Friday, September 24, 2010

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
C cycle

Reading 1. Amos 8: 4-7
Reading II. 1 Timothy 2: 1-8
Gospel. Luke 16: 1-13 (the unjust steward).

One of the key messages of the Hebrew Scriptures is the obligation to care for the lowly and the poor. All were expected to act as good stewards on behalf of those in need. In today's first reading the Prophet Amos claims that his people have not only failed to come to the aid of the needy, but that they are actually cheating those they are supposed to help.

For these oppressors the service of God and their neighbor is of no value. The unscrupulous business practices that Amos points out in his own time have their counterparts in our time. It was common in ancient times to debase the coinage or medium of exchange used in business dealings. To diminish the ephah or add to the shekel was a way of cheating the unwary. In the same way adjusting scales to give false readings was a way to give less value for the money.

Today, most forms of cheating in business seem far removed from our ordinary lives. Most of us will never be involved in nefarious Wall St. scandals that will see us led off to jail in handcuffs. Most of us will never be in a position to embezzle thousands from our employer. Most of us will never be like illegitimate building contractors who take money but never complete the job.

Today’s gospel is about another crook, the unjust steward. He was cheating his own master or employer. You may recall that last week’s gospel was also about someone who squandered his master’s wealth. Last week it was the Prodigal Son. Today’s gospel follows immediately after that famous parable in St. Luke’s gospel and there is good reason. While there are similarities in the two stories, there is a profound difference.

In last week’s gospel the Prodigal Son, after squandering his father’s inheritance, realized what he had done, repented, confessed, and begged for forgiveness. In today’s account the unjust steward, after squandering his master’s wealth, neither repents nor asks for forgiveness. He just seeks a way out but only gets deeper and deeper into crime. He goes to his master’s debtors and does them favors by cheating his employer further. He’s hoping that these debtors will remember and reward him. After all, he admits that he dislikes hard work, and is too ashamed to beg.

People have wondered why the master seems to “commend” the unjust steward for his criminal behavior. “And the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently.” Personally, I detect sarcasm here. It’s as if the master was saying, “Sure, hang out with those bums. Just wait and see what happens. Why would any of those debtors ever trust the steward when they know that he has cheated his own master? Even crooks understand the words of today’s gospel.

The person who is trustworthy in very small matters
Is also trustworthy in great ones;
And the person who is dishonest in very small matters
Is also dishonest in great ones.

Politicians like to tell us today that there is a difference between private and public morality. They think that they can cheat on their spouses but serve their constituents faithfully. Nevertheless, deep down we all know that if they are unfaithful to their own spouses, why should they be faithful to us?

In today’s second reading St. Paul asks us to pray for those in authority. He must have known how difficult it would be for people in power to be faithful and just stewards. Still, it is clear that it is not just political leaders who are called to be stewards. We are all called to stewardship. We must follow the example of Jesus “who gave himself as a ransom for all.”

We have all been entrusted with the responsibility to care for others. Husbands and wives have the responsibility to care for each other. It’s amazing to me how often people in business will treat their clients with the greatest care and respect, but ignore the needs of their spouses. In another place, St. Paul tells us that single people have an even greater responsibility to care for others. Speaking of responsibility don’t we make a great mistake when we give our children little or no responsibility?

Even though most of us are just ordinary people, we are all called to be stewards. In the eyes of those who have been entrusted to our care we are the biggest shots of all. Why on earth would we turn our backs on our loved ones to make friends with the “mammon of iniquity”?

Sunday, September 12, 2010

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
C cycle

Reading 1. Exodus 32: 7-11, 13-14
Reading II. 1 Timothy 1: 12-17
Gospel. Luke 15: 1-32 (The Prodigal Son).

All three readings today deal with those who have strayed away from the true path to happiness. In the first reading from the Book of Exodus, the whole people of Israel have lost faith in their God who had rescued them from captivity in Egypt, that land where they had become shamefully depraved.

The most famous story in the Bible is the parable of the Prodigal Son. This story is so moving and powerful that the Church returns to it over and over again. We have already heard it this year in the 4th Sunday of Lent, at the onset of Springtime. Now we have it as the Liturgical year is drawing to a close.

It is hard to mistake the meaning of this parable. The Scribes and Pharisees had been complaining that Jesus, "welcomes sinners and eats with them." Before giving us the story of the Prodigal Son, Luke gives us two other short stories. Jesus asked his critics which of them would not behave like a man who left his flock in search of one lost sheep out of a hundred. "When he has found it, he lays it upon his shoulders rejoicing." He calls his friends to rejoice with him "because I have found my sheep that was lost." In the same way, He asks, "what woman, having ten drachmas, if she loses one drachma, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it?" The lesson is clear. "There will be joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, more than over ninety-nine just who have no need of repentance."

Only after these stories does our Lord relate the story of the man and his two sons that we heard today. The story is so familiar that I would just like to make two points. First, the compassion of a father or mother toward a child is a reflection of the love that God has for all of us. Like God's love it never fails even after the child has grown and become independent. Secondly, the road home begins when the son who had squandered his inheritance accepts responsibility for his actions and places the blame squarely upon himself. "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son."

Many of us will find it difficult to accept the message of this parable. Is it possible to live in a family and not regard your siblings as rivals for your parents love and affection? How often are the parents' efforts directed toward the child who causes the most trouble? Who can't sympathize with the other son in today's story?

Look, all these years I served you
and not once did I disobey your orders;
yet you never gave me even a young goat
to feast on with my friends.
But when your son returns
who swallowed up your property with prostitutes,
to him you slaughter the fatted calf."

Our Lord knows what goes on in our own families. He even knows how when we are angry or hurt we will say "your son" and not "my brother." Notice the father's answer. He says, "we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life."

Today's second reading from St. Paul's letter to Timothy tells of another who strayed. It is Paul himself. "I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant." Paul never tires of calling himself the least of the Apostles.

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
Of these I am the foremost.

Paul believes that his own life is an example of the way God acts as a loving parent who is always ready to welcome us home.

God is Love. We can turn our backs on Him and go astray but He can never turn His back on us. Too often we think of God as an angry old dictator ready to zap us whenever we step out of line. Today's reading from the Book of Exodus gives us the image of such an angry God but there is also a hint that even in those early days Moses believed in a God of mercy and forgiveness. Certainly, we can never think of God as an angry patriarch after reading our Lord's parable of the Prodigal Son.

The real sin of the Prodigal Son was that he squandered his inheritance in a foreign land. Rather than converting the foreigners, he was led astray and converted by them. Isn't this tragic story true today? How many of our children have squandered their spiritual inheritance upon leaving home. Isn't it sad that so many will discontinue their religious education once they go to High school? Many will cease attending Mass right after receiving the sacrament of Confirmation. By the time they graduate from college, so many will be confirmed agnostics or atheists. As someone once said, "When people cease to believe in God, they will believe in anything." They have given up the beauty, the wisdom, and the inheritance of 2000 years.

We can only hope and pray that when they come to their senses in some foreign land, we will be ready to receive them back without bitterness or rancor, and with open arms.

Monday, September 6, 2010

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
C cycle

Reading 1. Wisdom 9: 13-18b
Reading II. Philemon 9b-19, 12-17
Gospel. Luke 14: 25-33 (carry his own cross).

Today's first reading is from the Book of Wisdom and naturally it's subject is wisdom. In the last few weeks the Church has been offering us the virtues as guides on our journey through life. A couple of weeks ago it was Faith. Last week Humility. This week we have Wisdom. While all the virtues are gifts of God, we have to practice them regularly to stay in spiritual shape.

Wisdom is not intelligence, or book learning. We all know that sometimes the smartest people are not necessarily wise. Indeed, people with no learning at all can often be very wise. Wisdom is the virtue that helps us distinguish right from wrong in any endeavor. It will also help us in making the most important decisions in our lives. Wisdom often means looking outside of ourselves for guidance. Today we regularly turn to doctors, lawyers, and financial advisors for advice in matters of their expertise. We know, as it says in today's reading, that "the deliberations of mortals are timid, and unsure are our plans."

St. Luke's gospel which we have been using all year deliberately follows our Lord on His journey to Jerusalem. Every week we have been urged to accompany Him on this journey. Now as we approach the end it should not surprise us that the road is getting more difficult the closer we get to our goal. It will take a different kind of wisdom for us to find happiness. How many times do the gospels remind us that our ways are not necessarily the Lord's way.

Two weeks ago our Lord told us to be prepared to enter by "the narrow gate." Last week we were advised to "humble ourselves." This week our Lord indicates that if we want to stay afloat, we will have to throw everything overboard:

anyone of you who does not renounce all his possessions
cannot be my disciple.

Not just possessions but also our most dear attachments.

If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother,
wife and children, brothers and sisters,
and even his own life,
he cannot be my disciple.

What can we make of statements like these? What kind of advice is this? Right before Jesus turns to the crowd to utter these statements, He told another little parable about the goal of life's journey. This parable was about a man who gave a banquet and invited many to the banquet but they all had excuses for not coming. They were preoccupied by their own affairs. One had just bought a farm and had to go see it. Another had bought some oxen and had to take them out for a test ride. The last said, "I have married a wife, and therefore cannot come."

These refusals angered the man and led him to invite "the poor, and the crippled, and the blind, and the lame." All these were not tied down with possessions and attachments. He even went out into the highways and byways to fill the banquet hall. Wisdom tells us that only if we get our priorities straight will we find true happiness for ourselves and our loved ones.

Both of the examples of practical wisdom that our Lord gives us in today's gospel are as appropriate today as ever. Instead of a man building a tower, we could talk of one taking on a load of debt which he would not be able to handle when interest rates rise. Don't we wish that our leaders and politicians would behave like the king in today's gospel who used foresight and wisdom before committing his men to battle?

Is it possible that our Lord is being just as practical when He asks us to renounce all of our possessions in order to find true happiness in our journey through life?

Today's second reading from the letter of St. Paul to Philemon gives us another example of Wisdom. This letter is unusual in that it is not addressed to a community of believers but to an individual. Philemon like most well to do Roman citizens was a slaveowner. Slavery was a common and totally acceptable practice in Roman society. The Romans believed that it was better after conquering a people to enslave rather than kill them. Slaves were very valuable possessions in the ancient world.

Apparently, Onesimus, one of Philemon's slaves, had run away. Either before or after his escape, he had converted to Christianity and somehow had managed to meet up with Paul in prison. In today's reading we see that Paul sends him back to Philemon but urges him not to punish Onesimus but to give him his freedom. In giving up his slave, Philemon will gain "more than a slave,' but a brother in Christ.

It was our Lord's constant teaching that since we all have the same Father in Heaven, we are all brothers and sisters. We know that we are supposed to see Christ in the least of our brothers and sisters. Paul echoes this teaching when he says to Philemon about Onesimus, 'welcome him as you would me." From that time on it would be increasingly difficult for Christians to own slaves. It is true that there would be resistance to this "wisdom" but Paul's little letter to Philemon would be a constant reminder to Christians of the "un-wisdom" of slavery.