The Sickness of Worldliness

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More tortuous than all else is the human heart,
beyond remedy; who can understand it?
I, the Lord, alone probe the mind
and test the heart.
To reward everyone according to his ways,
according to the merit of his deeds.

Jeremiah 17: 9-10

There was a certain rich man.  He was clothed with purple and fine linen.  Every day he feasted extravagantly.  But a poor man  named Lazarus sat at his gates covered with sores.
Luke 16: 19-20

Recently I watched a documentary film entitled The Overnighters. The setting is a small town in North Dakota, a town to which many from all around the country have come seeking employment as a result of the shale oil and gas boom taking place there. Thousands of people have come to this town, some of whom find better paying work than they have ever had and others who continue to struggle to find employment. The town, however, has no places for these people to sleep. Even those who have come in RV’s cannot find spaces to park them. It is at this point that a Lutheran pastor in the town, along with his family, provide space in the Church and even in his home for men to spend the night. For those who have cars or other vehicles, he allows them to sleep in the church parking lot. Needless to say, this causes many tensions in the town, and, by the film’s end, we also discover the very complex personal issues and mixed motives at work in the Pastor himself. As Jeremiah reminds us: “More tortuous than all else is the human heart.”

And yet, however complex his issues and motives, we see in the Pastor what the rich man of the parable lacks: the pastor remains disturbed at the reality of people with no place to sleep in a so-called “community” that lives basically in comfort. At one point during his many confrontations with those of his own church and civil community who resent the upset that the presence of these transients creates, he painfully asks himself if it possible to call the town a community if it turns its back on these men who are homeless.

The parable which Jesus tells us in today’s gospel is, for us who live so comfortably in a world where so many do not, among the most unsettling passages of scripture. Comfort hardens us. It slowly by slowly diminishes our empathy and compassion of heart toward others and begins to measure the value of others in accordance with the level of threat they pose to our own comfort. In his homily on this parable, Pope Francis points out that the rich man is not bad but rather “sick with worldliness.” His soul, says the Pope, is “anesthetized.”

Somewhat like the Pastor in the documentary film, Theodore James Ryken was a complex and conflicted human being. Yet, his heart burned with a passion for souls he feared could be lost. He could not and would not be comfortable because the inner fire and passion of his heart and soul, which was evoked by the needs of the world that he perceived and experienced, was never totally extinguished.

Pope Francis says that the “worldly” person is “not able to see reality.” Lazarus is at the gate, and the rich man passes by without even seeing him. At this moment in the Lenten journey we are called to allow and to face the discomfort of being so much more comfortable than most of our brothers and sisters. Can this “discomfort” become the spark to re-ignite our passion for the mission that is the heart of our call to discipleship?

The following is from the Vatican Radio’s account of the homily on the parable by Pope Francis. In this passage, the Pope is speaking of the rich man’s spiritual state.

“When he went about town, we might imagine his car with tinted windows so as not [to be] seen from without – who knows – but definitely, yes, his soul, the eyes of his soul were darkened so that he could not see out. He saw only into his life, and did not realize what had happened to [himself]. He was not bad: he was sick, sick with worldliness – and worldliness transforms souls  It transforms souls, makes them lose consciousness of reality. Worldly souls live in an artificial world, one of their making. Worldliness anesthetizes the soul. This is why the worldly man was not able to see reality.”

The reality is that many poor people are living right in our midst:

“So many people are there, who bear so many difficulties in life, who live in great difficulty:  but if I have the worldly heart, never will understand that. It is impossible for one with a  worldly heart to  comprehend the needs and the neediness of others. With a worldly heart you can go to church, you can pray, you can do so many things. But Jesus, at the Last Supper, in the prayer to the Father, what did He pray? ‘But please, Father, keep these disciples from falling into the world, from falling into worldliness.’ Worldliness is a subtle sin – it is more than a sin – it is a sinful state of soul.”

In the end, though, there is a word of consolation:

“When the poor worldly man, in torment, asks that Lazarus be sent with a little water to help him, how does Abraham respond? Abraham is the figure of God the Father. How does He respond? ‘Son, remember…’ The worldly have lost their name: we too, if we have a worldly heart, will have lost our name. We are not orphans, however: until the end, until the last moment there is the confidence that we have a Father who awaits us. Let us entrust ourselves to Him. ‘Son,’ he says: ‘Son’, in the midst of that worldliness; ‘Son.’ We are not orphans.”

Homily of Pope Francis, March 5, 2015 as reported by Vatican Radio

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