26th Sunday of Ordinary Time 2016
Woe to the complacent in Zion! .. they drink wine from bowls, and anoint themselves with the best oils … yet they are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph Therefore, now they shall be the first to go into exile, and their wanton revelry shall be done away with.
One of the more disturbing things we can see in all the polls and political commentary these days is that most Americans seem far less concerned about the so-called social issues, that is, the critical moral issues affecting our society, than they are about the issues connected with economic growth and the threat of terrorism. Obviously, during a prolonged economic slump such as we have been experiencing, people are understandably concerned about their present and future economic well being. That’s perfectly understandable. And the threat from terrorists is obviously very real, and so people again are understandably concerned about that threat to their well being also.
But it should be troubling, nonetheless, that the great moral issues affecting our political order, and the unquestionable moral decline in our society apparently have a very low priority among the issues that will affect the outcome of the state and national elections just around the corner. I doubt very much that such issues will even be given much if any time in the coming debates, and any such discussion will mainly have to do with protecting the newly discovered constitutional rights, the right to abort the unborn, the right of everyone to the means of contraception at the taxpayer’s expense, and the right to marry someone of the same sex while forcing others to violate their conscience by providing some form of service to the wedding party.
Nations may change their laws and radically alter the moral character of their culture, and a majority of their citizens may think that religious institutions and their members will just have to go along with the new morality , or even change their teachings to accommodate the new morality, but they are making a deadly decision for the future of the nation. This is exactly what happened long ago to Israel, God’s chosen people. They became morally corrupt by adopting the customs of the pagans around them, and eventually the Northern Kingdom, referred to in today’s first reading from ther prophet Amos as Joseph, totally collapsed and the people were dispersed among the pagan nations. That was their punishment which they brought upon themselves by their moral decadence which made them soft spiritually and thus easy pickings for their enemies.
Now Amos was actually from the Southern Kingdom, though his mission from God was to the Northern since they were most immediately in danger. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had separated from the Southern Kingdom of Judea after the reign of Solomon, and this separation from Jerusalem, the center of Jewish religion, proved to be their undoing both religiously and politically. Separated from the heart of their religion, which was linked to the temple in Jerusalem, they quickly began to fall away from the law of the covenant and to adopt the moral habits of their surrounding neighbors. Thus, their religious and moral decline deeply undercut their political survivability. And so Amos was sent by God to call them back to covenant fidelity. His mission was largely a failure, and the Northern Kingdom fell, partly during his lifetime, and completely about 20 years after his death.
But surely Amos’ mission was not solely directed to the north. His warning about complacency in the face of the gradual collapse of the Kingdom of Israel was not only a warning to the north but also to his own Judean countrymen. The people of Judea were also complacent, and perhaps even more complacent, regarding the fall of the Northern Kingdom. So it’s likely that the words of Amos were aimed not only at the conversion of the north, but likewise at the conversion of his own countrymen who were succumbing gradually to the same moral decay and complacency that led to the fall of their fellow Israelites to the north. It took another two centuries, but eventually the Southern Kingdom did collapse and the Judeans were also sent into exile, in spite of the warnings of the great prophets who arose after Amos.
Now all of this religious history should be a powerful lesson for us living in the 21st century in a country that has been blessed abundantly by God but has now abandoned his moral law in significant ways. The very complacency that we see all around us should be a warning sign that our own moral decline is really advanced. Today, Christians who show real concern about these newly established rights and the new morality that stands behind them are considered intolerant, bigoted, and even un-American. The very idea of inserting our moral principles into the public debate is considered a threat to the country. Our religious beliefs and moral principles have no longer have a rightful place in the public square.
Moral decline coupled with the lifestyle that can only be described as hedonistic, inevitably turns a people soft, spiritually weakened and unwilling to make true sacrifices for the common good, and unwilling or unable to base their common life on the truth as it comes from God. Like the Israelites of old, many Americans have become soft and complacent, and our enemies are well aware of our weakened condition. The barbarian hordes who brought down the Roman Empire were only able to do so because Roman morality and culture had fallen into decay. The more civilized pagan neighbors who brought down the divided kingdom of Israel likewise were only able to do so because of the moral and cultural decay of God’s chosen people.
It’s always the same story. Nations grow strong and prosper and then abandon their moral character. The result is a terrible complacency which makes the people unable to really appreciate the threat to their own existence that inevitably arises from within and from outside their society. In a very real sense, they never really see it coming because their moral decadence blinds them to reality. And so when the Church speaks with a prophetic voice today, she is dismissed just like Amos and the prophets of old, and the more she speaks, the more the revelers want to silence her, in this case by taking away her religious freedom in matters pertaining to the public life. In an ironic twist, it’s now the church that is being confined to the closet. But all of this deafness and blindness to the truth is simply bringing the day of reckoning closer.
But all this applies not just to nations but to individuals as well. The most dangerous effect of moral and spiritual decadence in individuals is again the fact that their immoral way of life makes them blind to their peril before God andf his judgment. We can see this danger in the parable in today’s Gospel, where what is at stake is the rich man’s immortal soul, his very salvation. Now, Jesus’ attitude toward riches is complex in the Gospels. While He never out-rightly condemned wealth as such, He certainly warned about the great danger of wealth to one’s salvation when it is spent on a selfish and hedonistic life style. Who can forget 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, but He says that nothing is impossible with God. However, if a doctor told one of us that our survival from an illness was not impossible, since “nothing is impossible with God,” what would we think about our present situation and the odds of our surviving!
The problems connected with riches when it comes to salvation are many and complex. Great prosperity, great riches, can easily provide us with temptations simply because we will have more means to get into trouble. That is why drugs can be an even bigger problem at times in the more affluent suburbs in this country than in the less affluent living areas. Vices such as drugs, excessive drinking, rampant pornography, sexual wantonness, etc., all 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, dissolute living can also make one blind to the very real needs of the desperately poor around us who, as in the parable, are begging 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 was living each and every day! The implication for his salvation is clear in the judgement of Abraham: you were living in dissolute luxury while a man remained at your doorstep in misery. In short, he did absolutely nothing to alleviate misery, because he was blinded to any social, moral obligation by his very way of living. The hidden moral premise here is that those who are well off do have a true moral obligation, by virtue of their being well off, to take care of those 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 simply to live in the lap of luxury and seek the maximum pleasures out of life, both moral or immoral, are a curse on man, and blind man to the serious obligations entailed in possessing wealth, including the iobligation 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 peoples of east and west, a call to examine our collective and personal life styles and ask how God will judge our use of the blessing of prosperity we enjoy.
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 must still not allow our pursuit of an ever higher standard of living to blind us to the very real human needs of those around us. These needs that are not just financial, but are needs for charitable assistance in many different ways, and above all for the need that everyone recognize their very right to life. 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 abandon the poorest of the poor, as St Teresa of Calcutta called the unborn, nor to abandon the aged, the young, the sick and the desperately poor.
We must not grow so calloused, like the rich man in the parable, so as to leave the desperately poor of our world to their fate, like Lazarus, to leave them “at the door” of our hearts until we no longer see them. 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 poor and needy, “What you did for the least of my brethren,” said Jesus… that too has to ring in our ears as we hear today’s Gospel, and we must prayerfully reflect on it’s meaning for our country and for each of us as followers of Jesus Christ.