Sunday Homily: Pope Francis’ Address to Congress Was Much More Stinging than You Thought

Blood Money

Readings for 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time: IKgs. 17: 10-16; Ps. 146:7-10; Heb. 9: 24-28; Mk. 12: 38-44

It has been more than a month since Pope Francis visited the United States and gave his stinging address to the U.S. Congress.

No doubt you recall the occasion. The pope used his time to call for the end of capital punishment. He identified the motivation behind the U.S.-led arms industry simply as “money” – “money drenched in blood.”

The pope also lionized:

  • Abraham Lincoln who described capitalists as those who “generally act harmoniously and in concert to fleece the people.”
  • Martin Luther King who called the United States the greatest purveyor of violence in the world.
  • Dorothy Day who rejected capitalism a “rotten putrid system” and
  • Thomas Merton who described American politicians as a bunch of gangsters.

It was a masterful critique filled with irony – polite, but devastating for anyone who was listening closely.

Unfortunately, few commentators were tuned in sufficiently to pick up the subtlety. For them Francis was a nice old man praising “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” and closing with “God bless America” – without the pundits realizing, of course, that “America” pointedly includes the pope’s beloved Argentina devastated for decades by U.S. policy, and an entire continent oppressed by the United States for Francis’ entire life. Like everyone in Latin America, Francis knows all of this very well.

The lesson here is that when prophets speak, we’d best be alert to nuance and implication.

That lesson is applicable to today’s familiar story of the “widow’s mite.” It’s easy to miss the point, since it’s obscured by interpretations of homilists with no stomach for subtlety.

The episode comes right after Jesus and his disciples had all taken part in (and perhaps led) a demonstration against the temple priesthood and the thievery of their system from the poor. I’m talking about Jesus’ famous “cleansing of the temple.” That event sealed Jesus’ fate. The temple priesthood would soon be offering the reward for his capture that Judas would accept.

Following the assault on the temple, Jesus continues instructing his disciples on the corruption of the Temple System. To do so, he takes a position, Mark says, “opposite” (i.e. in opposition to) the temple treasury. The treasury was the place where Jews paid the tithe required by the law as interpreted by the priesthood Jesus despises. It was a “flat tax” applying the same to rich and poor.

Ever class-conscious, Mark points out that “many rich people” somehow made it clear to all that they were putting in large sums. Then a poor widow came along and furtively put in a penny. Jesus calls attention to the contrast: “large sums” vs. “two small copper coins, which are worth a penny.”

“It’s all relative,” Jesus says.  “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” Jesus then leaves the temple in disgust.

There are two ways for homilists to explain this incident in the context of today’s Liturgy of the Word. Remember, it began with a reading from I Kings and its story of the great prophet Elijah and the widow of Zarephath.

Elijah was hungry. He encountered a single mom gathering sticks to make a fire to eat her last meal with her son. They were starving, and she had only a handful of flour and a few drops of oil to make some bread before she and her son would die of hunger. The prophet asks that instead she make him some food. Obediently, she does so. And strange to say, after feeding Elijah, the widow discovers that her flour and oil never run out. She somehow has an endless supply. She and her son are saved.

Then in today’s second reading, Jesus is contrasted with the temple priesthood. The temple priests, the author of Hebrews says, were required to repeatedly offer sacrifices in the Temple year after year. In contrast, Jesus entered the heavenly “Holy of Holies” but once, offering there not the blood of bulls and lambs, but his own blood. Jesus is the true high priest.

The standard way of treating these readings runs like this: (1) The widow of Zarephath gave the Holy Man all she had to live on and was materially rewarded as a result; (2) the widow in the temple donated to the temple priests “all she had to live on” and was rewarded with Jesus’ praise; (3) follow the examples of the widow feeding Elijah and the widow giving her “mite;” (4) donate generously to your priest (a successor of the Great High Priest in Hebrews) and you will be richly rewarded either here, in heaven, or in both places.

That’s a standard treatment we have all heard. However, it has severe problems. To begin with, it ignores the liturgical response to the Elijah story taken from Psalm 146. That excerpt from Psalms sets a back-drop for the entire Liturgy of the Word and provides a key for interpreting not only today’s readings, but the entire Bible. The psalm reminds us that the poor are God’s Chosen People. God’s concern for the poor is not with their generosity towards God but with God’s securing justice for them. As the psalm says, God gives food to the hungry, sets captives free, gives sight to the blind, protects immigrants, and sustains the children of single moms. God loves those concerned with justice for the poor, the Psalm says. God loves prophets like Elijah and Jesus. On the other hand, God thwarts the ways of the wicked – those who, like the scribes and high priests (as well as members of the U.S. Congress), exploit God’s favored poor.

All of that represents a “red thread” running through the entire Judeo-Christian tradition. It offers us a key for interpreting the story of Elijah as well. It changes the emphasis of the story from the widow’s generosity, to God’s provision of food for the hungry and God’s concern for the children of single mothers.

With that key in mind, we are alerted to circumstances in today’s gospel story that summon us to interpret it differently from the standard treatment.

We are reminded that the episode takes place in an elaborate context of Jesus’ assault on the temple system. In effect, the context is Jesus’ symbolic destruction of the temple itself. Yes, there was that “cleansing” I referenced. But there was also Jesus’ prediction of the deconstruction of the building itself. “Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (13:1-2). Then there was that strange incident of Jesus cursing a fruitless fig tree as he was entering the temple precincts (11:12-14; 20-24).  The fig tree was the symbol of Israel. Here again Jesus pronounces a judgment on an entire system that had become corrupt and forgetful of the poor who are so central to God’s concern.

That judgment is extended in Jesus’ teaching immediately before the episode of the widow’s mite.  Again, Jesus takes a position “opposed” to the temple treasury and says, “Beware of the scribes . . . They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers.” As scripture scholar, Ched Myers points out, Jesus was probably referring to the practice of turning over to scribes the estates of deceased husbands. The surviving wives were considered incapable of administering a man’s affairs. For his troubles, the scribe-trustee was given a percentage of the estate. Understandably fraud and embezzlement were common. In this way, religion masked thievery from society’s most vulnerable.

With Jesus’ accusation ringing in their ears, a case-in-point, a poor widow, arrives on the scene. She pays her tithe – the flat tax – and leaves penniless. Jesus can take no more. He storms out of the temple.

According to this second interpretation, Jesus is not praising the generosity of the widow. Instead, he is condemning the scribes, the priests, the temple and their system of flat taxation. Jesus’ words about the widow represent the culminating point in his unrelenting campaign against hypocrisy and exploitation of the poor by the religious and political leadership of his day.

That was Pope Francis’ point too in his address to the U.S. Congress: In effect he came to the defense of the widow’s impoverished counterparts on death row or living under the threat of bombs and drones proliferated by an arms industry motivated by worship of money drenched in blood.

In effect, Pope Francis berated the gangsters arrayed before him – every one of them guilty of fleecing the poor, destroying their homes and fields – all to support a system as rotten and putrid as the one Jesus symbolically deconstructed.

As Mark has Jesus saying, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear!” (MK 4:9)

It’s Time to Take Action on Climate Chaos!

Bishops & Climate Change

It has been almost a month now since Pope Francis’ historic visit to the United States – almost a month since he issued his clarion call to save the planet, eliminate capital punishment, open borders to refugees, and divest from the arms industry.

And what has happened since?

Nothing at all – as far as one can see from the vantage point of the parish pew, the diocesan newspaper, or statements from the national hierarchy.

None of this is surprising. It’s the same non-response achieved by Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel.” That document called literally for changing everything in the Catholic Church. But nothing at all has changed as a result.

That wasn’t, of course, the response to Pope Francis’ visit here in September. Then there was great enthusiasm for traveling to Philadelphia to demonstrate Catholic faith by showing up to see the Holy Father in person.

Even my small parish in Berea, Kentucky sent a whole busload of people Pictures were taken. Descriptions of crowd density and of the hardships of traveling so far and lodging under primitive conditions were detailed. Everyone agreed however that it was all worth it.

Apparently, taking the pope seriously about climate change, capital punishment, the refugee crisis and disarmament is not worth it.

After all, the climate change process advances unabated. Despite the pope’s warnings, Catholics presumably continue watching Fox News, listening to Rush Limbaugh, and supporting climate change deniers in the political arena.

All of this is true, even though the pope warned in Laudato Si’:

“Regrettably, many efforts to seek concrete solutions to the environmental crisis have proved ineffective, not only because of powerful opposition but also because of more general lack of interest. Obstructionist attitudes, even on the part of believers, can range from denial of the problem to indifference, nonchalant resignation or blind confidence in technical solutions.” (14)

The words are prophetic. Indifference, nonchalance, and resignation seem to be the order of the day. As for “blind confidence in technical solutions,” one has to acknowledge the problem before that can enter the picture.

The pope is no stranger to denial. It was the order of the day in the case of Argentina’s Dirty War. Many Argentinians pretended they didn’t know about the kidnappings and disappearances of their neighbors, about the army’s rampant torture program or its thousands of extra-judicial assassinations.  As Argentinians said at the time, “We did not know, what no one could deny.”

That seems to be the very definition of Catholic majority consciousness relative to the issues this pope has centralized. It’s the very definition of Know-nothing-ism and religious irrelevance.

Instead, Catholics and others need to embrace the sense of urgency the pope has articulated so well. We need:

  • Frank discussion of diocesan divestment from oil and coal companies even in a coal state like Kentucky.
  • The conversion of parish plants away from dirty energy consumers and into solar energy generators.
  • The opening of our churches to the refugees created by the endless wars our tax dollars fund unquestioningly.
  • Church-sanctioned resistance to taxes that finance those wars, arms sales to Saudi Arabia and Israel, and continued extra-judicial assassinations by U.S. drones.
  • Protests against the scandal of the executions that have missed scarcely a beat since the pope’s clear pronouncement against capital punishment.
  • Consistent connection of Sunday liturgies and readings to the overriding issue of climate chaos.

Pope Francis is right: it’s time for action and prophetic witness in the face of the greatest set of problems our planet has ever faced.

Pope Francis Tells Kim Davis to “Stay Strong” and Nullifies His Entire U.S. Trip!

Pope & Kim

Since Pope Francis’ historic visit to the U.S., states have executed three death row inmates. The White House has promised further arms sales to Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Our military has continued daily airstrikes in Syria. It has bombed a Doctors without Borders hospital in Afghanistan. Yet another mass shooting facilitated by out-of-control arms manufacturers and their government servants has shocked us all. At the same time, preliminary work on the Keystone XL pipeline has continued unabated.

In his congressional address, the pope condemned all such actions in no uncertain terms.

Meanwhile, defying all expectations, the pontiff chose not to address specifically abortion, contraception and gay marriage. Those matters, he has said, have been over-emphasized while the essence of Jesus’ Gospel (Good News to the poor) has been correspondingly downplayed. In fact, Francis has described the Church’s pelvic concerns as “obsessions.”

Nonetheless, since the pope’s departure virtually the only lasting conversation has circled around two words spoken to Kim Davis, the county clerk from Kentucky, who has refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples.

Apparently at the invitation of the conservative Vatican Nuncio (ambassador), Ms. Davis appeared in a reception line, had her case briefly explained to the pope, shook his hand, and heard two words: “stay strong.” Those two words have overshadowed the thousands of sentences spoken by the pope in Washington, New York, and Philadelphia.

“Stay strong” was enthusiastically embraced by the mainstream media (MSM) as if it were the most significant papal utterance between September 22nd and September 25th. Apparently, it relocated commentators on familiar, comfortable ground far from the decidedly annoying “bold cultural revolution” advocated by the gentle visitor from the Vatican.

Later while on the plane back to Rome, the pope was pointedly asked about government officials who refuse to discharge a duty if they feel it violates conscience. In keeping with church tradition, the pope replied, “Conscientious objection must enter into every juridical structure because it is a right.”

The MSM seized upon that pronouncement as a further expression of papal support for Kim Davis.

Only a few applied the pronouncement’s logic to Kim Davis herself, who has been divorced three times and married four. Following the logic of “conscientious objection,” it would be much more consistent for Christian administrators in Rowan County to refuse all of Ms. Davis’ petitions for divorce which Jesus condemned as adulterous. (He said absolutely nothing about homosexuality.)

Much less did the MSM bother to apply the pope’s words about conscientious objection to whistle blowers in general or in particular to Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, the work of WikiLeaks, or to military personnel refusing orders. Once again, that would have moved the discussion into decidedly uncomfortable territory. It would have been too “political.”

In the meantime, national leaders, led by the United States, largely refuse to “become strong,” much less “stay strong” on matters of capital punishment, and weapons of mass destruction.  They’ve continued our headlong plunge towards the abyss represented by climate chaos – the lion in the room that threatens to devour us all.

According to Pope Francis, it’s towards taming that lion that focus and concern should be directed — instead of towards meaningless sideshows.

The Pope’s Address to Congress: First Impressions

Pope Congress 2

It was a fabulous speech by the world’s leading spiritual and thought-leader, who has just produced our century’s most important public document, Laudato Si’, the papal encyclical on the environment.

Pope Francis addressed not just the dignitaries in the Senate chambers, but all of us – parents struggling to support families, social activists, the elderly and the young.

The pope emphasized communitarian values: dialog, the common good, solidarity, cooperation, sharing, and the Golden Rule.

He held up for emulation four counter-cultural heroes he understood as embodying the most admirable of “American” values. They weren’t Rockefeller, Reagan, Jobs, or even FDR. Instead they were:

  1. Abraham Lincoln: the champion of liberty for the oppressed
  2. Martin Luther King: the advocate of pluralism and non-exclusion
  3. Dorothy Day: the apostle of social justice and the rights of the poor
  4. Thomas Merton: the Cistercian monk who embodied openness to God and the capacity for inter-faith dialog.

Of course, Lincoln and King were victims of assassination for championing the rights of African Americans.

Day and Merton vigorously resisted what Dorothy Day called “this filthy, rotten system.” (As is well-known, she was also an unwed mother whose first pregnancy ended in abortion.)

Following the examples of The Four, the pope called for the end of:

  • Fundamentalisms of every kind – including economic fundamentalisms
  • Political polarizations that prevent opposing parties from dialog and cooperation
  • Exclusion of immigrants by a nation of immigrant descendants
  • Capital punishment and its replacement by programs of rehabilitation
  • The global arms trade and arms sales in general along with the wars and violence they stimulate
  • Violent conflict and its replacement by difficult but essentially diplomatic process of dialog
  • The human roots of climate chaos and the related problems of poverty
  • Unlimited and directionless development of technology

Throughout this gentle but radical speech, the audience seemed to be waiting for the other shoe to drop – i.e. for the pope to mollify his conservative critics by addressing their favorite “religious issues” contraception, abortion, gay marriage. But the shoe never hit the floor.

At two points the pope about to untie his footwear. In mid-speech, he stated that we must protect and defend human life at every stage of its development. This lured his audience into a standing ovation.

However, the illustration of his point was not abortion, but capital punishment. Punishment for crime, Francis said, must never exclude hope and rehabilitation. We must end the death penalty, he asserted, since every life is sacred.

Then towards the end of his address, Francis spoke of his anticipated presence at this weekend’s Philadelphia Conference on the family. Families, he said, are threatened as never before, both from within and without.

But then, instead of addressing gay marriage, the pope spoke of the “most vulnerable” in this context – not the unborn, but “the young” threatened by violence, abuse and despair. Many of them hesitate to even start families, he lamented – some because of their own lack of possibilities. Others demur because they have too many possibilities. “Their problems are our problems,” the pope said. We must address them and solve their underlying causes.

It was a masterful speech. It continually lured conservatives into standing ovations for issues they constantly oppose: the end of the capital punishment, protection of the environment, openness to immigrants, the end of arms sales of all kinds. The address summoned legislators to their real responsibility – pursuing the common good, the chief aim, the pope said, of all politics.

The pope’s basic message was be daring and courageous – like the counter-cultural activists, Lincoln, King, Day, Merton, and (I would add) Pope Francis!