Saturday, September 28, 2013

A Carol and a Parable

Christmas is still almost three months away. But one Christmas carol is especially appropriate today, when the Church calendar commemorates "Good King Wenceslaus." Historically, the martyr Wenceslaus (907-929) was actually the Duke of Bohemia, not quite a king, but a real ruler nonetheless - a good Catholic ruler, killed by his pagan brother. But it is not his martyrdom that the carol extols but his commitment to care for the poor. The carol tells the familiar tale of how Wenceslas and his page braved the harsh winter weather to give alms to a poor peasant on the day after Christmas ("the Feast of Stephen'). Along the way, the page finds the trek too difficult and wants to give up, but the saint encourages him to follow in his holy footprints in the snow. Lest the lesson be lost, the carol concludes:
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing.
By convenient coincidence, Saint Wenceslaus' feast falls this year on the same weekend when the parable of the rich man and Lazarus  (Luke 16:19-31) is proclaimed. The rich man in the parable is the anti-Wenceslaus. He is traditionally known as “Dives” – the Latin word for “rich” – thanks to the opening words of the parable: Homo quidam erat dives, "There was a certain rich man." But in fact he is unnamed in the story. In the “real” world, of course, it’s typically the rich whose names we remember. The carol observes that social convention. Neither the poor man nor the page is named in the carol. In the parable, however, it is the beggar, Lazarus, whose name everyone now knows. Nameless, the rich man functions as a kind of “everyman” figure. He could be almost anyone in any prosperous, consumerist society.

In Wenceslaus' world, as in any pre-modern society, including that of Jesus, there would have been plenty of poor people. The people in Jesus’ audience would certainly have understood his parable. They could picture it perfectly. Beggars were everywhere, and (since privacy is essentially a modern idea) the rich man’s world and that of Lazarus - like Wenceslaus' world and that of the poor man - coexisted, so to speak, side-by-side. The parable suggests something more, however. It suggests that for the rich man, side-by-side had become separate.

Within his own separate, wealth-constructed world, there is nothing to suggest that the rich man was particularly wicked or otherwise reprehensible. There is no suggestion that his wealth was obtained dishonestly or anything of that sort. His only - but decisive - failing was his having constructed a private, disconnected world for himself, separate from that of Lazarus – and his consequent failure to bridge the great chasm thus created between himself and Lazarus. Reading this parable today, we cannot help but notice how modern in some ways the rich man seems, how much his wealth-constructed private world resembles the way so many people live today.
Wenceslaus, however, overcame that separation. He bridged the destructive chasm wealth creates between human beings. 
Flash forward to the sorry spectacle of the U.S. Congress, where the very functioning of the government and the full faith and credit of the United States are being held hostage by a bizarre political movement that seems motivated  mainly by an unceasing anxiety that the rich may not have enough money and the rest of us may get too much health care!

What would Wenceslaus say? What would Jesus do?

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