It’s so easy to fall into the trap of complacency, of doing nothing, of ignoring the danger of being in a wrong relationship with God. There’s a legend where three demons are overheard planning how to get most victims for their master. The first said…
“Tell the people ’There is no God’” “No, that won’t do,” said the other demons, “There are too many evidences of his goodness to convince people.” The second proposed: “Say ’There is no hell.’” The others replied, “That won’t convince people either because some of their fellows are there already.” The third produced the most effective way, “Tell them ’There is no hurry.’” This brings to mind the Bible’s solemn words, “How shall we escape if we neglect so great salvation?” (Heb 2.3).
Just think about the war on terrorism. Think about the new laws that have been set in place in order to avoid a possible threat. Think of the security at airports and other places that have been given much more teeth. These procedures might be annoying, and some of them might be unnecessary, but many of them are necessary. Terrorism alerts us to the fact is that there is an unseen threat that is very real–there is a war going on, and sometimes drastic measures need to be taken to make sure that we are kept safe and that our peace is defended.
(The definition of terrorism is “the use of violence or fear tactics in order to intimidate, coerce, or alter public opinion.” Actually, when we take this definition of terrorism, I think that most modern television journalists are also terrorists, but I digress….)
We cannot be complacent in such a war. Do you think that the spiritual war, itself often unseen, is any less dangerous? Do you think that the measures we take in that battle should be less drastic? I mean, the stakes of the spiritual war aren’t simply life, death and enslavement, but eternal life, eternal death, and eternal enslavement! With this in mind, I have some bad news to tell you. Only two days ago a person or persons desecrated part of our church and painted disgusting words and Satanic symbols on the wall near the elevator. It doesn’t really matter what it said. We need to realize that whether we like it or not, we ARE in a war on terror, and there are beings that number among the enemy that are pure spirit, pure hatred, pure violence, and pure fear. Does the war on THEM deserve LESS attention than the war on Muslim terrorists?
The war has come to us whether we like it or not. Christianity is dying in the West, and because we are a complacent people it is dying without much of a fight. Do you realize that only this summer a law was discussed in San Antonio that would bar any person from running for city council who held traditional views on marriage? Look it up. The ordinance would also ban the city from doing business with anyone who fails to espouse politically correct views and businesses run by people of faith would be subject to criminal penalties if they refused to provide services that conflict with their religious beliefs related to homosexuality. People, these things are already happening, not just around that particular issue. Christianity is under open attack and within a generation many our beliefs are going to be illegal–many of them already are. The time for complacency is over.
I believe that our readings this Sunday provide us with a fairly clear message which might be best summarized by what the prophet Amos says in the first reading: “woe to the COMPLACENT in Zion! Lying upon beds of ivory, stretch comfortably on their couches….” And Amos goes on to describe people living in a fairly rich lifestyle. Precisely this same description is continued by Jesus in the Gospel. There is no doubt that Jesus had read the prophecy of Amos before and may have been thinking precisely this passage when he himself told the parable about the rich man and Lazarus. Jesus paints a picture for us in fairly black-and-white terms: there was a rich man dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dine sumptuously day. And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. The rich man in his life being tormented in flames for all of eternity. Now I want you to keep in mind that it is the supposedly kind, gentle and nonjudgmental Jesus who is telling this story about eternal hellfire. I am not going to make a further point about this. I simply wanted to be something that you consider.
What I find personally disturbing about the rich people that Amos talks about in the first reading and the wealthy man that Jesus talks about in the gospel is the fact that in both cases these people are not punished because they did horribly wicked deeds. There have been no murders, no wars, no rapes, no harsh or judgmental or unkind words, no genocide. And yet in both cases, they are punished severely. Precisely what is going on here and what lesson might we take from it?
Just to satisfy our local Scripture scholars and history buffs, let’s make sure that we know what is going on in the first reading with prophecy of Amos. Amos prophesied around the year 760 BC. It was a time of a great deal of prosperity for both the northern and seven kingdoms of Israel. In other places in the world like Greece this would be the time of the very first Olympic Games ever held; also, Amos prophesied almost simultaneously with the founding of the great city of Rome. At this time, Syria was pretty much the primary enemy of Israel but Syria was being weakened by constant pressure from the country of a Assyria, which would be modern Iraq. So everything was going well for Israel, who did not really have to worry at the time from outside invaders. So what is the problem? To make a long story short as the saying goes – things were going so well that the leading religious and political families had started mixing the worship of Yahweh with the worship of other local Egyptian and Canaanite gods. In other words, Yahweh had just become one God among many rather than the one God whom you must serve with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. The laws that had protected ancient Jewish family farms were being cast aside by greedy politically motivated and power-hungry landowners who were destroying the old laws, the old religious family structure and the old religion and replacing it with unbridled capitalism and the worship of any God that seem to be interesting at the time. The rich were becoming richer and the poor were becoming poorer. The Jews in the near East were beginning to say that there was not just one god but many gods – and maybe there was no god at all. So eat, drink and be merry! Does anything about this situation sound familiar to you? Do you think that the prophet Amos might have something to say to the modern world when at least morally speaking we seem to find ourselves in a rather similar situation? The basic message of Amos is that God has no desire nor any pleasure in punishing his people and he would much prefer to see them return from their wickedness and live. The prophecy ends with the promise that if they did not repent then judgment surely awaits them.
Two years after Amos completed his prophecy an earthquake shook Israel that was so devastating that it was remembered centuries afterwards for the devastation that it caused physically, politically and emotionally upon the people. But the people continued to cheat each other in law courts, sell the poor into practical slavery, take possession of their homes, spend more money on their own pleasure and their own material goods rather than a house of God, and ignore spiritual feast days. (This is what the prophet Amos reports–I am not making this up.) God gave them time to repent but they did not. Not much longer than a generation later, the Assyrians (the Iraqis) conquered them, kill them, and enslaved many. Israel was never really ever capable of regaining her former glory. Again, my purpose is not to preach doom and gloom. My purpose is to preach the facts. This is what happened then. It is difficult to deny that many of the same things are happening now. Do you not think that the Lord God might be sending prophets among us to call for repentance? Do you not think that we as Christians must stand up and demand that our voice to be heard in the political assembly supporting the one God (not many gods), defending our feast days, defending the traditional family and demanding that justice be done for the downtrodden and the poor?
What happens to the rich people that Amos mentions in the first reading? This is what we are told: “therefore, now they shall be the first to go into exile, and their wanton revelry shall be done away with.” Why? The exile that Amos speaks about is the exile of the Assyrians that is going to happen decades after he prophesies. What did they do? Is it such a crime to be wealthy or drink wine or wear nice clothes or have a good time? No it isn’t. But that isn’t the crime that Amos mentions. The crime that Amos mentions is not that these wealthy people were merely wealthy but they were COMPLACENT. When we look at what Jesus says in the Gospel we see virtually the same thing. The rich man has done nothing wrong but to be complacent. Jesus actually summarizes what this means in the parable itself by putting words in Abraham’s mouth. When the rich man begs for some relief, Abraham tells him, “my child, remember that you receive what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, where as you are tormented.” So are we to understand that if we have a pretty decent life because we’ve had good luck or even God’s blessing that we will be tormented forever while those who have had bad luck will go to heaven?! No, that is not the point. The point is that the rich man could have done something about the suffering of those he found in his immediate little world – namely Lazarus. But he either refused, didn’t notice, or didn’t care. The word, complacent, literally comes from the Latin com, meaning “with” and “placere” meaning “pleased”– quite literally it means ” to be pleased with oneself“. We can understand how the word “complacent” grew into its modern meaning which is” to be marked by self-satisfaction especially when accompanied by an unawareness of actual dangers or deficiencies.” To be complacent means that you are resting on your laurels. To be complacent means that you are unaware of the dangers that face you and unwilling to help others face their dangers. To be complacent means to stay still and be self-satisfied when you should be moving and diligently working on your salvation by satisfying the needs of others. This was the only sin of the rich people in the prophecy of Amos. This was the only sin of the rich man that Jesus sent to hell in his own parable. They didn’t commit any murders are start any genocides. All they did was ignore their brothers and sisters, put off their own salvation until tomorrow, and stick their head in the sand. And eternal punishment was their reward. Who is the Lazarus in your life? We would do well to recognize him and help him out.
The Hebrew word for “complacent” is sha-anan, and has connotations of those who feel secure–but not only secure, those that feel proud or haughty in secure they are. Those who feel like nothing is wrong, and nothing can knock them from their post. One of the other fairly notable places in the bible where this same Hebrew word is mentioned is Zehcariah 1:14-15: “So the angel who talked with me said to me, `Cry out, Thus says the LORD of hosts: I am exceedingly jealous for Jerusalem and for Zion. And I am very angry with the nations that are at ease (sha-anan) for while I was angry but a little they furthered the disaster.” In other words, the Lord is telling them that he was a little angry with the nations before but then he saw how much they were kicking back–how complacent they were–and this made him even more angry. Have you ever gotten angry with someone, perhaps particularly a younger person, who was full of talent and potential but does little more than sit on his rear end or simply engage in selfish pursuits, when he could be out change the world for the better? If you have gotten angry with such a thing with your clouded judgment and twisted intentions, how do you think God looks at us with his perfect judgment and holy intentions? What do you think God sees when he looks at you and your limitless potential to do good? How much do you think it grieves him when he sees NOT the deeds that we are doing, but rather the deeds that we are NOT doing??? We need to stop accusing ourselves about the person that we ARE and instead start cooperating with the Lord to jump on board with the person we might BECOME.
When God sees us, he sees an immortal being that is resplendent with light, goodness and truth. When God sees us he sees a saint bathed in everlasting love–us. I’m talking about US! Who is that man? Who is that woman? Who is God asking you to become?
Not all of us are rich or kicking back on our couches and just enjoying ourselves. But probably all of us have a Lazarus in our life that maybe we aren’t even seeing, and that person is begging to receive life from us–begging for scraps from our table. Shaking off our complacency, let us rise from our places and attend to him. Our salvation and his may depend on it. AMEN.