Worldly Success Can Be Dangerous

September 26, 2010: 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
The rich man in this parable was a complete success in the world’s eyes.

Jesus says he dressed in purple. In the ancient world, purple was the symbolic color of wealth, privilege and power, because the dyes that were used to make cloth purple were extremely expensive. Jesus also says that he wore fine linen. Linen came from Egypt. You couldn’t make it in Palestine. You had to import it. And that too was extremely expensive.

Lazarus, on the other hand, was a complete failure in the world’s eyes. He was utterly helpless, crushed by poverty, incapacitated by sickness and disease. What’s more, in ancient times, those characteristics were interpreted as a punishment for moral depravity. So in the eyes of the world, Lazarus was not just an economic failure, but a moral and spiritual failure too.

Why had the rich man been so successful? We don’t know. Maybe he inherited his money. Maybe he had worked hard and used his extraordinary intelligence to build up a thriving business.

Why had Lazarus been such a failure? We don’t know that either. Maybe he was a crippled orphan. Maybe he had been a slave. Maybe he was just a lazy drunk.

Jesus doesn’t go into the reasons. Rather, he uses these two examples to teach us one simple lesson: worldly success can be dangerous.

It can make us forget that we need God, which in turn can make us callous towards our neighbor. Jesus doesn’t condemn the rich man’s success. Rather, he condemns how the rich man had reacted to his success. He had let it make him self-centered, complacent, and arrogant.

Worldly success had blinded him to the needs of others and deafened him to the voice of God speaking in his conscience.

Remember Scrooge? Hunched over stacks of coins, greedily tallying his bursting accounts as he and his employees shiver in the cold, because he’s too cheap to spend money on coal to keep the office warm. The richest man in the city, and he keeps his wealth so securely locked away that no one, not even him, benefits from it. No one was more successful than he was, in a worldly sense. His business was prosperous, he was powerful to the point of being feared, he had the biggest mansion in town…

And yet, what had his success done for him?

It had turned him into a monster.

He was blind to the needs of those around him.

He was blind to his own capacity for true human greatness.

Like the rich man in the parable, only when he saw his life from God’s perspective, seeing how many opportunities for doing good that he had squandered, how many people he had used or ignored instead of loved and helped – only then was he able to begin living that life worthily. And only then did he begin to experience the joy and meaning that he had been yearning for all along.

Not all of us have been as successful, in the worldly sense, as the rich man in the parable.

But all of us are constantly being tempted to think that that kind of success is what life is really about, and that can be just as dangerous. We can act as self-centered as Scrooge even without having a comparable bank account. If in our minds we’re seeking worldly success instead of success as God understands it – and this is what the media culture all around us is constantly inviting us to do – we can fall into being disciples of Scrooge instead of disciples of Christ.

One way to defend ourselves against the traps of worldly success is to follow the example of the Boy Scouts.

Every Boy Scout is committed to keep on the lookout for an opportunity to do at least one voluntary, selfless act of service every day.

Recently, popular culture has revived this ideal under various forms. A few years ago there was the movie Pay It Forward. There is also the movement started by Dr. Chuck Wall in 1993. He was listening to a news commentator discuss how many “random acts of senseless violence” were being committed every day. The next day, he assigned his college psychology students the homework of committing a “random act of senseless kindness.” Thus began the “Acts of Random Kindness” or “Random Acts of Kindness” movement.

Doing good deeds appeals to us on a merely natural level.

And yet, as Christians, doing a daily good deed can have a much deeper meaning, an eternal meaning, in fact.

We know that life’s purpose is to live in communion with God through friendship with Christ.

And so, our acts of service have a supernatural background and motivation; they are done through Christ, in Christ, and with Christ.

As a result, they become channels of saving grace, windows through which God himself can reach out and touch peoples’ hearts with His own love and goodness – which are much more powerful than ours. Sometimes this happens because we actually clothe our act of service in Christian terms, and sometimes it happens without us realizing it. At the very least, committing to perform at least one voluntary, selfless, Christ-like act of service every day will save us from becoming as self-absorbed, callous and arrogant as the rich man in the parable – if he had made this commitment, he wouldn’t have been able to ignore Lazarus. And that would have made all the difference.

This week, strengthened by Christ’s own strength through Holy Communion, let’s try it, and watch what happens.

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