Monday, September 19, 2022

Get off your comfy couch!

Twenty Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

Having gone back to pre-pandemic full capacity, many parishes are awkwardly still witnessing relatively low attendance at Masses. What could be the cause of this? In 2020 and 2021, as our country navigated between complete lockdowns and impossibly stringent SOPs governing public gatherings when some activities were allowed, many of our churches discontinued physical attendance at Masses for long stretches and substituted them with online services. According to the best research, it takes 60–70 days to form a new habit, and we had months of lockdowns and two years of restrictions! That’s plenty of time to form a new habit.

In today’s first reading, the prophet Amos confronts the people of Israel for their spiritual lethargy. He accused them of “lying on ivory beds and sprawling on their divans” while dining on their fatted lambs. He was practically telling them to get off their comfy couches, cease living a sedentary life seated in front of their televisions while gorging on junk food, while ignoring all the critical things happening around them. Apathy or indifference to the cries and plight of the poor, the marginalised, victims of oppression and injustice had become a new habit which they found hard to abandon.

We see a vivid illustration of this in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, in the gospel. The rich man who enjoyed life was condemned to hell at the end of the story whereas Lazarus who suffered in this life, ended up in heaven. The parable is troubling not only for its mention of hell but because the rich man should even end up in hell, though he is not depicted as a horrible person. In fact, the gospel never states that the rich man mistreated poor Lazarus. There is no mention of him acquiring his wealth through unjust means. The point of this parable is not that the rich will be damned and the poor will be saved. Neither is the point of this parable describing a capricious God who likes sending poor souls to hell for the slightest infraction. The problem with the rich man, if you could consider it a problem, is that he was without suffering - he had no inclination of suffering because he had all the luxuries which money could buy. For this reason, he couldn’t feel the pain and the suffering of the beggar Lazarus.

What did the rich man do that was so horrible that he should deserve such a terrible fate as hell? It was simply his apathy. Apathy is indifference habitualised. Examining the Greek root of the word would give us a better understanding of this sin. Apathy comes from two Greek words - “a” which denotes the absence of something, “without”; and “pathos” which means suffering. Therefore, the apathetic person is one who does not know or feel the suffering of another, as opposed to an emphatic person, someone who experiences and feels the suffering of the other.

This was the “crime” of the rich man - he was enclosed in his safe little world of personal enjoyment, insulated by his wealth and comfortable life. Lazarus, therefore, was not treated as a part of suffering humanity but just a part of the landscape. In a word, the rich man was indifferent, and clueless: Indifferent to Lazarus’ plight, indifferent to his hunger, indifferent and clueless to his needs. They were the neighbours who never met.

The indifference which blinded the rich man to the needs of Lazarus and others in this life is a foretaste of what is to come - the chasm that separates heaven from hell, a chasm wide and unbridgeable. There is no passing between the two, ever. In life, a big chasm had opened up between the rich man and Lazarus due to the former’s apathy. Lazarus never showed up on the rich man’s radar. In death, this chasm has grown infinite – in the words of Father Abraham, a ‘great gulf’ separates the minions of hell from the minions of heaven. The chasm which the rich man maintained through his indifference in life had ultimately separated him from God in death. Now, it’s the rich man’s turn to drop off God’s radar. Indifference does not only spell human tragedy, but it also means the lost of beatitude, the lost of salvation.

An apathetic person will not exert any effort to make a difference. He either sees no need to do so or feels so overwhelmed by the problem that he believes that whatever he does will make little to no dent in the issue. He tells himself, “What’s the point?” “Is this my problem?” Or “how does this even concern me?” He will simply sit back and watch events unfold. Unfortunately, this is all that is needed to make one’s journey to hell certain. In the words of the philosopher Edmund Burke, “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”

Apathy may seem as insignificant as a tiny crack but it eventually morphs into a great chasm that comes between heaven and hell. Apathy is what makes us ignore the message of the prophets and pass generations and even makes us turn our backs on the One who died and is now risen from the dead. In fact, apathy is what killed the Lord Jesus Christ. Both the fearful Pilate and the jealous High Priests would not have been able to put Jesus to death except for the thousands of people who didn't show up for the crucifixion. They didn't want Jesus dead or alive. They just didn't care. Apathy permitted Hitler to kill six million Jews, and abortion clinics to kill many more millions of babies. Apathy lets thousands die each day of starvation, and billions live each day without knowing Jesus.

At the end of the parable, the rich man asked Abraham to send Lazarus back to earth to warn his brothers to repent so that they would never join him in hell. Abraham told the rich man that if his brothers did not believe in Scripture, neither would they believe a messenger, even if he came straight from heaven. Looks like man’s indifference to his neighbour is finally unmasked – it is merely a cover, a symptom of man’s indifference to God.

Both Amos and our Lord are calling us to get off our comfy couches and to get going. There is no room for couch potato Christians. In fact, being Christian means that we must change our apathy into empathy, we cannot cut ourselves from others because as St Paul reminds us: “If one member suffers, all the members suffer with it.” In his personal letter to Timothy which we heard in our second reading, St Paul outlines what is required of us: “As a man dedicated to God, you must aim to be saintly and religious, filled with faith and love, patient and gentle. Fight the good fight of the faith and win for yourself the eternal life to which you were called when you made your profession and spoke up for the truth in front of many witnesses.”

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