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. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/110214.cfm
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
He was content to lie down
with the family ghosts
in the slop of his cradle,
buffeted by the storm,
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.
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. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/102614.cfm
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.
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. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/101914.cfm
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.”
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?
Readings for 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 25: 6-10A; PS 23: 1-6; PHIL 4: 12-14, 19-20; MT 22: 1-14 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/101214.cfm
Currently, I’m back in the saddle. A dear colleague of mine is continuing her courageous fight against cancer. So I was asked to fill in for her teaching a religion course called “Poverty and Social Justice” – the very topic I’ve been struggling to understand and explain to students during my 40 years at Berea College in Kentucky. I have 19 very interested and wonderful students. Most of them are juniors and seniors, even though Religion 126 entry-level.
Together we’ve looked at the experience of white Appalachians, African-Americans in Mississippi, and people living in the former colonies of Africa, Latin America and South Asia. My students are watching “Democracy Now” each day as it deals with issues like ISIS, Ferguson, and voter suppression.
However, the most important lesson I’ve been trying to drive home in “Poverty and Social Justice” is an understanding of Christianity that Pope Francis, the Second Vatican Council, and liberation theology term its “preferential option for the poor.” That option holds that God’s People are not a single national group. Rather, God’s chosen are the poor and oppressed whom Christians have been taught at best to pity or treat with “tough love,” and at worst to despise as unworthy. The Hebrews were merely the paradigmatic example of God’s own choice of the poor as a divinely revelatory people. The poor show us what God is like.
I bring all of that up because today’s liturgy of the word is really about the preferential option for the poor. Our sources pressing that idea include two exiles (Isaiah and Matthew), a prison inmate (Paul), and the Son of God revealing divinity veiled in a working-class prophet who ends up being arrested, tortured, and a victim of capital punishment.
The first selection from Isaiah introduces the theme of “chosenness” by describing what God holds in store for the wretched of the earth. In a word, God’s will is abundance for all those currently experiencing painful exile in Babylon. Those are Isaiah’s words: God wants abundance – but “for all peoples.”
No harps and clouds here; no abstract heaven. Instead, Isaiah envisions God’s utopia taking form here on earth, in a particular place – on “this Mountain” Isaiah says (referring to the exiles’ motherland). There God’s Kingdom will take the form of a huge picnic – an outdoor feast of incomparable abundance. On God’s mountain, all will engorge themselves, Isaiah promises, “with rich foods” and cups overflowing with “choice wines.” The prophet repeats the phrase twice for emphasis: “a feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines.”
The feast will be a celebration of Enlightenment – of revelation or removal of the “veils” or barriers that separate human beings into “chosen” and “unchosen.” Isaiah predicts: “On this mountain he will destroy the veil that veils all peoples, the web that is woven over all nations; he will destroy death forever. The Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from every face; the reproach of his people he will remove from the whole earth.”
Notice this promise is inclusive. Again, it is directed to “all peoples,” not to a single nation. It is addressed to suffering and exiled people who find themselves in a “web” of death, tears and blame caused by deceptive divisions into nation states.
The theme of God’s all-inclusive, life-giving kindness is reinforced in today’s responsorial – the familiar Psalm 23, which begins, “The Lord is my shepherd.” According to the psalmist, God is the one who fulfills everyone’s desire for food and water, wine and oil for cooking. In addition, God provides rest, refreshment, and guidance. The courage God gives removes fear of evil and threat. All of that is music to the ears of the poor and deprived.
In today’s second reading Paul touches a similar chord. From an imperial prison (perhaps like Abu Ghraib), he writes, “God supplies whatever you need.” Imagine Paul’s courage! “Yes, I’m distressed,” he writes. “But don’t worry about me. I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need.” Here then is a prisoner whose experiences of abundance are not contradicted by their opposite. Paul’s own experience of abundance and deprivation keeps his outlook positive and is the basis for his confident promise, “My God will fully supply whatever you need, in accord with his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.”
And that brings us to this Sunday’s Gospel selection. It’s a parable illustrating the surprising identity of God’s chosen people. The parable is addressed to the “elders and chief priests,” the political leaders of Jesus’ day who thought of themselves as God’s elect. The tale ends with the familiar tagline, “Many are called, but few are chosen.” But mystifyingly, its point seems to be the opposite: “Few are called, but many are chosen.”
I mean today’s gospel is Matthew’s account of Jesus’ parable about a king inviting his rich friends (the few) to his son’s wedding feast. It’s a party characterized by abundance reminiscent of “the juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines” in today’s first reading.
In the story, that feast is already prepared. But the king’s rich friends exclude themselves from its abundance, preferring instead the pursuit of their individualistic pleasures and profits. Some are so ungrateful that they mistreat and even kill those proffering the king’s invitation. All of this, of course, is Matthew’s thinly veiled reference to the way Jewish leaders treated God’s messengers, the prophets whose line for Matthew culminates in Jesus of Nazareth.
Thinly veiled as well is Matthew’s reference to the destruction of Jerusalem a generation earlier in the year 70. Matthew writes, “The king was enraged and sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city.” According to Matthew, then, Jerusalem’s fate was the karmic result of the rich and powerful dishonoring prophets like Jesus and refusing to enter God’s kingdom with the poor and oppressed.
It is at this point that Matthew (and presumably Jesus) makes the point about the real identity of God’s Chosen People. The king says, “’the feast is ready, but those who were invited were not worthy to come. Go out, therefore, into the main roads and invite to the feast whomever you find.’ The servants went out into the streets and gathered all they found, bad and good alike, and the hall was filled with guests.”
There you have it: God’s New People are the dregs of humanity like those my class is studying. They are from the streets – the good and bad alike.” That’s the very point Jesus’ parables have been making for the past few weeks: Prostitutes and tax collectors enter God’s kingdom before the “chief priests and elders of the people.”
But wait; there’s more.
At this government-provided feast of free food, choice alcoholic beverages, and even (it seems) free festive clothing, one person insists on differentiating himself from the rest. He refuses to change his clothes – always a literary (and liturgical) marker for change of lifestyle. At bottom, it’s a refusal to identify with the street people particularly dear to God’s heart.
According to the story, this karmic choice leads to unhappiness – to sharing exterior darkness suffered by the rich Refuseniks whose city was earlier destroyed by imperial armies.
So although the few were called, the many are chosen. Once again, that’s good news for the kind of people my “Poverty and Social Justice” class is studying at Berea College.
What then of Matthew’s tagline that says the opposite – that many are called, but few are chosen?
I think it can only be a koan-like saying we’re meant to puzzle over in the light of the seemingly contradictory message of today’s parable. Perhaps it refers to the few (the 1 %?) whose selfish choices exclude them from God’s New People as though they selected their own destruction on purpose. They are the few self-chosen for destruction.
What do you think?
Today The New York Times published an inflammatory editorial called “The Fundamental Horror of ISIS.” The evident but unstated purpose of the piece was to strengthen support for the latest waste of our tax-payer dollars on the most recent phase of the so-called “war on terror.” Like its predecessors, that phase has nothing to do with protecting our “homeland.” Rather as Dennis Kucinich has observed, it’s yet another phase of the (by-now) 25 year long war against the impoverished masses who have the misfortune of finding their homes floating on top of a vast sea of oil controlled by foreign outsiders.
To help the White House justify its consequent greed-based aggression, the NYT editorial trotted out the well-worn thesis that ISIS represents unmitigated, irrational evil entirely foreign to the sensitive minds of its gentle readers. So it rehearsed “the beheadings, crucifixions, tortures, rapes and slaughter of captives, children, women, Christians, Shiites.”
This, of course, represents a highly familiar litany relative to our state’s designated enemies. The “presstitutes” made similar allegations against “the Russians” during the Cold War as well as the Chinese Communists. It was also the case with the Sandinistas, the PLO, Hezbollah, and Hamas. Similarly, Manual Noriega, Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, Muammar Kaddafi, and (until recently) Bashar al-Assad all represented unmitigated evil. Now it’s the turn of ISIS and (as of last Tuesday) Khorasan.
In all of these cases the designated enemies in question have represented pure evil without any legitimate grievance other than sadism that strangely and inexplicably has (according to the Times in the case of ISIS) “attracted hundreds of willing followers — yes, also from Europe and America.”
Times editors put it succinctly in today’s rant: “Comparisons are meaningless at this level of evil, as are attempts to explain the horror by delving into the psychology or rationale of the perpetrators. . . as Roger Cohen, the New York Times columnist, wrote in a recent piece about ISIS, there is no “why” in the heart of darkness.”
To repeat, this level of evil is entirely foreign to the civilized westerners.
Try explaining that to the victims of the 25 year war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
• The million and a half civilian deaths in Iraq caused by the U.S.’s naked “war of aggression” against that country – the “supreme international crime” in the eyes of the United Nations.
• YouTube films of U.S. military personnel urinating on the bodies of dead Iraqi patriots defending their “homeland” from barbarous Marines, Special Forces, and Navy Seals.
• Abu Ghraib and its broadly smiling heroes (from next door) sexually assaulting their victims and proudly posing with thumbs up over bodies of those they’ve just tortured to death.
• President Bush and Dick Cheney not only ordering the war crimes of water-boarding and other acts of torture, but joking about it.
• Fallujah and the use of illegal white phosphorous.
• Haditha and the heartlessness of U.S. soldiers systematically slaughtering entire families there.
• The frequent reports of wedding parties and funerals routinely devastated by drones in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Bahrain, Yemen, Pakistan, and who knows where else?
• Chelsea Manning’s release of the film “Collateral Murder,” where U.S. “pilots” joke about “wasting” international journalists and the civilians who came to their aid.
• U.S. insistence on using cluster bombs whose known effect is to blow arms and heads off children attracted to explosives disguised as toys.
• Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s justification of the effects of U.S. sanctions on Iraq, which she admitted killed 500,000 Iraqi children. “Yes, Leslie,” Ms. Albright said to interviewer Leslie Stahl, “we think it was worth it.”
• U.S. supply of arms enabling Israel’s “Operation Protective Edge” which wantonly slaughtered more than 2500 Palestinians in direct attacks on civilians and the infrastructure of Gaza.
• U.S. stated intent to adopt similar policy of “relaxed rules” around tolerance of civilian deaths in its latest attacks on Iraq and now Syria.
All of that would easily inspire Al-Jazeera editors to write:
“Comparisons are meaningless at this level of evil, as are attempts to explain the horror by delving into the psychology or rationale of the perpetrators. . . as one of our reporters wrote in a recent piece about the United States, there is no “why” in the heart of darkness.”
But of course, there’s always a “why.”
The difference is that the “why” in the U.S. heart of darkness is greed for oil and the protection of an oil economy that will predictably destroy our planet.
Meanwhile the unexamined “why” of ISIS and the thousands attracted to its cause is intimately connected with response in kind to the Original Aggression of colonialism’s systematic rape of the Middle East. ISIS is responding in kind to U.S. crimes. It’s all blowback.
And the gentle editors of the New York Times (speaking for their employers in the military-industrial complex) can’t stand what they see when they look into the mirror.
Readings for 26th Sunday in ordinary time: EZ 18:25-28; PS 25: 4-5, 8-10, 14; PHIL 2: 1-11; MT 21: 28-32 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/092414.cfm
If I were you, I’d be careful about air travel. That’s because, as the President reminded us last week, the enemies we’ve so fiercely created over the last 13 years are plotting to blow U.S. commercial aircraft out of the skies. So one of these days Khorasan’s heat-seeking missiles will find the rear end of your plane, and that will be the end of you.
And, when you think about it, those firing the rockets will be justified in doing so. That is, if we allow them to apply the insane logic behind Mr. Obama’s latest justification for bombing his seventh Muslim country in six years.
In doing so the Nobel Peace Prize laureate said last week, “Once again, it must be clear to anyone who would plot against America and try to do Americans harm that we will not tolerate safe havens for terrorists who threaten our people.”
Wait a minute!
Our “leader’s” logic (if we universalize his pronouncement) has just endorsed an endless cycle of violence that should be completely unacceptable to any human being — not to say any Christian. His words mean that anyone who plots against another country trying to do their citizens harm can claim no safe haven. They will be subject to reprisal.
Tell that to drone victims and to Syrians who lost their children in last week’s bombings – or to similar casualties at weddings and funerals in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. The President’s doublespeak logic allows them to say, “Once again it must be clear to the Americans plotting against us and trying to do our citizens harm that we will not tolerate safe havens for such terrorists who threaten our people. There will be reprisals.”
That means that the militants in the countries just mentioned can legitimately respond to the terrorism of drone and outright bombing attacks with similar assaults on American citizens in our own “homeland.”
So as I say, hold your breath on your next airline trip to Miami or New York. The blowback is coming – and the blowback to that blowback too.
Such are the realities of Eternal War.
It’s that sort of damned logic (I’m choosing my words) that is addressed in today’s liturgy of the word. It’s not at all comforting.
The first reading from the prophet Ezekiel sets the tone. It underlines what Easterners call the Law of Karma. Ezekiel says that people die because of their wicked deeds. He says, “When someone virtuous turns away from virtue to commit iniquity, and dies, it is because of the iniquity he committed that he must die.” That’s karma. It’s an inescapable law of the universe.
St. Paul put it this way, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap.” (GAL 6:7-9). Relative to war, Jesus was even more pointed. He said all those who live by the sword will die by that same instrument (MT 26:52). It’s all karma.
As citizens of a nation that lives by the sword more than any other in world history, what then are we to do? Here, once again, today’s readings supply an answer. We must abandon the destructive path we’re on. That’s what Ezekiel says. Speaking of the potential recipient of negative karma, Ezekiel promises, “But if he turns from the wickedness he has committed, he does what is right and just, he shall preserve his life; since he has turned away from all the sins that he has committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die.” That too is karma.
In other words, to avoid the negative consequences of our actions, we must change course radically. More specifically today’s gospel selection addresses that imperative to political leaders. It calls them to make their actions correspond to their words.
Yes, today’s gospel is addressed to leaders like our president and congresspersons. There Jesus addresses those in power and tells the local rulers of his day (“the chief priests and elders”) a parable about lip service and the required change of direction. (Remember, in Jesus’ context there was no sharp distinction between religious and civil government.)
“A man had two sons,” the Great Teacher tells these government officials. “He came to the first and said, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ He said in reply, ‘I will not, ‘ but afterwards changed his mind and went. The man came to the other son and gave the same order. He said in reply, ‘Yes, sir,‘ but did not go. Which of the two,” Jesus asks, “did his father’s will?”
The chief priests and elders answer,”The first.”
Jesus said to them,”Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.”
I’m sure you see that Jesus’ parable is about governmental lip service and deception. The parable calls them to radical change in policy. Jesus implies that the leaders of his day were like the first son. They said the right things, but their actions belied their words. As a result, their deeds excluded them from the New Order (God’s Kingdom) which was always the focus of Jesus’ revolutionary discourse.
And that brings us back to our own leaders and the differences between what they say and do. Think of the events of recent weeks – even last week. During that time our leaders have:
• Paid lip service to national boundaries in the case of Russia and Ukraine, but then have claimed that national boundaries are irrelevant in their own “war on terrorism.”
• Paid lip service to international law – again in the case of Russia and Ukraine, but then ignored that law by going to war with ISIS without the required U.N. resolution.
• Paid lip service to civilization and decency in decrying ISIS’ brutal beheadings (by knife) of innocent civilians, but then beheaded literally untold others via drones and direct bombings. (Yes, drones and bombs inevitably blow heads off bodies.)
• Paid lip service to the human rights of civilians brutalized by ISIS, while ignoring the million and a half civilians their own armed forces have just as brutally killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.
• Paid lip service to nuclear non-proliferation in their demands upon Iran, but then have pledged billions to modernize their own overwhelming nuclear arsenal.
• Paid lip service to environmental protection (following last Sunday’s “People’s Climate March”), but the very next day implicitly embraced the possibility of “nuclear winter” through that same weapons modernization program.
Of course, there are many more examples of our leaders’ saying one thing and doing the opposite. In fact, their lies come so thick and fast that confusion and weariness results on the part of listeners. Our leaders’ honeyed words accompanied by unspeakably cruel acts paralyze us from taking action against or even recognizing in our own country a world force that is far more destructive than ISIS, Khorasan, or al-Qaeda. In the words of Noam Chomsky, the latter represent “retail terrorism,” while the U.S. “network of death” (with bases all over the world) embodies “wholesale terrorism” that is far more evil and destructive.
I believe that danger of confusion and consequent inaction is why Jesus shocked his opponents by saying simply, “Amen, I say to you, tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God before you.”
That would be as scandalous to Jesus’ audience as if he said to President Obama and John McCain, “Amen, I say to you, ISIS, Khorasan and al-Qaeda will enter God’s kingdom before you.”
What does that mean for us who are attempting to follow the Way of Jesus and are trying to be part of his Kingdom revolution? It means that we must realize that:
• Perpetual war contravenes the teachings of Jesus who taught us to love our enemies.
• Our “leaders” (just like the priests and elders of Jesus’ day) are liars to the core.
• The United States is (in the words of Dr. King) the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”
• That the retail terror and brutality of ISIS pales in comparison with the wholesale terror the United States inflicts on the world’s poor.
• That we must work and pray every day for the defeat of the United States in its endless, genocidal wars.
Believe me: that defeat is coming. Better yet, believe Ezekiel. It’s the law of karma.
Readings for 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 55: 6-9; PS 145: 2-3, 8-9; 17-18; PHIL 1: 20c-24, 27A; MT 20: 1-16A. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/092114.cfm
What will the Kingdom of Heaven be like for minimum wage workers? Ask the poor people Jesus speaks to in today’s gospel. There the Great Teacher tells them a story about a character every employee – all of us, I’m sure – encounters at some point in her or his life. He’s the skinflint boss who imagines himself a great humanitarian, despises his workers as lazy, and treats them with complete arbitrariness. He takes great delight in disappointing them – simply because he can.
The familiarity of this comic book character must have set Jesus’ audience laughing. And it probably started a long animated conversation about bosses, wages and employment.
Anyway, the story goes like this . . . It’s late in the harvest season and this big fat landowner goes to the town square to hire fruit pickers who are shaping up there. (You can imagine him coming by in his pick-up truck, smoking his cigar, pointing at the strongest workers, and shouting, “Hey, you guys, get off your lazy duffs and jump in the back. I haven’t got all day. There’s work to be done!”)
In the story, you can tell the owner’s a cheap skate because he’s careful to hire just the minimum number of workers he thinks can get the job done – if he pushes them really hard.
But he miscalculates. So he has to return at noon for more pickers. But instead of blaming his own stupidity, he blames the workers. He calls them “lazy” for “standing around idle.” He shouts at them, “Get in the truck, you lazy no-goods! You should be working!” (What does he expect? They’re waiting for someone to hire them, for God’s sake! But then coupon-clippers, like the boss in the story, always despise calloused hands.)
Now it’s almost quitting time. With only an hour’s daylight left, and with his fruit ready to rot in the fields, the skinflint owner finds himself back in the square hiring more workers. Again, he blames them for being lazy. But off they go to finish the day’s work.
Then the punch line comes. The completely capricious landowner suddenly decides to play the generous humanitarian. So with great flair he gives a full day’s wage to those last hired – my guess is: just a few workers.
Naturally, the other pickers rub their hands together, drooling with expectation that they’ll be paid more generously too. But of course old Scrooge disappoints them. (These kinds of bosses always do! They love it.) He decides instead to turn legalistic and teach these lazy good-for-nothings a lesson – about power.
“What do you mean: ‘MORE?’” he shouts like the beadle in Oliver Twist. “Have you forgotten our contract? And besides, I’m the boss. I can do what I want, and you can’t do a thing about it!”
By this time, Jesus’ audience surely had stopped laughing. They were probably grumbling and rehearsing their own similar experiences with cheap legalistic bosses who love to play the generous philanthropist.
But then Jesus gets everyone smiling again by adding with a wink: “And so it will be when the revolution comes (or as he put it – “in the Kingdom of God”) where “the first will be last and the last will be first – you know what I mean?” He winks again.
It takes a while for the message to sink in. Not everyone “gets it.” The audience scratches its collective head. Finally the penny drops.
“Oh, I see what you’re saying, Jesus,” someone says. She looks around at the others. “Don’t you get it?” she asks. “All of the workers in the story are ‘the last;’ it’s the boss who’s ‘first’.” In the final judgment, Uncle Scrooge will be last and all of us will be first!”
The audience starts to cop on.
“Yeah,” someone else says doing a quick calculation. “And do you know what that means for us, doncha?”
“It means we’ll all be on Easy Street; that’s what it means. Think about it; in the Kingdom, we’ll all be making a hundred grand a year!”
“No, I mean it. Do the math: minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, right? That means that those guys who worked only one hour earned $58. That’s $464 dollars a day, if they had worked all day – or $2320 per week, or $9280 per month, or $111,360 per year! Now that’s a just wage for bustin’ our butts. Whaddaya think? Talk about a workers’ paradise!”
By this time, everyone’s laughing so hard, they’re in tears.
Hmm . . . Kingdom economics. Kingdom pay for minimum wage workers: $58.00 an hour. . . . First/last; last/first . . . .
The Waltons should take note!