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. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/111614.cfm
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.