A few years ago I was driving somewhere and I gave a lift to a man. He was a musician, a busker and basically lived by busking on the streets. Not an easy way of life. He had practically all his possessions with him. He told me he knew over 350 songs, which was quite impressive. When he realised that I was a priest he began asking me about religion. I can’t remember much of what he said except for one thing. He said that he wasn’t very religious but that he preferred to stay out of it and sit on the fence. When we spoke about death and meeting God he said that he would plead ignorance. That was the thing that struck me the most. He said, ‘I’ll just plead ignorance.’
I suppose if God were just another human being, we might get away with pleading ignorance, but since God knows everything about us, including our motivations, all the things that have influenced us during our life that cause us to act as we do, how free or not we are to make choices, I don’t think that pleading ignorance will be much use! This is not to just focus on the negative as if we should be afraid of God because He is out to get us. On the contrary, the Lord loves us and wants to help us in every way possible. He knows our weaknesses and what we struggle with, but He also knows when we avoid responsibility. That's what the first reading is about. Through the prophet Amos, God condemns those who lavishly enjoy themselves while ignoring those around them who are suffering and in want.
In the readings today we are presented not so much with the rich and the poor, rather with those who deliberately turn their back on justice and responsibility. We are shown the two extremes. The poor man Lazarus was at this rich man’s gate (the rich man is traditionally known as Dives). In other words the rich man couldn’t have missed him because he was right under his nose. And it says that ‘Lazarus longed to fill himself with the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table’, which implies that he was offered absolutely nothing, not even a small amount. So it’s not as if the rich man did a certain amount and it wasn’t enough. Jesus is telling us that he did absolutely nothing. That is why he was condemned and lost heaven, not because he had riches. There is nothing wrong with having riches. What we do with it is what’s important. If I am wealthy then that is the situation God has given me in this life (provided I acquired it in a just way, of course!). What I do with it is what’s important.
Equally you might think that Lazarus could have got up and done something for himself. But the fact that he ‘lay’ at the rich man’s gate and that he was covered in sores, tells us that he was sick and helpless. You could say that God put him there deliberately to allow the rich man to help him, but he chose to do nothing.
I have no doubt that God often puts people in our path who may need our help, but we always have the choice to help them or not. God has given us that freedom. The help we give people may not even be financial help. It may be something as simple as a smile or an encouraging word that is needed. All the time we are coming across people who need our help and if we are open to it we will recognise them. If we have plenty, let us thank God for it, but it also means that we have an obligation to help those who are in need and there is no shortage of them, both in this country and all over the world. ‘The poor will always be with you.’
So there is a double message here. First, let us thank God for what we have. Second, let us also ask God to help us make good use of what we have. God has given us freedom to do what we want in this life, but we are also expected to be responsible. There is a common misconception today that being free means being able to do anything you want, good or bad. However, true freedom is the freedom to choose what is good. That is what the Lord wants for us and that is also what will help us the most. If we find ourselves in a situation where we have plenty, we must remember first that we are in the minority, and second that we have a responsibility to look out for those who are in need and they are in the majority.