It’s taken me a while to get this column posted here, and its message might seem rather naïve after a certain video and the ensuing chaos. I’m also prompted to post it, despite the delay, after watching a video that’s made the rounds of social media featuring a priest preaching on a recent Sunday about the election. He speaks with amazing certainty and trust as he clearly demands advocacy for one party and one presidential candidate over the other. His grasp of Catholic moral teaching may be accurate, although I think there is plenty of room for quibbling among reasonably minded people. His grasp on U.S. political reality couldn’t be more fragile. We can’t know the outcome of what I propose here, but pondering what I put forth in relation to the two candidates seems far more constructive than suggesting definitive conclusions based on little more than whim and wish.
If the gospel of a recent Sunday (Luke 16.19-31) was proclaimed on Christmas Eve, we’d probably be pretty confused, if not a bit annoyed. Christmas is all about crowded inns, sleepy shepherds and swaddling clothes, not the torment of sores, hunger, a fiery netherworld and a great chasm. Of course Christmas is more about Jesus than all of the other Nativity story details and characters, which gives some credence to a Christmas parable about an indifferent rich man and the beggar lying at his door. It’s another of those parables that gets to the heart of the Christian message, which ultimately is the Christmas message: Calling attention to what we see and pretend not to see, what we do or don’t do, what we presume is the duty of others.
A 19th century English writer saw in this parable from Luke’s gospel the perfect inspiration for a Christmas story he composed about a rich man named Ebenezer Scrooge. In Charles Dickens’ telling, the rich man didn’t cry out to Abraham, but rather he encounters three ghosts who reveal for him the horrors of his ways while he was still living, offering Scrooge an opportunity for redemption. Dickens the social commentator recognized that three spirited figures might catch the attention of not only his story’s central character, but also a society that had become inured to the preponderance and intensity of poverty.
The lesson of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” should not be restricted to Christmas. Indeed the recent re-telling of the parable couldn’t have come at a more opportune time, coming as it does during the Year of Mercy – again, another remarkable Lucan parable that gets to the nitty-gritty of being merciful! – and in the midst of our presidential election campaign. Forget about telling this parable on Christmas Eve, what if the moderator had begun the first debate of presidential candidates, which followed our hearing this story in church, and asking the candidates to give their response: What does this parable of Jesus mean to our country today? What personal message do you find in this lesson? What should this compel from you and from us? I know the two candidates pretty well; I’ve been following them both, in their various guises, for a long time, but I have no idea how they would have responded. And yet I can’t think of questions and answers that would be more consequential to this campaign and how a follower of Jesus might decide to vote.
Ideally, one of them might have spoken to a reality that even Dickens didn’t get at with sufficient precision: This can’t be about taking care of one person. Sure, purchasing a goose for Tiny Tim and his family is nice, but Scrooge also needed to use his wealth and influence to push for reforms that would create a more level playing field, a more equitable system in which the beggar at his door is lifted up by a pursuit of justice rather than incidental charity. Ideally, the candidates might have proposed what we as a society should do in the short term to address the plight of the Lazaruses of our day, but, even more importantly, what must be done to keep the Lazaruses and Tiny Tims of 2016 from falling to such depths.
Certainly this parable conveys lessons of attentiveness and generosity, but that doesn’t get us very far, only to the next Lazarus and the next one and the next one after that. I have to think Jesus had bigger ideas in mind, and it would be encouraging to hear that our presidential candidates did too. TL