26th Sunday of Ordinary Time 2010
Woe to the complacent in Zion! Lying upon beds of ivory… they drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the best oils … they shall be the first to go into exile….
One of the more disturbing things we can see in all the polls and political commentary these days is that most Americans are concerned very little about the so-called social issues, that is, critical moral issues, and are almost exclusively concerned about securing their own economic prosperity. Obviously, during an economic downturn such as we are experiencing, people are understandably concerned about their present and future economic well being. That’s perfectly normal and quite understandable. But when the economic issues become the only issues that are given any attention in the public square and political arena, so that the economic concerns literally swamp the great moral issues of the day, then we truly have reason to be concerned about the future of our country.
Certainly a sound economy is important for any country’s future, but there are other even more important moral and social issues that will ultimately determine the quality of life in a country’s future. These issues must not be ignored. For instance, China has a booming economy, but China also has huge challenges when it comes to human freedoms, without which the future in that country is not very hopeful for the vast majority of its people. China is growing economically right now, but it is also killing its future well being, and not only denying basic human rights to its people, but also by quite literally forcing its people to kill untold millions of unborn children each year by abortion which is going to present huge demographic problems in the not too distant future. Not only is this creating a future problem where its working population will be smaller than its retired population, with all that means for retirement payments and health care for the older population, but, since most children aborted are girls, due to a cultural prejudice, there is going to be an imbalance in the population where tens of millions of men will not be able to find wives, which is a road to societal dysfunctions.
So, while prosperity can be a very good thing, it can also become a very dangerous thing as well for nations and individuals, at least when it is accompanied by, and even helps to promote deadly forms of immoral life styles as we see in our prosperous western societies with their drug cultures, sexual promiscuousness, the evil of rampant abortion, the breakdown of marriage and family life, a lack of personal concern for the poor, and an unwillingness to sacrifice for the future of the country. When prosperity leads to these things it does not secure the future; it quickly undermines the future.
Thus, in today’s first reading, we see Amos being sent by God to condemn the blatant immorality, exaggerated luxurious life style and open irreligiosity of the northern tribes of Israel. This was the time immediately preceding the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and it was quite evidently a very prosperous time, at least for the governing class, as is indicated by the beds of ivory, the rich food and drink, and the precious oils they used to anoint themselves according to eastern customs. Amos loudly denounced all this extravagance and “wanton revelry” because it’s deadly effect was to make these wealthy leaders irreligious and morally blind, completely unaware of the peril they were in, even as the kingdom was collapsing all around them. Indeed, their immorality and soft life was making them weak in the face of their determined enemies, and their luxurious living was making them blind to their weakness and the threat posed by their enemies.
The fact that prosperity and luxury can blind a great people to their enemies and lead to cultural and societal destruction is a historical fact confirmed again and again in human history. The fact that it happened even to God’s own chosen people ought to be a glaring warning to every nation that chooses to make economic prosperity the primary or even sole measure of its well being and societal health.
Again, economic prosperity is in itself a good for nations and individuals, but only when this prosperity is accompanied by a high moral standard and moderated way of life. When wealth becomes detached from moral character in a people, it becomes a sure cause of national decay and future self-destruction.
The most dangerous effect, then, of an immoral and excessively luxurious life style is blindness to one’s own perilous situation. In the case of nations, it is blindness to their peril before enemies and profound unawareness of the nation’s decay from within that leaves it spiritually and even materially weak. In the case of individuals, this decadent way of life makes people blind to their peril before God.
We can see this latter danger in the parable in today’s Gospel, where what is at stake is the rich man’s very salvation. Jesus’ attitude toward riches is complex in the Gospels. He never outrightly condemned the possession of wealth as such in any absolute sense, but He certainly warned us about the great dangers of wealth when it comes to our salvation. Who can forget or ignore His poignant warning that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter God’s Kingdom! And still, he does not say that salvation is impossible for any rich man, for, as Gabriel said to Mary, nothing is impossible with God. But, if a doctor told us that our survival from an illness was not impossible, since “nothing is impossible with God,” what would we think about our real situation and the odds of our surviving!
The problems connected with riches when it comes to salvation are many and complex. Prosperity, riches, can easily provide us with temptations simply because we have the means to get into more trouble. That is why drugs are perhaps an even bigger problem at times in the affluent suburbs in this country than in the less affluent living areas. Vices such as drugs, excessive drinking, pornography, sexual wantonness, etc., cost money. Even if possessing abundant means to pursue these vices does not solely cause the temptation, they certainly make it more difficult to resist, easier to give in.
Moreover, not only is wealth often used to support an immoral life style, but it also can cause that biblical form of blindness which makes the profligate man unconcerned about his judgement before God. Indeed, self-centered, profligate living can easily make one blind to the very real needs of the desperately poor who, as in the parable, are beggin for the scraps from our tables. In this parable, Jesus portrays the rich man as luxuriously dressed and sumptuously feasting every day, while he was completely blind and indifferent to the needs of a poor man who was desperate right at his doorstep.
How can this happen, we ask? The parable gives no other reason than the way the man lived each and every day! The implication for his salvation is clear in the judgement of Abraham: you were living in luxury, and a man remained at your gate in misery. In short, you did nothing to alleviate his misery, because you were blinded to this moral obligation by your very way of living. The hidden moral premise here is that those who are better off have a true moral obligation, by virtue of their being well off, to take care of the poor who cannot take care of themselves. Because the rich man failed to do this, he is damned, and there is no way after his death that he can correct what he should have and could have corrected during his lifetime.
Riches when used like this, simply to live in the lap of luxury and seek the maximum pleasures out of life, moral or immoral, are a curse on man, and blind us to the serious obligations entailed in possessing wealth, which is to use it for the well-being of others also, beginning with the most needy. In a world which is so interconnected today, so economically interconnected, the cry of the world’s poor is a warning, if not a judgement, on the wealthy nations of east and west, a call to examine our collective and personal consciences as to how God will judge our use of the blessing of prosperity we enjoy. In short, such ill used wealth causes a double source of condemnation, the immoral life itself, and the failure to take care of God’s poor and needy.
The prophet Amos was warning about the effect of prosperity combined with immorality on his nation’s survival. But in our own personal lives too, even if our life style is not gravely immoral, we still must not allow our pursuit of an ever higher standard of living to blind us to the very real human needs of those around us, needs that are not just financial, but needs for personal care, for our presence, for our assistance in many different ways. We who are in a rich nation must not allow ourselves to become so caught up in trying to advance our standard of living that we neglect our families, forget the aged, ignore the young, abandon the sick and the desperately poor to their fate and leave them “at the door” of our hearts until we no longer see them, like the rich man in the parable. Jesus here and elsewhere warns us that we all will be judged not only by the ten commandments but by the way we meet the obligations of charity, by whether or not we take care of God’s needy, “What you do for the least of my brethren, said Jesus… that too has to ring in our ears as we hear today’s Gospel, and reflect on it’s meaning for our country and for each of us as followers of Jesus Christ.