9 Feb. 2014
Shining a light into a dark place is easy enough. Being a light is something else entirely. Time to brighten up!
5th Sunday of the Year A: DU 5 Feb. 2011
Is 58:7 10
1 Cor 2:1 5
Mt 5:13 16
The passage from Isaiah we just heard sounds like a commentary on recent events. Malicious speech is apparently nothing new. What Isaiah didn’t have to contend with is having someone record it and play it back on Twitter. And I couldn’t help reflecting that yesterday President Obama signed the Agriculture Bill which will provide subsidy and support for giant farming corporations and incidentally gut a large section of the food stamp program for the poor. Congress also refused to extend unemployment benefits for the chronically jobless. Immigration reform got kicked down the road again, too.
It could be worse, of course, as Irish Optimists say. We tend to hear great lamentation over the fact that the unemployment rate in the United States is now 6.6 percent. We might consider that in Europe, the average is almost twice that. In Greece and Spain it’s four times that figure. In Afghanistan it’s 35% — six times higher.
This week I also learned, closer to home, that over the last ten years, the salary of adjunct instructors in higher education was reduced by 47% while the pay of college presidents and top-tier administrators rose 35%. It could be worse, of course.
If you are an American worker, for instance, your salary remained fairly stagnant over the past 50 years, while the salary of CEOs rose an astonishing 1,000 percent, the folks at Bloomberg tell us. Today the average CEO makes more than 180 times what the average worker does. The top CEOs make over 700 times what the average worker does. Of course, as multi-billionaire venture capitalist Tom Perkins reassured us a couple of weeks ago, “The 1 percent work harder.” I’m not sure that firemen and snow-plough drivers would agree.
A couple of weeks ago I looked up the salaries of the 50 top athletes in the world, most of whom are American and play baseball. Taken together, the total salary of these 50 men – -all men, of course – is roughly $760 billion per year. That’s about the same as the entire Gross Domestic Product of Turkey or the Netherlands, and three times that of Ireland. [In 2012 Floyd Mayweather, the boxer, topped the chart, pulling in a not-so-modest $85 million, without endorsements. Last year he didn’t do as well, as Tiger Woods took top place with $78.1 million and lots of endorsements.] The profit earned last year by the NFL, by the way, was in excess of $9 billion, on which it paid no taxes, because it is officially an exempt organization thanks to Congress. I hope you enjoyed the Super Bowl.
The United States tops the world in the number of billionaires, by the way, 1,426 of them according to Forbes, having an aggregate net worth of $5.4 trillion, up from a measly $4.6 trillion in 2013. But to misquote Senator Everett Dirkson, “A trillion here, a trillion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.” The entire UK budget last year was a mere $1.2 trillion in US dollars. Ours was $1.012 trillion, a feat achieved by slashing spending on health care, unemployment benefits, and public works – big budget items in England.
Liturgically, this is only the fifth Sunday of the Year. Ordinary Time. And you might be wondering why I just bored you with all those big numbers. The fact is Pope Francis (and a lot of other people, but he gets noticed) thinks that they are very significant. And that’s because they illustrate the vast and widening gap between the very rich and the very poor, not least of all right here in the good old USA. Isaiah and Jesus would probably side with the pope.
Once again, readings from Isaiah and Matthew are teamed, beginning with a passage we last heard in Lent. “Share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them, and do not turn your back on your own.” Matthew’s and apparently Jesus’ favorite prophet goes on to say that if we heed God’s instruction, our light will shine like the dawn, a presentiment of what Jesus says in the gospel. He also has a word about how we talk to one another, and in this day of Twitter and Facebook and shouting political candidates and commentators on network television, it sounds strangely apt:
If you remove from your midst oppression,
false accusation and malicious speech…
Then light shall rise for you in the darkness,
And the gloom shall become for you like the midday.
The responsorial psalm underlines the point – the just person does not fear an evil report, but shines like a light in the darkness to the upright. More light imagery. Something Jesus will return to.
The gospel is again taken from the Sermon on the Mount. This passage occurs immediately after the Beatitudes – it’s Jesus’ commentary following his blessing on the poor in spirit, including those who are reviled, persecuted and defamed.
Here Jesus calls his followers the salt of the earth — the seasoning that sweetens the bitterness of the world, as in the story of Elisha at Jericho, when he sweetened the bitter waters by putting salt into them. But what if salt goes flat? The sea salt of the ancient Middle East was not highly refined and it could do that, in case you were wondering. And if his followers did lose faith, their reliance on the simple truth of his gospel, what would happen to the world then?
Jesus then turns to the imagery in Isaiah and that beautiful psalm – their light must not go out, it is there to scatter the darkness of the world. Jesus says our lives must be like an oil lamp set in a dark and windless place, enabling others to see clearly. If the light dims or goes out, if we lose heart, the world grows a little darker, a little colder. That’s what Pope Francis is telling us today. We don’t have to become lighthouses – it’s enough to be a votive light.
You might remember the children’s gospel song by Harry Dixon Loes, “This Little Light of Mine.” He wrote it right here in Chicago back in 1920. It would be a good recessional today. And if you don’t know it, find it and teach it to your kids. Sing it often to them.
Shine, Jesus says. Let your little light scatter the darkness of greed and indifference, of weakness and fear, and the so-called human wisdom that exalts self-interest over the welfare of the poor and needy. Then God’s own love and truth will shine through the darkness. And, as Isaiah has it, “the gloom shall become for you like midday.”
The Bishops of the United States declared January 22nd a Day of Prayer for the Legal Protection of Unborn Children. It was, of course, the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that has so far survived every effort to reverse it despite the largely empty promises of two generations of politicians.
I was struck initially by the euphemism of the title. All children are unborn at some point in their existence. The phrase refers rather obliquely to conceived embryos and fetuses that we call children by anticipation but who are in danger of death, presumably by abortion. But most conceptions, about 75%, are in fact prematurely terminated by miscarriage. About 30% of all pregnancies and 15 – 20% of confirmed pregnancies also end in miscarriage. Some babies are still born, and others die soon after birth. Surely they, too, must be included. Others die by accident, some by the death of the mother. Are these little creatures to be excluded from our concern? Hardly. But that, of course, is not the point. It’s about abortion, and specifically about Roe v. Wade.
Time has shown that the way to prevent abortion is not to criminalize those who resort to this awful procedure but to remove as far as possible the causes that lead to abortion, and not only abortion, but to all forms of harm that confront infants in the womb. Still paramount among them are poverty and ignorance and the remedy is at hand – social justice and education. But recent research has shown that while abortion rates have actually been declining along the truly poverty-stricken, they have been increasing along those who are relatively well off and well educated. Again, economics seems to be a major factor, but it involves a different approach to economics.
According to one report, “Abortion is most strongly associated with the fault-line of socio-economic class, across three key dimensions—income, education, and occupation. Abortion rates track closely with the wealth and affluence of states: the richer the location, the higher the rate of abortions. ‘The abortion rate is positively associated with the share of adults who are college graduates …. It’s also positively associated with the share of the workforce doing professional, technical, and creative work. … And abortion rates are negatively associated with the share of the labor force in blue-collar working class jobs…”
Nevertheless, it remains the case that “Today, … 42 percent of women having abortions live under the poverty line, and another 27 percent have incomes within 200 percent of the poverty line. Taken together, 69 percent of women who have abortions are economically disadvantaged.”
The issue, as Pope Francis has reminded is, is not simply abortion, but the devastation worked upon women especially who are constrained to live in poverty. The other face is that of those who are social and materially well-off but resort to abortion because of an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy. And that is a spiritual issue. Here, legislation is not the remedy. Conversion of heart is.
In the meantime, our focus should not be so narrow as to exclude from concern the life and welfare of living infants, of children who are deprived of adequate nutrition, health care, shelter, and the possibility of education. “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs,” Jesus said [Mt 19:14]. I think he meant all of them.
 Richard Florida, “The Geography of Abortion,” The Atlantic Cities. http://www.theatlanticcities.com/politics/2012/06/geography-abortion/1711/