Orbiting Dicta

Monthly Archives: July 2020

Seventeenth Sunday of the Year: The Price of Pearls

Ordinary U.S. citizens are not very good at saving money, as has been too clearly shown in the dire straits many find themselves in during the economic lockdown of the “Covid-19 Crisis.” Small businesses and even large ones have similar problems. Rainy-day funds seem to have been virtually non existent in the spend-thrift world of the new millennium, and the U.S. is not alone in this lapse in what the ancients called “frugality.” That is not to say there is no surfeit of money in a world where five families control half the wealth of the entire planet and in the U.S. most of the wealth is locked the accounts of the one-percent-of-one-percenters. It might seem strange to find Jesus praising the merchant who found a pearl of great value and sacrificed his entire wealth to buy it.

As St. Thomas Aquinas insisted in the thirteenth century, accumulating money for its own sake is morally wrong – the vice of miserliness or avarice. Money in his view (and for much of the world for next three centuries) is a medium of exchange, a means not an end in itself, not something of value in its own right. Accordingly, like usury (charging interest on a loan) hoarding wealth was equivalent to a sin against the nature of things.

That is not to say that Thomas was against wealth, or even the accumulation of wealth, for that enabled people to thrive in times of need and should be shared out of justice and charity. (It’s worth noting that the word “thrift” comes from “thrive.”) and there was plenty of biblical precedent for that. (For Thomas on all this, see Summa Theologiae, II-II, QQ 77-78 and II-II, Q.118.)

All this changed with the development of capitalism and the money-economies of the modern world, whether for good or ill or some uneasy combination of both. The bottom line at the moment seems to be that there is gross inequity in the distribution of the world’s wealth on a global scale, a crime against humanity made all too visible by the current crisis.

So what are we to make of today’s readings? King Solomon is presented to us in the first reading as a young man who chose wisely in the sight of God, because he

1 Kgs 3:5,7-12
Ps 119
Rom 8:28-30
Mt 13: 44-52

chose to be wise when he could have simply gained wealth, power, and fame. He dreamed of God, and God’s dream for him was granted. His own dream was not to accumulate gold, but to build a great Temple for God, and he succeeded, creating in the process one of the wonders of the ancient world. It was destroyed in time, but the wisdom of Solomon the King outshone it and lasted far longer because he looked first to God’s glory rather than his own.

St. Paul reminds us that our destiny lies first of all in the hands of God, and that those who love God, who strive to live in accord with God’s plan for the universe, will find that their lives have value and significance, like the stones and columns that supported Solomon’s Temple, no matter how humble or obscure they may appear. Like those who sacrifice their time, energy, savings, even their own health and often their lives to care for those suffering during the present pandemic, we may also be called on to give our meager fortunes and even our lives rather than contribute to the darkness that disfigures the world. In the sight of God, such sacrifices are precious and shine eternally like the stars themselves. Most of us are more likely to find ourselves assisting ordinary people in extraordinary situations who are desperate for help. But those in powerful positions and possessing great wealth who can do much to ward off even greater harm have a special obligation to step forward.

And that is what we learn about from Jesus’ little parable of the pearl. Pearls themselves were unknown until a few centuries before his time, when they were discovered in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. Soon they were all the rage among kings and emperors, especially the Romans. You might even recall the story of how Cleopatra showed off by dissolving pearls in vinegar and drinking them as a cocktail. A single, perfect pearl could cost as much as an ordinary person could earn in a lifetime.

What we know that the ancients didn’t is that a pearl grows within an oyster because of a tiny irritation in the most sensitive area of its body. The oyster surrounds the grain of sand with its tears, as my friend Megan McKenna has so well said. After many years, those tears formed a smooth, protective shell around that irritant. We value it for its perfect beauty. Perhaps the kingdom of heaven grows from the tears of ordinary people.

In any case, Jesus tells us that is how we should consider God’s reign, as a treasure worth sacrificing everything for. Stumbling across the gospel of Christ in a hospital ward, a refugee prison camp, or a mother’s hopeful care for her children, is like finding a treasure chest hidden in a field. Sell everything and buy that field, Jesus tells us, buy that pearl and God’s treasure will be yours.

16th Sunday of the Year: The Kindness of God

16th Sunday of the Year: The Kindness of God

Wis 12:13,16-19
Ps 86
Rom 8:26-27
Mt 13:24-43

Today’s watchword in the readings from Scripture, in case you might have missed it, is “kindness,” a commodity in seeming short supply in these Covid-critical
days. But there also stunning evidence that kindness is still among us and may yet hold the day. The amazing degree of kindness people have shown in this crisis is reassuring. It is so much more than waiting impatiently for the pubs to reopen or simply wearing a face mask in public.

The week began and ended with the death of two giant figures. In England, Jack Charlton, the English coach who transformed the Irish football (read: soccer) team into a formidable squad and eventually a world championship, died on July 10th, greatly beloved on both sides of the Irish Sea. On July 17th, John Lewis, the long-time Georgia Congressman and civil rights champion died at the age of 80 of pancreatic cancer.

What struck me in the many salutes that followed on the passing of these great examples of humanity and courage was how often the word “kindness” appeared in stories shared by those who knew them best. Neither was a wuss, for sure, and it seems evident that true kindness reveals itself at its finest when shown by the powerful. What we hear in today’s readings is that such kindness stretched to divinity is where it manifests its true character.

“Kindness” (epieikeia) and its equivalent expressions appear over half-a-dozen times in the readings, most often linked the terms for justice or “righteousness.” The point is always the same: lenience or forbearance is a sign not of weakness but of divine power and strength.

This is brought forward cleverly in Jesus’ parable about the good seed and the “zizania” or “darnel,” a weed that a man’s enemy sows in his field just after the wheat was planted. The early form of this parable is about the word of God, but it was later extended to include enemies of the faith. And as with the parable of the mustard seed, it would have been obvious to Jesus’ listeners that he was no farmer, or, more likely that he reversed the standard logic to make his point. (He wasn’t much of a fisherman, either.)

Farmers and gardeners would also have known that the mustard seed is not the smallest of seeds nor does it grow into a ‘dendron,’ a tree so large that birds build nests in its branches. Jesus is obviously having a bit of fun with the Semitic tendency to hyperbole and exaggeration. But he would surely have grabbed their attention. The same is true with the parable of the wheat and the darnel or “tares.” (It’s all zinania, by the way, a pernicious weed that closely resembles wheat when it matures.)

Years ago, I spent a week researching agricultural practice in the Middle East at the time of Jesus to do some fact-checking. It was for a university sermon for today’s liturgy, in fact. What I learned made me realize even more that Jesus was not only a master story-teller but had a developed sense of humor.

Best practice demanded that as soon as the zizania sprouts, it must be plucked up, because that is the only time in which it can be clearly differentiated from sprouting wheat. If the farmer waits, the entire crop will be ruined. It would take a truly angelic intellect to sort them out at harvest time.

But, Jesus is telling us again, things are different with God, just the opposite of what passes for human wisdom. Whether zizania or rascals and real sinners are found among the just is not a matter for our primary concern. Clearly, we can’t eliminate all crime, meanness, and selfishness in the world. But the rest of the parable is important: God’s justice will prevail. Our job is to increase the kindness in the world, to eliminate crime, greed, and corruption more by our example than by force. Just doing the right thing.

This is a lesson that is difficult for many to hear. And to be sure, allowing evil to run amok in the fields of the Lord when we can prevent it is irresponsible. But waiting for heroes like Jack Charlton and John Lewis to save us is also foolish. We are called to imitate them, not idolize them — to dream impossible dreams and tell truth to power, as the sayings go. Ultimately, God’s justice and kindness will prevail. Perhaps Thomas Jefferson said it best,

“Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the Gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever.” (“Notes of the State of Virginia,” Query 18, 1781. Cited by Abraham Lincoln.)

15th Sunday of the Year: The Sower and the Seed

Is 55:10-11
Ps 65
Rom 8:18-23
Mt 13:1-23

Both Isaiah and the responsory psalm for the day eloquently remind us that the word of God, gone forth, does not return vacant, for it is creative of its nature, and true soil — like the human clay Jesus refers to later — responds to it abundantly and yields a fit harvest, in human terms of justice and mercy. St. Paul speaks of Creation as a whole groaning to reveal the destiny of the universe — the freedom and glory of God’s children. For the price of such creativity is high — the pain of birth. And loss, both of life and of creativity itself. As in the amplified commentary on Jesus’ simple parable, the fertile seed of God’s word, the way Creation is lavish with the gift of life, often goes to waste. Some of the Word does take root, but more seems to be scavenged, lost, or at best stunted and it soon withers. Jesus directs our attention, like Isaiah, not to the Word itself, but to us, the human soil and our readiness to receive the Word of Life and grow to bear a harvest of freedom and glory.

It is critical to ask how we’re doing The image of creation giving birth suggests that we look to the earth itself to see. Ecologists and naturalists have been warning us for decades now that human rapacity has destroyed much of the life-giving greenness of the earth. The “good soil” of creation has given way to concrete, asphalt, ravaged rain forests, spreading deserts, melting glaciers, and troubled seas. Where will the fertile seed of Creation be able to find haven and produce the bounty called Life? As eco-catastrophists rightly remind us, there is no planet B.

The other night, I caught a brief glimpse of the film, “Rio 2,” detailing the further adventures of a lovable blue parrot, in which he finds others of his species in the Amazonian rain forest. In fact, Spix’s Macaw is now extinct in the wild. Thousands of other species of birds, mammals, insects, and plants – many of them not even yet catalogued by naturalists — face the same dismal fate because of human encroachment on their habitat. As Wikipedia reminds us, Spix’s Macaw is the only known species of the genus Cyanopsitta (blue parrots). I couldn’t watch any more of film.
The sad news, the ‘badspel,’ is that our mechanistic, exploitative approach to Creation is killing off such great numbers of living species as to endanger the capacity of the planet to sustain life as we know it. The constant rise in global temperatures is more than a danger signal. It could be a planetary death knell.

Stern words, ones we should take to heart. Ours is, after all, the only planet in the universe known to have conceived and given birth to life. But bearing life is a surprisingly fragile and fallible enterprise. And so the groaning continues, and the glorious freedom of God’s children is forestalled.

But even if by conceiving greed and bringing forth injustice, we destroy ourselves and our civilization. Faith reminds us that Creation is God’s work and workshop. Humans are no more capable of ending life on earth by our own power than we are of engineering by ourselves the revelation of ultimate glory. But we are capable of what may be irreparable harm if we do not alter our way of living on a global scale.

I have said this before, but it bears repeating. Thirteen thousand millions of years ago, God spoke, and everything came to be. And the Word was with God, and nothing came to be except in the Word, and of the Word, and through the Word. All things are kept by the Word, and without the Word, nothing remains. For the Word was God. Is God. God’s word has never ceased going forth.

Some nine thousand millions of years later, earth appeared, the waters parted, and life began on this planet — perhaps only here. We simply don’t know and may never find out. Thousands of millions of years later, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Earth was reseeded with grace.

The Word of God…. seed sown in the cosmos itself, the human heart, the soil of nations and peoples. Some of it produces a bountiful harvest of justice and mercy, some little or nothing, choked by weeds of disregard, oppression, and destruction. The Word of God is no less creative for that. It is no less dynamic, no less alive. More: it gives life. And the Word not only endures, it is indelible.

Surely God could create other soil, other earth, other worlds where the Word could take better root and produce a harvest of glory ten thousand times a hundred fold. But here we are, for all we know, the only show in town, vainglorious dust, blighting the earth while straining to reach the stars. And if we do, will we not find, with Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus that “the blood of Christ streams through the universe”? For the Word remains impressed on each quark and galaxy. Even if our vision of the universe is fuzzy, like the first images received by the Hubble telescope, as the poet affirms, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God / It will flame out like shining from shook foil; / It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil / Crushed.” [Gerard Manley Hopkins, “God’s Grandeur”]

Confirmed in that Spirit, we go on. Summoned by the Word, we endure. Intent on a future harvest of freedom and glory, we offer others the gift of life, the promise of justice and mercy. Subjected to suffer with all of creation the pangs of that great and prolonged birthing, we nevertheless rejoice at the approach of the Realm of God’ glory.

14th Sunday of the Year: The Burden is Light

Most of the world is still coping, well or badly, with the “Covid Crisis,” now in its seventh month and far from over. But many otherwise healthy people are suffering from “Covid Crisis Fatigue” it seems – rushing, often foolishly, into a premature return to a lifestyle we in the more affluent nations at any rate have grown so fond of. Perhaps unconsciously so. In the expanding and largely southern realm of the planet, what Northerners used to call “The Third World,” the lack of worldly goods, an adequate income, sufficient food, potable water, education, and affordable or even accessible housing is now compounded by a pandemic over which they have no control or means to combat.

Such glaring and growing inequity provides a link between today’s readings [Zech 9:9-10, Rom 8:9,11-13, Mat 11:25-30], which otherwise seem unusually disparate. For those who care to look, what is at stake is how the global gulf between rich and poor has created the conditions for spiritual as well as material calamity and how to address that.

The first reading brings Palm Sunday to mind.  In this passage from the Book of Zechariah, we are given an image of the Messiah of Peace, so different from the warlike leader so many of the Hebrews had hoped and waited for.  And as a result many did not recognize him when he appeared among them.  Jesus entered Jerusalem, not on a war-horse, but on a young mule, an animal associated with peace rather than battle. So much for militarism, a perennial planetary scourge that acquires greater and more lethal proportions with every passing decade.

And this is what Paul is reminding us in this passage from his letter to the Romans — the Spirit of Christ is the Lord of life and peace, not of war and death, the works of the flesh. By “flesh” here, he means what he elsewhere calls “the body of sin and death” — ‘sarx’ not the ordinary term for the body, ‘soma.’ In his anthropology, ‘sarx’ means the whole of human life under the dominion of sin. But to belong to Christ is to choose life and to choose it in abundance, not just for some, for a wealthy or powerful elite, and not at the cost of depriving other people of their lives or liberty.  Life belongs to all.  And, in the lingering glow of America’s Independence Day, we may rest assured so do liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

For those who find life burdensome, Christ offers refreshment and rest.  To those who are weary and toil endlessly, he offers gentleness and help.  Early in the last century, twenty years after the French people endowed the people of the United States with the Statue of Liberty, the following words by Emma Lazarus were chosen for the plaque placed on a wall inside the pedestal.  They also sound very much like Jesus’ concluding words in today’s gospel:

Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
[“The New Colossus: Inscription for the Statue of Liberty,” New York Harbour (1883)

So much for anti-immigrant fervor and enforced economic disparity.

American citizens should not pass over the celebration of Independence Day as if it had nothing to do with our faith, or as if our faith had nothing to do with our independence.  Those rich white men who spent that hot summer of 1776 sweating over the wording of the Declaration of Independence saw themselves as doing the work of God and they pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to secure that belief in fact.  Most of them lost their fortunes and some their lives in the pursuit of liberty, but their honor remains.  Not untarnished, to be sure.  Many owned slaves and despised Catholics, Quakers, and Jews.  They tied political rights to property and wealth.  They scoffed at the idea of women voting or holding pubic office.  But they set in motion the democratic forces that, under God, would in time address these issues of inequality and injustice.  We are still working at securing their belief that it was God who watched over and guided their efforts.

No one’s freedom can be made secure by the servitude of others, whether political, financial, or spiritual.  We are either all free, or none of us is free.  Thomas Jefferson understood that when in the original draft of the Declaration of Independence, he outlawed slavery.  Had the other members of Congress been as wise and humane, and Jefferson more averse to compromise, the nation could have been spared a terrible civil war four score and seven years later.  And we could do worse than to recall St. Paul’s advice on the matter: where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. [2 Cor 3:17]

As for the lifestyle of conspicuous consumption and the craving for constant amusement in a consumerist society, it is enough to recall the words of Mahatma Gandhi and later the slogan of the Voluntary Simplicity Movement –“Live simply so that others may simply live.” In the end, turning to the words of Jesus, the burden he asks us to undertake of peace-making and securing justice is light, despite the sacrifices it may and usually does require. Becoming more gentle and humble of heart is no easy task. But perhaps we can learn something from the Covid Crisis after all.