TWENTY-SIXTH SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME (C)
The gospel reading today from Luke 16:19-31 tells the story of a rich man who lived in the lap of luxury while a poor man, named Lazarus, begged for scraps at his door. When the poor man died "he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham." When the rich man died, however, he experienced great suffering and torment. He could see Lazarus and Abraham from where he was being tortured and begged them for help. Abraham explained that there was a great chasm between them, preventing anyone from crossing from one side to the other. "My child," Abraham tells the rich man, "remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented."
The message of today's gospel is similar to what we have been hearing these past few weeks. Things don't work out too well in the end for the rich men in these parables. The poor are rewarded in the end. What are we to make of these repeated lessons? Is wealth bad? Riches something to be avoided? After all, doesn't the saying go, "Money is the root of all evil?"
Not quite. That popular saying actually comes from scripture (1 Tim 6:10) but usually people remember it incorrectly. What St. Paul says in that verse is, "For the love of money is the root of all evil." (Some translations say "a root of all kinds of evil.") This is an important distinction. Money itself is not evil. Evil does not come from objects. It comes from within us, in our hearts, and manifests itself in our choices and actions.
To put it simply, wealth is not evil but greed is. Another name for greed is "avarice," and it is considered one of the seven deadly sins, along with pride, envy, wrath, lust, gluttony and sloth. There are all manner of sins, but all sins have certain things in common. Every sin is an offense against reason and a failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by what the Catechism calls "a perverse attachment to certain goods" (CCC 1849). In other words, sin is caused by loving something more than God; loving something created more than the Creator.
Greed is caused by the love of money, and that's why St. Paul says love of money is a root of all kinds of other evil. Tradition identifies these particular seven sins as "deadly" because they tend to lead to other sins. When one is guilty of the sin of greed, one loves wealth above all else. This makes it that much easier to commit other sinful acts in order to obtain even more wealth, which one sees as the greatest good. Injustices, like ignoring the plight of the starving Lazarus at your doorstep, become all too easy for the one guilty of avarice.
Possessing wealth in itself is not evil. We need a certain amount of material goods merely to survive. And most of us would prefer to do more than just survive. We want to be able to enjoy the fruits of this created world, and this is fine as long as we enjoy them for what they are - gifts from the Creator - and do not allow them to overshadow the love of God and neighbor that ought to be first in our hearts. Just owning wealth is not a sin. But it can be an occasion of sin.
All of us have a capacity for greed. It is part of our fallen nature. We are not immune to temptation. And, paradoxically, the more wealth one has, the stronger is the temptation to succumb to avarice. The illusion - the lie - is that wealth can actually satisfy us in some meaningful and lasting way. It cannot. But the more we possess, the easier it is for us to believe that lie and the greater our desire to own even more becomes. This is why Jesus says it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven (Mt 19:24).
Wealth can be for many of us an occasion of sin. An "occasion of sin" is something that may not itself be sinful, but which can be a trigger for sin in our hearts. Think of how recovering alcoholics need to be so careful to avoid even that first sip of alcohol. For most people, having a beer, or enjoying one glass of wine, is not sinful. But the alcoholic knows that single drink will awaken within them the desire for drunkenness, which is a sin. Therefore even though one drink is not sinful, they prudently avoid it as if it were.
There are many other examples of occasions of sin. Each one of us has the capacity for all seven of the deadly sins within our hearts. As individuals we may be more tempted by one or more of them. One person may have an especially difficult time resisting lust; another may have a tendency to be prideful, or an inclination for gluttony. We each have our weaknesses. The prudent thing is to identify them, and then avoid the occasions of those sins. Don't put yourself in a situation where you know you will be tempted.
We should also be aware of others around us and their possible struggles. For example, one person may be able to watch a movie with incidental nudity and not have any lustful thoughts. But for another person, that same movie may be a great occasion of sin. Therefore out of prudence and charity, we ought not watch that sort of movie in mixed company. We don't want to be occasions of sin for others.
Unfortunately, we live in a society today where occasions of sin lie around every corner. Just think of advertising. Nearly every advertisement we see is designed to arouse at least one of these sins within us, be it lust or envy, gluttony or pride or sloth. If we are not careful, merely driving down the highway, turning on the TV, or logging on to Facebook can become occasions of sin. It's hard for us today. We have more occasions for sin in our lives now than perhaps any generation in history has had. And the confessionals are empty. Occasions for sin are so pervasive, we've become blind to them. It's the new "normal."
What is the remedy? We are in the midst of a spiritual battle. You are in a competition and the prize is your own soul. St. Paul exhorts us in today's second reading to "compete well for the faith." In order to "lay hold of eternal life," he charges us "to keep the commandment," that commandment being love of God and neighbor.
Race horses wear blinders to keep their eyes focused on the track in front of them. We need to put on spiritual blinders to block out those occasions of sin. St. Paul tells us to "pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness." These are our spiritual blinders. Pursue these things with purpose. Like any competition, you need to train for this. You need to prepare yourself through daily prayer and participation in the sacraments. If you have not been to confession in a while, return to the practice.
You would not try to run a marathon without first training. You would not run a marathon without stretching and warming up. You would take care to prepare. The competition St. Paul speaks of is far more important, with eternal consequences. Train for it. Identify those sins which you know you have trouble resisting. Learn what occasions of sin you need to especially avoid. Think of your priest confessor as your personal trainer. Establish a spiritual regimen of prayer and fasting, just as you would an exercise regimen. "Compete well for the faith." Compete to win.