Msgr. Joseph Prior

(See the readings for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Sept. 29)

Condoleeza Rice, former secretary of state and national security adviser, wrote the following about a very important moment in her life where a door was opened to God’s grace:

“Although I never doubted the existence of God, I think like all people I’ve had some ups and downs in my faith. When I first moved to California in 1981 to join the faculty at Stanford, there were a lot of years when I was not attending church regularly…. I was a specialist in international politics, so I was always traveling abroad.

“(One) Sunday morning, I went to Menlo Park Presbyterian Church (in Palo Alto). The minister that Sunday morning gave a sermon I will never quite forget. It was about the Prodigal Son from the point of view of the elder son.

“It set the elder son up not as somebody who had done all the right things but as somebody who had become so self-satisfied; a parable about self-satisfaction, and content and complacency in faith (and) that people who didn’t somehow expect themselves to need to be born again can be complacent. I started to think of myself as that elder son who had never doubted the existence of God but wasn’t really walking in faith in an active way anymore.

“I started to become more active with the church, to go to Bible study and to have a more active prayer life. It was a very important turning point in my life.”

Two weeks ago we heard the account of the three “losts” – the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son (the prodigal son). Rice references this last story in her account. The joy of the father in finding his son is so overwhelming that he has to share it. The father wants to share the love he has for the newly returned son with everyone. The older son, however, misses out. He will not allow himself to partake of the joy or the love. Part of the reason for this is that he is complacent.

Complacency is an attitude and disposition that is easy to fall into. The readings for this Sunday’s liturgy urge us to be active in love and not to fall into complacency.

Jesus tells us the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. Lazarus suffered much in life. After his life was over, he rested in peace in the bosom of Abraham. God had compassion on him in his suffering and gathered him to himself where he would have no further suffering but share in the life of love.

Lazarus would never be hungry or thirsty again. He would have an eternal home of love, joy and peace. He would rest secure in the loving embrace of God. That part of the story is indeed comforting and encouraging when we face any sort of suffering, sorrow or grief. This is an important part of the story and it certainly finds parallels in many parts of the Gospel. Yet this is not the whole story. The plight of the rich man takes most of the focus.

What is the rich man’s problem? It seems to be complacency. He is so comfortable and satisfied with himself and his life situation that he fails to recognize the needs of others. This is particularly emphasized by the fact that Lazarus lay every day at the rich man’s door.

The rich man, who “dressed in purple garments and fine linens and dined sumptuously each day,” could see with his eyes the needs of Lazarus but never opened his heart to show compassion. He was blinded by his complacency.

Complacency can come in different forms and it can affect different aspects of our lives. One alluded to by Jesus at the end of the story is that of faith in the Risen Lord. As the rich man pleads for his brothers, he asks Abraham to send Lazarus to his home to warn them.

When Abraham tells him that they have already been prepared by Moses and the prophets, the rich man says: “Oh no, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.” To which Abraham replies: “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.” The care for the poor and needy is another aspect of life where complacency can easily affect us.

The situation is not particular to Jesus’ day nor to ours. Amos the prophet faced a similar situation in the life of Israel approximately 800 years before Jesus. He cries out to the Israelites: “Woe to the complacent in Zion!” He cites numerous examples of people enjoying the luxuries of life – “beds of ivory,” “couches,” “drinking wine from bowls,” “anointing with the best oils,” etc. all the while neglecting the poor and feigning faith in God.

God’s love is endless and boundless. He wants us to take that love into our hearts and have them burn with compassion. His love fuels the fire, our love stokes the flames. The love we have for him and the love we have for each other, especially the poor and needy, need regular attention.

Today we are invited to look at our lives from the vantage point of complacency. Questions we might ask are, “are there any aspects of my life where I am complacent?” or “do I make myself aware of the needs of those in my community, my country, or the world?” or “how can I help the poor?”

Perhaps reflection on the passage from 1 Timothy might help: “But you, man of God, pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness. Compete well for the faith. Lay hold of eternal life, to which you were called when you made the noble confession (of faith).”

In Jesus’ story, the rich man was so numbed by his riches that he never really got to experience the depth of love or that joy that it brings because he missed the opportunity for charity. Complacency closed the door to love. Jesus uses the story to emphasize charity because it is a need not a luxury. The rich man had it backwards.

***

Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of Our Lady of Grace Parish, Penndel, and a former professor of Sacred Scripture and rector of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary.