Fr. Michael's Thoughts on Biblical Imagery: Negligence


(Fr Michael Boakye Yeboah: Vice Rector of St Gregory Seminary, Kumasi-Ghana)


It is within the natural rights of every human person to seek his/her own rights and pursue them for the betterment of his/her life. Some people can really get preoccupied with themselves to the extent that they do not recognize any happenings around them (this may be no fault of theirs). The rich can live in this type of world. If a rich person is restricted to himself/herself and do not recognize their surroundings, some “poor people” have been quick to condemn them to damnation (hell). But it is totally out of place for one to conclude that rich people will normally meet the fate of the rich man in today’s Gospel (who went to hell). I have met some people in life who love God and the Church more than their hard-earned wealth. Some Catholics have not allowed their wealth, power and influential positions they occupied to get too much into their heads. Though this is the case for some rich people, it is not so for some others and the readings for 26th Sunday attempt to address this. Now, let us take a look at the readings.

Luke narrates to us a parable by Jesus constructed with such consummate skill that not one phrase is wasted. Let us took at the two characters in it. First, there is the rich man, usually called Dives, which is the Latin for rich. Every phrase adds something to the luxury in which he lived. He was clothed in purple and fine linen. That is the description of the robes of the high priest, and such robes were hugely expensive, costing many times the value of a working man’s daily wage. He feasted in luxury every day. The word used for feasting is the word that is used for a gourmet feeding on exotic and costly dishes. He did this every day. In so doing he definitely and positively broke the fourth commandment. That commandment not only forbids work on the Sabbath; it also says six days you shall labor (Exodus 20:9).

In a country where the people were fortunate if they ate meat once in the week and where they toiled for six days each week, Dives is a figure of indolent self-indulgence. Lazarus was waiting for the crumbs that fell from Dives’ table. In that time there were no knives, forks or napkins. Food was eaten with the hands and, in very wealthy houses, the hands were cleansed by wiping them on hunks of bread, which were then thrown away. That was what Lazarus was waiting for.

Second, there is Lazarus. Strangely enough Lazarus is the only character in any of the parables who is given a name. The name is the Latinized form of Eleazar and means God is my help. He was a beggar; he was covered with ulcerated sores; and so helpless that he could not even ward off the street dogs, which pestered him.

Such is the scene in this world; then abruptly it changes to the next and there Lazarus is in glory and Dives is in torment. What was the sin of the Rich Man? He had not ordered Lazarus to be removed from his gate. He had made no objections to his receiving the bread that was flung away from his table. He did not kick him in the passing. He was not deliberately cruel to him. The sin of the Rich Man was that he never noticed Lazarus, that he accepted him as part of the landscape and simply thought it perfectly natural and inevitable that Lazarus should lie in pain and hunger while he wallowed in luxury. As someone said, ‘It was not what the Rich Man did that got him into jail; it was what he did not do that got him into hell.”

The sin of the Rich Man was that he could look on the world’s suffering and need and feel no answering sword of grief and pity pierce his heart; he looked at a fellow human being, hungry and in pain, and did nothing about it. He was the punishment of the man who never noticed.

It seems hard that his request that his brothers should be warned was refused. But it is the plain fact that if people possess the truth of God’s word, and if, wherever they look, there is sorrow to be comforted, need to be supplied, pain to be relieved, and it moves them to no feeling and to no action, nothing will change them.

It is a terrible warning that the sin of the Rich Man was not that he did wrong things, but that he did nothing. The first reading, from Amos, is important for understanding the Gospel. The prophet thunders not simply against property and wealth, but against what property and wealth often produce in men: carousing, indolence, being comfortable without caring about the nation’s situation (Israel was already seriously threatened at that time, but “you are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph”). The prophet reads the riot act to men with this sort of selfish “carefree” and “self-assured” attitude: “Their wanton revelry shall be done away with” and “they shall be the first to go into exile.

Negligence of the poor around us has led to dire consequence in the history of human kind and we pray that we will not chose that way again. To arrive at equity and basic needs for all the French Revolution was born. The French Revolution was the pragmatic manifestation of the philosophical works of J.J. Rousseau. The peasants in Paris and its surrounding villages were dying of hunger; many people couldn’t get bread for days to weeks to eat. Life became unbearable for many people while the nobility had more than enough to eat and even throw away their remains without thinking of the poor who couldn’t have mind to fill their stomachs. Those who marched that day and led the revolution had many choices but desperation and hunger made them to choose the cruel means of solving their problems.

Karl Marx shared a similar philosophy when he gave the clarion call for workers of the world to unite and fight their course for just wages. I will like to think that if not for negligence of the rich to the poor so many revolutions and wars may have been avoided in the history of humankind. When you hear of the neglected poor masses many people are quick to think of Africa, Asia and South America but the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston makes a surprise revelation. He wrote: “I have spent the past two weeks visiting the United States, at the invitation of the federal government, to look at whether the persistence of extreme poverty in America undermines the enjoyment of human rights by its citizens. In my travels through California, Alabama, Georgia, Puerto Rico, West Virginia, and Washington DC I have spoken with dozens of experts and civil society groups, met with senior state and federal government officials and talked with many people who are homeless or living in deep poverty… United States is one of the world’s richest and most powerful and technologically innovative countries; but neither its wealth nor its power nor its technology is being harnessed to address the situation in which 40 million people continue to live in poverty.” Philip Alston highlights the huge gap between the comfortable rich and the neglected poor. If a report by a UN official can use the phrase “extreme poverty” in his report on United States poverty, then what will he write when he visits Africa, Asia or South America. Things need to change for the better.

Negligence of the poor, many believe, motivated St Mother Teresa of Calcutta to move away from the life of comfort to join the poor in the streets to feed them. We pray that God will bless our world with people who share in the philosophy of Mother Teresa of Calcutta.


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