When did luxury become a good thing? Originally, the word meant excessive enjoyment of the finest things. Over time, meanings of words change and attitudes change. Nowadays we don’t think of “luxury” as necessarily referring to something sinful in itself, but today’s readings invite us to think about it in a wider context. In both the first reading — Amos 6:1a, 4-7 — and the gospel — Luke 16:19-31 — we are presented with people who live in luxury, and their conduct is not something for us to follow.
Last week, Amos denounced those who oppressed the poor and engaged in consumer fraud, and Jesus used the example of a cheater to tell us we should be as anxious to grow in grace as the the worldly are to get rich. This week, we see the behavior of people who have attained the wealth they sought, and it’s not good example. The “complacent in Zion” live in luxury, as does the rich man in the gospel. By itself, though, that isn’t the problem. The problem is that the complacent in Zion don’t care about the approaching fall of the Kingdom of Israel. The rich man doesn’t care about the misery of Lazarus. They don’t care about other people.
Wealth isn’t inherently evil, but it’s dangerous. It’s dangerous because it can lead us to focus on getting it to the point of cheating others or ignoring our obligations to God and others; and it can lead us to focus on enjoying it to the point of ignoring the needs of those around us. It seems that the rich man would not have ended up in hell if he had shared some of his food with Lazarus.
This may be a useful reminder for us.
I may not lounge on an ivory bed, improvising music, but I do enjoy attending symphony concerts frequently in Boston. I may not dine sumptuously every day, but I do enjoy nice dinners at the yacht club and at fine restaurants a couple of times a month. How can I avoid going to hell with the rich man? Maybe giving money to the panhandlers in the subway and occasionally preparing meals for soup kitchens and homeless shelters will help. It’s not a matter of a specific amount or type of charitable acts. Good works don’t save us; Jesus does. But we throw that salvation away if we don’t love our neighbor as ourselves. It’s a matter of having a genuine love for others. When that is there, charitable acts — what we call the corporal and spiritual works of mercy — will be the result. I mustn’t let the good things I enjoy become my reason for living. I mustn’t let them blind me to the needs of others. I mustn’t be completely self-centered.
The noble confession that Timothy gave, which Paul spoke about in the second reading — 1 Timothy 6:11-16 — is something we also give at Mass when we profess the creed and when we respond,”Amen” to the priest, deacon, or Communion minister’s words, “The Body of Christ.” But the witness is hollow if we don’t also mean it when we say, “O Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof.” It’s hollow if we never do anything to help those who are less fortunate than we are. What we can do depends on our own circumstances. Some of us have greater opportunities than others, but we all have some chance to show love in action. We should ask the Holy Spirit to remind us of what we’ve done for others. We should ask the Holy Spirit to show us when we’re responding to people’s needs and when we’re ignoring them.
One more point to bear in mind is that we can be doing good to others when we do our jobs or go about our normal activities. If we think about how they benefit others — a bus driver getting people to work or back home; an accountant helping a business owner know what resources are available; a merchant making goods available for people’s use; a worker who keeps the water flowing, collects our trash, or maintains the electrical system; a physician who helps people overcome illness — all people doing honest work can do that work as an act of love for others.
We can and should certainly be grateful for all the good things we enjoy, be we have to becoming indifferent to the needs of others, and and ask God to show us how we can put love of neighbor into practice and how we’re already doing it.