Dealing with Wealth

Luke12v13to21_2013Money.

Some call it the root of all evil, parroting the bible verse. Some see it as the means to accomplish great things of value to all mankind. There is every position in between.

The first reading today from Ecclesiastes is the dilemma I often see for the atheist. Life is harsh. Life is all about working. And in the end, it is all for naught. One ends up leaving their property to people who don’t deserve it. What is the point? The writer of Ecclesiastes seems like someone in deep depression.

Paul, in Colossians points out that greed is one of those nasty “earthly” evils that we must turn from in our quest to live in the heavenly realm.

And Jesus reminds us that greed leads us to focus on that which at a moments notice can be taken from us. For it will do us no good in the end.

As the old saying goes, you can’t take it with you.

So how do we relate to wealth?

Jesus points to the answer surely in suggesting that hoarding wealth will not serve us at all. Yet much of what we do is just that. We think it’s good business to plow back profits “into the business”, growing it even larger. We are all concerned with the “bottom line”. We want to read our balance sheets as improving each and every year. We want that bank balance to grow.

Not all of this is bad of course. As much as we do know that our lives can be forfeit mere moments from now, we are obligated as good citizens and good family members to take care of ourselves in our older years. We invest, save, and plan for the days when we are not going to earn a salary any more.

Yet how much is too much?

Jesus’ parable is not just to suggest that greed is bad. He also speaks to what we do with our money. The rich farmer, rather than save up his grain to enhance his own wealth and perchance sell it at exorbitant rates in lean years?, should, after providing for the lean, offer the rest to those less fortunate.

Spread the wealth. Jesus asks, if something happens to you tonight, to whom will your wealth belong? A good question that takes us back to Qoheleth who moans that it will end up going to those who have not worked for it.

A ran into an interesting quote from Bill Gates, Sr., from something he wrote in Sojourners Magazine:

Society’s claim on individual accumulated wealth is … rooted in the recognition of society’s direct and indirect investment in the individual’s success. In other words, we didn’t get there on our own” (Jan-Feb, 2003)

In other words, it is the height of arrogance to make the claim that “I’m a rugged individual” and “I got where I am by hard work.” Surely these things may be true but they are hardly the entire story. People have died for your ability to set up a business and operate it in a manner that brings individual wealth. People have paid taxes so that you could enjoy free schooling. People have toiled in your factories because of their own pride in a job done well. People have protected your inventory because others raised them to be honest and fair.

Nobody gets there on their own.

Another point Jesus seems to make is that the uncertainty of our future should lead us to another thought.

We often put off charitable efforts until we “have more time.” We put off our families because the business needs our full attention. How many marriages suffer from the parent or parents who are too busy to get home for dinner or attend the soccer game? How many of us are too tired on Sunday to get dressed and attend our church? How many say we will get to mediation, that spiritual book, soon but just not now when we are so busy with LIFE?

What excuse will we use when the time comes and we may be asked to explain why we couldn’t be there for a friend in need, or spend that time in prayer? Will we say, “Gosh Lord, here are the numbers of my accounts. The money is all yours!”

The vanity is not the work. The vanity is not the desire for a nice home or a comfortable retirement.

The vanity is losing sight of all that is just as important, and that is not something to be put off until tomorrow, because that is a profound vanity. The vanity of thinking that we are in control. If we can see that God is in control, then we can order our lives accordingly.  We can prioritize more effectively when we step aside and get out of the way of our egos and recognize who is our guide and boss.

Wealth, work, and planning then fall into perspective. They are service to the kingdom, and nothing more. We work and accumulate to achieve much greater goods than our own small visions. We position ourselves to be of service in whatever manner is presented to us by a loving God.

Amen.

 

Striving to Be One Body

seastarsWe know that Paul did not know Jesus in the flesh. He tells us that, and informs us that he has not received the Gospel from other sources, oral traditions or some writing, but has in fact been privileged to receive the Gospel firsthand as revelation from Christ.

Paul, it seems, takes this knowledge with great respect, and from time to time, he clearly points out when he is talking from his own conclusions, and when he is speaking directly from what he received.

In 1 Cor 12: 12-30, we receive from Paul no sense that his conclusions about the body of Christ are his own ideas. Rather his instruction is clear and precise. We are all of the body, and whatever part we have in the body, we are a necessary part of that whole, and but for us, there can be no wholeness. All parts are of equal value, even though some parts garner more attention than others. All gifts of the Spirit are essential to the full and complete functioning of the organism.

Speaking to the Corinthians, these words must have made much sense, for everyone knows that a body missing a foot or the ability to hear, or a hand or an eye, is dysfunctional to one degree or another. Paul’s larger point, that Jew or Gentile, slave or free, man or woman, we are all part of the essential whole, was no doubt more difficult to digest. . Speaking to either Jews whom he wished to convert to the new movement, or to Gentiles, whom he wished to reassure, Paul’s words (or Jesus’ words if we may be so bold) ring right and true to us today.

We wonder how it was in  Colonial America that these words did not strike deep at the heart of the slave owner, or the Puritan who was all too quick to dismiss as wicked the Catholic or the Quaker. We wonder how they missed the obvious, that ALL are necessary to the proper functioning of the good body.

Surely they themselves, Puritans especially, were most familiar with being shunned for their unfit beliefs and practices? Surely they saw themselves in the stead of slaves or Gentiles whom Paul welcomed as equally important members of the new community of Christ.

Yet, of course, they most certainly did not see the larger point Paul makes, nor do they realize that to the Gentiles of Corinth, the majority no doubt of that city, they were being asked to sit side by side with slaves or former slaves as equals. Were they not being asked to see something so much bigger than we might today? Today, we say, well of course, EVERYBODY knows that there is no rightful distinction between people!

Yet, there is though we are loathe to admit it. We separate people into groups of us and them, every single day. Paul’s listeners were being asked to stretch their minds around a larger concept, a concept that is most obvious to us today.

Yet, we believe that one of the strengths of scripture, is that however you envision it, whether as the actual perfect word of God, or as the inspired word of God, or as the honest, truthful, and thoughtful beliefs inspired by the Spirit of otherwise fallible humans, one of the things we revere most about scripture is its timelessness. Wisdom literature is noted for its ability to inspire us hundreds and thousands of years after the fact, in new and very different circumstances.

We read scripture asking it to speak to us today, in our lives, in our society.

And if we apply that to Paul’s remarks in Corinthians, are we not being asked to stretch ourselves out of our comfort zone as well?

What is the body? If we believe that our God is the God of all peoples in all places, in all circumstances, then the faith tradition is not important, and the social mores are not important, nor the various orientations of our peoples are not important. Atheists, and Muslims, Sikhs, and Transgenders, Native Earth Religions and Pagan belief systems, are not ours to reject, for they too are part of the body, and necessarily part of a well-functioning one. If there is to be rejection, it is far beyond our poor efforts to comprehend, and far beyond our choices to judge.

Is that not the horizon we are asked today to seek? To see all people as God’s people, with gifts to offer us and each other, with each giving an essential something that is necessary if we are to be complete. This is not about actions that are harmful to others–we intuitively realize that we must reject actual harm offered by anyone to others. We are talking about who people ARE as beings.

We reject people for being “different” or for not following the social mores that we deem appropriate at our peril. For we are talking about excising a portion of the body. We are choosing to be less than fully human in our humanness, and in that, we are making the  body dysfunctional.

Paul calls us to consider again the Body before we reject those who seem for whatever reason, different, alien, or wrong-thinking.

Amen.

What Did Jesus Mean?

Well, you can imagine the fun I had today at Mass. Given the conservative bent of my parish, I was treated to a thinly veiled reminder of what “true marriage” amounts to rather than that “thing” which is nothing more than the whims of the day, to be replaced no doubt by something else tomorrow.

Following that I got the old “marriage is forever” and the appropriate readings of today which “prove” that. We ended with a reminder that nothing could be finer than a trip through natural family planning which is a-okay with God, while contraception leads to abortion and promiscuity.

Let me straighten out this mess if I can.

First it might be useful to understand the history going on here. (Mk 10: 2-16)

In Jewish law, in the time of Jesus, marriages were not entered into voluntarily by men and wome. They were arranged by a set of parents who put forth their child and as did the family of the other child. The resultant “marriage”  was a union of whole families, not the two actual children. These chosen “spouses” were considered to be God’s choice through the parents. Since these families ere now bound together, no PERSON had the right to separate the internal union.

But the people were unable to abide by this law, so through Moses, God allowed divorce. However it was only the man who had the right, and he had the right to divorce his wife for ANY reason whatsoever. This worked, as you might expect great hardship upon women who might be turned out for simply not being good-looking, or not  being a good cook, and very often for not being sufficiently fertile.

Jesus first rectifies the inequality of divorce by saying that men have no more right to summarily dismiss a spouse, and further than either spouse who initiates divorce and marries again is committing adultery. This was contrary to the social world of the time, where no woman could, by definition, shame another woman.   Jesus equalizes this and moreover, makes brings shame upon the man who “commits adultery” which  thereby brings shame to his entire male family.

Since this shaming would lead to feuding and often bloodshed, divorce must be avoided at all costs. They were simply too devastating to the families and the small communities involved.

Jesus did not speak to the issue of marriage when it breaks down or where divorce is desired by both parties.  Today,  people make their own choices, often at young ages and without due thought. Marriages don’t involve the larger families either in today’s world, where families are often spread out over many states and sometimes countries.

When we read these passages, who should be sure to remember that they are joined to the act of creation (in Genesis) whereby God made it clear that he wanted his creation to experience an openness and closeness that required a similarity of being. Adam could not relate in that intimate way with the creatures that God created for him to name and care for. A creature of similarity (woman) was created that Adam might share that sense of open-hearted intimacy that he could not enjoy with any of the other creatures.

Similarly, Jesus reminds us that Moses allowance of divorce was the result of a hardness of heart that the people evidenced. Jesus thus calls us to relationships that bring about that openness of heart envisioned by God’s creation.  Jesus speaks to the misuse of power rather than to the denial of divorce in our time.

In addition, I would argue that Genesis should not be read as some definition of marriage as between a man and a woman only but rather that it acknowledges that human relationships of mutual openness are what are desired by God.

It is especially painful as I stated last Sunday to see folks who avoid communion out of a belief that they are unworthy based on current Catholic teachings on these subjects. I am left with the wonderful words of John Kavanaugh S.J. who stated:

We Catholics have our liturgies, our communions, our Eucharists. Some of us attending are divorced and remarried and place it all before God, not knowing really whether we have put asunder what God had once joined in us. Some have annulments, a human judgment offered only after long analysis and painful remembrance. Some of us weep in the back, not approaching the altar of union. Some trust God and abstain. Some trust God and partake.

Few, thank God, judge. For no matter what our rightful relationship to our church, its laws and traditions, we all pray in an assembly of believers who are sinners; and, most assuredly, we all stand before our good and great God as children.

Amen

**I am deeply indebted to the remarks of Joyce Ann Zimmerman, John Kavanaugh S.J., and John J. Pilch in The Sunday Liturgy of St. Louis University. My remarks reflect my understanding of their thoughts and reflections.

Love or Sin

 

 

Since I insist on talking about politics and religion all the time, I get a fair amount of blow back. From the religious Right, it generally takes the form of reminding me that “real” Christians  like themselves are warned in scripture “about people like me.”

Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets have gone out into the world. (1Jn 4: 1-6)

I often laugh at this, for I of course would often be of a mind to recite the same or similar verses as to them if I were of such a mind.

For truly I am of the opinion that many on the right say a good deal that is false and not “of the spirit.”

As I listened to James 2: 1-5 this morning, I heard reference to this, though I admit it is not what people usually think of when they read or hear it.

My brothers and sisters, show no partiality
as you adhere to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ.
For if a man with gold rings and fine clothes
comes into your assembly,
and a poor person in shabby clothes also comes in,
and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes
and say, “Sit here, please, ”
while you say to the poor one, “Stand there, ” or “Sit at my feet, ”
have you not made distinctions among yourselves
and become judges with evil designs?

Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters.
Did not God choose those who are poor in the world
to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom
that he promised to those who love him?

There are plenty of teachings in scripture which deal with the dangers of wealth and more so the dangers of paying too much homage to it. We are, contrary to the Republican Party’s claims against the Democrats, not a people who begrudge the wealthy their riches, we are more likely to be star-struck by those who live “above” us.

But as I said, I saw something different here. The one with golden rings and fine clothing, I would suggest, may be the one with the flowery language who encourages us to believe the snake oil he or she is selling. Such a person may tell us things that make us feel good, and I would argue, often have ready-made excuses for why your life isn’t what you wish it were.

Beware, my beloved of those who remove your own burden of responsibility by attempting to shift it to someone one (ones) else, whom you can blame. And beware all the more when those “others” are declared to be wanting in faith and God’s grace.

I would argue that those speakers are most assuredly the false prophets.

How often has it been that the poorest, most ill-educated often has the greatest wisdom? How often do we hear words that thrill us to the heart from people of very different faiths. Who does not nod in agreement at the words that come from say a Thich Nhat Hanh? Or a Dalai Lama?

Jesus, you remember was the poorest of itinerant preachers. He spoke about things that were definitely not kosher if you will, when it comes to the standard Jewish teaching.  That is why so many who were learned and “cultured” dismissed him as some radical troublemaker. He didn’t preach against the Pharisees so much as he admonished them to their faces when they attacked him with their sly questions. To his sheep, he told them the simple lessons of God’s love and how they could enter the kingdom.

Throughout the scriptures we are advised to avoid those who hearts are not on God, but who claim they speak for God.

The trouble is, it is very hard for any of us mere mortals to know who is and who is not teaching falsely. Some think it easy, but that is only because they are blinded by their own arrogance. You see, they think that there is but one interpretation of scripture, and they surely have it. Thus when someone sees it different–bingo you have identified a false teacher.

Of course, most of us can see the fallacy in such reasoning and such judgment. Most of us know that the ineffable is well, to a great extent unknowable by us. We do our best to understand, but as Augustine often said, most of what we decide is true about God is probably not.

I know of only one guiding principle, and it is I admit based nearly entirely upon my own theological beliefs. I believe that God is love, pure and simple and that all that God is is a constant reaffirmation of that fact and an attempt to bring it forth in the world through us, his creation. Anything that separates any of us from God, is in my mind, not from God. Any who preach this, who preach that some are “others” and must conform to their way of thinking in order to be saved, is probably speaking from ego rather than grace.

Is the message Love or Sin? Sin, it seems to me, is in the act of keeping God’s children from God and from each other.

But that is my opinion.

Reach for love my friend and God be with you.

Amen

 

Who Will Answer?

One of the fun things about belonging to a liturgical church is that one can try to figure out why the particular readings each day and Sunday were placed together. Sometimes it’s easy, other times, it’s really hard to figure.

I puzzled about today’s readings:

 Isa 49: 3, 5-6
1Cor 1: 1-3
Jn 1:29-34

 The first reading is commonly called the Second Song of the Servant. The reading from Paul letters is simply an introduction and greeting, and the gospel reading from John refers to the Baptist’s recognition that Jesus is indeed to “one who is to come.”

The story of the Baptist is well-known, and frankly it is in some contradiction to the other accounts, especially as to the circumstances of Jesus’ baptism and John’s recognition of Him as the Chosen One. But exegesis is not the point here. As always, we believe that the Scriptures are alive and speak to us in every generation. Therefore, we contemplate what these passages mean to us today.

The key is in the Gospel. John is very clear that his purpose is to proclaim the coming of the Chosen One. He is to prepare people for that time. And John spends his adult life doing just that, and he relates that this command from God was true, for indeed he met the Chosen One, and as God said, the Spirit came down upon him. We may trust  John.

In Isaiah, the Servant is Israel, the ideal spokesperson. Israel will be the “light to the nations” so that “salvation can reach the ends of the earth.” In other words, Israel is called to preach, and teach all nations, everyone about this God, this one and only One God.

Paul speaks as a preacher, called by God to be apostle to the world, but as he realizes, most especially to the Gentiles. Yet Paul points out in this short introduction to the Corinthians, that these “new” holy people in God, are to “take their place among all the saints” for Jesus is “their Lord no less than ours.”

What does all this mean? I see it as a message to us all, that we, the people of God are a priesthood, called to be witness to the Truth. As John was witness, as Israel was called to be witness, as Paul was, and as he calls the Corinthians to be. Witness to the message of Jesus.

And exactly how do we do this? Ah, the rub.

Some of course spend years in seminary, and college classroom learning the intricacies of scripture. They learn Hebrew and Koine Greek, they study under theologians and biblical experts who have spent a lifetime studying the texts from various means and ways.

Thus, we can teach by teaching the historical truths of Scriptures, we can explain how the Bible was put together, when each writing was written, by whom, (if known), for what purpose. We can put things in context, and give deeper meaning to the literal words.

Others study for the purpose of leading congregations and attending to the spiritual needs of the people of God. Surely they attempt to explain scripture, but the primary focus is perhaps to “bring it home” –what it means for us today, in our ordinary mundane and often painful lives.

Others are simply gifted, and without much formal education in the niceties of exegetics or pastoral care, seem to have a flair for it. They perhaps read widely on their own, but they intuitively seem to “get” the message of love and compassion, of care and support, and can translate everything through that lens.

Some perhaps think that scriptures are simple of reading and understanding and perhaps do more harm than good with their unknowing but self-serving analysis.

But we need not all “preach” by words. We do not all need pulpits or soap boxes. Most of us can witness in an arguably better and easier way.

Easier? Well perhaps not easier. Perhaps it’s the hardest way of all.

It is by living our lives in ways that make people sit up and take notice.

“What makes Mary or Joan  or Eddy so happy? What makes them so serene? What makes them so helpful and calm in every trouble? The first to volunteer, the first to be at bedside, the first to lend a sympathetic ear.”

People seek out such people and gravitate to their world. They seek to learn the secrets to their life. They see that such people suffer setbacks and heartache fully as much as everyone else, yet they  rise ever up, peaceful and ready to move on.

This is hard work, make no mistake. For the internal work required to be Christ like is no small thing. Few are highly successful, many are quite successful. Yet, I think that such people stand as the greatest “witness” to God’s love and grace than a bushel full of preachers ever can.

We are called to embody our God. We are called to witness.

This is what I found in scripture today. How about you?

The Unbelief of the Baptist

As an amateur biblical scholar, I know that you aren’t ever to conflate the various Gospels for a “whole” picture. Yet, as a believer, one does end up trying to reconcile that which appears to be in conflict.

Thus, I have always wondered about John the Baptist. We are told that his sensitivity to the Messiah was so strong that he “left in his mother’s womb” when he sensed Jesus in the womb of his mother Mary. (Luke 1: 39-45)

We are told in Mark that after baptizing Jesus, he was presumably present to see the “heavens torn apart” and a “Spirit like a dove descending upon him.” (Mark 1:9-11) In Matthew, John protests that it is Jesus who should be baptizing him. (Mt 3: 13-17)

But in Matthew, (11:2-11) our gospel for today, we learn a curious thing: John sends his disciples to inquire of Jesus if in fact he was the Messiah, the chosen one. Jesus lauds John, calling him the highest of all the prophets and then says, “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

This all is quite confusing to me. How could John ever doubt that Jesus was the One when he leapt for joy in Elizabeth’s womb when Jesus appeared still unborn?  Why would he, after hearing of the healings Jesus had done, still doubt? When he saw the heavens rent, and saw the dove descend?

The message, I think should give us all much hope. For we doubt too. We all do. We must. For we cannot and do not KNOW. That is why we have faith. We BELIEVE.

John undoubtedly was aware that Jesus’ so-called miracles were not such things. In fact Mark never calls them miracles at all. Such actions, were not in that day, so fantastic as to be declared miracles. People in that time lived closer shall we say to the dividing line between seen and unseen. All things were from God, so what can be miraculous.

Still, Jesus’ healings were wondrous, and people exclaimed about them, and they can to him to be healed. That did not make him, however, the Messiah necessarily.

Still, we return to that leaping in the womb and we must conclude that John must have seen that as unusual, and predictive. He spoke during his ministry of “one coming after me” one he was “unworthy to untie the sandals of.”

This was a bigger statement than I realized. Rabbis were heard to claim that their disciples owed them every thing, except to untie their sandals. That was taking discipleship too far. Yet John, not only claims that this was not too much to ask from the Anointed One, but that he was unworthy to the task.

Yet John struggled with faith. Imprisoned, he questioned his own eyes and ears, his own instincts.

We, you and me, we who are “modern” have generally speaking no event to recall, of tearing heavens and doves descending. We, most of us, have no shuddering certainty that we are in the presence of something beyond mere human making. Is it any wonder we fail in faith?

And thus we can have hope that our failings will be forgiven, for John’s surely was. Jesus acclaims him the greatest of all the prophets. He is Elijah, and more. And with all that, Jesus can still acknowledge with generosity and tenderness, that even with all that, John is the least of those in the kingdom.

For, Jesus has told us as well, that children come to him with perfect faith. They are prepared to believe in what they cannot see or know. They are willing to suspend human questions, the ones I struggle with. They don’t ask to understand. They simply believe.

And Jesus tells us that if we can come to him in that way, then our faith is perfect. And that will place us before John. Blessed are they who have not heard or seen, but still believe.  Blessed is the centurion, who is a pagan, yet believes with perfect faith that Jesus can heal. These are our role models, the ones that Jesus reminds us to look to as we journey to God.

**

I am indebted to The Word Among Us, December 12, and Mark: A Theological Commentary on the Bible, by William C. Placher (which I will be reviewing here in a few days), for some of the insights here.

%d bloggers like this: