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The Dives Syndrome

One day in New York City, a man was walking in a park when he heard the sound of music. Looking around, he saw two young men, one playing an accordion and the other a violin. The man was enchanted by their lively music, and stopped to listen, as did several other New Yorkers. As this was happening, vendors were setting up their stands for the weekly open-air farmers’ market. Reflecting on all this, the man later wrote:

What a glorious moment:  the music, the sunshine, the crowd, the shoppers at the market, and the smell of ripe peaches. Just then someone cut through the rest of the crowd:  a woman punching her BlackBerry and listening to her iPod. She knifed through us and rushed away. She had missed the entire experience, since she was completely absorbed in her own world (William J. Bausch, The Story Revealed, p. 251).

There’s actually a psychological term for this failure to notice and appreciate things: the Dives Syndrome. Dives, from the Latin word for riches, is the unofficial name given to the rich man in Our Lord’s parable in the Gospel of Luke (16:19-31)—the man who completely ignored the poor beggar Lazarus, who was miserably existing on his very doorstep. Failing to notice and respond to the suffering of others, as Dives did, is not an option for Christians. If we are to be true followers of Jesus, we must teach ourselves to be alert to the needs, and the dignity, of those around us. It’s true that we will one day be judged by God as individuals on how we’ve lived our lives—but on our journey to Heaven and eternal life, we are meant to be united with all our neighbors and our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Scripture scholars generally agree the rich man in the Gospel was not really a bad person, at least according to human or worldly standards; there’s no indication that he had obtained his wealth dishonestly or was committing any crimes or serious sins.  His fault was a glaring sin of omission: he was so self-absorbed that he never even noticed the desperate suffering of someone almost literally under his nose—and this failure or lack of compassion was enough for him to be eternally condemned. God takes the suffering of His children very personally; those who try to alleviate it are blessed by the Lord, but those who either cause it, or ignore it, are held to a strict standard and risk a severe judgment. This was the warning of the prophet Amos (6:1, 4-7) some 700 years before Christ, and this warning applies even more today to a materialistic society such as ours. In his Letter to Timothy (1 Tm 6:11-16), St. Paul charges us to “pursue righteousness” . . . and “keep the commandment without stain or reproach.” Doing this certainly includes sympathizing with and helping, in the Name of Christ, those who suffer—whether physically, spiritually, or emotionally.  We are not here on earth to live in our own little world, but to do our part in helping make this world a better place by living out our faith—for in this way we journey to Kingdom of God, while at the same time inviting others to join us.

How is the Dives Syndrome at work in our society, and perhaps even in our own lives?  I can think of three very pertinent examples. The first of these involves technology. It’s become quite common for young people—and even their parents, who should know better—to be so absorbed in their cell phones or other electronic devices that they ignore each other at the dinner table or in the car, missing out on the family interactions meant to help prepare them for relating to the larger world. There are even young adults who spend up to 18 or 19 hours a day in cyberspace, almost completely living in an artificial world of on-line video games. Can anyone seriously claim this is God’s will? If technology takes over our lives, how will we learn to extend the human touch to persons in need and to our own families and loved ones? How will we grow in virtue and come closer to God, and recognize and use His grace to be made ready for Heaven?

A second example involves sports. I wish I—or better yet, the parish—had a dollar for every time someone has said, “Because of our kids’ sports schedule, we can’t come to faith formation classes, or make this commitment, or be involved in this parish activity,” or something similar. That’s why I felt like cheering when Archbishop Vigneron announced that from now on, no sports events involving Catholic schools and parishes will be scheduled on Sundays, in an effort to reclaim this day for God and for families. However, that doesn’t solve the problem of adults on the golf course, or in front of the TV watching football, while using these things as an excuse to miss Sunday Mass or avoid interacting with their children. Anyone too busy for Mass, for prayer, or for family because of sports will have all eternity to regret having lived by the wrong priorities.

A final example of the Dives Syndrome involves an incomplete or misguided experience of religion:  namely, the “me and Jesus” approach.  This heresy says that as long as I have my own “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” I don’t have to think about anyone else, and that if I choose to reach out to suffering persons, I can do so on my own terms and at my own convenience.  Life can be so much simpler, and be a “feel-good” experience, when we ignore others—especially those who suffer—and think only of Jesus, while spiritually patting ourselves on the back.  However, this is not an option for true followers of Christ.  We come here to Mass as individuals so that we might worship God as a community, and we are sent forth from here not to follow our own agendas, but to help transform the world around us through our Catholic witness—something the Archbishop has emphasized in his pastoral letter Unleash the Gospel.  Moreover, the Holy Father has asked us to use this coming month of October as a time to reflect on how we can make a difference in the world by our Christian example.

As the story of Dives reminds us, we will one day be judged not simply on whether we stayed out of trouble and obeyed the rules, but on how well we responded to God’s love and shared that love with those around us. Living rightly is impossible if we put the focus primarily on ourselves—whether through an excess of technology, sports, or any other form of self-indulgence. This week let’s try a little harder to recognize, appreciate, and reach out to everyone we meet—especially if we have the opportunity to help them in Christ’s Name—for doing so will bring us one step closer to our goal of eternal life. 

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