Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18
2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
The Problem with Religion
During this season it’s not uncommon to spot a few pint-sized mummies walking the neighborhood in search of Hershey bars or Gummy-Bear-treats. But not long ago scientists reported finding some real mummies.
They were mummies of three young people who were sacrificed by the Incas five hundred years ago. Anthropologists speculate that the Incas worshiped gods, who, they believed, lived beyond the clouds in the mountains of Peru. The bodies were young girls and a boy – bludgeoned to death by Incan priests in order to appease their gods. We might be tempted to dismiss this as a grotesque and hideous ritual of a primitive people… But would it be inaccurate to label it "the problem with religion"?
In looking at today’s’ Gospel, we might, in a parallel way, call it "the problem with religion." "Why does the Pharisee get such a bum rap?" one might question. To be sure, he’s arrogant – but this is hardly a fatal flaw deserving eternal punishment. The Pharisee is rebuked because he allows religion to get in the way of God.
When Jesuit journalist Antonio Spadaro, S.J. interviewed Pope Francis a couple of months ago, he asked the pope what the Church is in need of most at this moment in our history. Pope Francis responded that the church has become "obsessed" with some issues to the detriment of its larger mission to be "home for all." And our Holy Father continued with a wonderful metaphor, "…what the Church needs most," he said, "is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle."
Throughout our history, we’ve come to realize that religion can be a dangerous thing. I dare say that the BIBLE, more than any other book, has been used to imprison and to oppress… to justify hatred, slavery, torture and even murder. But Jesus speaks of the possible "danger of religion" to me, today as well, because I can allow the insignificant to get in the way. No wonder piety sells. It’s a great bargain. Join, attend, perform, obey here and there, and I can basically live my life unchanged. It can give me just enough of God to quite effectively inoculate me from any need or search to go deeper, i.e., for the real thing: conversion, a change of heart. If we have enough outer experience we won’t need inner experience, …and that’s why Jesus condemns the Pharisees. That’s why Luke’s technique is always having Jesus turn the tables, not just on the Pharisees, but on me.
This "reversal of fortune" – the rich man and Lazarus, the Prodigal Son and Elder Brother, the Pharisee and the tax agent – is the Good News. And maybe that’s why Jesus also speaks for the other Lazarus, Lazarus the mummy: "Untie him, and let him go free!"
Fr. Jack Conley, C.P. is the director of the Office of Mission Effectiveness. He is a member of the Passionist formation community at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.