Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register
(From the Sept. 30, 2010 edition of the Inland Register)
Many an empire has come and gone on the face of the Earth over the eons. Some we remember; some we don’t. A few of these empires have left their images imprinted indelibly on the historical consciousness. The Roman Empire is one of them. Do we not equate orgies, overeating, idol worship, and marching soldiers with the Roman Empire?
One of the things I always equate with the Roman Empire is the phrase “Pax Romana.” I recall enough from my high school Latin class to know that these words translate as “The Roman Peace.” The phrase communicates in a nutshell the primary expectations the Caesars in Rome had of their vast empire. Where satellite tribes or nations were brought under Roman domination, the Caesars had two fundamental expectations: pay your taxes and stay out of trouble. The satisfaction of these two charges was the criteria for the famous Pax Romana, the Roman Peace. These charges being met, the status quo would reign.
This past Sunday’s Gospel reminded me of the Pax Romana in a sort of peculiar way.
In the Gospel Jesus confronted the Pharisees with another in a series of parables or stories about their self-righteous attitudes and their presumed spiritual security before God. (Of course, we should see in these stories not just the Lord’s challenge of the narrow vision of the Pharisees themselves, but his spurning of any vestiges of Phariseeism which may be manifest in our own attitudes and religious practices.)
Jesus tells the Pharisees the story of Dives, the well-dressed rich man, and poor, sore-covered Lazarus, who lies begging at the rich man’s gate. Both men die. In the afterlife, Lazarus is welcomed into the bosom of Abraham and Dives goes to you-know-where. In the ensuing conversation between Dives and Abraham, heaven’s gate-keeper, it quickly becomes obvious that Dives is in big trouble – like eternally. He pays the price for his earthly decisions – or lack thereof.
This story makes us ponder: For what sin or crime is Dives punished? Wherein lies his guilt? Jesus makes no reference to wealth itself as evil. Nor does he identify its possession with sinfulness. There is no hint that Dives is responsible for the pitiful plight of Lazarus’ poverty and repulsive illness.
A careful listening to the story indicates that Dives could not be held accountable for knowing of Lazarus’s presence at his doorstep. No one so informed Dives and, after all, he was legitimately busy with the ministry of hospitality. Moreover, no one knocked on Dives’s door asking for a donation for the poor, to help Lazarus in his plight. Dives didn’t refuse an explicit call to assistance and responsibility.
Given his situation, no Jewish court could have convicted Dives for breaking any law which obliged him to search out the poor in his neighborhood. If asked why he did not share his goods with the poor around him, Dives could have quibbled with the law to justify the possession of everything he owned. Can’t you just hear the protest? “I worked hard for all this. Let ‘them’ pull themselves up by their own bootstraps!”
In a sense, Dives was minding his own business, paying his taxes (presumably!), and staying out of trouble. He was busy doing what the rich frequently did in his day and age: entertain the guys. He was maintaining the status quo and doing nothing wrong. It may be true that Dives was doing nothing wrong from the legal perspective, but his eternal condemnation was the result of his doing nothing. It was not his legal responsibility to see Lazarus at his gate, but he was morally responsible as a son of God and as a son of Abraham – and especially as a Pharisee who prided himself on knowing the Law of God and its demands for daily living. Being a true son or daughter of Abraham is verified not by religious practices executed with perfection but by a sensitive heart which pushes itself to search out and see the brokenness of the world. God’s faithful are called to partnership, not in the possession of the things of the world, but in co-creation, in bringing them to wholeness and life.
God exercises a preferential option for the poor, as we would say nowadays, and this preference should have been at the core of Dives’s spirituality. Exclaim all he may that he was keeping the Pax Romana by obeying the law and staying out of trouble, Dives is guilty before the judgment seat of God. There is no welcome into the bosom of Abraham for him, not because he was rich or had “committed a sin” – but because he did nothing. The emptiness of his life is reflected in his eternal separation from God.
And so will it be for us, as Jesus might add in our own hearing. Our Christian discipleship must be characterized by more than the mere practice of religion, maintaining ourselves sinless or maintaining the status quo of social expectation. If we are true sons and daughters of Abraham (as Jesus so identifies his true followers in the Gospels) then we must do more than what the law (religious or civil) obliges. We must search out the needy with the compassion of God. We must stretch ourselves beyond the deadly limitations of the Pax Romana.
(Father Savelesky is the diocese's Director of Deacon Formation and pastor of Assumption Parish in Spokane.)
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