No religion can claim to be rooted in biblical faith if social justice isn't at the top of its "to-do list."

Jesus didn't go town to town and synagogue to synagogue, teaching people how to set up an institution, shape an authority structure or build houses of worship.

He simply stated His belief that God's kingdom is so close we can put out our hands and touch it.

About-face

To perceive that kingdom, we must change the way we relate to others and undergo a "metanoia:" a-180 degree switch in our value system. People and their welfare must become the focus of our existence.

Only when we begin to relate with the most insignificant individuals around us will we begin to notice God working effectively in our lives.

The author of the second reading (I Timothy 6:11-16) had that in mind when he wrote, "Man of God, pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience and gentleness." In Scripture, people are "righteous" who form and maintain the proper relationship with God and those who intersect their everyday lives.

We know from the prophets that, if our relationships are domineering, arrogant or controlling, they're not righteous. Only selfless, giving relationships fall into the righteous category.

In the first reading (Amos 6:1a,4-7), Amos leaves no doubt where he and Yahweh stand on the issue. Condemning the wealthy in both Jerusalem and Samaria, the prophet perfectly describes their "me-first" mindset: "Lying on beds of ivory, stretched comfortably on their couches, they eat lambs taken from the flock and calves from the stall! Improvising to the music of the harp, like David, they devise their own accompaniment. They drink wine from bowls and anoint themselves with the best oils."

In themselves, none of those actions is wrong, but they have a divisive component. Amos zeroes in on this evil in his last line: "Yet they are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph!" They don't give a darn about the poverty and devastation destroying almost everyone in Israel (Joseph). Wealth blinds them to the plight of the less fortunate.

Jesus gives the identical message in the Gospel (Luke 16:19-31). Little has changed in the Promised Land in the 750 years between Amos and the Galilean carpenter. The "rich man" in Jesus' story isn't condemned for being rich, but for letting his wealth become the center of his life.

It's possible he doesn't even notice Lazarus "lying at his door." Instead of using his money to help those, like Lazarus, who are poor and "covered with sores," the rich man "dresses in purple garments and fine linen, and dines sumptuously each day." Only the dogs who "come and lick Lazarus' sores" seem to notice he exists.

Turning tables

As a good Pharisee, Jesus presumes the tables will be turned after the beggar and rich man die. The latter, because of his refusal to be socially just, finds himself in the netherworld "in torment," while Lazarus is rejoicing "in the bosom of Abraham."

Though the rich man now wants to set up a relationship with Lazarus, he can't. Abraham reminds him of the "big chasm between me and you." Communication is now impossible.

Though many of us do good simply to avoid the "flames of the netherworld," it makes more sense to avoid the "internal" punishment of our actions instead of the "external." Fire is external; the inability to communicate is internal.

Jesus believes we'll enter eternity with the same frame of mind we have when we leave this world. Heavenly joy has little to do with harps, white robes or angelic choirs. According to our Christian ancestors, it consists in a terrific opportunity to relate with everyone with whom we share those sacred precincts.

(9/27/07)