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Saturday, August 3, 2013

Kingdom floccinaucinihilipilification (18th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Let's just get this out of the way: yes, it's a word. Floccinaucinihilipilification. 

One of the funniest jokes I ever heard came out of the mouth of Fr. Richard Fragomeni at the LAREC probably ten years ago, and I’ve used it ever since, and without attribution (for fear of giving scandal ☺). This is how it goes: Three fathers and their daughters die and go to the pearly gates. St. Peter comes out and looks mightily perturbed, and says to the first father, “You! What are you doing here? All you ever cared about in your life was money! You never did anything for anyone else; you hoarded money that your family and friends needed. Even now, I can see your wife struggling to make ends meet while you have so much money stashed that no one knows how much or where it is. Why, you love money so much you named your daughter ‘Penny.’ She can come in, you go to hell!” The second father comes up, and St. Peter says, “You! What are you doing here? All you cared about in life was booze! You’ve been drinking since you were in college; you’ve lost everything you ever gained. There are booze bottles hidden in your home and office; you died in an accident because you passed out from drinking. Why, you loved booze so much you named your daughter ‘Brandy.’ She can come in, you go to hell!” The third father is shaking nervously, and whispers to his daughter, “I gotta get out of here. You go on in, Fanny, I haven’t got a chance.”

The things we care about are the subject of the first reading, psalm, and gospel today, and even the letter to the Colossians had some of that in it. We were assured today that it was all right to have a lot of money as long as we weren’t attached to it. I don’t know - that seems like a rather blasé reading of the gospel of Luke, which says that it’s harder for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye than it is for a rich man to enter the reign of God. And one of the woes in the sermon on the plain is reserved for the rich. While it’s true that “God shows no favorites,” loving the bad and the good as well as rich and poor, it does not mean that God doesn’t require justice of people, and part of that means redistribution of wealth, a change of heart that leads to a change in life. “Heart” doesn’t mean just “feelings,” it means a change in perception that leads to a change of being.

Values as we live our lives, reflectively or unreflectively, are a major theme in art, which tries to get us to look in the mirror and see ourselves for who we really are and not what we perceive ourselves to be. I can’t help but think of that perennial favorite among Christmas movies, It’s a Wonderful Life, in which the Jimmy Stewart character gets to experience, in his hour of despair, a world as it might have been without his presence, leading him to a different set of choices. I remember in Manhattan, Woody Allen’s hilarious send-up of New York and its mores (was it a send-up or a love song? or both? Who knows?) But when he’s asked about what makes life worth living, he comes up with a great personal list of human achievements (Groucho Marx, Cezanne’s still life paintings, Willie Mays) that seemed to resound with everyone who ever saw the movie. 

About all of that, Ecclesiastes says, “Vanity of vanities.” That first line of the reading can be translated something like this: “Tell this to the assembly: Utter futility! Everything about human life is completely useless and futile.” Why is it futile? It ultimately leads to unhappiness for individuals and injustice for the tribe. What can be done about that?

Jesus’s answer is conversion to the reign of God. Our values diverge completely from those of God’s kingdom. The values of this world are tied to economic and political domination in one form or another; the values of God’s dominion are equality, service, and consensus. (Actually, I find it hard to say “values of this world” as though this world were not God’s world. What I mean, and I hope this is clear, is that there are value systems in God’s world that are opposed to or ignorant of the values incarnate in the scriptures. It is not that we have another world to which we own allegiance; it is that, in this world, we generally serve a different deity, or deities, than Jesus Christ and his Abba.)

Sunday’s gospel, on its way to the parable about the foolish man with a bountiful harvest, describes a man coming up to Jesus and asking him to arbitrate with his brother over an inheritance. This is a matter of justice and law; one might say, why shouldn’t Jesus intervene here? But the answer to that question is the same one we might give in our own day about a thousand other questions. The problem is not the law, and a forced or arbitrated solution doesn’t change the underlying problem, which is the greedy heart of all of us who want more. The issue is not whether the reign of God is a political reality, or whether the church ought to try to be a political influence. The issue, it seems to me, is the way in which that happens. Because the reign of God, and therefore God’s power, is based not on force but upon agape, not on conquest but surrender, we cannot legislate our way into it. The only way to create a just society is to invite everyone into just relationship, one at a time, heart by stony heart. Jesus cannot arbitrate the fellow’s issue; his dream is to invite both parties into relationship with him, to open their eyes to the reign of God, and then the solution to their issue will become clear to both of them.

The charming film Sweet Land (2005, USA) dealt with some of these issues in the way that art does. It’s the story of a “mail-order bride” who comes to post-WWI Minnesota from Norway. The problem is that she is German, and this creates all kinds of problems for her and her would-be husband Olaf both in her quest for citizenship, their desire for marriage, and their relationships with their neighbors and fellow Lutherans, who regard her as an outlander and possible spy with suspicion. Even the pastor cannot rise above his distaste for Germans and outsiders, and the couple are eventually shunned by the community. When his former friend, a father of ten or so children, is faced with eviction by the (greedy) banker, Olaf buys his farm at the auction even though he doesn’t have the cash to pay the bank, and so is doomed to lose his own farm to save his friend’s. It is this act of self-immolation, as it were, that ultimately breaks down the community’s shunning of the couple, and almost without a word, representatives of the church show up with their harvest money in hand to help Olaf pay the debt for his friend’s farm. Civil and religious law are thus displaced by relationship and genuine agape, which  are the undergirding authority of law anyway. Anyone who thinks that a society can endure without the authority of relationship and justice validating the legal system is in for a terrible surprise: it is weaving a fabric with defective thread, and predestined for the ragpile.

The parable of the foolish man with the bountiful harvest is about exposing the illusion of control that drives our bad decisions in life, and asking us to consider another option. The paschal mystery of God, that divine nature that emptied itself into Christ and offers its own life constantly to sustain the universe in all its parts, is the pattern for the reality that Jesus describes as God’s dominion. It is the pattern for the human life of Christ. It is the DNA of the Holy Spirit as it guides the growth of the church’s life. The roads diverge: the futility and uselessness of a life of greed driving self-focused labor, or the life-affirming and gratifying challenge of living in the shared riches of the reign of God. With the former, the life of ease strangles the spirit and demeans humanity as a whole; in the latter, the yoke is sweet and the burden, being shared, is light.

By our baptism, Paul tells the Colossians, “your life is hidden with Christ in God.” We already share the life of the paschal mystery. We have “put on the new self,” made “in the image of its Creator.” Little by little, I hope the gospel is waking me up to this reality, and reminding me to make all those fundamental decisions that enable us to live, right now, in this world, in the reign of God.