by Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin
While it has not been in the headlines much in the U.S.,
European news outlets have been awash this past week
with stories about tech giant Google
and its fight at the European Court of Justice
regarding the “right to be forgotten” law.
Five years ago the General Data Protection Regulation of the EU
ruled that individuals had a right to force organizations
such as Google
to delist webpages containing sensitive information about them.
One Italian journalist, Alessandro Biancardi, lost his job
because of this rule.
In 2008 he reported a true story of one brother assaulting another.
In 2010 one of the brothers demanded he take the story down
because he insisted it was destroying his reputation.
The journalist refused – citing the public’s right to know.
Eventually the journalist lost his case in court
and then lost his job …
The European court decreed that people had a right
to be forgotten … for their deeds to be expunged.
But recently, in what was considered a major win by Google,
the same European court decreed
that such a right must be observed only within Europe.
So you might be forgotten for a small town incident in Italy,
but outside of Europe
the rest of the world still has a right to know!
Virtually all of us have done things
that we would like forgotten,
deleted from web pages and published reports,
but more often from diaries and family memories.
Public figures, in particular, might like to invoke
this “right to be forgotten rubric” –
whether that is a Canadian prime minister
hoping his country will forget
his wearing dark face 20 years ago
in the midst of his current reelection campaign,
or a U.S. president
maybe wanting to forget a phone call to the Ukraine
in the midst of impeachment proceedings.
The reason I reference this current struggle
around privacy and public memory
is that, while courts struggle for the legal compromise
allowing individual deeds to be forgotten,
no earthly court has the right to decide
that any individual can be forgotten, or erased –
an issue that drives us to the heart of today’s liturgy.
It is easy to skim today’s lections
and prematurely assume that they are a condemnation of
or least a warning to the rich
admonishing them that since they are enjoying
the good life now,
there is little assurance that they will enjoy such in the hereafter.
that often is how today’s parable of the rich man is read,
bolstered by its coupling with that reading from Amos
chiding the rich on their beds of ivory.
But there are multiple problems with such a facile reading
of the lectionary.
First is that this is a parable of extreme exaggeration,
one guy lounging around in the ancient equivalent of haute couture –
even his pajamas are apparently from Armani –
dining on exotic caviars and the best champagnes,
while Lazarus is in rags befriended only by dogs,
so we have a hyperbole alert here.
Second, notice that Lazarus is never portrayed
asking for alms and being denied.
He never asks, like the lepers, or the blind man
who called out to Jesus for aid.
He just waits at the gate.
How is the rich man supposed to be charitable
if he is never asked?
Also there is little evidence
that Lazarus was good or just or upright.
All we know is that he is dirt poor.
Furthermore, there is little evidence that the rich guy was
a tyrant, a snob or a sociopath.
To the contrary, at the end of the gospel
he shows strong familial concern for his brothers.
So is this some kind of perverse morality tale
in which the rich who make it in this life
will suffer in the next,
and the poor who suffer in this life
will rejoice in the next?
Even the reading from Amos, when scrutinized,
does not chide the rich for their wealth,
but for their social and religious complacency.
And just to complicate it further,
what does it mean to be rich?
According to multiple internet tools
like the global rich list,
if you make $20,000 a year in the U.S.,
you are in the top 4% of the richest people
in the world.
So are these texts just slamming the rich,
or is there something more here?
As my Google analogy suggests
I do think there is something more going on here.
And it is not that the rich guy wasn’t terribly thoughtful,
but rather that he effectively erased Lazarus from this life,
erasing his agency,
his human dignity …
The fictional dialogue between the rich man and Abraham
indicates that the big wig even knew Lazarus’ name.
But while he could acknowledge him in the afterlife,
it does not appear he paid him any heed in this life,
and effectively annulled his personhood.
Paying attention is a useful thing.
For example, it can save you from being arrested,
or at least embarrassed by your child,
as reported by the Dad who was driving his 6-year old to school
when he “rolled” through a stop sign.
A cop was lying in wait, and the Dad was pulled over.
When the officer came to the car
noticing the child in the back seat, he asked,
“You on the way to school?”
Before the father could mount his vigorous defense,
the six year old piped up,
“He got pulled over last week for the same thing,”
“he’s not very good at stopping.”
The officer abandoned the driver and went to the back window
and asked, “So he does this a lot?”
“Yes,” she said, “he never stops at stop signs.”
The officer instructed my daughter to continue her vigilance,
making sure that Dad never misses a stop sign again.
Dad was released with a warning
on the condition that he listens to his new backseat driver!
Paying attention can save you from being stopped by a cop
or embarrassed by your daughter.
But it is also a necessary gateway into beauty
Author John Geddes understands that
When, in his haunting novel
A Familiar Rain (Chinook Publishing, 2011),
he has one of his characters remark,
Poetry is paying attention to life
When all the world seems asleep to its beauties and truths.
Few poets of our own era consistently payed attention
as well as Mary Oliver.
Her 2009 collection entitled Red Bird
contains a particularly stirring example of this gift,
and the poem “Sometimes” is rendered even more poignant
by her death earlier this year.
Something came up
out of the dark.
It wasn’t anything I had ever seen before.
It wasn’t an animal
or a flower,
unless it was both.
Something came up out of the water,
a head the size of a cat
but muddy and without ears.
I don’t know what God is.
I don’t know what death is.
But I believe they have between them
some fervent and necessary arrangement.
melancholy leaves me breathless…
Water from the heavens! Electricity from the source!
Both of them mad to create something!
The lighting brighter than any flower.
The thunder without a drowsy bone in its body.
She continues with the stanza:
Instructions for living a life:
Tell about it.
Paying attention is an essential ingredient
for authoring staggeringly beautiful poetry
or other forms of art,
but also for authoring a life of integrity.
The Spanish philosopher José OrtegayGasset
“Tell me to what you pay attention
and I will tell you who you are.”
[Man and Crisis, tr. Mildred Adams (New York-London: 1962), 94]
In the same vein,
paying attention is the beginning of theologizing,
what many practical theologians call “attending.”
The great German theologian Karl Rahner talked about this
as the “mysticism of daily living.”
Paying attention is critical to a Christ-centered spirituality.
As some of you know, I have recently moved out of the city
And am living in a southwest suburb with a sibling.
It is quite a change from living in Hyde Park.
One of the changes is that I now live with a 95 lbs. puppy,
half Great Dane and half American Bulldog.
Some mornings it is my responsibility to take him
for his morning walk,
equipped with sturdy leash, tender lead head-halter,
and shock collar.
Sometimes on this walk I listen to a daily synopsis
of the New York Times,
sometimes I listen to music on my antiquated I-touch.
The other day I had the I-touch play random songs
and ended up listening to a lot of Christmas carols.
While initially a little jarring, it made me pay attention.
Often at Christmas I stress that the mystery of incarnation
is not that Jesus was simply born,
but that God wed Godself with humanity,
and that mystery continues
in every child … in every person … in every Lazarus.
The rich man erased Lazarus,
which from an incarnational perspective means
that the rich man erased God.
If every human being was created in God’s image,
and if the mystery of Incarnation is God’s self-wedding
with Jesus and every other human being,
then erasing anyone means blotting out the image of God –
… not even Google has that power.
The rich man has blotted out the image of God named Lazarus,
and parabolically God has erased even the name
of this rich man
and cast his memory into darkness.
The Jesuit story teller and mystic Anthony de Mello
often told the tale entitled “Recognition.”
“As the Master grew old and infirm,
the disciples begged him not to die.
Said the Master, ‘If I did not go, how would you ever see?’
‘What is it we fail to see when you are with us?’ they asked.
But the Master would not say.
When the moment of his death was near, they said,
‘What is it we will see when you are gone?’
With a twinkle in his eye, the Master said,
‘All I did [while I was alive] was sit on the riverbank
handing out river water.
After I’m gone, I trust you will notice the river.’”
It is common to say that Jesus died
to save us from our sins.
But it seems just as true
that Jesus died so that we might begin
to look past the Jesus of history
and notice the Lazarus’ among us
of every color, of every gender,
of every age, of every social location,
and thus allow the mystery of incarnation
to both endure and flourish,
through Christ our Lord. Amen.