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Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Amos 6:1A, 4-7; Psalm 146:7, 8-9, 9-10; 1Timothy 6:11-16; Luke 16:19-31

September 30, 2013

In the movie of John Grisham's novel "A Time to Kill," two lawyers engage in a battle of legal tricks and attempted power plays in a Southern U.S. courtroom.  The younger lawyer, who is defending a black man who killed his daughter's white rapists, knows he is losing the case. At the eleventh hour it dawns on him that it is not strength, but weakness, that will turn the tide.  He stands up in front of the jury, admits his ineptness, and then simply recounts the horrifying story of the child's rape. Then he says, in essence, "Now imagine that this was your child."  The camera shows the faces of the jurors, softened and full of anguish.  They vote for acquittal.This is a story of salvation.  The defendant is saved from the gas chamber. Yet perhaps even more significant is how the appeal to the heart changes everyone in the courtroom - even the opposing lawyer.  Before the young lawyer spoke, they were people confined within their own cultural stereotypes; after his oration, they become human beings with the capacity for noble action.  They have been saved from their hardness of heart

The connection to today's gospel is that it was this softened heart that the rich man was missing.  It was not his wealth that was damning, but his complete indifference to the suffering person at his door.  He did not allow it to enter his imagination that Lazarus was as worthy of nurture as his own beloved children.  He did not open his heart to feel the anguish of Lazarus's utter destitution.  He did not turn his face toward Lazarus with humanizing solicitude. As a result, Lazarus had to wait until after death to know the salvation of being welcomed, fed, and loved in "the bosom of Abraham."   But the rich man's loss was even greater: he lost his chance at the greatest gift of being human, namely, the potential to participate in the merciful and gratuitous love of God.

One of the main reasons we are prone to hardness of heart is that we are frightened by the massiveness of suffering.   Our own relatives, neighbors, and co-workers struggle with depression, painful relationships, financial strain, addictions, and more; we open the newspaper every day to more stories about horrifying shootings and bombings; the mail is full of appeals on behalf of legions of hungry and disenfranchised people.  It is manifestly impossible for us to offer comfort and aid everyone whose suffering is "at our door."  We fear that if we don't close and bar the door firmly, our hearts will be overwhelmed and destroyed by the vast cataract of pain that seems to be pouring out over the whole world.  So, like the rich man in the gospel, we deploy our strength and wealth to build protective barriers, imagining that this will save us.

Our fears would be justified were it not for the Heart of God. Only the Heart of God can hold the massive suffering of the world with complete mercy.  What God invites us to do is to participate in that divine mercy.  Ultimately it is only God who can save and heal the world.  The gift of being human, created in the image and likeness of God, is to take up our tiny part in that vast work. No matter how strong or wealthy we may be, our own talents and resources will not save ourselves or others.  Rather, everything we have and are, is gift, meant to be handed back to God for deployment in favor of God's reign.

When we gaze upon the cross, we know that there will indeed be a cost to this work.  Jesus' heart was pierced, and our hearts too will feel pain.  Yet we also know that in him, death has been swallowed up by life that is divine, unconquerable, and eternal.  We do not need to fear the pain of the softened heart, because Jesus "has our back" in the most profound possible sense of the term.  The anguish of the heart open to love is small in comparison to the great joy of participating in God's love.

Mary Frohlich, RSCJ
Associate Professor of Spirituality

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