Controversy is bubbling in a city approximately twenty-five miles south of our church’s location. During the recent hurricane the city dumped quite a lot of waste water from its waste water treatment facility into the bay. The waste water discharge could have very destructive consequences for aquatic life in the bay and local tourism.
Thus far, some city residents have blamed city government for the mishap; other city residents have blamed the State for failure to enforce environmental laws. City government has blamed the storm for overwhelming the infrastructure. All of the above arguments have merit, but there is another factor that no one has mentioned.
The city has a population of almost a quarter of a million people, most of whom moved there from somewhere else. None of them brought municipal infrastructure with them when they moved. From the time they moved in, their contribution to building local infrastructure has been rather small. The large amounts of rainfall run-off are the result of the lack of permeable surface due to commercial and residential construction.
The city’s large population has created the pre-conditions for over-burdening the infrastructure at times of peak usage. The bottom line of all the finger-pointing between city residents and government is that it is fairly simple to identify who’s at fault for the water discharge into the bay: they have only to look in the mirror to find the culprit(s). Jesus made a similar suggestion in today’s Gospel reading, although about a different set of issues.
The first part of the parable in today’s Gospel reading derives from an ancient Egyptian folk tale that was well-known during Jesus’ lifetime. The story of the rich man who suffers the eternal consequences of ignoring the demands of justice is a typical example of a “reversal of fortune” parable. Jesus’ preaching abounds with similar references to the reversal of fortunes that will be effected by God on behalf of those who are found to be faithful during their earthly lives. The Gospel reading on Sunday, August 28 contained an example of this. Jesus said, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 14:11)
Jesus added to the folk tale a reference to the Scriptures and belief in resurrection from the dead. The rich man in the parable did not see the obvious suffering of the poor man at his door; neither did he hear and heed the words of the Scriptures. (Luke 16:29) He ended in eternal torment, not because of his wealth, but because of his injustice.
“Justice,” in the Scriptures, is an obligation to give to others what one owes them. According to the Scriptures, one owes complete fidelity to God and compassion to one’s fellow women and men. This is quite unlike our cultural definition of justice in the United States. In our culture, justice is something that we feel we are owed by others. In the Scriptures, justice is a debt we owe to others. The parable does not condemn wealth, nor portray poverty as virtuous. Rather, one man is condemned for his failure to act justly toward someone in need, and the other man is recompensed for the unjust suffering he endured during his life.
The parable should not be seen as affirmation of conventional moralizing. Rather, the parable is a question addressed to the readers of the Gospel. Jesus was asking, ‘Do you see the demands of justice that surround you?’ He went on to say, ‘If you do not perceive your personal failure to give justice to those who deserve it, neither the Scriptures nor the promise of resurrection will make any difference in your life.’ (Luke 16:31)
During Lent last year Pope Francis announced a Jubilee Year of Mercy beginning on December 8, 2015, and concluding on November 20, 2016. In the Hebrew Scriptures, a Jubilee Year was a mandated, periodic celebration of justice. During the Jubilee Year financial debts were forgiven, prisoners were released from incarceration and mortgaged or foreclosed property was returned to its ancestral owners.
Pope Francis’ vision for this Jubilee Year of Mercy is to call all people to repentance for their past injustices, and to encourage greater attention to performing the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy. (Jubilee Year Letter) It should be noted, however, that the emphasis of this Year of Mercy is neither on moral probity or personal merit.
In the Scriptures, mercy and justice are so inter-related that the words are often used interchangeably, and they most often refer to God’s fidelity and the commensurate fidelity that is incumbent on God’s People. Pope Francis has invited all people to make this Jubilee of Mercy an encounter with God’s mercy and a renewed effort to imitate God’s mercy in our dealings with one another.
This Jubilee celebration, and its attendant definition of God’s mercy, exclude an understanding of mercy as merely ethical. Living an ethical life is, in itself, not of sufficient merit to gain eternal reward. In other words, ethical behavior toward others, in the absence of rendering to God what one owes God (that is, Faith), does not lead to salvation.
The opposite extreme is equally fruitless. Practicing religion as if it is only an ethics cannot lead to salvation. In other words, if your religious practice is only about meeting the minimum requirements to avoid punishment, you are just as negligent toward God as someone who has no faith.
The people around us are like mirrors that reflect to us the reality of how we live. In the parable, the rich man did not see the sufferings of Lazarus, because he did not practice justice in his life. His blindness was self-imposed, as was his punishment. Jesus asked his disciples, ‘Do you see the demands of justice that surround you?’ He went on to say, ‘If you do not perceive your personal failure to give justice to those who deserve it, neither the Scriptures nor the promise of resurrection will make any difference in your life.’ (Luke 16:31)