September 29-30, 2001 Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C
Anyone who still thinks that Scripture is just a bunch of stuff written thousands of years ago that has nothing to do with what is going on today, has not been listening to the readings the past few weeks. I found todayís readings really hard to listen to, because they challenge my understanding of justice. We have heard the word justice thrown around indiscriminately in the wake of the terrorist attacks, but most of the times that I heard it used, it did not mean the justice as used in Scripture, Godís justice. At worst, it was used to mean revenge; at best, it was used to mean punishment for a crime committed. Todayís readings remind us unequivocally that Godís justice goes beyond just punishment for breaking the law.
If we listen to the story of the rich man and Lazarus as it is written, there is no hint that the rich man is breaking any laws or acting immorally. He is not depicted as evil nor is Lazarus depicted as good. Yet the story is clear that something is wrong in the way the rich man acted. He did not act with Godís justice.
I found the readings especially hard to hear because I am a deacon. Many scriptural scholars say that the passage from Paulís letter to Timothy is an ordination charge. During any ordination, the bishop admonishes the person being ordained to understand clearly what ordination calls him to, and charges him with being faithful to that call. One of the most important charges during the ordination to Diaconate is that the deacon is to bring to the attention of the Church those who are poor, those who are victims, those who are neglected and marginalized. The parable Jesus tells reminds me how poorly I carry out that charge, quickly moving to see situations that cry out for justice in terms of statistics and abstractions, instead of seeing the human beings who are suffering.
I donít think it is any coincidence that this parable is the only one that Jesus tells where a person has a name: Lazarus. In naming him, Jesus emphasizes that the poor, the victimized, the marginal have a claim on us not because they are good, or a certain religion or nationality, or how tall they are, but precisely because they are human beings. Dorothee Soelle, the author of the 1975 book Suffering says,
When you look at human suffering concretely, you destroy all innocence, all neutrality, every attempt to say, "It wasn't I; there was nothing I could do; I didn't know." In the face of suffering you are either with the victim or the executioner - there is no other option.
I realize how easily I think of situations demanding justice from a perspective that misses the faces and the names, that is more abstract than concrete. I listen to this parable and Amosí rant against the affluent in Jerusalem, and I have to face the fact that they are talking to me. I would like to share with you just one way this strikes me.
I would like to read you a portion of an email (the full text of the email is here) that I ran across a few days after the terrorist attacks by Tamim Ansary, an Afgan-American writer who was responding to the strong sentiments of ďLetís bomb Afghanistan back to the Stone AgeĒ. In reading it, I was brought up short by the faces that emerged from this view of Afghanistan.
I speak as one who hates the Taliban and Osama Bin Laden. There is no doubt in my mind that these people were responsible for the atrocity in New York. I agree that something must be done about those monsters.
But the Taliban and Ben Laden are not Afghanistan. They're not even the government of Afghanistan. The Taliban are a cult of ignorant psychotics who took over Afghanistan in 1997. Bin Laden is a political criminal with a plan. When you think Taliban, think Nazis. When you think Bin Laden, think Hitler. And when you think "the people of Afghanistan" think "the Jews in the concentration camps." It's not only that the Afghan people had nothing to do with this atrocity. They were the first victims of the perpetrators. They would exult if someone would come in there, take out the Taliban and clear out the rats nest of international thugs holed up in their country. Some say, why don't the Afghans rise up and overthrow the Taliban? The answer is, they're starved, exhausted, hurt, incapacitated, suffering. A few years ago, the United Nations estimated that there are 500,000 disabled orphans in Afghanistan--a country with no economy, no food. There are millions of widows. And the Taliban has been burying these widows alive in mass graves. The soil is littered with land mines, the farms were all destroyed by the Soviets. These are a few of the reasons why the Afghan people have not overthrown the Taliban.
We come now to the question of bombing Afghanistan back to the Stone Age. Trouble is, that's been done. The Soviets took care of it already. Make the Afghans suffer? They're already suffering. Level their houses? Done. Turn their schools into piles of rubble? Done. Eradicate their hospitals? Done. Destroy their infrastructure? Cut them off from medicine and health care? Too late. Someone already did all that.
New bombs would only stir the rubble of earlier bombs. Would they at least get the Taliban? Not likely. In today's Afghanistan, only the Taliban eat, only they have the means to move around. They'd slip away and hide. Maybe the bombs would get some of those disabled orphans, they don't move too fast, they don't even have wheelchairs. But flying over Kabul and dropping bombs wouldn't really be a strike against the criminals who did this horrific thing. Actually it would only be making common cause with the Taliban--by raping once again the people they've been raping all this time
If all we do is feel sorry for the people of Afghanistan, or for Lazarus in Jesusí story, then we have missed the point; we are like those people that Dorothee Soelle talks about that say, "There was nothing I could do." There has to be a fundamental conversion that starts to turn us around, so that we can see Godís justice. It starts in small ways when we are faced with the magnitude of the problem. One affect it had on me was to spur me to look for responses to the tragedies that went beyond bringing the culprits to punishment. One such idea I came across is a plan by the European Union bishops to mount an economic development plan that would seek to remove the breeding grounds of terrorist fanatics. Patterned on the Marshall plans and forgiveness of debt the US has used to solidify support, in Egypt during the Desert Storm conflict, and Pakistan in the current effort, this plan seeks to bring about justice by narrowing the gap between the rich and the poor regions of the world. Justice demands that we work to narrow this gap because those across the gap have human faces and names.
Jesusí story charges me as deacon, and all of us as baptized, on a more local basis, to look across the ever widening gap between the rich and the poor right here in our country, our state, our town, and see faces and names that cry out for justice, Godís justice. The current crisis has awoken the hearts of so many to reach out to help those in trouble, to pray, to come together in community. But we Americans have a tendency to forget just as quickly and go back to life as usual. If we do that now, the economic fallout of these attacks will widen the gap between rich and poor even further, creating millions of more victims.
As we are sent forth from Mass today, to love and serve the Lord, and one another, I hope that you will join me in my resolve to look at the human suffering in the world around me more concretely so that not a single Lazarus will be overlooked.
From ZENIT.ORG - the world seen from Rome: