September 30, 2019
Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily on the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) on September 29, 2019 at St. Austin Parish in Austin, TX. The homily is based on the day’s readings: Amos 6:1a, 4-7; Psalm 146; 1 Timothy 6:11-16; and Luke 16:19-31.
It feels as if today’s gospel passage wraps up some of the themes we’ve explored this year in the Gospel of Luke. For three months, we have heard Jesus’ lessons about the requirements of discipleship, sometimes focusing on the perils of wealth. Today’s gospel passage probably makes all of us uncomfortable. Just because we’re not as wealthy as the man in today’s parable, that doesn’t mean we have avoided the sin of neglecting our impoverished neighbors.
As Jesus declared last month: “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be” (Luke 12:34). The challenge of the gospel for each of us today is: what do we treasure? How do our choices reveal what we treasure?
Let us seek God’s mercy for the times when we’ve chosen without regard to the gospel.
This is the only parable in which Jesus gives a name to one of the characters. We also know that Lazarus was starving and sick, and – if we take a moment to think about it – we’d realize that he was also experiencing homelessness.
As most of us know, people in Austin are passionately debating the new city ordinance that allows people more freedom to camp in public spaces. But most of our public discussions about homelessness leave out important facts that both challenge us and give us new hope. Today, I’ve combined my usual scriptural exegesis with four important facts about homelessness. And yes, there will be links online to more resources!
Fact #1: Homelessness is a solvable problem.
For far too long, we placed a lot of conditions on the people we’re willing to help get housing. But on Mt. Sinai, God didn’t tell Moses not to worry about widows, orphans, or aliens who were addicted to drugs, physically disabled, or unable to speak the local language. And God told no such thing to Joshua, Gideon, Samuel, Esther, Judith, Amos, Hosea, Hezekiah, Jeremiah, Josiah, Ezekiel, Jesus, Paul, or James, either.
Many parts of the country have made great strides in reducing homelessness in the past 15 years as more organizations have adopted a “housing first” strategy. 1 Rather than requiring someone to get a job, be on a medication regimen, or maintain complete sobriety before giving them housing, we now provide them with housing stability, which make it easier for them to get jobs, stay on medication regimens, and maintain the same leases as you or I!
Fact #2: It’s more effective to treat individuals than to guess what the whole population needs.
Why was Lazarus experiencing homelessness? We don’t know if he was a legal citizen of Judea. He wouldn’t have qualified for food stamps, since he apparently wasn’t searching for employment. Maybe he had a mental illness, maybe he went into debt because of a medical procedure, or maybe his family had kicked him out because of his sexual orientation.
We don’t want to admit it, but in one way, a lot of us are worse than the rich man in the parable. How many of us know the names or the individual situations of the people in this neighborhood who struggle with homelessness? At least the rich man knew Lazarus’ name!
As organizations have begun reaching out to each individual experiencing homelessness, learning their needs, connecting them to appropriate resources, and following up, these organizations can now spot trends, learn what’s effective, share data, and appropriately shift resources to the individuals in crisis.2 For example, Austin has ended “veteran homelessness” – once Austin organizations discover a veteran who is experiencing homelessness, they can provide him or her with housing within 90 days. Instead of assuming that we know what people experiencing homelessness need, we’ve learned that trusting them to be experts in their success… leads to their success. In fact, because Austin’s non-profit organizations work collaboratively with one another, many people tracked in the system receive effective assistance quickly.
Fact #3: Most people struggling with homelessness are hard to see.
When the LORD cries out, “Woe to the complacent!” in the Book of Amos, I can’t help but wonder, is the LORD talking to us?
Those of us who live in exclusive suburban neighborhoods don’t see destitute people on our sidewalks… especially if our neighborhoods don’t have sidewalks. But that doesn’t mean that our neighbors aren’t suffering. Many people struggling with homelessness – especially families who are experiencing homelessness – live in their cars, move into motels or shelters for a few nights at a time, or appeal to friends and relatives to take them in temporarily. Do we worry about our neighbors less when we can’t see their struggles? Are we now worried more, only because the camps are harder to ignore?
Fact #4: We in Austin are failing to address the local causes of homelessness.
Lazarus longed for the scraps from the rich man’s table. [Point to the altar.] Is our table something that unites us, or do we use it to isolate ourselves from one another? Do we use the gate to invite Lazarus in or to keep him out?
Almost everyone in Austin knows three of the main causes of homelessness here. We talk about them all the time: the lack of affordable housing,3 our objections to increased housing density,4 and our refusal to allow new shelters to be built in our own neighborhoods.5 6
If we create a chasm between ourselves and Lazarus, I worry that we might find ourselves on the opposite side of Abraham and Jesus at the end of time.
At the conclusion of the First Letter to Timothy, we are encouraged to “pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.” Yes, when we encounter an individual experiencing homelessness, many of us treat him or her with these virtues. But as hard as it may be, we here in Austin also need to pursue an end to the systems that cause homelessness with the same righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness. The solutions may not be easy or comfortable, but if we listen to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and if we love with the compassion of Jesus Christ, the problem is solvable.
Utah was an early adopter of a “housing first” policy, which reduced the chronically homeless population in Salt Lake City by 91% between 2005 and 2015. See this NPR article for details. However, in recent years, homelessness has spiked in Utah as the economic situation – and government funding – has changed. For example, as the economy has improved, landlords are less willing to help the less fortunate. See this Reuters article for details. ↩
For a great explanation of how such an approach is working, listen to the premiere episode of the “Solvable” podcast where Malcolm Gladwell interviews Roseanne Haggerty, President and Chief Executive Officer of Community Solutions. ↩
- https://www.kut.org/post/austin-lot-us-hurting-affordable-housing-these-maps-help-explain-why. ↩
- https://www.statesman.com/news/20190813/austin-city-council-gets-its-first-peek-at-latest-attempt-to-overhaul-code-since-codenext . ↩
https://www.kvue.com/article/news/local/proposed-new-austin-homeless-shelter-sparks-debate-among-nearby-homeowners/269-c0198763-8430-4535-a03d-d7c96bc81465?fbclid=IwAR39yhk1PaPW7716pwveZPHitRCCi0fwQX7NeJirIb2PnIriJEqmnRKMhuE . ↩
- Statistics also indicate that institutional racism may have a significant role. For example, the population of Travis County is only 8% black or African-American, but the population of people facing homelessness in Travis County is 34% black or African-American. This, and many more statistics, can be found on austinecho.org. ↩