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.

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