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(Sunday Homily) The Parable of the Talents: Pope Francis as Drop-Out vs. Paul Ryan as Inside Investor

Pope & Rush

Readings for 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: PRV 31: 10-13, 19-20, 30-31, PS 128: 1-5; I THES 5: 1-8; MT 25: 14-30.

Today’s gospel story, the familiar “Parable of the Talents,” is about economics. It’s about the world of investment and profit-taking without real work. It’s also about dropping out and refusing to cooperate with the dynamics of finance, interest and exploitation of the working class.

The parable contrasts obedient conformists with a counter-cultural rebel. The former invest in an economic system embodied in their boss – “a demanding person harvesting where he did not plant and gathering where he did not scatter.” In other words, the boss is a hard-ass S.O.B. who lives off the work of others. The conformists go along with that system which to them has no acceptable alternative.

Meanwhile, the non-conformist hero of the parable refuses to go along. And he suffers the predictable consequences for doing so. Like Jesus and his mentor, John the Baptist, the non-conformist is marginalized into an exterior darkness which the rich see as bleak and tearful (a place of “weeping and grinding of teeth”). However, Jesus promises that exile from the system represents the very kingdom of God. It is filled with light and joy.

In contemporary terms, today’s gospel selection could hardly be more pertinent. It contrasts two current understandings of the contested terrain that is today’s Christianity. One understanding endorses our polarized economic system where “everyone who has is given more so that they grow rich, while the have-nots are robbed even of what they have.”

That concept is embodied today in a “devout Catholic” like House budget chair, Paul Ryan. The other finds its personification in Pope Francis, the head of the church Ryan’s party has all these years relied on for support.

In sharp contrast to Ryan’s faith in the capitalist system, Pope Francis himself is trying mightily to drop out of it. He’s like the servant in today’s parable who buried his talent in the ground refusing to invest it in a corrupt system that invariably widens the gap between the rich, like Ryan, and the poor the pope is attempting to champion.

A year ago Ryan seemed to recognize the contradiction. Then his first response to the pope’s criticism of capitalism (in the apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel”) was defensive and dismissive. Referring to the pope as “the guy,” he said “The guy is from Argentina, they haven’t had real capitalism in Argentina.” Apparently Ryan meant that the pope doesn’t really understand the joys of the free market which the U.S.-backed generals shoved down Argentinian throats all during their infamous “dirty war” (1976-1983).

Lately though, a chastened Ryan has become more conciliatory. Last month he claimed that he and the pope are really on the same page. “I love this pope,” Ryan now says. “I’m a big fan of this pope. What he’s trying to do is he’s trying to invite lay Catholics into public policy, into a debate. He’s not trying to settle the debate. He’s trying to start the debate.”

More specifically, the congressman now reads the pope to be “down with a free market that means more participation. I think what he’s [against] is crony capitalism … where the powerful pick the winners and losers [and] influencing government gets to decide who wins and who loses in the marketplace.”

In other words, Ryan now holds that he and the pope are both “down with” the congressman’s own resistance to minimum wage increases, with his union-busting, and cuts to social security. All of these are proposed in Ryan’s “Roadmap for America’s Future.”

For his part, Pope Francis couldn’t be clearer about rejecting the elements of Ryan’s “Roadmap.” As recently as October 28th, Francis urged action to secure the basic entitlements the poor deserve. These include rights to land, housing and work as well as to higher wages, unions and social security – all of which are abhorrent to Republicans.

Francis even connected being Catholic with communism. “It’s strange,” the pope said, that “if I talk about this, there are those who think that the Pope is Communist. . . The fact that the love for the poor is in the center of the gospel is misunderstood.” Fighting for the poor, he added, doesn’t make me a communist; it makes me Catholic.

Obviously, the statement suggests significant overlap between Marx’s critique of free market capitalism and the social teachings of the church. The pope’s words certainly don’t sound like a ringing endorsement of the free market.

And how should Catholics express their love for the poor? Clearly not by endorsing the dynamics of the free market Ryan and his real mentor, Ayn Rand, lionize. In the “Joy of the Gospel” (JG) – published a year ago at this time – the pope identifies the unfettered markets so dear to Rand’s and Ryan’s hearts (along with their “trickle-down” ideologies) as homicidal (JG 53), ineffective (54) and unjust at their roots (59). He sees “each and every human right” (including education, health care, and “above all” employment and a just wage (192) as intimately connected with “defense of unborn life” (213).

And it gets worse for Ryan’s position. His party, of course, loves the free trade agreements that are at the heart of the corporate globalization the pope deplores. One wonders how the congressman reconciles his advocacy of, for instance, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with the pope’s words at Cagliari, Sardinia on September 22 of 2013. Then the pope proclaimed, “We don’t want this globalized economic system which does us so much harm.”

These are not the statements of someone merely attempting to start a debate about capitalism as we know it. The debate is settled in the pope’s mind. He has condemned the system. And in doing so, Pope Francis has established himself (along with the Dali Lama) as the foremost moral leader of our time. He alone has the courage to call us away from the worship of Market and Money.

The alternative, he assures us, is not a world of darkness, weeping and grinding of teeth. It is a kingdom of light and joy.

It is time for Jesus’ would-be followers to join that conversation – about getting from here to there in the name of the gospel.

Pope Francis and the Revolutionary Significance of the Lateran Basilica

pope on subway

Yesterday the entire Roman Catholic Church celebrated the feast of the dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome. That’s right Roman Catholics everywhere turned their attention to a seemingly obscure building in Rome. Pastors from every pulpit, I’m sure, took the occasion to urge us all to explore the wonders of the basilica the next time we find ourselves in Rome. (I’ll try to remember that on my next visit to the Holy City.)

But there’s more to the commemoration than we’re led to believe. That’s because the arch-basilica of St. John Lateran (named for both John the Baptist and John the Evangelist) is actually the pope’s parish church. Yes, Pope Francis’ parish church is not St. Peter’s; it’s St. John Lateran. Pastors yesterday, no doubt, told us that too.

They also probably said that St. John Lateran has enjoyed such prominence since the arch-basilica was first built in the early 4th century. Its original site was a gift of the Emperor Constantine who awarded the Lateran Palace to the pope of the time. His name was probably Miltiades. The palace got its own name from the Laterani family, the citadel’s proprietors. They were trusted bureaucrats who faithfully served Roman emperors for many years.

And that’s the point I’d like to make here – the Constantine connection. St. John Lateran offers archeological evidence of the tragic moment in history when the would-be followers of the poor working man, Jesus of Nazareth, sold the soul of the church to the highest bidder. The buyer happened to be the Roman Empire – the very agency responsible for the execution of the one Christians pretend to follow. Constantine paid in the coin of land grants and palaces like the Lateran castle.

Can you spell “co-optation” in its most debilitating form?

The result was the nearly complete corruption of the church. Popes started to act like kings and emperors themselves.

In other words, the Church got into bed with Constantine in 313 (the Edict of Milan). Sadly, it didn’t escape till the second half of the 20th century with the development of liberation theology – which the current pastor of St. John Lateran, Pope Francis, has embraced.

That’s right. The pope has embraced the strain of theology repudiated by his two immediate predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. On this please check out the wonderful article by Newsweek’s Paul Vallely. He published it less than a month ago under the “The Crisis that Changed Pope Francis.”

The pope’s conversion is mirrored in his apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel,” published last year at this time. The document calls for a “new chapter” in the history of the Catholic Church and for the church to embark on a “new path” (Joy of the Gospel 1, 25). On this new path, the pope says, things cannot be left as they presently are (25). Instead they must include new ways of relating to God according to new narratives and new paradigms (74) – including new customs, ways of doing things, times, schedules and language (27), and with emphasis on better prepared and delivered homilies (135-159). According to the pope the roles of women must be expanded, since women are generally more sensitive, intuitive, and otherwise skilled than men (103, 104).

All of this the pope said quite clearly. And he called for the laity to take the reins.

As far as I can see, NOTHING at the parish level has changed since last November.

As lay people called by Francis to exercise our power, what should we do about that?

The feast of the dedication of the pope’s parish church is a good occasion for answering that question.

(Sunday Homily) Why Do They Hate Us? Jesus’ “9/11 Assault” on the Temple

Hate Us

Readings for the Feast of the Dedication of the Lateran Basilica in Rome: EZ 47: 1-2, 8-9, 12; I COR 3: 9c-11, 16-17; JN 2: 13-22.

On Thursday, September 20th 2001, President George W. Bush addressed the nation and a joint session of Congress following the horrendous attacks of September 11th. He explained the tragedy in the following words:

“Americans are asking ‘Why do they hate us?’ They hate what they see right here in this chamber: a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms: our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.”

Surprisingly, that explanation stood without contradiction. And it did so with virtually none of our political or thought leaders in the mainstream questioning its validity. Not even our poets or religious leaders who should be sensitized to reading symbol found voices strong enough to redirect the response so everyone could hear.

Why do they hate us?

The answer should have been: Look at the targets and their symbolism. They were carefully chosen – the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and (probably) the White House. The targets said: they hate our unjust economic system which since the fall of the Ottoman Empire has oppressed the poor of the Islamic world and robbed them of their resources. They hate our military that enforces the system’s injustice even to the point of blasphemously stationing goyim troops near the holy sites of Mecca and Medina. Above all, they hate the political system that cooperates unquestioningly with Israel in its oppression of Palestinians and whose sanctions against Saddam Hussein killed more than half a million Iraqi children without remorse.

Hence the targets – the center of world trade, of military planning, and of anti-Muslim political conspiracy.

The religious and political leaders of Jesus’ day also probably wondered about the origin of his apparent hate for them and their religion. Why would a good Jew symbolically “raze” the temple and predict with apparent prophetic delight its actual destruction? “Why does he hate us?” I’m sure they wondered.

The answer: consider the temple’s symbolism and the violence of Jesus’ attack.

First of all the symbolism . . .

All of today’s readings describe the temple’s intended meaning. For Ezekiel, the temple is the very source of life. It’s as though all the earth’s life-giving waters flowed from it, so that “every sort of living creature can multiply and live” including sea creatures, fruit trees and health-giving medicinal plants. Today’s psalm responsorial calls the temple the very home of God who is the refuge of his favorites – the widows, orphans, and undocumented aliens. In today’s second reading, Paul says the temple represents what human beings should actually be – the very home of God’s Holy Spirit of love and compassion.

All of that Jesus found contradicted by the sociopolitical reality of his day. Here’s what he saw and wanted “cleansed”:

Economically, the temple had become the principal “means of production” in all of Palestine. Its reconstruction and renovation had begun 46 years before under Herod the Great. It continued until 63 CE – just seven years before the Romans finally razed it to the ground. You can imagine then the day laborers, brick layers, stone masons, and artists employed in that very long process. As a public work, the rebuilding of the temple stimulated the Jewish economy.

While that wasn’t bad in itself, the temple primarily served the interests of the elite. It was the banking center of Jerusalem. To it flowed the taxes and tithes from all over the Jewish world – the equivalent of billions of dollars. So it represented the corruption that always accompanies great wealth. The temple’s overseers were infamously avaricious. Even the conservative Jewish historian Josephus called high priest, Ananias (47-58 CE) “the great procurer of money.”

Most damningly, the Temple was the ideological center of the Jewish faith. As such it embodied the whole “purity code” that was so oppressive to simple people such as Jesus’ own parents. You recall how temple authorities were especially hard on the long list of “impure” poor people who were particularly close to Jesus’ heart – the prostitutes, lepers, Samaritans, undocumented aliens, sick and starving. Temple authorities despised those people. They saw them all as being punished by God for their well-deserved afflictions. Such “unclean” people had to offer sacrifices of pigeons and doves to make reparation for their second class social status.

Jesus rejected all of that. So along with his friends he attacked it symbolically. John the Evangelist describes Jesus’ bringing temple business to a screeching halt – driving out those “who sold oxen, sheep, and doves, as well as the money-changers seated there. He made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen, and spilled the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables, and to those who sold doves he said, ‘Take these out of here, and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.’” It’s hard to imagine Jesus accomplishing such disruption by himself; he must have been part of a much larger demonstration.

Worse yet, Jesus predicted with prophetic delight the actual destruction of the temple which would have been even more shocking to Jews than the destruction of the Twin Towers. Jesus’ action, he implied, was merely a pantomime version of a real destruction to come. In Mark’s version of the event, he says, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” (MK 13:2). Does that sound like 9/11? What blasphemy! For Jesus’ contemporaries, his actions coupled with those words predicted a catastrophe like none other.

His words actually came true in the year 70 when the Romans leveled the entire city of Jerusalem. No wonder the Romans and their Jewish collaborators saw Jesus as a terrorist worse than Osama bin Laden!

You get the idea. Jesus’ direct action in the temple represented an attack on the status quo politically, economically, and ideologically. It might even be true to say that Jesus’ choice of targets followed the same lines as the 9/11 terrorists when they attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon, and probably intended to do the same with the White House. All of those symbolize what’s wrong with the world in the eyes of those who consider themselves oppressed by empire.

And the lessons from all of this? I’d be interested in what you think. For me it means that we must:

• Be attuned to the “signs of the times.”
• And to the repercussions of cooperating with actions and policies based on greed, empire, and vilification of the poor and powerless.
• Think poetically embracing the explicative power of symbolic language as more powerful than the merely descriptive.
• Interpret that symbolism for others – in the name of the Christian faith we ostensibly share.
• Be willing to be thought of as terrorists and atheists ourselves,
• Entailing a willingness to participate in bold, public actions against the prevailing power structure.
• Be willing to suffer the painful consequences of such actions – as Jesus did.
• Admit that we deserve the hate of those working to destroy the system that oppresses them.
• And pray for the defeat of U.S. policies based on false explanations of opposition to imperial oppression.

About Last Night: Reflections on the Mid-Term Results

wrong track

Like many Progressives, I woke up on Wednesday quite depressed. The drubbing the Democrats took in the mid-term elections was enough to bring to mind thoughts such as:

•Wow! Even Scott Walker . . .
•The tide of discontent represented by the mid-terms is absolutely disastrous for:
– The poor
– Working families
– African-Americans
– Women
– The elderly
– Young people
– The uninsured
– The imprisoned
– Tribal people who continue to be the victims of “America’s” unending wars
– And, above all, the environment!

But those were just the discouraged, cobwebby ruminations of a sleepy radical clearing his head to face a country whose senate will now be led by Kentucky’s own Mitch McConnell.

However, watching the morning-after report on “Democracy Now” put matters in perspective. There Amy Goodman interviewed John Nichols, a political writer for The Nation. His report on the election aftermath is entitled “Obama Need Not Accept Lame Duck Status.”

In his piece, Nichols recalls that the last five two-term presidents – Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush II –all faced in their final two years, a Congress with both houses controlled by the opposition. Yet all five finished strongly with quite high approval ratings (except for Bush II) and significant accomplishments during what was supposed to be their “lame duck” years.

This is not the time to give up, Nichols insisted. Instead it’s time to double-down on grass-roots issues making it clear to the President and to the Congress that the people’s concerns are not governed by the left/right ideologies that play into the Corporate State’s obvious strategy of Divide and Rule. Instead on the issues that mean the most to us, the grassroots is guided by a sense of fair play, the Golden Rule, and simple justice.

In this Nichols was echoing the thought of Ralph Nader in his recently published book, Unstoppable: the emerging left-right alliance to dismantle the corporate state. There Nader argues that ordinary Americans come together on a broad range of issues that transcend left-right divisions. Nader enumerates 25 of them including most prominently:

•The necessity of overcoming government gridlock
•Minimum wage increases
•Equal pay for women
•Infrastructure rebuilding
•Affordable college tuition
•The need for health care reform
•Retaining Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid
•Resistance to the surveillance state
•Protection of government whistle-blowers
•Repeal of Citizens United
•Skepticism about bloated military budgets and resulting wasteful foreign adventures
•Opposition to nebulous free trade agreements
•Rejection of further tax breaks for the wealthy
•The urgency of addressing global warming
•The futility of the war on drugs
•The scandal of voter suppression

On these issues, Nader says, all of us have to (1) join local conversations and form little alliances where we live, (2) make sure those conversations bubble up into the media, and (3) get the issues on the table for the next election cycle.

This is not the time to give up. Rather, it’s time to join together across the chasms that the plutocracy fosters to divide us. It’s time for grassroots movements to address our country’s real problems and to force politicians to do the same, but on our behalf.

(Sunday Homily) Happy Day of the Dead: Remembrances & Prayers

Day of Dead

Readings for the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (All Souls): WIS 3:1-9; PS 23:1-6; ROM 5: 6-11; JN 6: 37-40.

Today is the feast of All Souls – or as they call it in Latin America, the “Day of the Dead.” In Mexico, the commemoration of “the faithful departed” is really a triduum that begins on Halloween, proceeds through the Feast of All Saints (Nov. 1st) and finishes today with “All Souls Day” (Nov. 2nd).

In Mexico there are parades and costumes, and skeleton manikins dressed up in silks and finery. In a mocking, light-hearted way, the day reminds everyone of the shortness of life, the impermanent nature of pleasure, prestige, profit and power, and the inevitability of our own fast-approaching demise.

Since death is inevitable and an integral part of life, the Day of the Dead invites us all – “believers” or not – to recall those who have gone before us to “rest in the sleep of peace” and to ready ourselves for The Great Transformation by looking death square in the face.

So to begin with, think about your own loved ones who have passed away. No doubt, there’s some pain in doing that. After all, we loved them. In those terms, today I’m thinking especially of a dear friend and mentor of mine, Glen Stassen. He died unexpectedly this last year. He was a great scholar, teacher, author and peace activist. He taught me so much. And then there are those public figures – like Pete Seeger, Maya Angelou and Robin Williams – whom we all recently lost.

We miss people like that. Nonetheless, death does not wound us without at the same time offering new understandings and appreciations of the ways the lives of those loved ones continue in and around us. In some sense, the ripples of their stories have influenced not only us, but the entire universe.

That’s especially true of the mother and father figures in our lives (not always our biological parents, of course).

Allow me to set the tone by recalling (and honoring) my own parents for a moment.

I am fortunate to be able to identify my original Gift-Givers as my actual mom and dad – Edith and Ray Seul. I owe so much to them and the innumerable ways their lives and deaths have made me and my three siblings what we are. They were wonderful parents – not perfect to be sure – but wonderful all the same.

I think of my mother as my spiritual teacher. She was lovely and gentle, light-hearted, but at the same time quite serious about doing the right thing. Above all her simple faith governed her life. She was a convert to Catholicism having been brought up a Swedish Lutheran – as Edith Swanson. And while she was serious about being Catholic, she somehow made it clear that Protestants were O.K. too. Along with my female grade school teachers (the faithful Sisters of St. Joseph) mom’s example started me on the path to the priesthood and to ecumenical thinking. I love her for that.

I think of my dad whom I had the privilege of attending full time during the final weeks of his life. Dad was strong, a truck driver, and fun-loving. His brothers say he was a wild street-fighter in his youth. But then (they’d joke) he met my mother and she “made a man of him.” That’s how they put it.

Like my mother, Dad took his faith quite seriously too. He was a member of the Holy Name Society and went on spiritual retreats several times, I recall. He brought us back medals and “holy cards.” Dad clearly wanted to live a good life. That was true to such an extent that when I left the priesthood and decided to marry my wife, Peggy, he chose not to come to our wedding. I’m convinced it was a matter of conscience for him. Peggy and I would be living in sin, he thought, and he could not appear to give his approval. None of that however prevented him from later accepting Peggy and loving her.

Yes, I’m grateful for my parents. I love them, and miss them. Not a morning passes without my offering prayers of thanksgiving for mom and dad. So on this Day of the Dead, my mind is filled with nostalgia (rather than sadness) over their loss.

The Day of the Dead also brings that urgency I mentioned earlier – around my own fast-approaching death and the need I feel to use these declining years to make my contribution to a world careening towards disaster as never before. It’s also a time for imagining what awaits me after I breathe my last.

For the past few years the great fifth century mystic, Augustine of Hippo, has helped me think about death, its process and what comes after. He wrote a very long sentence I’ve found so helpful in thinking about death that I’ve committed it to memory and often use for meditation. Here’s what Augustine said. See if his words help you:

Imagine if all the tumult of the body were to quiet down, along with all our busy thoughts about earth and sea and air; if the very world should stop, and the mind stop thinking about itself, go beyond itself, and be quite still;

if all the fantasies that appear in dreams and imagination should cease, and there be no speech, no sign:
Imagine if all things perishable grew still – for if we listen they are saying, “We did not make ourselves; he made us who abides forever” – imagine then, that they should say this and fall silent, listening to the very voice of the one who made them and not to that of God’s creation;

So that we should hear not his word through the tongues of men, nor the voice of angels, nor the clouds’ thunder, nor any symbol, but the very Self which in these things we love, and go beyond ourselves to attain a flash of that eternal wisdom which abides above all things:

And imagine if that moment were to go on and on, leaving behind all other sights and sounds but that one vision which ravishes, absorbs, and fixes the beholder in joy; so that the rest of eternal life were like that moment of illumination that leaves us breathless:

Would this not be what is bidden in scripture, “Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord?

So that’s what happens in death, is it? The end of the world – bodily sensations, thought, and fantasies; great stillness within and without; no sound from human voice or nature itself; but immersion in wisdom, light and breathless joy. That’s what awaits us. At least Augustine thought so.

How different (and so much more consoling) is that vision from what I once anticipated in terms of “the last things” as so wonderfully, but (for the naïve) misleadingly expressed in Dante’s immortal Divina Comedia: death, judgment, heaven, hell. I can no longer believe that as literally as I once did. In fact, I’m persuaded to make my own the prayer of a medieval mystic. (This is another passage I use for my meditations):

Lord, if I love you because I desire the joys of heaven, close its gates to me. And if I love you because I fear the pains of hell, bury me in its depths. But if I love you for the sake of loving you, hide not your face from me.

The mystic’s prayer is a rejection of the childish, hedonistic, and self-interested beliefs about the after-life that I was brought up on. It’s an embrace of the mystical vision that recognizes harmony with God (or Ultimate Reality, the Ground of Being, or Nature with a capital “N”) as the purpose of life. All those other goals (pleasure, profit, power, prestige), I’ve found, are empty and quite misleading.

That learning was reinforced in India last year during our four months in Mysore. The idea of reincarnation, I learned, is not far-fetched and is in some way supported by the theory of evolution. And so on this Day of the Dead, I make my own the prayer that my meditation teacher, Eknath Easwaran recited on his own death bed – once again using the personal term “Lord” to address the mysterious Origin of the things that matter: Life and Love:

Lord, fill my heart with love and devotion for you. And burn out the seeds of selfish desire and sense craving from my mind. Grant that I might be carried by you from this life to the next without suffering, and that I might be born into a holy family with my hear overflowing with love and devotion to you from my earliest childhood onward.

I want that to be my prayer on my death bed.

There’s a final thought I’d like to share with you on this day of the dead – this one from the great American poet, Stanley Kunitz. “The Long Boat” is a poem that reminds me strongly of my father in law, Bob duRivage, who was a sailor and (in my opinion) a sage, and a saint. He loved life and left this world reluctantly. Because of its sailing theme and the poem’s last line, I committed it to memory in Bob’s honor. Because the poem is about death, I hope (on this Day of the Dead) that it may also you think deep thoughts about your own approaching demise and make decisions accordingly:

When his boat snapped loose
from its mooring, under
the screaking of the gulls,
he tried at first to wave
to his dear ones on shore,
but in the rolling fog
they had already lost their faces.
Too tired even to choose
between jumping and calling,
somehow he felt absolved and free
of his burdens, those mottoes
stamped on his name-tag:
conscience, ambition, and all
that caring.
He was content to lie down
with the family ghosts
in the slop of his cradle,
buffeted by the storm,
endlessly drifting.
Peace! Peace!
To be rocked by the Infinite!
As if it didn’t matter
which way was home;
as if he didn’t know
he loved the earth so much
he wanted to stay forever.

(Sunday Homily) Usury More Clearly Contradicts God’s Law than Abortion!


Readings for 30th Sunday in ordinary time: EX 22: 20-26; PS 18: 2-4, 47, 51, I THES 1:5C-10; MT 22: 36-40.

Today’s readings raise the question of usury – a word we don’t often hear today, though its reality is part of the air we breathe.

Wikipedia defines usury as: “. . . the practice of making unethical or immoral monetary loans intended to unfairly enrich the lender. A loan may be considered usurious because of excessive or abusive interest rates or other factors, but according to some dictionaries, simply charging any interest at all can be considered usury.”

In the light of that definition, consider the following:

• Last Sunday’s New York Times editorial addressed President Obama’s proposal that interest rates on loans to veterans be capped at 36 percent. The editorial began by saying that “poor and working-class people across the country are being driven into poverty and default by deceptively packaged, usuriously priced loans.” The NYT editorial board argued that the 36 percent interest cap should be extended to all U.S. citizens. Thirty-six percent!

• The same editors reported a case where “. . . (A) South Carolina lender gave a service member a $1,615 title loan on a 13-year-old car and charged $15,613 in interest — an annual rate of 400 percent — without violating federal law.”

• Despite such surprises, Wednesday’s NYT edition ran another story headed “States Ease Interest Rate Laws that Protected Poor Borrowers.” It reported that lenders such as Citigroup, One Main, Springleaf, and the American Financial Services Association claim a need to increase interest rates on their poorest customers in order to keep their rates in line with their own increased business expenses for rent, electricity, and gasoline.

• Meanwhile the prime interest rate for bankers and corporate high rollers is 3.25 percent.

• Last June U.S. Senate Republicans shot down Elizabeth Warren’s Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act. The bill would have allowed people with federal and private debt to refinance their loans at 3.86 percent. That would have given relief to more than 25 million borrowers owing $1.2 trillion in student loans. The GOP objected partly because the Refinancing Act would have created a new tax on millionaires to offset the lower interest rates.

The practices just described raise the question: how much interest can be charged before the rate becomes usurious? Today’s liturgy of the word suggests an answer.

Begin with a consideration of today’s gospel.

There Jesus is asked a question consistently addressed to rabbis and to wise persons in all traditions. “Which is the greatest of God’s commandments?”

The question is reminiscent of the familiar cartoon where the bedraggled seeker climbs up that mountain, confronts the guru sitting in front of his cave and asks him, “What’s the purpose of life?” That’s really the gist of the question presented to Jesus. What is life’s purpose?

Jesus’ response is not humorous as we’re always led to expect from those cartoons. His answer is not even surprising. Instead, it’s the standard one usually given by rabbis and wise people: “Look within,” he advises. “Find Ultimate Reality and devote yourself entirely to it. And then love that Reality’s every manifestation beginning with the people closest to you and finishing with the trees, soil, rocks, and cockroaches.”

That’s the meaning of Jesus’ response in today’s gospel. It mirrored perfectly the answer, for instance, of Rabbi Hillel, one of Jesus’ near contemporaries. Both of them said, “Love God with all your heart, mind, and spirit – and your neighbor as yourself. That’s the greatest commandment,” they agreed. “That’s the purpose of life. That summarizes all the content of humanity’s Holy Books. All the rest is commentary.”

We get a snippet of that commentary in today’s first reading from the Book of Exodus, which supplies practical content to the general answer about life’s purpose invariably given by the wise. (And it’s here that the business of interest enters the picture.) Today’s 16 line excerpt from Exodus focuses on two issues: (1) treatment of the most vulnerable in the community, and (2) prohibition of taking interest on loans. The two matters are intimately connected in a world where the poorest among us suffer from crushing debt as earlier described.

The reading says that loving God and neighbor means taking care of society’s most vulnerable – beginning with immigrants and including single mothers and street children. Reality decrees that mistreatment of people like that will bring karmic consequences and death by an invading enemy.

The reading goes on. When dealing with immigrants, remember you were once in their position. So treat them the way you would have liked your great-grandmother to have been treated when she arrived at Ellis Island from the Old Sod.

The second part of the Exodus reading addresses the most common instrument oppressors employ for mistreating society’s vulnerable. You guess it: it’s usury and debt.

You might have been surprised to read that God’s Covenantal Law as recorded in the Bible prohibits the taking of interest at all. The Law indicates that God considers usury (or any interest) sinful! It’s a form of “extortion,” Exodus says – meaning, as the dictionary explains, the “criminal offense of obtaining money, property, or services from a person, entity, or institution, through coercion.” The definition goes on to say that extortion is commonly practiced by organized crime.

For more than a millennium, moral theologians within the Church that developed following Jesus’ death agreed with our dictionary. Under pain of sin (as they put it), no interest could be charged on loans.

But then modern economists discovered the wonders of compound interest. That changed everything. Suddenly, charging interest became not only moral, but virtuous – including for Christians! Even the Vatican owns a bank whose underlying foundation is interest!

So times have indeed changed. Currently, moralists explain that the modern science of economics now understands what was not grasped in the ancient world of Exodus. So, morality had to change to keep up with the times and the advances of science. It’s a new world. (Hmm . . . . Does that same reasoning apply to matters such as homosexuality in relation to the insights of the modern science of psychology? And what about abortion and what modern medicine has disclosed about the beginnings of specifically personal life? After all, the Bible has this clear and strong teaching about prohibiting interest and says nothing at all about abortion.)

The suggestion here is that if we kept The Commandments as explained by Jesus and all the world’s great spiritual teachers:

• We’d prioritize concern for the welfare of immigrant children on our border, single moms in run-down neighborhoods, and street children everywhere. Their welfare, Jesus says, is identical with our own.

• We’d realize that the ability of immigrants, widows, and orphans to meet their transportation, rent and electricity bills is in God’s eyes more important than similar abilities on the part of Citigroup, One Main, Springleaf, or the American Financial Services Association.

• We probably wouldn’t support interest of any amount. (Certainly an interest rate of 36 percent would be out of the question, not to mention 400 percent.)

• At the very least, we’d demand that student loans would be refinanced at the prime rate.

• We probably wouldn’t support “capitalism” as we know it.

• We’d make usury as important a “Christian issue” as some make abortion.

• We’d hear about that from the pulpit, at least occasionally.

• We’d vote accordingly.

After all, an unmistakable critique of usury is actually found in the Bible. That’s not the case with abortion.

(Sunday Homily) Jesus Endorses “Slow Money”

slow money

Readings for 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 45: 1, 4-6; PS 96: 1-5, 7-10; I THES 1: 1-5B; MT 22: 15-21.

Well, it’s time for your pastor to trot out those well-worn platitudes around Jesus’ famous “Render” riddle. So after reading this morning’s gospel about payment of taxes to Caesar, your priest or minister will say something about separation of church and state. Ho-hum. Caesar’s realm is the political, he’ll say; God’s is the religious. Caesar’s is less important than God’s, of course. But be sure to vote (Republican) on November 4th anyway – just to make sure that the anti-abortionists win. Never mind that their policies are pro-war, anti-life (apart, I suppose, from their single issue) and suicidal in terms of climate change. Those are merely political concerns. See ya next week.

Problem is: all that has nothing to do with today’s reading. In fact, it entirely misses the point of Jesus outwitting his questioners in their attempt to entrap him with a question about taxation that had no good answer – except the unforeseen one that Jesus gave.

Jesus is smarter than his opponents. That’s the obvious point.

The less obvious one is that Jesus’ response attacks the Roman Empire itself. It undercuts its economic base by rejecting Rome’s “fast money” in favor of the Jewish insurgency’s “slow money.”

Have you heard of that concept – I mean slow money? It’s explained in Woody Tasch’s book, Slow Money: Investing as if food, farms, and fertility mattered (White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing 2008).

Building off Carlo Petrini’s idea of Slow Food, Tasch’s book presents the case for divesting from the haste of the global economy whose lightning fast computerized operations are necessarily devoid of thought about things that really matter. “Fast money,” as Tasch calls such transactions thinks of nothing but the corporate bottom line.

The outcomes of such inattention are evident for all to see. They include climate chaos, topsoil loss, water waste and pollution, as well as loss of jobs at home in favor of low labor costs abroad. Fast money causes inequalities which give 35 men as much wealth as half the world’s population. Fast money is like “fast food” which fills bellies but destroys health.

Slow money, on the other hand, invests locally, thoughtfully, and at a pace that imitates the very leisurely processes of nature. So Tasch’s book calls for a correspondingly paced economy. The slow money approach preserves family farms, encourages the growth of organic foods, and prevents waste of soil and water, while eliminating the contradiction of widespread hunger existing alongside fast-food induced obesity.

Once again, I bring that up because Jesus’ response to his interlocutors in today’s gospel represents rejection of Rome’s fast money. At the same time, it implicitly endorses a local form of slow money that almost everyone overlooks.

Recall the story’s pivotal question. “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”

If Jesus answered the way your pastor says, the Great Teacher would have fallen into the trap set by an unlikely alliance of Herodians (pro-Rome lackeys) and Pharisees (anti-Rome populists).

Saying “Yes, pay taxes to Caesar,” would have discredited Jesus in the eyes of the poor who comprised his main audience hanging on his every word. The hated Roman tax system cost them as much as 50% of their yearly income.

On the other hand, if Jesus had said “No,” that would be reason enough to have him arrested and turned over to the imperial authorities on charges of subversion. [In fact, that did become one of the charges at Jesus’ trial: “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar, and saying that He Himself is Christ . . . (LK 23:2)] Does that sound like Jesus ever said “Pay your taxes?”

So instead of saying “yes” or “no,” Jesus turns the tables on his questioners in a way that convicts them instead of himself.

“Show me an imperial coin,” Jesus asks; “I, of course, don’t carry any.”

One of the interrogators (probably from among Rome’s collaborating Herodians) obligingly reaches into his pocket and pulls out a shiny denarius. By that very act, he’s already fallen into Jesus’ trap. All bystanders can hear the cage door slam, as the insincerity of the Pharisees and Herodians stands exposed for all to see. Jesus’ follow-up question makes clear why.

“Whose image and inscription is on that coin, he asks?

“Caesar’s” his antagonists reply.

“Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” Jesus says, “and to God what is God’s.”

Case closed.

You see, no good Jew would carry Roman money. (And here comes the part about slow money.) Instead, Jewish nationalists did business using coins minted by Jerusalem’s Revolutionary Provisional Government. On its face was the image of a palm branch – the Provisionals’ “flag.” Such money was of no use to the Romans and could only be used locally to support the Jewish economy.

In fact, the insurgents forbade using Roman currency at all. That’s because doing so benefitted the Romans by giving them control over the Jewish economy.

And besides, carrying Roman coin recognized Caesar’s claim to own Judea which in Jewish eyes belonged only to God. In fact for good Jews (as today’s first reading and responsorial make clear), EVERYTHING belongs to God. That leaves absolutely NOTHING for Caesar – except his own idolatrous servants clutching his pathetic coins in their bloated hands.

Even more, the face of Roman coins displayed a forbidden image – that of Augustus himself with the inscription surrounding the image identifying the emperor as “the Son of God.” The image and inscription made carrying the coin not only unpatriotic, but an act of idolatry. That in turn meant that the bearers of the coin themselves belonged to Caesar not Israel’s God, Yahweh.

Again, case closed.

All of this should remind us that our attitude towards money and its connection with imperialism is a spiritual matter of deep concern to those wishing to follow the Way of Jesus. As today’s readings remind us, everything belongs to God who (as Isaiah puts it in today’s first reading) is concerned about the welfare of “all nations” and not about the 1% or any abstract corporate bottom line. Empire’s God (as in “in God we trust”) is the God of fast money and not the God of Jesus who stood with those resisting the wholesale robbery that empire always represents.

So how do we avoid empire’s fast money when our wallets’ contents and those of our closets and garages convict us of idolatry? Here are a few of Tasch’s suggestions:

• Imitate Nature and her pace.
• Slow down everything – from your thinking processes to the way you walk and wash dishes.
• Change thinking patterns from fast money’s quarter and years to slow money’s seasons and eons.
• Where available (as with “Ithacash” in Ithaca, New York) use local currencies instead of greenbacks for local purchases.
• Adopt role models like poet, Wendell Berry, and Amish farmer, Scott Savage, rather than Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos.
• Change allegiances from institutions and organizations (like “America” and members of its military-industrial complex) to land, household, community and place.
• Grow a garden and eat its produce.
• Stay away from fast food and out of Wal-Mart’s and Lowes’ Big Boxes.
• If you must invest in the stock market, “create a portfolio of venture investments in early-stage sustainability-promoting food companies.”

Like Jesus’ response to the Pharisees and Herodians, such practices undercut empire and its destructive haste.

What other strategies can you think of to subvert fast money structures and practices?


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