Back when I was in my early twenties, I was taking voice lessons. I had a really good teacher who taught me all the mechanics of voice as well as some music theory. He also tried to teach me how to play piano, but that never took. But I have to admit, sometimes I took things for granted and let my practicing slide. I had been doing that for a couple of weeks, and the lesson right after that went okay, but I have to admit I didn’t really learn anything because I hadn’t put anything into it. At the end of the lesson, we sat down and talked for a while. Mostly my teacher was talking and I was getting an earful. But I thought he was praising me for my abilities and progress – the words he used were very positive and I left feeling really good about myself. But afterward, while I was driving home, I started to feel the kick in the pants that the talk really was. I got the message, loud and clear.
Today’s Liturgy of the Word is a little like that. The Lazarus story is almost delightful, seeing the underdog win out in the end, and all good restored. If it were a movie, it would be one of those feel-good movies you’d see on Hallmark Channel. But that’s not what these words are, sisters and brothers. No, these words are the same kind of kick in the pants that I got from my music teacher.
The theme for that kick in the pants is well-expressed by the prophet Amos in the first reading. Amos was never known for his subtlety and this reading is no exception. The part that really jumped out at me was another musical metaphor. Listen to this line again: “Improvising to the music of the harp, like David, they devise their own accompaniment.” That almost sounds like a good thing, but it isn’t at all. David could devise his own accompaniment, because he was singing those Psalms with the voice of God. But if everyone in our choir devised their own accompaniment, we’d have a cacophony. So here Amos is making the point that devising their own accompaniment meant that they listened to what they wanted to hear, not what God was telling them. It’s kind of like the expression, “she dances to her own music.” It’s not a compliment at all.
The rich man in today’s Gospel devised his own accompaniment too. He ignored poor Lazarus every single day of his life. He knew Lazarus’s need, and maybe he even thought he’d get around to helping Lazarus one day. Maybe he thought, “What good can I do, I’m just one person?” Or maybe he thought, “If I give him something to eat, what good will that do, he’ll just be hungry tomorrow.” He probably came up with all kinds of excuses about why he couldn’t help Lazarus right here and right now. He was devising his own accompaniment.
And we all know the story about the rich man. Someday becomes never. It’s eventually too late: poor Lazarus dies and goes to be with Father Abraham. But in an ironic twist of fate, the rich man also dies, presumably soon after. But it seems that Lazarus and the rich man end up in different places, doesn’t it? The rich man learns that devising one’s own accompaniment does not help one to sing a hymn of praise to the Lord, and his choice in life becomes his choice in the life to come. If one doesn’t choose to praise God in life, one won’t have that option in the life to come. Devising our own accompaniment comes with drastic consequences.
One of the principles of Catholic social teaching – which, by the way, is one of the reasons I love being catholic – is solidarity with the poor. Solidarity with the poor is the teaching that says we need to be one with our brothers and sisters, and not ignore their presence among us. I became very aware of this as I walked around downtown Chicago earlier this week. I had come with some money for the poor as I usually do. But on the train ride home, I realize that I had just quickly given some of them some money, and never really looked at them. They are my brothers and sisters, and I didn’t take the time to look them in the eye. Solidarity calls me – calls all of us – to do just that. We have to step out of that universe that we have set in motion around us and realize that Christ is present in each person God puts in our path. We have to step out of our own cacophony where we have devised our own accompaniments and step into the symphony that God has set in motion. We have to be one with all people.
God knows about this principle of solidarity. Because God holds it so dear, he sent his only Son to take on flesh – our flesh – so that he could live in solidarity with us. He shared in all of our joys and sorrows, and reaffirmed that human life was good. Life was made good at creation and remains good to this day. But if God could take on flesh in solidarity with us, then we must take on the burdens of our brothers and sisters and live in solidarity with them.
St. Paul tells us to “pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness. Compete well for the faith. Lay hold of eternal life, to which you were called when you made the noble confession in the presence of many witnesses.” We have to be serious about living our faith and proclaiming the Gospel in everything that we do. In solidarity with all of our brothers and sisters, we must sing to God’s own accompaniment and join in the wonderful symphony that is the heavenly worship.