26TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: THE GREAT ABYSS BETWEEN THE RICH AND THE POOR

Economic inequality, the huge gap between the rich and the poor, is one of the most tragic reality of our times. Despite globalization and the height of capitalism which increased the wealth of the world to unimaginable levels, the gap between the rich and the poor is worst today than ever before. Michael Hunt, in his book, The World Transformed: 1945 to the Present, stated that in 1820, the ratio between the income of the top and bottom 20 percent of the world’s population was three to one. By 1991, it was eighty-six to one.[1]

Oxfam, a confederation of 20 independent charitable organizations founded in 1942 to focus on the alleviation of global poverty, reported that in 2017, 82% of global wealth generated went to the wealthiest 1%.[2] In 2019 ,Oxfam reported that the poorest half of the human population has been losing wealth (around 11%) at the same time that a billionaire is minted every two days. [3]

The gap between the rich and the poor will continue to rise in the years ahead just as the average temperature of the earth will keep rising over the next years. There is so much wealth in the world at the expense of 99% of the people and the degradation of mother nature.

The readings for today’s 26th Sunday in ordinary time also also talked about the “great abyss” between the rich and the poor.

In the first reading, the prophet Amos depicts the scandalous luxury of the rich at the expense of the poor, 500 years before Jesus’ times

Lying upon beds of ivory,
stretched comfortably on their couches,
they eat lambs taken from the flock,
and calves from the stall!
Improvising to the music of the harp,
like David, they devise their own accompaniment.
They drink wine from bowls
and anoint themselves with the best oils;

In the gospel Jesus tells the story of Lazarus and a rich man. Jesus illustrates graphically the scandalous gap between the life of  Lazarus and the rich man.

There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen
and dined sumptuously each day.
And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,
who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps
that fell from the rich man’s table.

Ironically, the rich man goes nameless, whereas Jesus told us at the outset that the beggar is named Lazarus. The irony is that while it is a preoccupation of the “great ones” of this world to be remembered, it is one of the “nameless ones”—the beggar, who gets named in the story.

The huge gap between Lazarus and the rich man did not just happen on earth but continued in heaven.

Between us and you a great chasm is established
to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go
from our side to yours or from your side to ours.’

In heaven, however, the wheel of fortune are overturned.

When the poor man died,
he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham.
The rich man also died and was buried,
and from the netherworld, where he was in torment,
he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off
and Lazarus at his side.

Indeed the story illustrates Luke’s version of the Beatitudes and “Woes” proclaimed earlier in his gospel: “Blessed are you who are now hungry, for you will be satisfied (Lk 6:21). “But woe to you who are filled now, for you will be hungry” (Lk 6:25).

The rich man’s problem in the gospel and the problem of the rich in Amos’ first reading is not their wealth but their complacency.  Amos proclaims the woe of the Lord upon the complacency of the rich: Woe to the complacent in Zion! Amos satirizes the self-indulgent wealthy who have become oblivious to the decline of their society (“the collapse of Joseph”). Like the “complacent in Zion” who “are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph,” the rich man in the Gospel can neither see nor hear: he does not see Lazarus in need at his door; he does not listen to Moses and the prophets who guide him in right ways. The rich man is not in “the netherworld, where he was in torment” simply because of the good he received during his lifetime, but because his self-contained, self-satisfied lifestyle was not faithful to the teaching and practice of the Mosaic covenant.

The Gospel and First Reading proclaims prophetic warning to the rich.  The letter to Timothy in the second reading adds its own wake-up call:

I charge you before God, who gives life to all things,
and before Christ Jesus, …
to keep the commandment without stain or reproach
until the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Pope Francis in his General Audience on May 18, 2016 says that Lazarus represents the silent cry of the poor of all times and the contradictions of a world where vast wealth and resources are in the hands of few.

The problem of shocking inequality may tempt us, especially from 1st world countries, to shrug off any responsibility for our personal part in it. But we reap the fruits from the prosperity of the developed world that began with products that were looted from the colonies. This exploitation continues today. We get primary resources from developing countries for a relative pittance, like the tea and coffee we drink, or our year-long supply of fruit from tropical countries. We can buy clothes of quality brands because a woman in El Salvador makes clothes for 56 cents an hour. We can enjoy lots of chocolates at the expense of widespread use of child labor, and in some cases slavery, on cocoa farms in Western Africa.

Added to that, 1st world countries still look to poorer countries to accept their toxic waste. After feeding and clothing ourselves with their resources, we want to return our rubbish to them. Almost all of us are contributing to climate change, yet we don’t relish the lifestyle changes that must happen, to reverse those abuses.

We who live today have even a further revelation beyond Moses and the prophets: we are to hear and put into practice the truth of the Gospel affirmed by Jesus who rose from the dead.

We need to learn from the ultimate fates of Dives and Lazarus. Our world is too small to bear such inequalities as our greedy complacency allows to continue. Unless we share our surplus and care for our world, we will end up in a hell of our own making. By so doing, we choose now on which side of the chasm we will be in the next life.

 


 

[1] Hunt, Michael (2004). The World Transformed: 1945 to the Present. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s. p. 442.

[2] Elliott, Larry (January 21, 2018). “Inequality gap widens as 42 people hold same wealth as 3.7bn poorest”. The Guardian. Retrieved January 23, 2018.

[3] Picchi, Aimee (January 20, 2019). “A new billionaire is minted every 2 days as the poor lose wealth”. CBS News. Retrieved January 21, 2019.