EIGHT SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME – A: February 27, 2011


Isaiah 49:14-15

1 Corinthians 4:1-5

Matthew 6:24-34

A recent Lotto jackpot was an amazing $270 million dollars.  A friend and I were having morning coffee when he asked me what I would do if I were to win that prize.  I laughed and said that I would have to buy a ticket before I could have a chance at winning.  He persisted and said, “Okay, so you bought a ticket and it had the lucky numbers.  What would you do with all that money?”

Remember Tevya’s fantasizing in “Fiddler on the Roof?”  “If I were a rich man….” Tevya could only come up with frivolous ways to spend his wealth including building a staircase that went nowhere just for fun.  So I daydreamed for a few moments about what I would do with sudden and newfound wealth and came to the conclusion that it would be fun to be able to do things for people who were in really desperate straits.   And I probably would clear the mortgage on my house.  But as I said, I would have to buy a ticket first.

We are at that point in The Sermon on the Mount where in Jesus asks us where our heart is?  What do we worry about?  What is really important to us?  And where does God fit into all of that?  Of course there are those who proclaim that God is a god of bounty who shows his love by showering wealth on his chosen ones.  Maybe I could accept that if I were one with wealth, but since that is not so, I am more inclined to identify with those who know a poverty that I can only imagine and believe that God loves the poor, those whose only wealth is their faith in God.

A treasured memory of mine is the time I was privileged to spend in Kenya and Uganda.  That was where I encountered genuine poverty, the kind that I was powerless to do anything about.  At that time in Kenya, only 12 percent of the men were employed and their average monthly wage was $23.  Two generations of people were dying then from HIV/AIDS.  For the first time in the country’s recorded history there were street kids.  The men tended to stand about in clusters while the women toiled and cared for the children, eking out crops from thirsty gardens and carrying home piles of thatch to would serve as fuel for fires in their cooking corners.  Imagine the embarrassment my group of friends and I felt when we were invited to dinner and were served a lavish banquet made up of three kinds of mean, plantain and lush greens.  We sat to table knowing that these same hosts felt fortunate if they were able to have a bit of meat even once a month.

It was a privilege to celebrate Eucharist with the Kenyans.  They danced and clapped their hands in the entrance procession and sang hymns with gusto that gave evidence of their joy in the Lord and their love for one another in the assembly.  Some of them had walked for a-day-and-a-half to get to the church and would have the same journey by foot back home.  They didn’t mind if the homily exceeded 10 minutes or if Mass went on for an hour-and-a-half.  Sunday Eucharist was the center of their lives.  There was no doubt that they trusted in God and knew that God would provide the essentials for them as Jesus promises in the gospel today.  They knew that was so because they had survived the past week and were willing to enter the new week with confidence, i.e., with faith.  Having buried so many of their families and friends, they remained convinced that their true treasure awaited them with God in heaven.

Recently I read an advertisement promoting the sale of some new condominiums in New York City.  The smallest on the lowest floor started at well over a million dollars.  A few of the listings had a red slash-mark through them indicating that they had already been sold.  Even in these down times there are people who can afford that kind of luxury living.  What is even more amazing is the fact that some people have more than one mansion so they don’t have to spend the entire year in one location.  That is beyond my powers of imagination.  That is probably why the wealthy tend to associate with the wealthy and to live in exclusive and gated communities.  That way they can have a fortress around their wealth and be deluded into thinking that their wealth is nothing extraordinary.  Associating with others of similar wealth keeps the poor at a distance and helps them to conclude that if only the poor worked as hard as the wealthy do, wealth could be theirs as well.

Imagine a group of Kenyans sitting near a group of the elite as Jesus speaks.  Do you think they would hear the same message?  We know from other places in the gospel that some who came to Jesus seeking to become disciples went away sad when Jesus challenged them to go and sell what they had and give to the poor before they came and followed him.  That challenge would not bother a Kenyan at all.  Hear the difference?

It is a delusion to think that it is easy to be Jesus’ disciple.  Mahatma Gandhi is reported to have said in effect that he loved Christ; it was Christians he couldn’t stand.  Could that have been because, knowing Christ’s basic teachings, he had so little experience of Christians who practiced Christianity, who took it seriously enough that it governed how they treated other people?

So, is Jesus saying that wealth is evil and the rich cannot enter heaven?  An adage has often been misquoted down through the centuries.  You’ve heard it, haven’t you?  “Money is the root of all evil.”  Actually, what Paul wrote to Timothy was: “The LOVE of money is the root of all evil.”  What occasioned Paul’s remark was the fact that some in Timothy’s community were lusting after money and had given up the practice of the faith in the pursuit of money.  Paul was concerned for Timothy that he might succumb to the same temptations.  He knew well wealth’s seductive powers and its powers to corrupt.

Each of us must hear Jesus and then decide how we will respond.  Dare we ask ourselves what we treasure?  “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be,” Jesus said.  What do we hold in highest value?  To what do we cling?  If it is things, even the poor can fall victim here.  They can clutch to the little they have and be oblivious to the needs of the other poor around them.

I remember a friend who practiced tithing.  For much of his adult life he was of comfortable means.  His tithes were considerable.  His pastors felt blessed to have him as a parishioner.  Then his fortunes changed.  In a moment no longer could he be described as wealthy.  Some would have said he was poor.  But, in his new poverty, he continued to tithe.  That was always the first calculation he made on payday as he sat with his bills.  And he told me that he took a deep gulp the first time in the new regime when he wrote his tithing check from his reduced income.  “You know what?” he said.  “When I tithe, there always seems to be more than I had before I tithed.  Strange, isn’t it?”

“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.”  That is Jesus’ way of asking us what is most important in our lives.  We will only seek the kingdom of God, that is, desire to have God reign in our lives, if there is a holy longing.  We must come to recognize that emptiness that only God can fill.  If we live in constant noise, every appetite satiated, and if we are inundated with things, we just might not notice the emptiness.  We are supposed to have a hunger as we approach the Eucharistic Table.  There is a reason why we present ourselves empty-handed.

In the final years of his life, Frank Sinatra reconciled with the Church and his marriage to Barbara Marx was convalidated, or blessed.  Considerable outrage was voiced by some of the faithful through letters to the editors of Catholic publications including the one I edited for a time.  It was clear that many hadn’t heard what Paul tells us in today’s Second Reading:  “Therefore, do not make any judgment before the appointed time until the Lord comes, for he will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will manifest the motives of our hearts.” How could a man with Mr. Sinatra’s history be welcomed back by the Catholic Church?  What some will never learn is that a person’s history is between that one and God.

There is a lot about each one of us that no one else knows.  We are a community of sinners, or so we profess each time we enter into Liturgy.  When people from outside our numbers think of us Catholics, do they think we are a people who believe in the grace of repentance?  Do they think of us as a people who never tire of welcoming back those who have wandered elsewhere?  Do they think that among our primary messages is: “All are welcome here because God loves all people?”  We do believe in forgiveness, don’t we, forgiveness for others in addition to that for our own sins?  In any event, I remember being told by someone who knew Frank Sinatra, that he was a very generous man.  When he was moved by a story of desperation, he would contact the person in need and contribute substantially to ease the situation with the condition that no one would ever know the source of the money.  How many people thanked God for the blessing that Sinatra was in their lives?

So we sit on the Mountain and listen and are immersed in the words that flow over us from the one who is seated and teaches with authority.  Dare we listen?  Dare we change and become disciples?

Sincerely,

Didymus

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