Unrighteous Mammon

The Propers for the Eighth Sunday After Pentecost
Please note: an entry in the People’s Missal Project

Missa Suscepimus, Deus, misericodiam tuam

JMJ

THE COLLECT TODAY REMINDS us that we do not exist without God. God is the ground and source of our being, our very essence is tied to his continual will for our being. We are not of the same essence as God, but rather even the constant motions of atoms and the very being of our spirits is a continual act of his will for our well-being. And this is not only collective abstraction: God does not only will that all things continue in being. He wills it individually, personally. You and I are here as a blessing from God, by an act of his will, that sustains us for all things and through all things. But for what end? The Collect adds to live according to Thy will. We have things to do here. Much of the rest of this Mass is about what and how to do those things.

In the Introit we sing of having received God’s Mercy. In Latin it is “misericodiam”, but in Hebrew it is חַסְדֶּ֑ךָ chesed and in Greek it is ἔλεός eleos. We think of “mercy” in nearly a punishment way: the master is whipping us and we cry out, “Have mercy, master!” That is not what mercy means at all. I desire mercy not sacrifice does not say, “Don’t beat up sinners.” Instead, it means something further down the scale: comfort them. Chesed is such a hard word to render that the translators of the King James Bible made up a new word: Lovingkindness. The Greek word, eleos, comes from the same word as olive oil. Give me comfort, soothe my wounds, bind up my aches and pains. Have mercy, Lord: today is hard. In the temple, in the Liturgy – here, at Mass – we have been soothed, healed. As Christus/Moshiach means anointed, here in the Mass we are anointed with God’s chesed and made little Christs.

To what end? St Paul tells us directly in the Epistle: we are not to do the works of the flesh, but rather the works of the Spirit. We are not to let our flesh lead us around, but rather to follow the Spirit. We are not here in fear, but in love. We no longer expect God to merely stop beating us, we call on our Father’s mercy, his chesed. What is this division between the works of the flesh and of the spirit? We already know what God wants us to do, what having God as our Father empowers us to do. The clue is in what we have received from God in the Mass. In Micah 6:8 we see that we have a very simple duty: He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly (Mishpat), and to love mercy (Chesed), and to walk humbly with thy God? We already know chesed, but mishapt is new. It can mean law or judgment, but it is most often used for the description of how to treat others, especially the poor, the orphan, the widowed, the oppressed. This is the work of the Spirit.

So often we are given to imagine that “The work of the spirit” is something etherial, otherworldly, but this is how we walk with God: in works of justice and in love of mercy. The works of the flesh are physical works: lust, greed, gluttony. But they are not wrong because they are physical (as opposed to spiritual) but rather because they are selfish. In our greed we steal from others. But in the spirit of adoption which God has given us we are Sons, like Jesus himself. We no longer need to be greedy: for All Is Ours.

The Gradual and Alleluia inspire us to confidence in God and to the courage to act, dwelling in the shadow of his refuge. What is there to fear? The world will hate us. But we knew that already. Still, there is nothing to fear. I have hoped in God and nothing will trip me up.

Now comes one of the most confusing Gospel readings in the whole of our tradition: the Parable of the Unjust Steward. The Fathers have an interesting read on this, for they see the Certain Rich Man as a symbol of God the Father. The unjust steward is, well, you or me. He’s us. We are all rightly accused of squandering God’s wealth. In his Commentary, Fr Haydock says:

Verse 1. There was a certain rich man, &c. By this parable, our Saviour advises his disciples to accompany their penitential works with deeds of mercy to the poor. Ven. Bede. — There is a certain erroneous opinion, that obtains pretty generally amongst mankind, and which tends to increase crimes, and to lessen good works: and this is, the foolish persuasion that men are not accountable to any one, and that we can dispose as we please of the things in our possession. S. Chrys. — Whereas we are here informed, that we are only the dispensers of another’s property, viz. God’s. S. Amb. — When, therefore, we employ it not according to the will of our Master, but fritter and squander it away in pleasure, and in the gratification of our passions, we are, beyond all doubt, unjust stewards.

Haydock Commentary

When the steward begins to give away his master’s belongings, his master actually Praises him. Since all things belong to God, and since God has given them to us freely, we are to participate in the giving: to give away all. Sell all you have and give to the poor. And we are to do this without fear for in doing so we are participating in the nature of God whose self-gift is unending, unrestrained, and the source of all that we have or are. More than this, Jesus comments that the children of this world are more inclined to look out for their own care than we, as Christians, are inclined to look out for our soul’s well-being. How many Christians do you know are as zealous for souls as a Wall Street Banker is for profit? How many Christians do you know are a zealous for their own salvation and Heavenward journey as a political activist (of any stripe)? Truly, the children of this world are wiser in their generation than the children of light.

Conversely, how many Christians do you know who are more zealous for others to be punished “justly” for their sins? The Unjust Steward goes around forgiving the debts of others who owe him nothing. So are we to forgive others – even if they “only” sinned against God. Here I do not mean offer sacramental absolution: that is a priestly function. But rather, how many of us want to get “righteously angry” about protests or graffiti, about violence against the church, real or imagined, or about oppressions we are made to endure? Instead, we should be “loving mercy” and “doing justice” ourselves, like the Steward: we should say, “How much do you owe our God? Here, it’s now only half that…”

At the beginning of the first Gulf War, under President Bush the Elder, protesters gathered in front of the United Nations daily and they filled the streets around my 2nd Avenue work place in New York City. Monday, walking back to the office after lunch I saw a mounted squad of New York City Police ride into the crowd at the corner of 44th and 2nd. There was stunned silence for a few moments as people wondered what was to happen next. A group of priests, standing only a few feet from me on the corner, under the street sign, looked at each other, nodded, and took out their stoles which they draped over their clerical suits. They stood looking at the policeman who sat on their horses and looked at the priests. There was stony silence and the clerical stoles move gently in a breeze. Then the policeman turn their horses and rode away.

Rejoice: all is ours, and there is nothing to be afraid of.

In the Secret the priest prays that our lives will be fulfilled in this world and in the next. The world of “the flesh” are greed and lust. But nevertheless it is possible to be made holy here and now, “in the flesh,” if we but do the works of our Abba. This thought is repeated in the Postcommunion which asks God to heal us (the Latin is “repair us”) in Soul and Body. Again, that’s in this world. We are not gnostics: the flesh is not in opposition to the Spirit, only we want it to be out of balance. We use our fleshly passions and say, “This must be my spirit.” God wants us to embody the actions of His Spirit in our flesh.

The Communion verse underscores our hope in God as we taste and see that he is good.

More than praise for his gifts, God calls us to embody his action in the world: to act in lovingkindness, to be merciful at every turn. In a world where greed and self-interest are the norm, God calls us to act in merciful justice, to give away everything he has given us so that he can continue to give us more – to give away.

There is no need to fear in this action, for we already know they hate us.