This weekend marks a notable effort on the part of many world leaders and the world’s youth to halt the seemingly inexorable drift of the planet toward environmental catastrophe. On Friday an estimated four million young people and supportive adults took to the streets of the major capitals and other cities of the world to protest the slow pace or actual indifference toward addressing global climate change by government officials and agencies almost everywhere. On the same day in Monaco, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) began its meeting to consider a special report on the ocean and the frozen areas of the planet, which are all under devastating assault by global warming.
Tomorrow, following the opening of the U.N. General Assembly in New York last Tuesday, a special Climate Change Summit will be convened, with over 100 countries represented and about 60 world leaders speaking. The United States will be represented but will not actively participate. In keeping with his disavowal of the epoch-making Paris Climate Accord of 2015, from which he intends to disengage the United States next year, the President will be singularly absent among many dozens of concerned heads of state from Canada to India.
Today’s gospel reading bears considerable relevance to these events. It concerns stewardship, a feature of several of Jesus’ stories and remarks. The
steward (oikonomos) was the person in charge of affairs, from a wedding feast to a vineyard to the business interests of an entrepreneur, as in today’s reading. It was a position of trust and responsibility, and in this case, the steward failed significantly in managing his property. He is dismissed, but first an accounting is required, and here he uses his position to win friends and influence creditors as he looks ahead to a difficult future. In this he may have been dishonest and self-serving, but he was at least “prudent.”
Stewardship entered the discussion of environmental crisis several decades ago as a relevant way of discussing humankind’s responsibility for managing the earth’s resources prudently, by not in effect squandering the wealth entrusted to us (Gen. 2:15 and elsewhere). But that is precisely what we have done, and an accounting is due. The heavy penalty will fall, perhaps not surprisingly, on the most vulnerable – the poor, the elderly, the infirm, and those caught through no fault of their own in the wake of natural disasters that are quite evidently increasing on a world-wide scale. If anything the rate of destruction will accelerate.
As Sir Crispin Tickell, President of Green College, Oxford University’s medical school, and former UK ambassador to Mexico, remarked in a lecture I attended in 1992, “The refugees of the future will be environmental refugees.” His prediction has already clearly come true as hundreds of thousands of refugees from Central America wander north after drought, crop failures, and plant diseases destroyed their livelihoods. Similarly in Africa and Asia, natural disasters and crop failures are driving millions of desperate people, the wretched of the Earth, to look for refuge in the more fertile and prosperous lands of the north.
The human world will not be alone in the calamity inexorably approaching. In less than 50 years, the US and Canada have lost more than 3 billion birds. Millions of animal and plant species will disappear within this century, as the planet’s life-giving biodiversity is swallowed up by drought, fire, and flood. Fish stocks will vanish, and even tens of thousands of species of insects necessary for pollination and other humble, life-supporting tasks will become extinct.
The world’s youth, increasingly alarmed by the prospect of a future of global climate catastrophe, will be watching and in many cases attending the conferences scheduled for the coming days. They are keenly aware that the present adult generation will not be around to experience the unparalleled and world-wide suffering predicted for the closing decades of the 21st century. They are just as keenly aware that the time for responsible action is at hand. They are prepared to do what their elders will not or cannot – not merely protest but responsibly undertake the stewardship entrusted to human race by its Creator.
“…wisdom is justified of all her children.” Luke 7:35, Mat 21:16, citing Psalm 8:2
It might be an accident of history that the current administration chose to announce this week that the son of Osama bin Laden, Hamza, had been killed in an air strike on militants months ago somewhere in the region of Afghanistan-Pakistan. Perhaps not. The nation was, after all, observing the 18th anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on that dreadful day in 2001. As with the threats by Vladimir Putin against those he considers enemies, revenge may be slow but it will be severe and if possible, deadly. That was also in the news. Again.
So it is with a sense of the divine irony of the Word of God that we consider the message of today’s scripture readings in our celebrations of the Lord’s Supper. Each
focuses on sin, guilt, and expected and even deserved retribution. But all end, forcefully, with the promise of forgiveness and redemption. And something more.
The story of Moses haggling with God (again!) to spare the rebellious Hebrews from divine wrath may be difficult to digest if only for the impression that the Almighty and Merciful Lord is, first off, vindictive, and secondly, can be browbeaten into changing His mind. But that misses the point of the story – God wishes not the death of the sinner, but conversion of heart. The second reading from the Letter to Timothy illustrates from St. Paul’s conversion just how such forgiveness and redemption are guaranteed us: “You can depend on this as worthy of full acceptance: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners.” Not the righteous, and especially not the self-righteous, not the vengeful and violent who feel no need of forgiveness, but those who are sinners and know and admit they are sinners and beg forgiveness. Like Paul himself.
In Jesus’ story of the prodigal youth (which shouldn’t be omitted from the gospel), the focus is not on sin, guilt, and shame, which are again taken for granted. Jesus wants us to consider something else, even beyond the young man’s coming to his senses, his repentance, and his acknowledgment of guilt — all of which, by the way, are guided by enlightened self-interest. That doesn’t matter. What matters is the joy his father experiences just because his wayward son has come back home. The personal hurt is forgiven, swallowed up in the old man’s happiness. It is that joy, which doesn’t need words of absolution, that in fact prefaces the story of the prodigal. For St. Luke introduces his most famous and important story about forgiveness and reconciliation with two little parables that notify us in advance what’s important in Jesus’ scheme of values and, you can be sure, God’s.
For some reason, it took me awhile to see it: both of the short parables conclude with the same words, “Rejoice with me…”, which figure twice in the story of the Prodigal. First: “Let us eat and celebrate because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life.” And then, “We had to celebrate and rejoice!” And then the punch line: “This lost sheep, this lost coin, this lost brother of yours was dead, and has come back to life. He was lost, and is found. Rejoice!”
In the brief epilogue to the main story, the failing of the older brother is that he could not bring himself to rejoice in his little brother’s salvation, a point that drives home the principle message.
Eighteen years ago, on the Sunday after 9/11, this same Sunday, I wrote this. Looking back, I wouldn’t change it:
“As a people, we stand today humbled by the great disaster that befell on Tuesday, but resolute in our faith and firm in our commitment to heal the wounded, to comfort the grieving, to bury our dead, and to rebuild not only a shattered community, but our moral purpose as a nation. The temptation is powerful to strike out in anger, to violate those we believe to have violated us. But on this day of prayer and mourning, if we listen to the voice of Jesus, even the words from his cross of execution, we will hear both of forgiveness but also a warning: those who take the sword shall perish by the sword. “Beloved,” the great evangelist [Paul] also wrote, “never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No,” he adds, “‘if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” [Rom 12:19-21, citing Deut. 32:35 and Prov. 25:21].”
So many years later, surveying the destruction and carnage unleashed on the world by the desire for savage retribution, we have cause to ask ourselves, are we going to continue standing outside the party blaming and shaming or go within to rejoice in the community of love and forgiveness?
The week before last was dreadful enough, marked by disasters and tragedies mainly devised by people with guns intent somehow on increasing the terrible weekly, monthly, and yearly toll of deadly violence. It was followed by what seemed to be never-ending and unprecedented natural disasters, as thousands of acres of irreplaceable and life-giving Amazonian rain forest (and other forests around the world) were incinerated. Then a hurricane named Dorian roared across the western Atlantic, devastating the lovely islands called the Bahamas, where Christopher Columbus first came ashore over 500 years ago.
“Unprecedented” is a word we have been hearing more frequently lately, and will no doubt hear again and no doubt much too soon as the ravages of global climate change make themselves increasingly felt. The growing catastrophe is made all the more heart-breaking as the desperate efforts of many non-governmental organizations and international alliances to curtail the assault on the planet’s life-giving systems are blocked by denial and actually aggravated by deliberate government policy.
Here, Jesus’ cautionary parables in today’s gospel reading could well be taken to heart. And should be. But what we hear first from the Book of Wisdom is that if we can
barely understand how to cope with ordinary problems in everyday life, how can we possibly hope to fathom the wisdom of God? For God’s wisdom is the folly of the Cross. In this case, as the saying goes, by living simply so that others may simply live.
Jesus grabs our attention and challenges us with outlandish statements, not so we will reject those who love us, all our property, and our own selves, but so that we will recognize that anything or anyone we prefer over God and God’s kingdom will end in frustration, barring us from that kingdom, keeping us from the love and grace and healing forgiveness of God. Today such carelessness has global consequences.
A case in point is provided by the second reading, Paul’s little letter to his friend Philemon. It concerned a runaway slave named Onésimos, who apparently joined Paul at some point in his final trip to Rome. His name, by the way, means “useful,” and Paul includes a little play on words because of that. Although he has grown to love Onésimos as a son, Paul wants him to go back to Philemon, his master and owner. Slavery, after all, means being owned by someone, not being free to be oneself.
But why didn’t Paul simply ask Philemon to abolish slavery, to free his slaves once for all? For that matter, why did the Christian church as a whole take almost two millennia to condemn slavery?
When we think for a moment, something of the divine folly begins to shine through even here. Early in the young church’s history, it was widely held that the institutions of this world would soon pass away — including marriage, family, the state, and so on, including, of course, slavery. It is understandable that there were more urgent things on Paul’s mind than attacking one of the most deeply entrenched if sinful social structures of the ancient world. He even called himself a slave of Christ and the gospel.
There is more to it than that. It would have been relatively easy for Paul to ask Philemon to free Onésimos. But that would not have meant that Philemon would have loved him and forgiven him. So he sends Onésimos back not as a runaway slave, but as a dear brother, in fact a blood brother — which is to say, an equal, a co-inheritor. How could Philemon continue to regard Onésimos as property if he was in fact his own brother?
Slavery of any kind, including domestic slavery, is an appalling failure of human respect and love. But freeing slaves is not enough. Following the American Civil War, the lot of many former slaves was far worse after emancipation than before it. Homeless, separated from their families, without prospect of work or assistance, many slaves starved to death, others fell into crime, or were taken cruel advantage of by speculators eager to make quick profits from cheap labor. Another century would pass before justice would even begin to rectify the situation of black men and especially women in the United States. We still have far to go before we as a people recognize our Onésimos as a dear brother or sister, in fact, a blood-sister, and act accordingly.
The reason, of course, is obvious. It is not the slave who lacks freedom — it is the slave-owner, who is enslaved by his own possessiveness. We do not so much possess things or persons, as they possess us. Have you ever really tried to give away your possessions? The best most of us can do is throw them out, never mind the needs of the poor!
Which brings to the real point of Jesus’ teaching in the gospel reading. Whether intent on building a tower (or a wall, for that matter) much less fighting a war, wisely calculating the true cost and the likely consequences is a necessary precondition of success – one way or another. The main point is that accomplishing an overwhelmingly difficult task requires sacrifice, particularly of the possessions and prejudices that block our success. If we let greed and avarice dominate our thinking, personally or nationally, we run the considerable risk of losing everything in the end.
The folly of God’s wisdom may yet save what’s left of the world. But we had better get moving. It’s late. And we have been warned.
It has been a dreadful week – the Amazon burns on, destroying square miles of irreplaceable rain forest and costing the lives of countless millions of rare animals and plants as well as the habitations of the indigenous peoples. It not the only area on fire – devastating forest fires are spreading in Siberia as well as parts of southern Europe and even the Southern Pacific regions, greatly worsening the peril facing the planet because of climate change. Hurricane season is reaching its height, with Dorian now approaching the eastern US coast with incredible force. And Americans awoke this morning to the news of yet another mass shooting in Texas, just four weeks to the day after the horrifying El Paso shootings.
Lethal shootings erupted in other parts of the country as well, as those who live in Chicago can usually testify. But Chicago is far from being the chief battleground, as St. Louis and Los Angeles know too well. Overall, more than 35,000 people die from gun violence each year in the United States, far more than any other industrialized nation of comparable population size. Two-thirds of these deaths are suicides. Yet the US is not the worst example in terms of per-capita deaths from gun violence, most of which occur in Central and South America and even Greenland. It is a growing national and international catastrophe. Yes, Virginia, guns kill people. That’s what they are FOR.
Strangely enough, if the TV is off, and news flashes on our cell phones and tablets are ignored, the world seems peaceful enough. There maybe fewer song birds now, the skies are often hazy, and the heat can get oppressive, but it’s possible to ignore the warning signs of planetary peril brewing like a hurricane off the coast. And it’s no sin to enjoy a day of rest and even a weekend off, if one is lucky. And today, our scripture readings also point us in a different direction.
Two themes connect the readings – humility and almsgiving, which may seem pretty disparate. But in the mind of God, they are closely related.
The first reading from the book of Jesus ben Sirach is part of the Wisdom tradition, which was developed to provide spiritual and moral guidance for young Jews who were living in Persia, Egypt, and other parts of the world outside of Israel a few centuries before the birth of Jesus. The name given it was hochmah, wisdom. This particular selection focuses on the wisdom of humility, much as Jesus does in the Gospel reading. In both cases, the counsel both Jesuses offer seems counter-intuitive – if you want to advance and succeed, keep your head down. Don’t exalt yourself at the expense of others, particularly those less fortunate than yourselves. Don’t force your ideas or plans on others. Treat people with respect, and they will respect and honor you. They may even listen to you.
Jesus also told us not to put our lamps under baskets, but here he seems especially concerned with avoiding arrogance, the kind of rudeness that walks on the feelings of others as if they didn’t matter. No one shines brighter by casting shade on other people. It’s a lesson for nations as well as individuals.
Treating others with respect, even by taking a back seat, may not seem wise, but according to both Jewish and Christian teaching it is part of the Golden Rule. And that is the link with almsgiving, sharing the goods of this world freely with those who lack them. The example Jesus gives is striking. Don’t favor your rich friends with your generosity, but reach out to the poor and infirm – beggars, cripples, the lame and blind, those the world of high society doesn’t even notice. There are many ways to do so today, not least by contributing to food drives, providing shelter for the homeless, and disaster relief. Almsgiving has not ceased to be relevant in an age of credit cards and bitcoinage. Jesus ben Sirach puts it simply enough: “Water quenches a flaming fire, and alms atone for sins.”
Yesterday I was struck by a long discussion of almsgiving and contributions to beautifying church buildings and lavish rituals by St. John Chrysostom, the beleaguered Patriarch of Constantinople, a reading appropriately selected for the coming celebration. [Homily 50 on St. Matthew, Patrologia Graeca 58.] “Of what use is it to weigh down Christ’s table with golden cups,” he preached, “when he himself is dying of hunger? First, fill him when he is hungry; then use the means you have left to adorn his table. Will you have a golden cup made but not give a cup of water? What is the use of providing the table with cloths woven of golden thread, and not providing Christ himself with the clothes he needs?”
St. John was referring to the poor, of course, the “least” of Jesus’ sisters and brothers (see Matthew 25:34-46). Later, he remarks, “Apply this also to Christ when he comes along the roads as a pilgrim, looking for shelter. You do not take him in as your guest, but you decorate floors and walls and the capitals of pillars. You provide silver chains for the lamps but cannot bear even to look at him as he lies chained in prison.”
I wonder what the old patriarch would say about the many hundreds of desperate refugees, especially children, being incarcerated in the lockups along our southern border? It’s easy to see why he found himself at odds with the imperial family and was banished more than once and in fact died in exile. It’s risky to speak compassion, much less truth, to power. But it can be divinely wise.