherless,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
The Lord will reign forever,
your God, O Zion, to all generations.
R/. Praise the Lord, O my soul!
This is a psalm of praise. It is a psalm that praises the Lord for doing all that Amos accuses the rich of not doing, doing what humanity often fails to do. Perhaps the essence of the psalm is best exemplified in the reply Jesus gives to the two disciples of John the Baptist who asked if he were “the one who is to come”:
Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. Luke 7:22
A reading from the first letter of St Paul to Timothy
But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who in his testimony before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, to keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which he will display at the proper time—
he who is the blessed and only Sovereign,
the King of kings
and Lord of lords,
who alone has immortality,
who dwells in unapproachable light,
whom no one has ever seen or can see.
To him be honour
and eternal dominion.
The word of the Lord.
We have learned that the three so-called Pastoral Letters were written by author(s) who lived a generation or two after the death of St Paul. These disciples of Paul donned his mantle in order to carry the great apostles teaching into new circumstances as the Christian movement began to settle in the world. Communities had organised themselves to survive when the first excitement of conversion gave way to the demands of survival in a very hostile world. The letters addressed to Timothy imagine Paul speaking to his friend and companion and guiding him in the way his community must live if it is to reflect the mind and heart of St Paul himself.
Timothy, the man of God, is bidden to avoid the temptations of this world, especially the lure of riches:
But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. I Timothy 6:10
In keeping with the words of Amos and the parable of Jesus in today’s Gospel, the reading from I Timothy cautions against the lure of money that will remain in this world as death takes all of us beyond the usefulness of wealth.
What Christians must do is to trust in “the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ”. These words of wisdom will ready everyone for the future. In the hymn-like conclusion the writer imagines longed-for “appearing” or second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, in the kind of language we find at the end the Eucharistic Prayer at Mass:
Through him, and with him, and in him,
O God, almighty Father,
in unity of the Holy Spirit,
all glory and honour is yours,
for ever and ever.
This kind of prayer is called a doxology, from the Greek word that means “glory”. It is a prayer that seeks to reach into the very heavens to praise God of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and to remind ourselves of our faith that where God is our future lies.
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke
Jesus said to the Pharisees:
There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man's table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham's side. The rich man also died and was buried, and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame. But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us. ’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father's house— for I have five brothers —so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment. ’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them. ’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent. ’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.
The Gospel of the Lord.
This parable of Jesus ought to carry a health warning. It is such a well-told story. It has an age-old theme: the bad man gets his comeuppance, while the poor victim of life’s misfortunes is rescued and brought to victory. It is the old story of the good triumphing over the bad.
Notice that the rich man and his life-style are briefly sketched: he’s rich, well dressed, and feasts every day. His introduction is told in 14 words in the original Greek text. The poor man enters the story in 46 words. Our sympathies are with the man at the gate. He is a poor man; he is named Lazarus; the rich man has no name. Tradition has given him a name: Dives. But that Latin word means ”a rich man” who forever is a man with no name. The poor man is covered with sores, every day in want, and hoping to feed off the crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table. The only comfort given him is given by dogs that licked his sores. The rich man is not named but every Bible reader knows that the poor man is named Lazarus, mentioned four times in the story. In all the parables of Jesus the poor man is the only one who is given a name. The name is a shortened form Eleazar and it means “God has helped”, a dead giveaway in the story. His name assures attentive readers that, from the beginning, God is on his side and ultimately God will come to his aid. From the outset readers and hearers of Jesus’ parable know that the poor man at the gate is destined for higher things. Indeed, the poor man, the story infers, is not buried. Rather angels carry him to Abraham’s bosom, a conventional phrase meaning no more than that the poor man has been carried to Abraham’s bosom.
How we are to understand Abraham’s bosom as a place of eternal well-bring is not immediately obvious. It may mean that the rich man is transported by angels to be with God just as Enoch was. The mythical father of the even more mythical Methuselah in life “walked with God” and then “he was not, for God took him” (Genesis 5:24). The prophet Elijah was transported to heaven in right royal style:
… behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. IIKings 2:11
The resting place of Moses is also mysterious:
So Moses the servant of the Lord died there in the land of Moab, according to the word of the Lord, and he buried him in the valley in the land of Moab opposite Beth-peor; but no one knows the place of his burial to this day.
However, we know what we need to know to understand the parable. The poor man is taken up by angels and the rich man is consigned to Hades.
The poor man
He does nothing in this parable. All we know is that he is desperately poor, covered in sores, and hoping in vain to be fed with the crumbs from the rich man lavish table. All he has is the charity of dogs that lick his sores.
In the perspective of Luke (the only Gospel writer to record this parable of Jesus) the only thing to notice about the poor is that they are poor. It is Mary’s hymn that begins this odd theology. For, according to her Magnificat, what “God, my Saviour” has done is this:
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
Unlike Matthew with his,
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
Luke is blunt:
Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you shall be satisfied.
Consider how central the poor are in Luke’s Gospel, the Gospel of the Poor:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just. Luke 14:13
Go out quickly to the streets and lanes of the city, and bring in the poor and crippled and blind and lame.
Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.
A well-off tax collector is moved by Jesus to do what the rich seldom do:
Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor.
What is remarkable, and demanding hours of prayer and meditation, is that that Luke presents the poor as poor: they do nothing other than being poor. Unless, of course, we are obliged by Jesus to take the generous heart of the poor widow as a model of true and costly discipleship (Luke 21:1-4). So when the poor man at the gate is translated to join the company of Enoch, Abraham, Moses, and Elijah, he did not come there by living a life of generous faith; all he did was be poor.
The rich man
Statistics are not everything. But it is remarkable that the words “rich” or “riches” occurs three times in Mark’s Gospel, four times in Matthew’s Gospel, and not at all in John’s Gospel. These words occur 14 times in the Gospel according to St Luke.
The judgement that Jesus passes on the rich and prosperous is stark and unrelenting:
But woe to you who are rich …
Woe to you who are full now …
Woe to you who laugh now …
Woe to you, when all people speak well of you …
His dismissal of these is straight from the shoulder:
… for you have received your reward.
… for you shall be hungry.
… for you shall mourn and weep.
The man who built bigger barns died in the night (Luke 12:13-21). Those who sought the places of honour found themselves at the bottom of the table (Luke 14:7-11). When giving a banquet, invite the poor, the cripples, the lame, and the blind; only then will you be blessed (Luke 14:12-14). The rich man with the bent manager had better look out, for you cannot serve God and money (Luke 16:1-13). The ruler who wished to inherit eternal life walked away sadly because “he was extremely rich” and had as much chance of entering the kingdom of God as a camel has of getting through the eye of a needle (18:1-26). Zacchaeus had to come down from the tree and give most of his money away. Up to that point he was numbered among those who are lost (Luke 19:1-10).
The appeal to Father Abraham of the rich man who neglected the poor man at the gate, that Lazarus be sent with a wet fingertip, must be turned down. As Abraham explains, there was a chasm of difference when both were alive and that chasm is as deep as ever:
But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us. Luke 16:25-26
Neither can the five brothers be warned and avoid Hades. For God had schooled the world through Moses and the prophets and the world and its brothers did not have ears to hear. Father Abraham emphasises the consequences of not listening to God’s voice, (though the ancient command had been, and ever is, Shema, Israel!):
… they will not be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.
The warning given the rich man is for all who would walk past the empty tomb and do not notice that it is empty.
A brief word on Hades. The rich man died, and was buried, and found himself in Hades, a place of torment. The Hebrew name for the “place of the dead” was She’ol. Since the faith reflected in the Hebrew Scriptures does not know of any eternal life in heaven, the meaning of life before God is to be found by listening to the voice of God and living in accord with divine command. Unto old age and grey hairs was as much as could be prayed for.
When the Jews in Alexandria sought out Jewish scholars to translate their holy books into contemporary Greek, the translators selected the Greek word Hades as the best approximation to what was meant by She’ol in the Hebrew scriptures.
The Greek term Hades originally referred to the god of the place of the dead but eventually became the name for that place. When an understanding of life after death began to flourish in Jewish thought and, of course, in Christian understanding, She’ol took on a much more profound meaning. For Greek-speaking Christians, Hades became the word that described the future of those who fell short when they appeared before the Judgement Seat of God.
I am intrigued that Father Abraham addresses the rich man as “Child”. To be “a son of Abraham” is to be a recipient of salvation. It is Jesus who said to Zacchaeus,
Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost. Luke 19:10
Even more hopeful is the story of the deeply troubled woman who sat in the synagogue on the very Sabbath Jesus joined the community there to say his prayers. She was bent over and couldn’t straighten herself. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said to her,
Woman, you are freed from your disability.
Of course, the ruler of the synagogue was indignant that Jesus had healed on the Sabbath and turned on the woman:
There are six days in which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath day.
“Then”, says St Luke, “the Lord answered him”:
You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?” As he said these things, all his adversaries were put to shame, and all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him.
Read these two stories (Luke 13:10-17 and 19:1-10) and then read the conversation Father Abraham has with the unfortunate man in Hades. I get the impression that the parable is not the end of the story. To be sure, the rich are not the flavour of the month and cannot count on reserved seats at the heavenly banquet. But Father Abraham talking to his “Child”? As someone said, it makes you for to think.
Yet the poor man is not the centre of interest in the parable. Attention is focused on the fate of the rich man. No angels are commissioned to carry him to God. He is simply buried and ends up in Hades.