24 September 2022

Homily - On the compassion of dogs and the impiety of the rich man

The Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Dear brothers and sisters,

It is not very often that we come across dogs in the Sacred Scriptures. This might come as a surprise to us, given how much our culture loves and pampers dogs. But in the ancient Near East, dogs were not seen in the same light. They were not, for example, kept as pets and were “rarely employed in hunting or as a watch dog;” in fact, most dogs were considered “nuisances and scavengers which [ran] about in the streets.”[1]

When we do find dogs in the Bible, this general assessment of them is what we find. The dog, like the pig, was considered an unclean animal and the appellation “Dog,” “dead dog,” and “dog’s head” were used as insults (cf. Exodus 22:30; I Samuel 17:43; II Samuel 3:8, 16:19). Even Jesus employed the word “dog” as an insult against the Samaritan women when he engaged her in a war of words, so common and enjoyed his day (cf. Matthew 15:27). Dogs were known to eat human flesh, to attack people (II Kings 9:10; Psalm 22:17, 59:7 and 15). And yet, when we find the dog in Jesus’ parable in the Gospel today, this is not the impression we receive. Instead, the dog seems to be helping Lazarus: they “used to come and lick his sores” (Luke 16:21).

This is an image that stuck with me this past week. My love of dogs is no secret. I smile when I see one as I drive down the road. When I visit someone’s house for the first time, I first visit their dog and then look at their books, and then know if I should stay and what we can talk about. This past Friday I had to give a priest a ride back to Springfield from Quincy from his parent’s house and even though we were already behind my schedule, I had to take time to pet the dogs. Dogs make me happy and I wanted to know if the dogs made Lazarus happy or what they might mean. So I went back to my books.

Saint Augustine does not seem to have commented on the presence of the dog, but other Saints did. Saint Cyril of Alexandria said “the dogs licked his sores and did not injure him yet sympathized with him and cared for him… The rich man was crueler than the dogs, because he felt no sympathy or compassion for him but was completely unmerciful.”[2]

Saint Bonaventure agrees with this assessment of the rich man because “he was more generous to the dogs than to the poor man, and the dogs were more tender towards that poor man than the rich man was.”[3]

Saint Peter Chrysologus even posed a question to the unnamed rich man: 

Miserable rich man, even if you did not give a crumb of bread to the poor man, why didn’t you at least drive off the dogs? But your dogs are gentler than you are… And you were more kind to your dogs than to the poor man. From time to time your dogs got a succulent treat, but the poor man never once received a crumb from your table.[4]

The dogs, then, serve to highlight, to emphasize, and to condemn the rich man’s lack of concern, his cruelty, toward Lazarus starving and wounded at his very doorstep (cf. Luke 16:20).

There is no way the rich man could claim not to have seen Lazarus or to hear his cries. Yet day after day he walked past him and ignored all of his needs. We may not the poor, the hungry, or the neglected literally sitting at our doorsteps, but how often do we also ignore them?

It was not the rich man’s wealth that made him so contemptible. Saint Augustine makes this clear when he says,

It's certainly not riches that were blamed in the rich man's case, nor poverty praised in the poor man's; but impiety was condemned in the one, piety praised in the other. Sometimes, you see, people hear these things in the gospel, and those who have nothing are delighted, the beggar is overjoyed at these words. "I," he says, "shall be in Abraham's bosom, not that rich man."[5]

The rich man was consigned to torment not because he was rich, but because he did not love Lazarus, because the did not love the poor. The Lord Jesus was not able to say to him, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me’” (Matthew 25:35-36). Will he be able to say the same to us when we die, or will dogs prove to more compassionate than us?

Saint Paul today reminds Saint Timothy of the “noble confession” he made “in the presence of many witnesses” and calls him “to lay hold” of it (I Timothy 6:12). He charges that young Bishop to make his faith known through knowable speech; that is what a noble confession means. But it is not enough for faith to be known simply by words; it must also be expressed in knowable deeds, through actions that speak of the love of God. This is why Saint James adamantly says, “Faith without works is dead” (James2:26). Let us, then, beg the Lord to shake us from our complacency and warm our hearts with compassion for the poor so we may truly hasten toward heaven. Amen.

[1] John L. McKenzie, Dictionary of the Bible (Milwaukee: The Bruce Publishing Company, 1965), 202.

[2] Saint Cyril of Alexandria, Commentary on Luke, 111).

[3] Saint Bonaventure, Commentary on Luke, 16.43.

[4] Saint Peter Chrysologus, Sermon 121.

[5] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Sermon 299E.3.

17 September 2022

Homily - What can we learn from the grief on the death of Elizabeth II?

The Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Dear brother and sisters,

Across the globe, in these past few days, we have seen and heard prayers being raised to Almighty God for a monarch who reigned for more than seventy years (cf. I Timothy 2:1-2). It has been a striking spectacle to witness, and one many have found deeply – and surprisingly - moving. What are we to make of what we have seen and of what we have heard?

We must first consider what it is that we have seen. Thousands of men, women, and children have queued for hours – some as many as twenty-four – to walk by the bodily remains of a woman they cannot see. They have willingly – and even gratefully - gone without food and drink, without sitting or lying down, and even without the use of a restroom simply to spend perhaps fifteen second walking past a coffin draped with a flag.


Photo: Associated Press/Mike Moore

Pausing before the body of Her Majesty Elizabeth II, men bowed their heads with deep regard and admiration one final time to the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and numerous other realms and territories. Women made a polite and respectful curtsy. Children imitated their appreciative parents. Veterans, and those still in service, offered one final, tearful salute.

Each of these were expected gestures from those who loved their sovereign who dedicated what proved to be here long life to their service, but what is surprising is the great number of people queuing up for so many hours.

Second, we ought to consider what we have heard. Many commentators and pundits have noted the tremendous outpouring of gratitude, but what they have not spoken of is what is most important of what we have heard: nothing. As thousands of people made their way through Westminster Hall, aside from the rap of a staff and the tap of military shoes at the changing of the guard, all we have heard is the wordless moving of the masses.

In the midst of that austere silence, how many men, women, and children have we witnessed make the Sign of the Cross as they offered a quiet prayer for the peaceful repose of the one known to God as Elizabeth Alexandra Mary? The percentage of those who offered such a public and quiet demonstration of their faith is staggering, given that the United Kingdom is reportedly – and by most metrics is – almost entirely secular and devoid of religious devotion and intention. And yet, in the midst of their communal grief, these simple rituals – the bowing, curtsying, saluting, and signing, all of them religious in origin and in content – serve to help people mourn the loss of one they looked to as the grandmother of the nation. What are we to learn from this? We can come to a deeper understanding of the importance of ritual in human life. There is something to be said for expressing profound and heartfelt emotion – whether joyful or mournful - not in loud, flashy, and attention-seeking ways, but in the expansive richness of subtle and unassuming rituals.

Photo: Getty Images

And yet, there are those who wish to do away with such rituals, particularly religious ones, even in the face of the obvious good they hold for countless people. Of this desire, Queen Elizabeth II said in her Christmas Broadcast in 1957:

The trouble is caused by unthinking people who carelessly throw away ageless ideals as if they were old and outworn machinery. They would have religion thrown aside, morality in personal and public life made meaningless, honesty counted as foolishness and self-interest set up in place of self-restraint.[1]

If such intimate ceremonies of honesty and self-restraint are able to convey and express the varying emotions of an entire people at the death of their queen, how much more are self-restraining rituals able to express the varying emotions of the People of God and instill within them ageless moral ideals?

There are those who want the liturgical rites of the Church to be imbued with more externally emotional expressions because they think doing so will draw more people into the Church, even against the evidence to the contrary. They even – sadly – abandon the Church in search of communities where such emotional highs can be sought. 

What they are really seeking is not the worship that God asks of his people – he gave us a ritual to follow at the Last Supper and entrusted it to his Apostles and their successors – but something more akin to entertainment and self-fulfillment. Faith, though, is not primarily concerned with emotions, entertainment, or even the self; rather, faith is concerned with an adherence to the Truth, to Jesus Christ.

Human emotions come and go. As such, our emotions are not always reliable. We misjudge them and misinterpret them. They frequently mislead us and cause up to jump to false conclusions. Moreover, emotions are concerned with, and are primarily focused upon, the human person, upon me as an individual; however, “worship in spirit and truth” is not concerned with humanity, with you or with me, but with God (John 4:24). The Mass is not about us, but about God, and about what God wishes to do for us, namely, to divinize us and conform us to the heart of his Son. 

There is a quiet wisdom to be found in the sober ceremonies with which the members of the Body of Christ draw near to Christ the “one mediator between God and man” (I Timothy 2:5). Effective rituals are unchanging both by nature and by design because they allow us to enter into the mystery more fully; they do not require constant work on our part, always trying to figure out what we are to do next, but rather allow us to be subsumed into the ritual action. In the liturgy, “it is not we who are celebrating for ourselves, but it is the living God himself who is preparing a banquet for us.”[2] The consistent quality of the liturgy helps to be fed by the Lord, to be open to his words and nourished with himself.

To learn this wisdom the liturgy offers to us, we must set aside the exuberance of so much of modern society, an exuberance that pretends at happiness, but is really quite empty of authentic joy. Whether those of the Mass, or of baptism, confirmation, confession, marriage, ordination, or, indeed, even of a funeral, the simplicity of the Church’s ceremonies allows each person to enter the sincere worship of God. It does not matter if an individual worshiper is feeling particularly melancholic or exceptionally giddy; each one, and everyone in between, can be united in the presence of the self-giving and self-impoverishing love of God and be taken up together into this love unlike any other (cf. II Corinthians 8:9).[3] Indeed,

The Christian liturgy is the worship of the universal temple which is the Risen Christ, whose arms are outstretched on the Cross to draw everyone into the embrace of God’s eternal love… It is important that every Christian feel and be truly integrated into this universal “we” which provides the “I”, the basis and refuge of the “I”, in the Body of Christ which is the Church.[4]

This, after all, is the very goal of the Christian life, to be integrated into Jesus Christ and share in the divine life of the Trinity.

Let us, then, not desire to conform the liturgy and rituals of the Church to ourselves, but to conform ourselves to the liturgy and rituals of the Church, to lose ourselves in them, so that, living in “all devotion and dignity,” we may perfect union with Christ and know in him the fullness of everlasting joy (I Timothy 2:2). Amen.

[1] Queen Elizabeth II, Christmas Broadcast, 1957.

[2] Pope Benedict XVI, Homily, 21 August 2005.

[3] @discerninganew, response on Twitter to Father Daren Zehnle on 16 September 2022.

[4] Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience Address, 3 October 2012.