The past two weekends, we have had the first reading come from the book of the prophet Amos. I love Amos. He doesn’t mince words, and you can usually tell what he’s getting at right away. Today, though, I think it’s a little harder to understand what he means. The line that jumps out at me is the line, “Improvising to the music of the harp, like David, they devise their own accompaniment.” It almost sounds like a good thing. David, of course, was a wonderful musician, so why would it be a bad thing that they are able to devise their own accompaniments, like David did?
Well, let me tell you a story from my own life that might shed some light on it. This, too, is a musical analogy. 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. And that’s exactly what I had been doing that for a couple of weeks at one point. 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.
I think that’s what Amos is doing here. Listen to that line again: “Improvising to the music of the harp, like David, they devise their own accompaniment.” Again, it 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. They did whatever they wanted to do, because it seemed like God was blessing 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. Or maybe he thought, “What good can I do, I’m just one person?” Perhaps 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.
Even in death, the rich man is devising his own accompaniment. Even now, he does not see Lazarus as anything more than a messenger to do his own bidding. “Father Abraham,” he cries out, “have pity on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am suffering torment in these flames.” When he learns that’s not possible, he tries another tack: “Then I beg you, father, send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they too come to this place of torment.” He never sees Lazarus as a brother, and that’s why they’re in different places. That’s why there is that great chasm that Father Abraham talked about between them – the rich man built it! Devising our own accompaniment means that we separate ourselves from the community, we literally excommunicate ourselves.
One of the principles of Catholic social teaching is solidarity with the poor and needy. This was a topic that the prophets, like Amos, preached about all the time. 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 one time. I had come with some money to give to the poor. But on the train ride home, I realize that I had just quickly given some of them some money, and never really looked at any of them. They were 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 – all of us who are poor and needy in our sins. 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. We must abandon our own accompaniments and sing the song of our brothers and sisters in need.
In our second reading today, 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.