27 September 2010

The Sin of not Bothering to Love

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time – C

Readings: Am 6:1a, 4-7; Ps 146:7, 8-9, 9-10; 1Tim 6:11-16; Lk 16:19-31

The Gospel parable this Sunday is a veritable treasure trove of reflection on sin and grace. We have two main characters: the rich man, who dresses in fine clothes and eats sumptuous meals everyday; and Lazarus, the poor man who has practically nothing but his name and sores all over his body. When the two died, Lazarus was “carried by angels to the bosom of Abraham” and the rich man found himself in the netherworld where everlasting flames torment him.

Why did the rich man ended up in hell? The quick answer is because he failed to help the poor man by his door. But is it right and just that he be judged by that single act of omission? And what about Lazarus, did his earthly poverty rightfully won for him a heavenly reward? As it turns out, there is no short answer to the questions raised by this parable, which is a good thing as far as good stories go.

Are their respective fates brought about by a Hebrew version of cosmic karma? Abraham’s answer to the rich man’s request seems to indicate this. “My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.”

However, there is more to the story than yin-yangs and karma could explain. For the story is an exploration on the mystery of God’s love. Abraham’s later statements point more precisely to the answers we are looking for. He says: “They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.”

1. Hesed, Hattah, and Peshah

"Moses and the prophets" refer to two of the three major parts of the Old Testament: the Law (the first five books of the Bible, attributed to or written by orders of Moses), and the books of the Prophets. The third part is a collection of poetry called Wisdom literature. Moses and the Prophets are the definitive guide to right living for the Chosen People. What does the Old Testament say about God’s love and man’s sin?

The Scripture scholar Bruce Vawter* writes: “In the Law the favored word for sin is hattah (which literally means ‘to miss the mark’ as in a hasty traveler who loses his way through inadvertence to road signs ). The ‘mark’ or norm that was ‘missed’, in the mind of the Israelite authors, was that of the Covenant of Sinai.”

The Covenant refers to the special bond between God and His Chosen People. He is their God, and they are His people.

More from Vawter: “The word customarily used in the Old Testament to convey the notion of the covenant bond is hesed, translated variously as ‘mercy’, ‘loyalty’, ‘devotion’, ‘lovingkindness’, or simply ‘love’. It was in hesed that God had chosen Israel and bound it to Himself; hesed, correspondingly, was the duty of every Israelite in return, towards God and towards the other members of the covenant community.”

Sin in the Old Testament is not just mere wrongdoing, it is missing the mark of hesed, it means not measuring up to the norm of loving God and neighbor.

There is another similar Hebrew word for sin: pesha, which means “to overstep” or to “rebel”. This is what Amos used in the First Reading today. In Amos 6, the prophet condemns the elite of Israel who continue to live in luxury, decadence and apathy while the rest of the country falls to ruin. He considers their scandalous lifestyle as a pesha, a rebellion against God’s hesed, God’s will which has been made known as the norm of right living.

2. The Sin of Not Bothering to Love

The Old Testament teachings of sin and covenant course through the Gospel. In this parable, the rich man’s hattah is the sin of not bothering to love.

My professor in moral theology, Fr. James Keenan, SJ,** points out: “Not bothering to love is precisely the Gospel concept of sin. Jesus tells us that to love God and neighbor is the sum of the law… The parable of the rich man and Lazarus, for example, tells of a man who never bothered to notice his brother at the gate and who is punished for his negligence by hell fire.”

The same theme appears in the other parables of Jesus: the Good Samaritan, the sheep and the goats (and the corporal works of mercy), and the wedding banquet (with the ungrateful invitees and the improperly dressed guest). The “bad” characters in these parables all exhibit the sin of not bothering to love.

In both the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, and that of the sheep and the goats, the characters at the losing end invoke ignorance but still don’t escape punishment. One reason why we are blind to our sinfulness is that it is actually “the nature of sin to blind us, to dull our senses.” Fr. Keenan continues: “While causing harm may be easy to recognize, it is difficult to spot a cold heart. When our hearts are cold, dull or lukewarm they can’t tell us much. Like the goats, the rich man, the Levite or the Pharisee, the hearts of sinners have not been “bothered” or “unsettled”; they are content, complacent, resting assured.”

3. Lazarus and God’s Love

We understand Amos in the First Reading much clearer now when he declares “woe to the complacent in Zion”, to those who lie in comfort, indulge in rich foods and party while the nation falls to ruin. They will be the first to be exiled and their joy taken away from them.

But even punishment here is seen in a new light. Those who don’t bother to love are punished not so much in the spirit of retribution or divine vengeance. Their punishment is rather seen as a mere continuation of their life’s course. Because they have chosen not to live within God’s hesed in their earthly lifetime, then they will not feel God’s love in the next. The everlasting flames are only a metaphor. Hell is a place of torment because it is a state where God’s love is not felt forever.

But what about Lazarus? What did he do to deserve heaven? It is quite indicative that of all the parables of Jesus, this is the only one where a name is given to a character. Lazarus means “God is my help”.

He represents not just the poor and the weak, the anawim, God’s favorites, but also those who are grateful to the Lord for whatever blessings that come their way, those who are able to recognize their weakness in their strength, their folly in their wisdom and their need in the midst of plenty, in short, those who choose to live in God’s love. Their life in the next is also a continuation of how they had lived on earth.

This parable leads us to examine our conscience and ask ourselves: How many times have we failed to use our blessings to help others? What are those times when have we not bothered to love? Act now before it is too late.

*Bruce Vawter, “Missing the Mark”, The Way 2 (January 1962)
**James Keenan, SJ, “The Sin of Not Bothering to Love”, Church (Winter 1995)

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