The Readings for Monday in the 29th week of Ordinary Time (B2)
Videte, et cavete ab omni avaritia…
Take heed and beware of all covetousness…
The Gospel is messy: it doesn’t color between the lines we’ve drawn. Who in this brief Gospel story of familial dysfunction gets your sympathy? We’re not told if we’re talking to the younger or elder brother. My guess is younger because the elder would normally get it all – but see Jacob and Esau, or Isaac and Ishmael. Fathers can be capricious. We don’t know but maybe the man is the eldest son of a second wife or the eldest son in fact, by a mistress though, rather than the wife. Who knows? Who gets your sympathy? My late younger brother (along with many of his friends) was a bully. I rarely see things in these internecine incivilities without that memory coming into play. I tend to pity the one standing in front of Jesus. I often wondered why I was the one that wanted to go to church, but my brother was the one who got to beat me up. So I don’t necessarily see this as an issue of “justice” because my younger brother often got away with a lot of stuff.
What would Jesus say? The answer is one that is certain to annoy anyone who thinks the Gospel is only about “social justice”. Jesus doesn’t even ask the brother who’s right and who’s wrong or what might be going on. He says, simply, don’t covet.
Aslan would remind us we never get to know what might have been, what could have been, or even what would have been. All we can know is what is (and what was). So yes, I had a brother who was a bully, but that’s what providence has dealt. It’s created some interesting memories and mental dynamics in my life. However to fight back, to blame, to demand fairness would have only complicated things, and perhaps have lead Jesus to offer me some interesting parables. This says nothing about what he would have said to my brother… or anyone else involved. This is always only in the the first person.
St John Chrysostom directs us to this in another way…
The sins of the rich, such as greed and selfishness, are obvious for all to see. The sins of the poor are less conspicuous, yet equally corrosive of the soul. Some poor people are tempted to envy the rich; indeed this is a form of vicarious greed, because the poor person wanting great wealth is in spirit no different from the rich person amassing great wealth. Many poor people are gripped by fear: their hearts are caught in a chain of anxiety, worrying whether they will have food on their plates tomorrow or clothes on their backs. Some poor people are constantly formulating in their minds devious plans to cheat the rich to obtain their Wealth; this is no different in spirit from the rich making plans to exploit the poor by paying low wages. The art of being poor is to trust in God for everything, to demand nothing-and to be grateful for all that is given.
Mindful, this is from the same Saint who teaches that both rich and poor alike rely too much on having stuff and not enough of God. This same saint teaches it is the duty of the rich to share in humble thankfulness for all they have and the duty of the poor to be humble in their reception of charity. The same saint teaches that laws do nothing for charity, as only a change of heart brings about charity…
See? The Gospel is really messy and doesn’t fall neatly into modern political parties.
Jesus asks, “Who made me the judge (literally, the divider) over this?”
In the first person singular and plural the Gospel offers no justice at all. In talking to Christians the only thing we’re promised is hate and eventually death. However we are to do justice – by which the Biblical writers do not mean “pass laws, march in the street, fix things”. We have a huge problem with those sorts of activism. Because we know God wants to save everyone: rich and poor, men and women, all races, all religions, all tribes, nations, and tongues. God doesn’t have time to care about our political squabbles.
In the life of Sts Cyril & Methodious we learn: That is why we generously endure offenses caused us as private people. But in company we defend one another and give our lives in battle for our neighbors, so that you, having taken our fellows prisoners, could not imprison their souls together with their bodies by forcing them into renouncing their faith and into godless deeds.
The Gospel is very messy. Our problem today seems to be that we are unwilling to “endure offenses caused us as private people”. We instantly demand justice and “our fair share”. Jesus accuses us (in the first person) of being covetous. Our job is to defend the weak, feed the poor, shelter the lost, but never to assume that is us we’re talking about there.