September 22, 2010

Dives’ Sin of Omission

by Tobias Winright
Scripture Reflection: Catholic Lectionary (Am 6:1, 4-7; Ps 146; 1 Tim 6:11-16; Lk 16:19-31)

In my “Poverty, Wealth, and Justice” course, students still read Jonathan Kozol’s 1995 bestseller, Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation, which includes the author’s interviews with children in Mott Haven, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the South Bronx. It is striking how many of these kids bring up theology in their reflections, including David: “’Evil exists,’ he says, not flinching at the word. ‘I believe that what the rich have done to the poor people in this city is something that a preacher could call evil. Somebody has power. Pretending that they don’t so they don’t need to use it to help people—that is my idea of evil’” (23). Nearly a decade-and-a-half later, according to 2009 census data, one in five children in the U.S. continue to struggle below the poverty line. At the same time, New York Times op-ed writer Paul Krugman observes how America’s rich are raging about having to pay taxes, because “a belligerent sense of entitlement has taken hold: it’s their money, and they have the right to keep it." If any of these wealthy Americans also consider themselves to be Christians, this attitude stands in stark contrast to the theological meaning of the offering during Christian worship, which reminds us that all we are and all we have is from God—and that we are called to be good stewards, for the sake of others, of what we have.

In the Catholic Mass, we often recite a prayer, confessing our sin, for “what I have done and what I have failed to do.” Jesus’ story about the rich man (tradition has called him Dives, Latin for “rich man”) and the poor man, Lazarus, has to do with the rich man’s sin of omission. Dives did not maliciously do anything to harm Lazarus. Rather, Dives, who had more than he needed, neglected to make sure that Lazarus’ needs were satisfied. Jesus’ parable is a word of warning, much like that of the eighth century Judean prophet to Northern Israel, Amos, who denounced not only the wealthier people’s luxurious lifestyle at the expense of the poor but also their mere lack of concern for them. According to Psalm 146, God “executes justice for the oppressed…gives food to the hungry… sets the prisoners free…upholds the orphan and the widow.” That is how the rulers of Israel were expected to be and act as well, and Jesus’ echoing of this passage at the beginning of his ministry in Luke’s Gospel (4:18-19, but also found in Isaiah 61) offers a model for how Christians ought to think about justice (not charity) in connection with wealth and poverty. Moreover, as the author of 1 Timothy emphasizes, Jesus Christ is the “only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords.” It’s not our money to which we are entitled, as if we can merit our (economic) salvation. If we are seeking, by the grace of God, to “pursue righteousness [and] godliness” (1 Tim 6:11), I see no room for this talk of “entitlement” and the “right to keep” our money.

When Kozol tells Mrs. Washington, David’s mother, about a rich New York lawyer who said “They’re being killed by personal income taxes,” she replied, “There’s killing and there’s killing….I don’t think the man you talked to knows what ‘killing’ means” (110). A rich woman once told St. Vincent, “The poor frighten me.” To which he answered, “The poor are frightening, as frightening as God’s justice” (quoted on 186). I know this stuff won’t preach well in many churches, but there it is.

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