Twenty-Fifth Sunday of Ordinary time
Scripture Readings: Is. 55:6-9; Phil. 1:20c-24,27a; Mt. 20:1-16a
There have been some recent efforts in schools to reduce the apparent differences between students. The “curve” has been flattened out and grades have been inflated to minimize discrimination on the basis of scholastic achievement. Johnny shouldn’t be ashamed because he failed a test. If Sally thinks 3 times 3 is 10, she gets credit for being close.
The problem with this attempt to create equality is that it destroys all incentive to learn. And the growth and learning that is supposed to occur at a certain level just doesn’t happen. The students are then incapable of moving on to higher levels. By the time they enter college, they are still at 7th grade levels of comprehension. Without the challenge of demanding criteria, the dura et aspera, they never learn to respond out of deeper levels within themselves. Rather than engaging in the discipline and work of meeting external demands and resistances, they stagnate at an immature level. Work and discipline are forums for coming to self-awareness and self-understanding. We come to know what our abilities and gifts are, and what our limitations and lacks are. It is called realism. Work is training in facing reality.
There is an accrued sense of our own identity that we gain through work. It offers recognition and rewards and is a primary means of identifying with society. I am what I can make work. Work is visible and social. It gives us a means of identifying our role and the meaning life offers. We construct a self-image which is supported and nourished by the social system in which we find a place. Without work which is recognized and rewarded, we are prey to a sense of inferiority and worthlessness. The vital sense that work has in our own self-acceptance can lead to the dominance of its dynamic in all our relations. It has an inner logic which pervades our life. Pope Francis has diagnosed the “technocratic paradigm” which seeps into all corners of our behavior. It is the belief that reality, goodness, and truth automatically flow from technological and economic power as such. It lacks a corresponding development of human responsibility, values and conscience which can set limits based on self-restraint. Its logic is self-perpetuating and creates systems which countenance no exceptions.
That is why there usually needs to be a crisis from outside to break through the tight defensive walls. The justification and world-explanation that comes from the worthwhileness of work is shaken by an illness, a loss of employment, a promotion that was given to someone obviously inferior, by an insult, by the reign of a new pharaoh who knew not Joseph. Or by a real injustice that violates our dignity and integrity. The crisis can bring us to an even deeper awareness of our real self than the one which work alone could provide.
The action of the landowner in today’s gospel is a deliberate attempt to provoke just such a crisis. By orchestrating the disbursement of wages so that the last were paid first, he cuts to the heart of the laborers who had toiled all day long for the same pay. A fair sense of recompense would demand pay in proportion to the actual labor. You have made them equal to us who have borne the day’s heat. This is to undercut the distinctions that their work has earned them. And worse, their noses are rubbed into this inequity of equality by having them stand there and witness their reduction to the same level of reward in spite of the mountain of difference in sweat and labor.
The landowner has to name the growing rage that underlies their accusation that you have made them equal to us. I am not cheating you, he says, because that is really what they are thinking. It is not justice which motivates them (did you not agree on the usual daily wage?) but envy. Others are getting what I want or should be given to me. What others are given is somehow experienced as a loss or theft from me. Realizing that true and formative motivations only emerges at the experience of sensed injury or crisis can be a liberating and freeing knowledge. The identification we derive from work can be transcended by a new level of living from new values. The workers were led to expect more. They thought they would receive more money, more security, more reward. They were offered more but a more that they could not comprehend while thinking only within their own inner logic. The more was the generosity, the gracious mercy, the inner freedom from expectations that the landowner manifested. This was a new economy laid before them. They had the choice to take what is yours and go. But this is almost a condemnation to isolation and having one’s life smothered by what is one’s own. You get what you deserve and what you earn. But that is not enough to gain entry into a community of faith which lives on the mercy of God expressed in generous service of others and dispossession of what is one’s own. The rewards come from an inner sense of living from the generosity of God and knowing that this flourishes in hearts that are free and generous in their response to their brothers and sisters. Rather than resenting the fact, those living in God’s reckless mercy can rejoice that you have made them equal to us.
Twenty-Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Scripture Readings: Am 8:4-7; 1 Tm 2:1-8; Lk 16:1-13
Who said, “I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor and rich is better!”? That was Sophie Tucker, a Russian-born American singer. She was one of the most popular entertainers in America during the first half of the 20th century and widely known by the nickname, “The Last of the Red Hot Mamas.” She also said, From birth to age 18 a girl needs good parents. From 18 to 35 she needs good looks. From 35 to 55 she needs a good personality. From 55 on she needs cash.” Sophie Tucker was out of my league when I was growing up. My idol for the love of money was Scrooge McDuck, the rich cranky uncle of Donald Duck. What caught my fancy as a child entrepreneur was his daily swim in a huge money bin, full of gold coins.
Jesus has a lot to say about the love of riches. In today’s story he is walking along the long dusty road from upper Galilee to Southern Judea where he will be crucified. This is his last journey, so what he says along the way must be very important. Jesus keeps warning his disciples about the danger of riches. He tells them about a rich farmer who built bigger barns rather than share his surplus. He laid up treasure for himself, but he was not rich before God. This is a great paradox: we acquire heavenly riches by giving away earthly riches. Jesus said: “Give alms, and so provide purses for yourselves that hold treasure in heaven.”
Jesus also tells the story about an unjust steward caught squandering his master’s property. He provides for his future by canceling debts. The master is really our heavenly Father, for no one is richer than God. The steward represents each of us, for we all have to give an account of the way we have managed his goods. How shall we provide for our future? Jewish rabbis have a saying: “The rich help the poor in this world and the poor help the rich in the next world.“
When John Wesley, founder of the Methodist Church, was a teacher at Oxford University back in the 1700’s, he was paid 30 pounds per year, a lot of money in those days. His living expenses were 28 pounds, so he gave away 2. When his income doubled, he still lived on 28 pounds, so he gave away 32. Eventually he earned 120 pounds while living on 28, so he gave away 92. He said that with increasing income what should rise is not a Christian’s standard of living but of giving.
When I was growing up the story of Scrooge McDuck influenced me more than the prudence of the unjust steward. Around the age of 11 or 12 I set up a store on the front porch at home. I sold candy and trinkets, pop and ice cream to anyone passing by. One day a police officer, who was a friend of my father, stopped his patrol car in front of my little business. He looked around and asked if I had a license to run a store in this residential area. Quick as Scrooge McDuck defending his money bin, I replied, “No, I don’t need one.” He asked, “Why not?” I replied, “Because I give all the profits to charity.” He laughed and let me be! Well, not only did I love money, but I was a little liar, too! However, God had his revenge by calling me to be a monk. On the day of my solemn vows I gave away all the money I had saved, my entire money bin. We will all have to give an account of our stewardship. Jesus is teaching us how to live, individually and collectively. What will it be: treasure on earth or treasure in heaven, loving money or loving the poor?
Twenty-Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time
[Scripture Readings: Wis 2:12, 17-20; James 3:16-4:3; Mk 9:30-37]
That embrace of the child by Jesus. It comes at the end of our readings, all about treachery, jealousy, violence, betrayal, cynicism, self-centeredness. Everyone was guilty of these base and ignoble postures and dispositions, everyone, even Jesus' disciples, even the Christians James was writing to, and not just the stereotypical wicked the Wisdom books set up as foils for the just one. Perhaps the child, too, for as every parent knows children are not so innocent. "Babies are selfish," someone observed. "What baby every goes, 'Whaaah!' and then, 'but really, how are you doing?'" We live in a world of perfidy and double-speak where things cannot be trusted to be what they seem. If you look at the beginning of Chapter 2 of the Book of Wisdom from which our first reading came, you'll find the people who are plotting against the righteous are very much like the 21st-century secularism of the west: By mere chance we have been born; the breath in our nostrils is smoke, our body ashes, our spirits empty air; reason is just a spark from the beating of our hearts, our life will pass away like a trace of a cloud; weakness is useless; our strength is the norm of what is right; the good person, merely to see him is irksome, and on it goes into the reading from James with its envy and to the disciples in Mark with theirs.
Envy, in fact, is the thing to which all this negativity can be traced back. I think it was Cassian who said that the jealous person "carps at nothing in his brother but his happiness." Here's the real heart of the matter, isn't it? The good person is not irksome to us because of her goodness but because of her happiness. Her happiness is undeniable, and irksome because nothing the result of her efforts but a gift from a donor whom all have decided just cannot exist. Let us put him to the test. Let us eliminate him. Jealousy, ambition; covet, kill, wage war . "Who is the greatest among us?" "And taking a child he stood him in the midst" of all that " and put his arms around him." What parent overcome by tender humor has not instantly stopped a tantrum-throwing child dead by suddenly, wordlessly, warmly embracing her mid-sentence? The words he said are not different from the embrace, but also the embrace: You received one such child, you receive me, you receive the One who sent me. No moral argument against the vice of jealousy, a demonstration, rather, of the universe jealousy overlooks in attempting to create its own. The universe of that embrace is the foreclosure of envy, and jealousy's undoing. The universe of the encircling divine arms is given and received, not made. It is God all in all, harmony of giver and gifted, the cave-in of every ego-demand and self-promotion. The embrace is what our world lives in, ISIS and Melkite Christians both, every political pole we have erected, but refuse to receive.
In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii gaudium Pope Francis speaks to Christians of "that baptismal embrace the Father has given us as little ones" (144). He does not mean that we were all baptized when we were infants. He means that with respect to the embrace we are all children, stopped mid-sentence, loved, and ready for friendship with each other. That baptismal embrace, he says, makes us long for that other embrace, the embrace of the Father of Mercy that awaits us in glory. We live, he says, now in the midst of these two embraces, embraced by the divine arms at the start, on the way, and at the end.
A sort of parody of Jesus' embrace of the child that comes at the end of our gospel passage is the part of his prediction at the beginning that he will be handed over into the hands of men. Here is a paradox of Christian life: the divine embrace makes himself vulnerable to abuse from the very ones he seeks to enfold. It cannot be different for us his disciples. Be merciful as I am merciful, embrace as you are embraced, as I have love you, so love your enemies. The happiness given us-try to live from it, share it, and you'll find resentment, envy, misunderstanding, even disdain: "merely to see him is a hardship to us." In the extreme, "let us condemn him to a shameful death," and even then the embrace is extended, the ultimate service, "Father, forgive them."
The Eucharist we are now going to receive is the embrace that makes us one, that calms us, and that we extend again and again in the service of forgiveness.
Twenty-Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time
[Scripture Readings: Amos 8:4-7; 1 Tim 2:1-8; Lu 16:1-13]
Our newspapers regularly report on what has become an epidemic in our society. Persons who have reached a great level of success, influence and prominence have been caught engaging in behavior which is unethical, immoral, and even criminal. It seems mysterious that people should squander the position and trust they have been given for the sake of indulging in some small area of self-gratification. We have seen this in politicians, clergy, and sport figures. They self-destruct in their failure to exercise self-restraint. There is a sense in which the “powerful” begin to feel “all-powerful” and become victims of their own hybris. Another view adds the note that these people have risen to high position by taking risks that others were too timid to take. Taking risks has become part of their modus operandi.
In literature and mythology, there have always been the figures called “tricksters.” They are ones who live by their wits, who subvert “normal” structures, who thumb their noses at convention. The coyote is a great trickster figure in Native American lore. Jacob got the best of his brother Esau by tricking their father, Isaac. Shylock in the Merchant of Venice had to live by his wits on the margin of society. We admire their cleverness and like to see just how far they can go in taking risks.
The exemplar we are given in today's parable is just such a trickster. He was caught squandering his master's goods. Rather than just collapse in a heap of self-pity, he used his wits to provide for himself. He put everything on the line, because he was in a desperate situation. He saw clearly what was at stake and responded. We even sympathize with him. (It's not our money.) The parable takes us step by step through his process of coping with his dilemma. He was creative in re-framing and re-imagining his situation. He was realistic about his limitations and potential. And he acted. All this is what earns the master's admiration: he was “prudent.” This is an inadequate translation of the Greek word which also includes the connotation of “shrewd” and acute “practical wisdom.” Our usual understanding of being prudent means being very cautious, being on the safe side, waiting and seeing, checking out all the possible consequences. For Aquinas, prudence is “acting in accord with reality.” It means seeing clearly what reality is, and then acting in response to what you see. The steward was prudent because he clearly saw what was at stake and then risked his whole self in bold action.
This is the kind of “prudence” that the Lord finds lacking in the children of light. We are just as apt as the steward in today's parable or the younger son in last Sunday's gospel to be caught squandering the goods we have been given. It was not until they were caught (by whistle-blowers or by famine) that they came to themselves. A life of squandering is usually closed to self-awareness or responsibility. It is numbed by the self-generating escape from living with consequences of behavior. “You have been squandering my property.” We are very capable of squandering goods, material resources, time, talents given us, trust of others. What is there to catch us, to stop us in our tracks? We are fortunate if it is only a minor crisis or if we pay attention to a voice that says: “What is this I hear about you?” For children of the light, perhaps the Gospel is enough. Or the need and hunger of those who despair of life. Or melting glaciers and climate change. The trickster is like the sorcerer's apprentice who, in trying to make his work easier, set in motion a chain of events that threatened to destroy him.
The trickster develops into the prudent steward by accepting the need to re-think and re-imagine his situation. He acts in accord with reality. He doesn't deny his situation, doesn't blame others, doesn't fall into a depressed paralysis. He “comes to himself…” He questions himself and takes responsibility for his own future. “This is what I will do.” This is the first step in coming to prudent action. There is a center of freedom and choice at the core of our human being where we find ourselves capable of imagining a different future, a different way of behaving more attuned to our own dignity and values. And it is where we find ourselves in relation to a communion of persons and nature in which we come to know and recognize our selves. This is the process of “making friends” by writing off debts or obligations, by honoring the freedom and dignity of others, by entrusting ourselves to the workings of the Spirit in the limitations and ambiguities of human life. By taking risks with ourselves—the next step in being wise and prudent.
The children of this generation and the children of light all live in the same world . The real world is fragile, limited, and uncertain. The difference is in the way they respond to this reality. Conventional wisdom tells us that the way to cope with reality is by power, security, and independence. Economy has become the new religion of our age, says James Hillman. It is what gets our attention, where we find our security, where we calculate our sense of worth, what binds us together on a global scale. The economy is the One Mediator, not Christ.
The children of light are called to be prudent and wise in responding to the fragility of this world with sensitivity, gentleness, and respect; in responding to the limits of life with restraint, with a readiness to share and to sacrifice, to live with a contentment with what is given and available; in responding to the uncertainty of the world with a faith, trust, and devotion in the presence of God and his Kingdom. Living in faith, hope and love is the way of prudence and wisdom to re-imagine and reshape the world and its future in accord with the reality of God's will.
Twenty-Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time
[Scripture Readings: Wis 2:12, 17-20; James 3:16-4:3; Mk 9:30-37]
What does Jesus so love about children that he presents them as role models for his disciples? Is it their simple honesty? Hans Christian Andersen immortalized this endearing quality of children in his fairy tale, The Emperor's New Clothes. While one citizen after another praised the emperor's elegant clothes, a little child seeing the bare facts cried out, “The Emperor is naked.”
Or, is it a child's persistence in seeking understanding and knowledge that Jesus loves? Many years ago my father was lounging inside a tanning tent in his back yard. The netting kept out flies and mosquitoes, but let in the tanning rays of the summer sun. A young boy from the neighborhood came by and asked, “What are you doing?” My dad replied, “Nothing.” The boy was quiet for a moment, then looking curiously at my father he said, “Why are you doing it in there?”
Or, is it the innocence of young children who are incapable of serious mortal sin, that is so attractive to Jesus? A mother recalls the furious face of her little daughter who had just been disciplined by her father. In retaliation the girl wanted to do the worst possible thing she could think of, so she said to him, “I'm going to go out and talk to strangers!”
Or, does Jesus love children because they aren't afraid to ask embarrassing questions. Once a priest was giving another long homily, (not me, of course). He was distracted by a fidgeting little boy in the front pew who pulled at his mother's sleeve and said in a voice that could be heard all around, “Mom, isn't there an easier way we can get to heaven?”
When Jesus prophesied his passion, death, and resurrection a little child would have asked, “What do you mean by being handed over to men? Are you really going to be killed? Can I watch you rise again?” Such honest questions would have pleased Jesus and made all he had to endure a little easier. But the apostles were afraid to ask Jesus what he meant, and they were too proud to admit they didn't understand. Perhaps they were also afraid of what the answer might mean for their own lives.
Jesus loves these qualities of children, but the one Jesus wanted his disciples to learn in today's gospel is humility. The apostles were proud, judgmental, calculating, competitive, seeking power, success, and security. That's what Carl Jung describes with the Latin word senex, meaning the old man within us who seeks to be the greatest and in control of everything. In contrast, Carl Jung describes the puer aeternus, the eternal child within us who symbolizes newness, who has potential for growth, hope for the future, who is lighthearted, and playful, like the fun loving, mischievous boy in the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes.
In one series, Calvin says to his father, “Dad, are you vicariously living through me in the hope that my accomplishments will validate your mediocre life and in some way compensate for all of the opportunities you botched?” His dad replies, “If I were, you can bet I'd be re-evaluating my strategy.” Humbled, Calvin goes to his mother and complains, “Mom, dad keeps insulting me.” In another series Calvin is talking to his arch enemy, Susie, asking what grade she got on a test. Susie says with obvious pride, “I got an A.” Calvin replies, “Really? I'd hate that. I got a C.” Puzzled, Susie asks, “Why on earth would you rather get a C than an A?” Calvin says, “I find my life is a lot easier the lower I keep everyone's expectations.” Each of the apostles wanted all the A's. Let others have the B's and C's.
So, Jesus sat down and began to teach them humility. Wrapping his arms around a child he said, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.” In Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke, child also means servant. Children labored under obedience. They were given work to do, they were expected to serve the adults around them.
Br. Placid remembers doing chores on the family farm when he was a young child. His father and older brothers were putting up a fence line, and little “Tony” had to serve them by carrying a bucket of nails and staples. Once he got distracted and put the bucket down to pursue some amusement. So his father called him over to sit down on a fallen log. He told his son the story of Adam and Eve, about their Fall in the Garden of Eden, and how they had to earn their living ever after by the sweat of their brows. We all know how well Br. Placid learned that lesson. Now he's 83, and he still works hard in our garden, cultivating the soil to serve us with delicious, healthy organic food.
Jesus loved the innocence of children, their searching questions, their desire for honest answers, and the humbling labor of their obedient service. It is the way Jesus lived. He knows the value of being a humble servant. When he wrapped his arms tightly around the child and said, “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me,” he was talking about service. In the Greek text, to receive someone means to welcome them with hospitality, to wait on them, to serve their needs, to wash their feet and to anoint their heads with oil. Jesus is teaching his proud apostles, and us, to be humble servants of everyone else, even of children.
In a book titled “Survivors of Auschwitz,” Fr. Paschal Baumstein tells this story about Edith Stein. “As she moved through the concentration camp she focused upon the children, youngsters unable to claim the comforts of their mothers. She served these children with an effort made extraordinary by the place and poverty of their circumstances: She washed children's faces; she cleaned their hands. … She used small, simple, comforting gestures to show respect for the dignity of these young human persons, and she reestablished thereby that these victims … bear the image of God.”1
Let us strive for humility by serving one another well. When we do, it is also Jesus we serve “hidden in a thousand faces.”
Twenty-Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time
[Scripture Readings: Is 55:6-9; Phil 1:20c-27; Mt 20:1-16a]
“Are you envious because I am generous?”
Now that is an interesting question! The vineyard owner was generous to those who worked the least number of hours, yet those who worked the most number received the wages as agreed, the same wages as the last hired. From the perspective of the secular world one can understand the irritation of the first hired. But Jesus tells us that from the perspective of God, the irritation is really envy. This is an important teaching of His because it reveals something very fundamental about human nature.
In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were given abundantly. They could eat of every tree in the garden EXCEPT one. The serpent convinced them that because of the one exception the gift of all the others was not a sign of generosity, but of stinginess.
Adam and Eve and the first-hired laborers had a disease of perception. They could not see the abundance, but instead wanted “more.” They could not comprehend the word “enough.” They could not see that the issue was not one of proportion. The issue was about God emptying Himself to give Himself entirely to His people. It is, again, a matter of kenosis. God gave Himself in equal abundance to all alike. He asks, “I am free to do as I like with my resources, am I not?” Adam, Eve, and the first-hired cannot receive the generosity of God’s self-emptying. Why not? What blinds them? Why don’t they “have room for it?”
Dessert and inferiority blind them. The need to deserve and fear of inferiority distort perception, lead to envy, and envy is the active ingredient in resentment. Dessert and inferiority “fill up” a person and prevent one’s own self-emptying that makes room for appreciating that of God.
Comparison is the mother of pride. Pride is the root of envy because the envier tries to assure his self-worth by securing his own place in the rankings. Inferiority tells us—with sadness—that we are not on the same level as the object of our comparison. This is why envy is the hardest sin to admit: no one wants to admit their inferiority.
Comparison brings us to a decision-point: do I envy or do I admire the one who is superior to me?
Envy is a deadly sin that Jesus warns us about today because it kills love. Love seeks the others good and rejoices in it. Envy fuels resentment. Resentment causes us to detract higher, hard-to-attain values and those who represent them. Resentment thus becomes a lingering hate. Over time this hate spreads beyond the other who possesses what we lack. Desert enters in; we know we deserve the thing or quality and the other does not. We feel cheated and demand justice where we really need mercy!
The hatred spreads from contempt for the other to contempt for the one who stacked the deck against us: God or fate or whoever or whatever force we think allocates excellence. Those who think it is something on the order of fate feel cursed by a force with which they cannot establish a trusting relationship. Surrender to that force dooms them to a life of depression, anxiety, and alienation.
Jesus is showing us in today’s parable that we can turn to a loving God Who allocates excellence abundantly and wisely, according to His plan, for the part each of us plays in the common good. Knowing this we can choose admiration over envy. Admiration is like a new pair of glasses; it corrects our perception. St. Aelred emphasized this in a sermon for the feast of St. Benedict. He writes, “No one should envy his brother because of some grace, as if it were exclusively his. What he has is for the good of all and what his brother has is also for his good. Almighty God causes each person to need the other and to have in the other what he does not possess in himself.” Consciousness of individual weaknesses is good for us. “Thus humility is preserved, charity increased, and unity recognized. Therefore each belongs to all and all belongs to each.”
St. Aelred has said it perfectly: the cure for envy is to entirely get out of the comparison game of engineering self-worth. To do this we must find an entirely different foundation for self-worth. We must gladly acknowledge our dependence on and our inferiority to this foundation; we must acknowledge that we cannot and need not deserve it. Through the prophet Isaiah we are given this foundation, “Do not fear, for I am the Lord, your God. I have redeemed you, I have called you by name and you are mine…you are precious in my sight and honored and I love you.” (Is 43:1-4)
It has been said that, “A woman has two smiles that an angel might envy: the smile that accepts a lover before words are uttered; and the smile that lights on a newborn baby and assures it of a mother’s love.”
Jesus tells us today that we all need that kind of love, and we all have it.
Twenty-Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time
[Scripture Readings: Amos 8:4-7; 1 Tim 2:1-8; Lk 16:1-13]
Today’s gospel calls us to be as clever and resourceful about our spiritual life as we are about our financial and material life. Our spiritual life informs and energizes our moral life. It calls us to be as creative about our spiritual life as we are about our technology; to have as much confidence in God as we have in a surgeon; to put as much confidence in the Church’s moral teaching as we put in psychiatry’s and Hollywood’s portrayals of morality. Actually, it calls us to give more confidence and attention to spiritual life and its sources of nourishment. We cannot serve both God and wealth. It calls us to decide what matters most. Like the steward, in the midst of crisis it is time to take a stand.
The concluding verse of today’s gospel is a proverb that has guided Christians to take a stand for over two thousand years. “No one can serve two masters.” This wisdom forms one of the most fundamental life principles of all Christians: the end of life is union with God and the means of reaching it is an undivided love. For the monk this means is our goal: purity of heart.
Love is a power because God is love and He is power. This power of love has been given to us. Wisdom is also a power given to us by God on the condition that we seek it. If we seek wisdom we will likely fulfill its basic requirement that we not only know the truth, but that we take it seriously…that we live it. The truth we are called to take seriously is the first and greatest commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.” So, to “serve two masters” to divide our love—and thus our source of happiness—is a problem for this reason: every power dispersed among many things becomes less. As a result, the personality becomes fragmented. The powers we are commanded to use—heart, soul, mind, and strength—gather our interior life. They unite our mind, our sense of meaning, and our freedom in determining how we will live.
When I was a young student in Iowa City in the Sixties, we used to say that “so-and-so (usually me!) needs to get it together.” We—or at least I— know then what “it” was that needed to be gotten together. It was the power of love. Again, every power dispersed among many things becomes less. When a power is applied intensely to one thing it is less dispersed. We “get it together.” We organize our lives around what we love. This is the example set by Jesus Christ. Every aspiring monastic knows that and devotes his life to imitating it. The word “monk” (freely translated) means “One Thing”. When Jesus tells us, then, that no one can serve two masters, He is calling us to take a stand. As a result, we become integrated, grounded, and secure.
Security is an effect of loving One Thing. The challenge to every new monk is to entrust himself entirely to One Thing and there to find his security. St. Benedict knew that the way to do that was the virtue of humility. G.K. Chesterton said of the Israelites as they wandered through the desert of Egypt:
they believed themselves rich with an irrevocable benediction which set them above the stars; And immediately they discovered humility. It is always the secure who are humble.”
The community of the humble is freed from the most serious obstacle to moral living: pre-occupation with self. The humble are secure as a result of loving one master. This master, for the Israelites, was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. As a people they chose their future by choosing the past that they would keep. Monks continue that wisdom today.
The focus of the Israelites love was a wise decision because it was guided by one criterion that Jesus invites us to adopt as our own today: He calls us to “love what we can never lack when we love it.”
Twenty-Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time
[Scripture Readings: Wis 2:12, 17-20; James 3:16-4:3; Mk 9:30-37]
Today’s readings strongly and starkly point out the difference I have found between living in a monastery—this monastery—and my previous life in the world. It is the difference between admiration and resentment.
In the first reading from Wisdom we see the essence of resentment: “Let us beset the just one for he is obnoxious to us…” Resentment is the tendency to dismiss, belittle, and degrade positive, higher values that we cannot attain and to belittle and even oppress those who represent them. Thus, it has its origin in a weak will. We all have a weak will about something! Rather than admit limitations, the resentful try to “tame” the admirable and fit it into more familiar and less threatening categories. A great philosopher has written that resentment is the constituent principle of the modern age. That means that it is a culturally typical way of uniting people. Examples of it that I recall include demeaning of moral principles and of parents and societal leaders in sit-coms, the evening news, and late night talk shows.
So I remember participating in this myself during the many years before I entered New Melleray. One of the first things to strike me about monastic life was that this belittling of authority figures—the Rule calls it “murmuring“—was not indulged. The reason, I slowly discovered, was that the Seniors were Admirers. Regardless of individual strengths and weaknesses, all could unite in admiring One Thing. St. Benedict knew that resentment is not the enemy of our desires; it is the enemy of our faith.
The opposite of resentment is admiration. Jean Leclercq has pointed out that monastic theology is a theology of admiration. Our contemplative way of life calls us to ponder the works and presence of God precisely in order to admire him. To admire him is to have our attention captivated, to be in awe, to be astonished. We admire what is greater or better than ourselves. And it is precisely for that reason—that his works and presence are greater than us—that admiration is so very important to our monastic life. It is very central to our separation from the world.
Today’s gospel highlights that. The admiration the disciples have for Jesus is about to be tested. He predicts his passion to prepare them. It will be an occasion for them to become bitter and alienated and to discount everything he has taught and shown them. That they don’t get it is shown by their argument over who will be greatest. Apparently, they feel it is better to be admired, than to admire.
The child is recommended to the disciples as an object of admiration. In the bible the child is a symbol of hope: he has a short past and a long future. Yet, in those times, 60% of children died before age 16; they were accorded no status until they proved themselves by surviving to adulthood. Jesus seems to tell the disciples that if they can admire children in their uncertainty and lowliness, they will be able to stand by him when he undergoes the public humiliation of his passion.
So it is not worldly success and security that are to be admired. Just as Jesus, in the face of adversity, continues to admire the Father, so children readily, easily, and joyfully admire what is greater than them. That admiration has decisive effects on their formation as persons. They seem most easily to admire strength and goodness. As contemplatives, this is what we most admire about God. Strength and goodness are characteristics he most often reveals about himself in scripture.
And Jesus says that what we admire we must imitate. We follow. The seniors were still Admirers because they had become Followers. To make the change from Admirer to Follower we must confront the fear we experience when our weakness meets greatness. A theology of Admiration is a lived theology that is born of prayer and humility. It is born of prayer because that is how we attend to what attracts our admiration and attending to God gives us access to the gifts of the Holy Spirit that enables us to live lives of virtue, lives ordered to Him as our true end.
It is born of humility because we only pray to what is totally Other than ourselves. God is totally Other because of His power and his goodness. Indeed, the very first and foundational step of humility is admiration. The rest of the steps make us followers in his goodness and open us to his power to do so. We let ourselves be positively affected by our betters. As a novice, the only smart thing I did was to admire and imitate the seniors. Like children, we strive to be what we admire.
Today’s gospel warns us of two temptations to resentment: one is adversities that happen to us; the other is our own moral failings. In the face of both, Jesus calls us to continued admiration of the Father and his way of life. That admiration changes to following when we take up our cross. It is then that we worship. What we admire, we reverence. What we reverence, we prefer to self. What we worship, we prefer to everything.
Twenty-Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time
[Scripture Readings: Is 55:6-9; Phil 1:20c-27; Mt 20:1-16a]
Popular opinion has it that our governments’ relief effort on behalf of the victims of “Katrina” was a big flop; a failure of truly gigantic proportions.
I don’t knowto me, it looked like most other human rescue missions. So often we see people in trouble and, we mean to help; we think we’re helping and, in the end, they didn’t think we were much help. The problem seems to be, our human perspective on things is so limited, that when we attempt to rescue others, we often end up just proving to everyone how shortsighted we really are. We are sure those people caught in Katrina’s path are “victims”. But what if we discovered at the end of the day that these “victims” had actually made out better than all the rest of us?
In this morning’s gospel there is featured a group of men down on their luck, who have been standing all day long in the market place and can’t get work. They look like victims. We pray for people like this in our intercessions at mass on Sunday, and so we should, but not with the idea that their well-being depends upon us. That would be presumptuous on our part, and besides, we might just get a surprise at the end of the day when we discover that these poor men we’ve been praying for made out better than we did: they got hired at 5’oclock, and, at the end of the day were paid the same amount that we were paid for working many long hours in the hot sun. How would we feel then? Would we still be praying for the unemployed at mass next Sunday? Or would we pray instead for those who work long hours in the hot sun and are denied a just wage?
Most of us can identify with the workers in the vineyard who are angry that their disadvantaged brothers somehow made out better than they did at the end of the day. Who is this “owner of the vineyard“? Where does he get off lumping everyone together and paying them all the same regardless of how many hours they worked? We feel a little annoyed at God at the end of this parablethe way some of us felt annoyed at God at the end of last weekbecause of certain developments following hurricane “Katrina”.
It was a strange week. You know, when you stop and think about it, those thousands of poor black people in New Orleans didn’t exist for most of us before Katrina struck. We didn’t even know they were there. In a way, they were victims already; victims of our obliviousness and complacency; victims of social structures that tend to make certain people invisible. But all of that was of very little interest to us. And then, one day, a hurricane appeared on the horizon, and the hurricane interested us. It was a really, really big one. So we all turned on our TV sets to watch, and were a little surprised to find all these poor black people in front of the cameras; homeless black people in front of us every time we turned on the TV. A few days earlier they didn’t exist for us, and then suddenly, there they were, and they seemed to have amazingly big voices! They began to say the Bush administration lacked compassion and this was published as headline news all over the country; their comments shaping and redirecting political debate all over the nation. A month ago, these poor blacks might have expressed the opinion that Iowa is racist, and nobody would have heard a sound. Last week, a few of them said this, and it was broadcast all over the country.
These hurricane survivors have become rather powerful, influential people, have you noticed? How did that happen? Aren’t they called “victims”? Why are we starting to feel threatened? Was it not we, the powerful, who rescued them; sent food and medical supplies and John Deere tractors; donated hundreds of thousands of dollars of our own money to the relief effort? How did those poor blacks become so powerful? How come we don’t get to express our opinions on the six o’clock news? Why aren’t TV reporters asking us what we think about the way black people in New Orleans talk about us, whose remarks after all might betray a teeny bit of prejudice on their part. How come we don’t get to be on TV?
Is the whole situation beginning to make you little angry? Who are you angry at? At those homeless black people? Do you feel like saying to them: “Listenif you going to be called ‘the poor’then, be poor. You’re supposed to be downtrodden, so stop hogging the camera; stop setting the national agenda and making life difficult for our poor president.” Perhaps we’re feeling a little angry at God. It’s all very well for God to compensate the victims of a hurricane, but is he compensating these particular victims a little lavishly? Maybe we’re angry with God because at moments He begins to look like some flakey liberal who lumps everyone together as if everybody wereequal. Could it be we are feeling envious because God, at the moment, is showing a certain generosity toward these hurricane victims? Or are we just a little confused and wondering what the heck is going on?
Brothers and sisters I’ll tell you what I think is going on: I think, we are watching the gathering. The great gathering has begun; the realization of what has been the content of Christian preaching for 2000 years. Our Heavenly Father’s loving embrace; bigger than Katrina; bigger than the whole universe is closing around us, compensating everyone equally with a love beyond measureeveryone: rich and poor, whites and blacks, Republicans and Democrats; each and every one loved infinitely beyond his deserts, as a member of God’s one dear family. For an uncomfortable moment it may seem like the first have been put last and the last put first, but all such comparisons belong to this worldwhich is passing away. In the Kingdom that God is establishing, everyone is in first place, because Love Himself is winning the race for us. God’s love with the force of a hurricane is closing around us, bringing us back to ourselves and to each other.
Twenty-Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time
[Scripture Readings: Am 8:4-7; 1 Tm 2:1-8 Lk 16:1-13]
Today’s Gospel urges us to imitate the example of a scoundrel. This is a story about a clever rascal who lived by dealing unjustly, taking huge commissions from his master’s indebted renters, and wasting his master’s wealth. There are no calluses on his hands from earning a living by his own labor. Nor will he go begging, because he is a slave of unrighteous mammon, wealth acquired by dishonest gain. We aren’t told how this sly deceiver was wasting his master’s property, whether by negligence or swindling, incompetence or self-serving dealings. But one day his wasteful ways were uncovered and the master gave him notice of dismissal. The unjust steward is an example for Christian disciples not because he squandered property, but because he acted wisely in providing for his future in a time of crisis.
There is more to this story, however, than a lesson in prudence. We will understand it better by seeing the story within the context of the rest of Luke’s gospel. Picture Jesus walking with his twelve disciples along the long dusty road from upper Galilee to Judea. He has set his face to go to Jerusalem where he will be crucified. St. Luke, who was a fellow missionary with St. Paul, devotes over forty of his gospel, from the middle of chapter 9 to the middle of chapter 19, to tell the story of this long final journey of Jesus. Today’s parable is part of that journey. Luke presents Jesus preparing his disciples for missionary work after his death, resurrection, and ascension. This journey section is a missionary catechesis not only for the apostles, but for all of us because the Church is missionary by its very nature. Part of the Church’s mission is to teach us how to provide for our futures.
As Jesus walks with the apostles along the narrow road he keeps warning them about the danger of riches. They are to take no purse, no bag, no sandals. He tells them the parable of the rich farmer who had more than he needed, so he built bigger barns rather than share his surplus with the needy. The farmer provided for his future by laying up treasure for himself but he was not rich toward God. This is a great paradox: we acquire heavenly riches by giving away earthly riches. Jesus said: “Give alms, and so provide purses for yourselves that hold treasure in heaven.” Today’s parable of the unjust steward who was caught squandering his master’s property immediately follows the story of the prodigal son who squandered his father’s property. The prodigal provides for his future by returning to his father’s house with sincere repentance, and the steward provides for his future by doing good to others even though he does it for a self-serving motive. The Lord commends him for his prudence and the good he did, and urges us to do the same so that we will be welcomed into the eternal dwelling places. Jewish rabbis have a saying: “The rich help the poor in this world and the poor help the rich in the next world.”
In this journey section as Jesus draws closer to Jerusalem, he goes on to tell yet another parable about the corrupting power of riches. It is the story of a rich man who gave nothing to the poor man, Lazarus, who was lying at his door. The futures of these two men turn out very differently. Before Jesus reaches Jerusalem he counsels another rich man to sell all he has, give to the poor, and follow him, and he will have treasure in heaven. But the man went away sad for he was very rich. He was enslaved to his wealth.
Among the twelve apostles walking along the road with Jesus there was a scoundrel, an unjust steward, who did not take to heart Jesus’ warnings about the danger of riches. He was untrustworthy in a small matter. It was Judas Iscariot who used to take what was in the money box entrusted to him, for he was a thief. If he ever asked himself, “What shall I do?” he failed to act with the wisdom of the unjust steward, because Judas went right on being a thief in small matters, until the day he betrayed Christ for 30 pieces of silver.
The Word of God helps us to understand ourselves. Today’s story about the danger of riches is more than a parable, it is an allegory. The rich man is our heavenly Father, for who is richer than God? The steward represents each of us, for we have to render an account of our use of this world’s goods. Just as the steward wasted his master’s property so we have acted unjustly and without charity at times. What shall we do to provide for our future? The prophet Amos warns us not to ignore the needy and the poor. The prophet Micah encourages us to act justly and to love tenderly.
First: act justly, use riches justly: without greed or theft, embezzlement or shoplifting, vandalism or extortion, fraud or hoarding, not withholding a fair wage from employees or wasting an employer’s goods.
Second: love tenderly, use riches with charity: give alms, live in simplicity of life, share wealth, care for others, give not just out of superfluity but out of the substance of our goods. For if we are faithful in small matters, and all of this world’s wealth is small compared to our divine inheritance, then we will be received into everlasting homes where we will share in God’s own nature. In this liturgy of the Word Jesus asks: “What will you do?” And at the table of this Eucharist he offers us the strength to act justly, to love tenderly, and to walk humbly with our God on the journey to the heavenly Jerusalem.