Monday, September 23, 2013

Good news is bad news

Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Gospel of Luke 16: 1-13

The good news today is bad news.

For about five seasons I was a faithful follower of “Mad Men.” Though the scripts were well-written, it took only a single episode for me to realize that there was not a single redeeming character in the story. No one ever learned from their mistakes and each character kept making the same mistake over and over. But sin is fascinating to watch. Each week each character sank deeper and deeper into a bottomless pit of moral indifference. And so, after five seasons I just lost interest. In the end I became bored by characters whose concerns were all totally self-centered.

Today’s Gospel features two unredeemed characters. The rich man master is not admirable. He thrives in a system of injustice that preys on poor people. He is a businessman in a world in which the custom is to exact 100% interest on the cost of goods he sells. This system was quite common in Jesus’ time.

The steward is not admirable. We are told in the beginning that he squanders the rich man’s property. The steward, however, is clever. He knows that as a result of having been caught he will lose his job and have to fend for himself. So he goes to his master’s debtors and rewrites their debts effectively slashing the 100% interest from what they owe the master. Of course, this further harms the master because he makes no profit. He will receive the return of the debt owed to him but he will make no profit.

The master applauds the steward’s cleverness. He commends him for his prudence. But the English word prudence does not express the meaning of the word well. The Greek word is phronimos, an adverb describing practical action aimed at accomplishing some particular end. The steward knows how to look out for himself.

Is Jesus suggesting we admire the steward? I think not. The children of this world, he says, are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light. In Luke’s Gospel ‘world’ is the world of evil. ‘Light’ is that world begun by Jesus. Trustworthiness, Jesus says, is the great virtue. The steward is not trustworthy with the dishonest wealth of the master. So who would trust the steward with true wealth?

True wealth is not found in the business dealings of the master. It’s not found in our own worldly business dealings. Neither is it found in our malicious or devious dealings with one another at any level. No. True wealth does not exist in our manipulative business dealings or in our manipulative personal relationships. If we are not trustworthy with the belongings of another – and perhaps ‘belongings’ refers to a person’s integrity, joy, sorrow, talent, etc. – then who will give us what rightly belongs to us?

Jesus then gets very direct. We can’t serve both God and mammon, that is, we can’t serve both God and money or material wealth. Christians cannot serve false wealth.

In a way, you could say that Luke sticks it to us today. In the Gospel for the feast of St. Matthew, Jesus chides the Pharisees when he selects Matthew as one of his followers by saying, “Go and learn the meaning of the words, I desire mercy, not sacrifice. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.”

The master in today’s Gospel is a righteous man by virtue of his wealth. The steward is a sinner. But unlike Matthew, the sinner who responded to the call of Jesus, neither the master nor the steward are capable of recognizing their sinfulness. Each is righteous by virtue of his own self-interest.

Pope Francis has reiterated over and over during the short term of his papacy the importance of mercy, and the importance of being concerned with the needs of others.

So today’s Gospel is bad news for us if we think we are superior to anyone else because we have the money, or because we have the privileged position, or the good looks, or because we are holier, or smarter, or a better athlete or whatever. In the beautiful interview Pope Francis gave this past week, he was asked who he is. I am a sinner, was his reply. As he reflected further he completed the response, “I am a sinner, but I trust in the infinite mercy and patience of our Lord Jesus Christ, and I accept in a spirit of penance.”

Are you and I masters, stewards, or sinners?



Sunday, September 15, 2013

Hand or mouth?

Distributing the Eucharist nowadays is not a simple matter. In the U.S at least one can choose to receive the host in the hand or on the tongue. Growing up we were never allowed to receive the Eucharist except on the tongue. It was only a couple of years after I was ordained that reception in the hand became an option and it quickly became the norm. For those of us who received our first communions in the late 40s and earlier or until the early 70s, it was a relief to receive in the hand.

Our training for our first communion in 1948 included numerous fear tactics. The hosts we used at that time were fairly tiny wafers of considerable softness. We were instructed, under pains of some terrible disaster that could befall us, not to chew the host and God help you if you touched it. I remember getting the host stuck on the roof of my mouth - more than once - and waiting to be struck dead when I finally had to loosen it with a finger after it became a curled up ball still stuck on the roof of my mouth. The penalty for touching the host under any circumstance was truly frightening, but we never learned what the penalty was. At times I thought it to be a mortal sin and I think one passionate and merciless sister or other taught us that. 

During my first year in the seminary, a priest on the staff who offered our Mass regularly was notorious for picking up a host with his thumb and index finger and then putting it into our mouths in such a way as to slide his thumb on our tongues. Thus, each successive communicant was greeted with a saliva-filled thumb facing oneself holding up an already wet host.

I have told our seminarians about him when I ask them to please - if you are going to receive communion on the tongue - make sure your tongue is extended sufficiently so that the priest does not have to pry open your lips to get the host in your mouth.

For many of us in the early 70s it was a relief to be able to receive communion in the hand. For one thing it seemed to us much more like a gift being received and accepted than like the action of a parent trying to put baby food into an infant's mouth. That being said it remains an option and many do indeed choose to receive on the tongue. I don't personally find that acceptable when I am on the receiving end but that doesn't happen often as I am usually the celebrant.

A religious woman I know once argued with me when she became aware that many of our seminarians choose to receive on the tongue. "You can't let them do that," she screamed. "Don't let them do that." Well, they can do that and I do let them do that if they choose to. I do not know the piety for making such a choice but it is indeed an option to receive in the hand. It is not mandatory.

What is interesting to me is how we make dogma of things that change more quickly than a flash of lightning. How one receives the host is of less importance than that one does indeed receive it. In the hand or on the tongue - Jesus is a gift in many different styles.