God’s Abundance vs. the Greed, and Self- Interested Denial of the Rich : Jesus’ Parable of the Sower

Parable of Sower

Readings for 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time: IS 55:10-11; PS 65:10-14; ROM 8:15-23; MT 13: 1-23; http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/071314.cfm

Not long ago, on the 4th of July, Amy Goodman replayed an interview with the legendary folk singer, Pete Seeger. In the course of the interview, Pete commented on today’s Gospel reading – the familiar parable of the Sower. His words are simple, unpretentious and powerful. They’re reminders that the stories Jesus made up were intended for ordinary people – for peasants and unschooled farmers. They were meant to encourage such people to believe that simple farmers could change the world – could bring in God’s Kingdom. Doing so was as simple as sowing seeds.

Seeger said:

“Realize that little things lead to bigger things. That’s what Seeds is all about. And there’s a wonderful parable in the New Testament: The sower scatters seeds. Some seeds fall in the pathway and get stamped on, and they don’t grow. Some fall on the rocks, and they don’t grow. But some seeds fall on fallow ground, and they grow and multiply a thousand fold. Who knows where some good little thing that you’ve done may bring results years later that you never dreamed of?”

Farmers in Jesus’ day needed encouragement like that. They were up against the Roman Empire which considered them terrorists. We need encouragement too as we face Rome’s counterpart headed by the U.S.

The obstacles we face are overwhelming. I even hate to mention them. But the short list includes the following – all connected to seeds, and farming, and to cynically controlling the natural abundance which is celebrated in today’s readings as God’s gift to all. Our problems include:

• Creation of artificial food scarcity by corporate giants such as Cargill who patent seeds for profit while prosecuting farmers for the crime of saving Nature’s free production from one harvest to the following year’s planting.
• Climate change denial by the rich and powerful who use the Jesus tradition to persuade the naïve that control of natural processes and the resulting ecocide are somehow God’s will.
• Resulting wealth concentration in the hands of the eight men who currently own as much as half the world’s (largely agrarian) population.
• Suppression of that population’s inevitable resistance by terming it “terrorism” and devoting more than half of U.S. discretionary spending to military campaigns against farmers and tribal Peoples scattering seed and reaping pitiful harvests in places like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine.
• Ignoring what the UN has pointed out for years (and Thomas Picketty has recently confirmed): that a 4% tax on the world’s richest 225 individuals would produce the $40 billion dollars or so necessary to provide adequate food, water, shelter, clothing, education and health care for the entire world where more than 40% still earn livings by sowing seeds.
• Blind insistence by our politicians on moving in the opposite direction – reducing taxes for the rich and cutting programs for the poor and protection of our planet’s water and soil.

It’s the tired story of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. In today’s Gospel, Jesus quotes the 1st century version of that old saw. In Jesus’ day it ran: “. . . to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”

Today’s liturgy of the word reminds us that such cynical “wisdom” does not represent God’s way. Instead the divine order favors abundance of life for all – not just for the 1%. as our culture would have it. For instance, today’s responsorial psalm proclaims that even without human intervention, the rains and wind plow the ground. As a result, we’re surrounded with abundance belonging to all:

“You have crowned the year with your bounty,
and your paths overflow with a rich harvest;
The untilled meadows overflow with it,
and rejoicing clothes the hills.
The fields are garmented with flocks
and the valleys blanketed with grain.
They shout and sing for joy.”

Because of God’s generosity, there is room for everyone in the Kingdom. The poor have enough; so poverty disappears. Meanwhile, the formerly super-rich have only their due share of the 1/7 billionth part of the world’s product that rightfully belongs to everyone.

To repeat: abundance for all is the way of Nature – the way of God.

Only a syndrome of denial – willful blindness and deafness – enables the rich and powerful to continue their exploitation. Jesus describes the process clearly in today’s final reading. He says:

“They look but do not see and hear but do not listen or understand.
Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in them, which says:
You shall indeed hear but not understand,
you shall indeed look but never see.
Gross is the heart of this people,
they will hardly hear with their ears,
they have closed their eyes,
lest they see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their hearts and be converted,
and I heal them.”

Those of us striving to follow Jesus’ Way hear his call to open our eyes and ears. Conversion – deep change at the personal and social levels – is our shared vocation. That’s the only way to bring in God’s Kingdom. Individually our efforts might be as small and insignificant as tiny seeds. But those seeds can be powerful if aligned with the forces of Nature and the Kingdom of God. That’s true even if much of what we sow falls on rocky ground, are trampled underfoot, eaten by birds or are choked by thorns. We never know which seeds will come to fruition.

Such realization means:

• Lowering expectations about results from our individual acts in favor of the Kingdom.
• Nonetheless deepening our faith and hope in the inevitability of the Kingdom’s coming as the result of innumerable small acts that coalesce with similar acts performed by others.

Once again, Pete Seeger expressed it best:

“Imagine a big seesaw. One end of the seesaw is on the ground because it has a big basket half full of rocks in it. The other end of the seesaw is up in the air because it’s got a basket one quarter full of sand. Some of us have teaspoons and we are trying to fill it up. Most people are scoffing at us. They say, “People like you have been trying for thousands of years, but it is leaking out of that basket as fast as you are putting it in.” Our answer is that we are getting more people with teaspoons every day. And we believe that one of these days or years — who knows — that basket of sand is going to be so full that you are going to see that whole seesaw going zoop! in the other direction. Then people are going to say, “How did it happen so suddenly?” And we answer, “Us and our little teaspoons over thousands of years.”

(Sunday Homily) Liberation Theology, BRICS and the Untelevised Global Revolution

BRICS 2014

Readings for Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: I KGS 3: 5, 7-12; PS 119: 57, 72, 76-77, 127-130; ROM 8: 28-30; MT 13: 44-52; http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/072714.cfm

The whole world was surprised when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1989. The dissolution represented an earth shaking paradigm shift to say the least. However, virtually no one claims foreknowledge on that one. One wonders how such oversight was possible.

Something similar is happening today. The poor of the world are asserting themselves against U.S. hegemony. Yet, virtually no one in the mainstream seems to notice. Once again, the revolution is not being televised.

Not even followers of Jesus’ Way are commenting. And this despite the fact that before all others, we should be attuned to paradigmatic shifts in world order connected with what Jesus termed the Kingdom of God.

Such paradigm contrast is suggested by today’s liturgy of the word. It juxtaposes the dream of Solomon, Israel’s would-be empire builder, and Jesus’ words about the contrasting nature of God’s Kingdom.

Let me show you what I mean by connecting the three elements I’ve just mentioned: (1) today’s untelevised revolution, (2) Solomon’s imperial ambitions, and (3) Jesus’ contrasting Kingdom of God.

Begin by noting that the current world order is dissolving before our very eyes. That became apparent two weeks ago at the Sixth Summit of Heads of State and of Governments of BRICS which took place in Fortaleza, Brasilia. Besides leaders from the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), the presidents of UNASUR, the Union of South American Nations, all participated including Kirchner (Argentina), Bachelet (Chile), Santos (Colombia), Morales (Bolivia), Correa (Ecuador), Mujica (Uruguay), Maduro (Venezuela), and Umala (Peru).

Those present at the conference represent more than half the people in the world and fully 25% of its gross domestic product. That’s more economic power than the United States which controls 20% of the world’s GDP with 5% of the planet’s population.

And what did the BRICS Conference participants discuss? Not bombings, sanctions, debt ceilings, presidential impeachments, or lawsuits against heads of state – not birth control, abortion, gay marriage or border security. Instead they actually confronted the shared problems of the world – all the situations our provincial U.S. Congress systematically avoids, denies, and/or manipulates for political purposes.

Even more importantly, BRICS Conference attendees specifically planned the de-Americanization of the global economy and the creation of a multilateral, multipolar world prioritizing the needs of the Global South. Deliberation topics included:

 * Third World development in general
 * The industrialization of Africa in particular
 * The Creation of a BRICS development bank to replace the World Bank and the IMF
 * New international currencies to supplant the U.S. dollar as the world reserve
 * Sustainable responses to climate change
 * Building a railway from the Pacific Ocean in Peru to the Atlantic in Brazil
 * Installation of an IT cable from Vladivostok to Shantou, Chennai, Cape Town and Fortaleza (bypassing the United States).
* BRICS collaboration with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) which binds Russia and China into a common security policy with Central Asia.

Such matters are world-transforming.

In fact, they represent practical steps towards something like the global wealth tax suggested by Thomas Picketty in Capital in the 21st Century – a tax dismissed by U.S. mainstream media as excessively idealistic, impractical and never-to-be implemented.

The thing is: those willing to impose such tax for the benefit of the developing world belong to the developing nations themselves. They are going their own way free from the hegemony of the United States.

All of this is relevant to today’s liturgical readings.

The selections implicitly compare the paradigm shift heralded by Jesus and his proclamation of God’s Kingdom to replace the imperial order not only of Rome, but of Israel itself. Israel’s leaders a thousand years earlier had hijacked the Mosaic Covenant favoring God’s poor.

In today’s first reading Solomon’s court historians mask the hijacking by predictably identifying their employer as “the wisest man ever,” just as before him they had identified Solomon’s cruel and womanizing father, David, as “a man after God’s own heart.” In this royally hijacked form, the Covenant connected God and the royal family. It assured a royal dynasty that would last “forever.” It guaranteed God’s blessings on Solomon’s expansionistic policies. (That’s like the clap-trap we have to endure from American Exceptionalists and from those anticipating a New American Century.)

The covenantal truth was much different. In its original Mosaic form (as opposed to the Davidic bastardization), the Covenant joined Yahweh (Israel’s only King) and escaped slaves – poor people all – threatened by royalty and their rich cronies.

The Covenant’s laws celebrated in today’s responsorial psalm protected the poor from their perennial antagonists, Israel’s court and its cronies. For instance, “Thou shalt not steal,” was originally addressed to large landowners intent on appropriating the garden plots belonging to subsistence agriculturalists.

Despite such prohibitions, those who established Israel’s basic laws knew the power of money. The rich would inevitably absorb the holdings of the poor. So Israel’s leaders established the world’s oldest “confiscatory tax.” It was called the “Jubilee Year” which mandated that every 50 years all debts would be forgiven and land would be returned to its original (poor) owners.

Like the BRICS Conference, the Mosaic Covenant prioritized the needs of the poor.

The advent of a Jubilee Year represented the substance of Jesus’ basic proclamation. No wonder the poor loved him. No wonder the refrain we sang together this morning repeated again and again, “Lord I love your commands.” That’s the refrain of the 99% in struggle with the rich 1% represented by Solomon and his court.

In today’s Gospel selection, Jesus indicates the radical swerve necessary for establishing God’s kingdom understood in Jubilee terms. It involves “selling all you have” and buying into the Kingdom concept as if it were buried treasure or a pearl of great price.

I’m not saying that the Kingdom has arrived with the BRICS Conference. I’m not claiming that Jubilee is about to dawn. However a power has emerged which actually prioritizes benefitting the poor instead of the 1%. And followers of Jesus’ Way should buy into it. We need to celebrate it and anticipate it in our own lives.

The New World Order anticipated by BRICS is certainly not perfect. However it’s far from the imperial order which protects the given order, constantly threatens sanctions if you disobey, and whose policies inevitably target the poor and most vulnerable.

In other words the emphasis of the BRICS Conference is not on policies causing Matthew’s “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Instead it’s on cooperation, mutual respect and common good.

Now that’s a move Jesus’ followers can endorse. It’s moving us towards global change even more significant than the unforeseen fall of the Soviet Union.

That’s reason for hope.

A Pope and a Pimp Went into St. Peter’s to Pray (Sunday Homily)

Pharisee_and_the_Publican
Readings for 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time: SIR 35: 12-14, 11-18; PS 34: 2=3, 17=18, 19, 28; 2 TM 4: 6-8, 16-18; LK 18: 9-14. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/102713.cfm

“A pope and a pimp went into St. Peter’s to Pray.” That’s the way scripture scholar, John Dominic Crossan, conveys the shock that must have been felt by Jesus’ audience when he opened this morning’s gospel parable by even joining the words “Pharisee” and “tax collector” in the same sentence. It’s like putting “pope” and “pimp” together. It jars the ear. And why would a pimp be praying at all?

Nevertheless, Jesus begins: “A Pharisee and a tax collector went up to the Temple to pray.” Customarily homilists use this parable to reinforce conventional wisdom about pride and humility. The Pharisee was proud, they say. The tax collector was humble. Be like the tax collector.

I however think there’s something much more challenging and fundamental going on in this parable. The focus of Jesus’ story is not pride vs. humility. It’s about rejecting the Pharisee’s conventional morality. The parable even calls us to scrap conventional wisdom about pride and humility.

More positively, the story is a summons to enter God’s Kingdom by identifying with the poor and despised. It also explains why the conventionally good simply cannot enter the Kingdom of God.

Let me explain.

Think in terms of popes and pimps. Popes are generally respected people. They’re religious leaders. Wherever they go, crowds flock around them just to get a glimpse, a blessing, or possibly even a smile or touch.

Pharisees in Jesus’s time enjoyed similar respect with the common people. Pharisees were religious teachers and textbook examples of conventional morality. They usually did what the one in today’s gospel said he did. They kept the law. The Pharisee in today’s reading was probably right; chances are he wasn’t like most people.

Generally Pharisees, were not greedy, dishonest, or adulterers. Or as their exemplar in Luke put it, he was not like the tax collector alongside him in the Temple. Pharisees gave tithes on all they possessed – to help with Temple upkeep.

On the other hand, tax collectors in Jesus’ day were notorious crooks. Like pimps, they were usually despised. Tax collectors were typically dishonest and greedy. They were adulterers too. They took advantage of their power by extorting widows unable to pay in money into paying in kind.

In other words, the Pharisee’s prayer was correct on all counts.

But, we might ask, what about the tax collector’s prayer: “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner?” A beautiful prayer, no?

Don’t be so quick to say “yes.”

Notice that this tax collector doesn’t repent. He doesn’t say, like the tax collector Zacchaeus in Luke’s very next chapter, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much (LK 19:8). There is no sign of repentance or of willingness to change his profession on the part of this particular crook.

And yet Jesus concludes his parable by saying: ”I tell you, the latter (i.e. the tax collector) went home justified, not the former. . .” Why?

I think the rest of today’s liturgy of the word supplies an answer.

Look at those readings again. They’re all about God’s partiality towards the poor, oppressed, orphans, widows and the lowly – those who need God’s special protection, because the culture at large tends to write them off or ignore them. Typically, they’re the ones conventionality classifies as deviant. The Jewish morality of Jesus time called them all “unclean.”

However all of them – even the worst – were especially deal to Jesus’ heart. And this not because they were “virtuous,” but simply because of their social location. Elsewhere, Jesus specifically includes tax collectors (and prostitutes) in that group. In MT 21: 38-42, he tells the Pharisees, “Prostitutes and tax collectors will enter God’s Kingdom before you religious professionals.”

More specifically, in this morning’s first reading, Sirach says that the poor, oppressed, orphans, widows and the lowly are the ones Yahweh fittingly pays attention to. That same theme appears in the refrain we all sang together in today’s responsorial psalm, “The Lord hears the cry of the poor.”

As a result, those who simply belong to that category – the poor and oppressed – are “justified” in virtue of their social (non) status. The word “justified” means “made just” – or fit to enter God’s Kingdom where justice is the order of the day.

Similarly justified are the non-poor who imitate Sirach’s “God of Justice” by conscious identification with those considered “sinners” by the prevailing culture. Those who humble themselves in that way are like Sirach’s “God of justice” who hears the cry of the oppressed, the wail of the orphan, the prayer of the lowly. Or (again) as our responsorial psalm put it today: “The Lord hears the cry of the poor.”

But why would a good person like the Pharisee be excluded from God’s Kingdom? Does God somehow bar his entry? I don’t think so. God’s Kingdom is for everyone.

Rather it was because men like the Pharisee in the temple don’t really want to enter that place of GREAT REVERSAL, where the first are last, the rich are poor, the poor are rich, and where (as I said) prostitutes and tax collectors are rewarded.

The Pharisee excludes himself! In fact, the temple’s holy people wanted nothing to do with the people they considered “unclean.” In other words, it was impossible for Pharisees and the Temple Establishment to conceive of a Kingdom open to the unclean. And even if there was such a Kingdom, these purists didn’t want to be there.

Let’s put that in terms we can understand in our culture.

Usually rich white people don’t want to live next door to poor people or in the same neighborhood with black people – especially if those in question aren’t rich like them.

Imagine God’s Kingdom in terms of the ghetto. Rich white people don’t want to be there.

But ironically, according to this morning’s readings – according to Jesus – the “undesirables” who live there are the ones to whom the Kingdom of God belongs. They are the favorites of the God who Sirach says is “not unduly partial to the weak.” Rather God is fittingly partial to them as the Sirach reading itself and the rest of today’s liturgy of the word make perfectly clear!

This means that any separation from God’s chosen poor amounts to excluding oneself from the Kingdom white Christians spend so much time obsessing about.

So today’s readings are much more radical than usually understood. The parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector – of the pope and the pimp in St. Peter’s – is not an affirmation of conventional morality. It rejects such ethnocentric hypocrisy! Jesus’ parable is not even about approving conventional wisdom concerning pride and humility.

As always with Jesus’ teachings, it is about the Kingdom of God – about those who belong and those who exclude themselves.

In practice, this realization suggests for starters that:

• It’s no badge of honor to subscribe to conventional morality or conventional wisdom.
• Christians are called to be counter-cultural – more in solidarity with those we associate with pimps than with popes.
• For “Americans” this means discounting middle class morality and (white) “family values” as criteria of faith.
• According to Jesus, by itself such conformity actually excludes one from participation in God’s promised future.
• Instead authentic faith means living a life of solidarity with the poor – making their issues our own.
• Hence Christians should be in the forefront of movements on behalf of the poor.
• For example, rather than joining “devout Catholics” like Paul Ryan in leading crusades to cut back food stamp programs, we should be applying pressure to expand them.
• The same holds true for public housing, Medicaid, Social Security, and voting rights.

In Praise of Persistent Women like Medea Benjamin, Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Goodman (Sunday Homily)

Widow-and-Unjust-Judge

Readings for 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time: EX 17: 8-13; PS 121: 1-8; 2 TM 3:14-4:2; LK 18: 1-8; http://usccb.org/bible/readings/102013.cfm

Medea Benjamin is a peace activist and founder of Code Pink. In May of this year, she interrupted a speech by President Obama about the closing of Guantanamo Bay. Four times during his speech, she reminded the president that as chief executive he had the power to close the prison as he had promised during his campaign of 2008. The president was forced to acknowledge Benjamin’s point, but held that the issue was more complicated than she made it out to be. Clearly her outspokenness called for great courage and exposed to an international audience President Obama’s failure to keep his word. It pressured the president to change policy.
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Elizabeth Warren is the Democratic Senator from Massachusetts. Elected to the Senate in 2012, she is the first female senator from Massachusetts. Ms. Warren is a tireless consumer advocate and the first female Senator from Massachusetts. During her campaign, she called attention to the hypocrisy of “self-made men” claiming they owed nothing to government or community to explain their success. She said,

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there — good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for.….Now look. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea — God Bless! Keep a Big Hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”
_____
Amy Goodman is a television journalist and host of “Democracy Now: the War and Peace Report” – a daily news hour on the Pacifica Radio and Television network. In the face of mainstream media’s refusal to cover significant grassroots events and issues, Ms. Goodman’s program has been called “probably the most significant progressive news institution that has come around in some time” (by professor and media critic Robert McChesney.) In addition to OpEdNews, “Democracy Now” is an invaluable daily source of information for the well-informed. It is an example of what can be accomplished for peace and social justice in the face of overwhelming odds.
_____

Keep in mind the examples of Medea Benjamin, Elizabeth Warren, and Amy Goodman as we attempt to understand today’s liturgy of the word. Our readings raise the issue of prayer, and what it means (in Jesus’ words) to “pray always without ceasing.”

Actually, the readings compare what might be termed “men’s way of praying” with women’s. At least in today’s readings, men pray that God might intervene to slaughter their enemies. In contrast, the woman in today’s gospel confronts the power structure of her day as her way of praying. That is, she persistently works to bring her world into harmony with God’s justice.

Take that first reading from Exodus. . . . Did it make you raise your eyebrows? It should have. It’s about God facilitating mass slaughter. It tells the story of Moses praying during a battle against the King of Amalek. It’s a classic etiology evidently meant to explain a chair-like rock formation near a site remembered as an early Hebrew battleground.

“What means this formation?” would have been the question inspiring this explanatory folk tale. “Well,” came the answer, “Long ago when our enemy Amelek attacked our people, Moses told Joshua to raise an elite corps of fighters. During the course of the ensuing battle, Moses watched from this very place where we are standing accompanied by his brother Aaron and another friend called Hur.

Moses raised his hands in prayer during the day-long battle. And as long as he did so, Joshua’s troops got the better of Amalek’s. But Moses would get tired from time to time; so he’d lower his hands. When he did so, Amalek’s troops got the better of Joshua’s.

“To solve the problem, Aaron and Hur sat Moses down on this stone you see before us. They held up his arms during the entire battle. That strategy saved the day. Joshua won his battle “mowing down Amelek and his people.”

So here we have a God who responds to ad hoc prayers and reverses history so that one group of his children might “mow down” another group of people he supposedly loves. Hmmm. . . .

In today’s gospel, Jesus has another approach to prayer. For him, prayer is not an ad hoc affair – about changing God’s mind. Rather, praying always represents the adoption of an attitude that consistently seeks justice for the oppressed. Praying always means living from a place that won’t let go of justice concerns like those that drive Medea Benjamin, Elizabeth Warren and Amy Goodman.

To illustrate that point for his own time, Jesus tells a comic parable about a persistent woman. (Remember, he’s speaking to people who have no power in a legal system, which, like ours favors the wealthy and powerful.)

“Imagine a judge,” Jesus said. “He’s like most of the judges we know. He doesn’t give a damn about the God of the poor, and he doesn’t care what people like us think of him.” (Already Jesus’ audience is smiling seeing a funny story coming.)

“But then along comes this widow-woman. Like all of us, she’s poor, and as usual, the judge pays no attention to her.” (Jesus’ audience recognizes the syndrome; they nod to each other.)

“But this woman’s a nagger,” Jesus says. (Now his audience is snickering and chuckling.)

“She just won’t let go. And she’s strong and aggressive besides. She comes back day after day insisting that she get justice against her adversary. And as the days go by, she gets more and more insistent – and threatening. So much so that the judge starts getting worried about his own safety.

(Laughter from the crowd . . .)

“’While it is true,’ he says to himself, ‘that I neither fear God nor respect any human being, because this widow keeps bothering me I shall deliver a just decision for her lest she finally come and strike me.’”

In other words, this macho judge is afraid of this poor widow; he’s afraid she’ll come and beat him up!

Can you imagine Jesus saying that without smiling broadly – and without the crowd roaring in laughter?

Anyway, here’s Jesus point: “If an unjust judge responds to the prayer of the poor like that, how do you suppose the All-Parent will respond when we ask for justice? The All-Parent will respond swiftly, Jesus says, because that’s who God is – the one who (as Martin Luther King put it) has established an arc of history that bends towards justice.

Prayer, then, is about reminding ourselves of that fact, trusting and having faith that in the long run justice and truth will prevail. Taking that position in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, takes great faith that’s harder and harder to find.

So Jesus ends his parable with the rhetorical question, “When the Son of Man returns, do you think he’ll find that kind of faith anywhere?”

What I’m suggesting here is that today we’re more likely to find that kind of faith, that kind of prayer, that kind of persistence in women rather than men. The example of social activist Medea Benjamin encourages us to find our voices in defense of the voiceless in U.S. prison camps throughout the world. Politician, Elizabeth Warren, calls us to pray always by calling into question received truths like those surrounding “self-made men.” Amy Goodman and her “War and Peace Report” inspire us to renounce ideas of God that call us to “mow our enemies down.”

Thank God for persistent women! We men have an awful lot to learn from them.

The Rich Are Funny (Sunday Homily)

Rich Man

Readings for 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time: AM 8:4-7; PS 113: 1-2, 4-8; I TM 2:1-8; LK16: 1-13 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/092213.cfm

Jesus loved telling stories that made fun of rich people. He’s at it again in this morning’s gospel.

You can imagine the delight such parables brought Jesus’ audiences of poor peasants, fishermen, beggars, prostitutes, and unemployed day laborers. They surely chuckled as he spun tales about “stewards” who couldn’t dig a hole in the ground if their life depended on it or who were mortified at the very thought of begging. They’d laugh about rich landowners storing up grain and dying before they had a chance to enjoy their profits. They knew what Jesus meant when he mocked pathetically avaricious landlords getting angry when their money managers failed to increase their bank accounts while the boss was away attending parties. They’d shake their heads knowingly when Jesus mocked heartless employers who reaped where they didn’t sow.

Jesus’ listeners would have found today’s story especially entertaining. After all it featured an accountant who cheated his wealthy employer. And then the rich guy ends up appreciating the accountant’s dishonesty. Men and women in Jesus’ audience would have nudged each other and smiled knowingly at the tale.

“That’s the way those people are,” they’d laugh. “They’re so dishonest; they can’t help appreciating corruption in others, even when it means they’re getting screwed themselves!

“Yeah, the rich stick together,” the crowds would agree. “Their greed and dishonesty is the glue. They know: today it’s you getting caught with your hand in the till. Tomorrow it might be me. So let’s not be too hard on one another.

“Ha, ha, what a joke they are!”

In today’s first reading, the prophet Amos uses a different tactic to decry the rich. Instead of humor, Amos straight out lambasts them for “trampling on the needy,” and exploiting poor farmers. They’re so eager to make money, Amos charged; they can’t wait till the Sabbath ends so they can resume their dirty work. Then first chance they get, the crooks manipulate currencies and rig scales in their favor and short-change the buyer. They sell shoddy products and underpay workers. God will never forget such crimes, Amos angrily declares.

Our responsorial psalm agrees with the prophet. The psalmist reminds us that God is not on the side of the rich, but of the poor. In fact God so honors the lowly that (S)he considers them royalty. “He seats them with princes” the psalmist says. Yahweh rescues the lowly from their greedy exploiters.

So Jesus ridicules the rich with humor, while Amos wrings his hands over their crimes with righteous indignation. Both approaches highlight the basic truth put so memorably by Jesus when he says in today’s reading from Luke that we have to choose between money and the biblical God who champions the poor. It’s one or the other. We can’t serve two masters.

“So be like the rich guys in today’s story,” Jesus adds with a twinkle in his eye. He searches the crowd for the pickpockets, the “lame” and “blind” beggars. He looks for the hookers and tax collectors.

“Stick together,” he says. Then he winks. “And that dishonest money you depend on . . . Spread it around and help us all out.

“Better yet, give it to the Resistance Movement and you’ll get one of those rich guys’ houses when the Romans are gone and the Kingdom comes.”

Everyone laughs.

On Not Returning to Daddy: Heretical Reflections on the Prodigal Son (Sunday Homily)

Chelsea Manning

Readings for 24th Sunday in Ordinary Time: EX 32: 7-11, 13-14; PS 51: 3-4, 12-13, 19; ITM 1: 12-17; LK 15: 1-32. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/091513.cfm

A few weeks ago, Chelsea Manning (formerly known as Bradley Manning) was sentenced to 35 years in prison for blowing the whistle on the U.S. military and the officials who run it. In her job in Military Intelligence, Ms. Manning came across thousands of documents and videos exposing war crimes routinely committed by U.S. troops and their superiors. She released more than 700,000 of those documents in the hope that they would start a national dialog about the morality of the War on Terror. For her trouble, Ms. Manning was tortured for months. Following a court martial, she has been imprisoned instead of the criminals she reported.
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Last May, Edward Snowden, a data analyst working for Booz Allen Hamilton, the National Security Agency and the CIA, released a trove of documents revealing that the U.S. government has been spying on all U.S. citizens. Those spying on us have been secretly reading our e-mails and recording our phone conversations.

Such intrusion stands in blatant violation of the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. constitution which reads: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Mr. Snowden released the documents to start a national conversation about the justification for secretly suspending such constitutional guarantees. For his trouble, he was threatened with arrest and imprisonment by the very agents whose alleged crimes he was exposing. Mr. Snowden is now living in Russia where he has been given temporary political asylum. His asylum has largely been justified by the fear that if returned to the U.S. he would suffer the torture and mistreatment inflicted on Chelsea Manning.
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Please keep the Manning and Snowden cases in mind as we reflect on today’s gospel selection.
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Didn’t we just recently read the Parable of the Prodigal Son at Mass?

I checked.

Well, yes, if you count the 4th Sunday of Lent less than six months ago. In fact, this famous story repeats so many times in our Liturgies of the Word that most of us know it nearly by heart.

Personally, I must confess a bit of boredom with the tale. It even crossed my mind to skip a homily this week, and simply refer my readers back to last Lent’s reflections.

But on second thought, allow me to take another shot at it with the Manning and Snowden cases as background. This time I’ll take my cue from John Dominic Crossan’s book The Power of Parable: how fiction by Jesus became fiction about Jesus. There Crossan suggests challenging Luke’s parable as excessively patriarchal. After all, the story is about a bad boy who realizes the error of his ways and returns home to daddy and daddy’s patriarchy with its familiar rules, prohibitions, and tried and true ways of doing things.

But what if the prodigal left home and never looked back? Would he have been better off? Would we be better off by not following his example as described today by Luke – by instead separating from the patriarchy and never looking back?

The French intellectual Andre Gide actually asked that question back in 1907 when he wrote “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” In his version, Gide expands the cast of the parable’s characters to five, instead of the usual three. Gide adds the father’s wife and a younger son. The latter, bookish and introspective, becomes the story’s central figure who escapes his father’s walled estate never to return.

According to Crossan, Gide tells his version of Jesus’ parable through a series of dialogs between the returned prodigal and his father, his older brother, his mother, and lastly, his younger brother. In his dialog, the father reveals that the older brother is really in charge of the father’s household. According to daddy, the brother is extremely conservative. He’s convinced that there is no life outside the walls of the family compound. It’s the older son who must be obeyed there.

For his part, the older brother, reinforces what the father said. “I am his sole interpreter,” the elder son claims, “and whoever would understand the father must listen to me.” In other words, the elder brother has owned the authority which the father has surrendered to him. (Doesn’t that sound a lot like the male hierarchy’s claims within the church in relation to the Bible? It’s also reminiscent of our government’s position regarding the Constitution. Our president’s interpretation is the only valid one.)

Then the mother comes forward. She tells the prodigal about his younger brother. “He reads too much,” she says, and . . . often perches on the highest tree in the garden from which, you remember, the country can be seen above the walls.” One can’t help detect in the mother’s words a foreboding (or is it a suppressed hope) that her youngest son might go over the wall and never come back.

And that’s exactly what the younger son decides to do. In his dialog with the returned prodigal, he shares his plan to leave home that very night. But he will do so, he says, penniless – without an inheritance like the one his now-returned brother so famously squandered.

“It’s better that way,” the prodigal tells his younger sibling. “Yes leave. Forget your family, and never come back.” He adds wistfully, “You are taking with you all my hopes.”

The younger son turns for the door. His brother cautions him, “Be careful on the steps . . .”

Gide’s version of Jesus’ parable makes me think of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, and how in these pivotal times they have followed the youngest son in Gide’s parable as he goes over the wall into the unfamiliar realm of uncertainty, danger, and creative possibility.

In both cases, making that move required great courage. It meant escaping the safety and comfort that the confines of the patriarchy provide. Today Chelsea Manning sits in Leavenworth Prison in a far different “America” than the one she was trying to save. Snowden lives in exile in Russia without any hope of return to the country he too was attempting to help. In Manning’s case, leaving the father’s estate even meant transcending the patriarchy’s strict boundaries around sexual identity.

Because of the courage of Manning and Snowden we’re all better off and the patriarchy is weakened.

What does all of this mean for us as we reconsider Jesus’ overly-familiar parable in the light of Gide’s retelling? I think it might mean that we must:

• Be courageous and think for ourselves even about values seemingly endorsed by Jesus.
• See that patriarchy and male values of power, prestige, profit, individualism, competition, violence and war represent the roots of our world’s problems.
• Recognize that comfort in “our father’s house” is not good for us, our children or the planet.
• Do all we can to reject the patriarchy and its values and never look back
• Value people like Mr. Snowden and Ms. Manning as exemplary heroes showing us that it is indeed possible to leave “Our Father’s House” and its values for the sake of God’s Kingdom or however Snowden and Manning might understand the new reality to which they summon us.
• Appreciate the symbolic importance of Chelsea Manning’s rejection of military machismo in favor of the feminine world and its values of inclusion, community, and cooperation.
• Admit that our male-dominated church is a central part of the reigning system of patriarchal dominance along with its exclusively male understandings of God as Father. Act accordingly.
• Always be careful on the steps.

When the Government Turns Criminal: Edward Snowden and the Good Samaritan (Sunday Homily)

Snowden

Readings for 15th Sunday in Ordinary Time: DT. 30: 10-14; Ps. 69: 14, 17, 30-31, 34, 36-37; Col. 1: 15-20; Lk. 10: 25-37. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/071413.cfm

In his recent book about the parables of Jesus (The Power of Parable: How Fiction by Jesus Became Fiction about Jesus), John Dominic Crossan poses the question: What happens to your world when the “best” people act badly and only the “worst” do what is right?

That scenario seems to be playing itself out in the case of Edward Snowden.

Snowden, you recall, is the NSA contractor and CIA employee who last month disclosed a vast secret program of U.S. government spying on its own citizens and on individuals, corporations, and governments throughout the world.

The program (Prism by name) seems to violate the Fourth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution which reads: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Snowden made his disclosures three months after James Clapper, the Director of U.S. intelligence had denied its existence in testimony (under oath) before the Senate Committee overseeing the U.S. intelligence program. Snowden’s disclosures also followed hot on the heels of President Obama’s publically expressed concern that China was illegally spying on the U.S. in exactly the same way (though on a smaller scale) that the U.S. turns out to have been spying on China and its own allies.

For his troubles in exposing such lies, hypocrisy, and violations of the Constitution, Snowden himself has been designated a spy, traitor, and enemy of the United States – categories applied to its worst enemies. As a pariah in his own country, he has fled the United States and sought asylum in various countries including China, Russia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia. Snowden (and human rights organizations such as Amnesty International) alleges that if extradited to the U.S. he is unlikely to receive a fair trial, but instead to be tortured and indefinitely imprisoned like other whistleblowers such as Bradley Manning.

All of the countries just mentioned have histories less-than-friendly to U.S. interests, which they have each described as criminally imperialistic. Other “good” countries such as France and Germany have (under great pressure from the United States) refused Snowden asylum.

Meanwhile, James Clapper has not been charged with perjury, and President Obama has managed to deflect attention away from constitutional violations to the search for the fugitive Snowden.

In other words, the Snowden Affair presents us with a “Spy,” “Traitor,” and “Terrorist Sympathizer” obeying his conscience in his exposure of government crime. He has done the right thing. Meanwhile, the President of the United States, himself a constitutional lawyer, has been caught violating the Constitution, and the Director of Intelligence has been exposed as a perjurer. And on top of that, friendly countries often lauded by the United States as models of democracy refuse to respect International Law governing asylum seekers. Only the “bad countries” are willing to honor that law.

In this situation, the question Crossan posed earlier finds uncomfortable relevance: “What happens to your world if a story records that your “best” people act badly and only your “worst” person acts well?”

As I said, Crossan asks that question in the section of his book commenting on “The Good Samaritan” which is the focus of the gospel selection in today’s Liturgy of the Word.

The parable, of course, is very familiar. Almost all of us know it nearly by heart. Typically sermons find its point in simply calling us to be “follow the Samaritan’s example, treat everyone as your neighbor, and help those you find in trouble.”

That’s a good point, of course. But Jesus’ own intention went beyond simply providing an example of a good neighbor. More profoundly, it focused on the hypocrisy of “the good” and the virtues of designated enemies. As such, the story calls us to transcend those socially prescribed categories and look at actions rather than words of both the “good” and “bad.”

More specifically, the hero of Jesus’ story is a Samaritan. According hero status to such a person would be unthinkable for Jesus’ listeners. After all, Samaritans were social outcasts belonging to a group of renegade Jews who (by Jesus’ time) had been separated from the Jewish community for nearly 1000 years. They had also polluted the Jewish bloodline by intermarrying with the country’s Assyrian conquerors about 700 years earlier.

Jews considered Samaritans “unclean;” they were traitors, enemy-sympathizers, heretics and even atheists. They rejected Jewish understandings of Yahweh and the Temple worship that went along with it.

And yet in the story, Jesus finds the Samaritan to be more worthy, more pleasing in God’s eyes than the priest or Levite. That’s because the Samaritan’s actions speak much louder than the word “Samaritan” would allow. He is compassionate; so Jesus approves.

In the meantime, the priest and the Levite lack compassion. Their actions condemn them.

They say that slightly more than 50% of the American people think Edward Snowden is a traitor and spy. And this despite the fact that his accusers have advanced no evidence to that effect – and despite polls that indicate a solid majority believing that the government’s surveillance program is objectionable if not clearly unconstitutional.

Today’s parable invites us to reconsider – not just Snowden, but our very understanding of the world and its categories of “good” and “evil.”

Perhaps we’re looking for the real criminals, traitors, spies, and terrorists in exactly the wrong places.