Everyone Likes a Good Joke: Jesus Makes Fun of Pharisaical Hypocrites (Sunday Homily)

laughing Jesus

Readings for 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time: SIR 3: 17-18, 20, 28-29; PS 68: 4-5, 6-7, 10-11; HEB 12: 18-19, 22-24A; LK 14: 1, 7-14. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/090113.cfm

In this morning’s gospel, Jesus finds himself invited for dinner to the home of a Pharisee. All present, Luke tells us, are watching Jesus closely. No doubt, they’re keeping an eye on his disciples too. And they don’t approve.

After all, like Jesus, his disciples are mere riff-raff. But at least Jesus is the reputed peasant-rabbi. Everyone’s talking about him. And investigating Jesus is the whole reason for this dinner. So for the moment at least, the Pharisees are willing to cut him some slack.

His hangers-on however are a different story. They’re rough. They smell of fish and sweat, and have no manners. And yet, as Jesus’ friends, they’ve been placed towards the head of the table in places of honor. Granted, they feel out of place, but for that very reason they are enjoying themselves tremendously. You can imagine their rough jokes and loud laughter.

Yes, the Pharisees are watching Jesus and his friends. But obviously, Jesus has been watching them as well. He knows they are expecting some words of wisdom. So . . . he tells them a joke. And the joke’s on them. It contains a sharp barb.

“Thanks for inviting us to this banquet,” Jesus begins. “Unaccustomed as we are . . .” He pauses and smiles. “That’s quite generous of you. After all, none of us can repay your kindness. We are homeless people, as you know. We’re unemployed too, so we are in no position to return your kindness.

The best I can do is offer you some wisdom. So let me tell you what I’ve been observing here.

“Evidently,” Jesus goes on, “it’s your custom to adopt the humility recommended in the biblical Book of Sirach. I can’t tell you how impressed I am; I’m edified by your piety. I mean, you have clearly taken to heart the words of the sage, Jesus ben Sirach – what he said about being humble, especially if we are ‘great’ as all of you are here, I’m sure.”

Jesus eyes his listeners. He can tell that they are waiting for the penny to drop. So he drops it.

“I can see that when you come into a place like this, you take the lowest place available.” With this, Jesus stands up bows his head, stoops his shoulders and slumps towards the lowest place at table. He laughs.

“That way,” the Master continues, “our host, of course, is obliged to publically invite you to a more honored position at table. ‘Friend,’ he’ll say, ‘come up higher, and sit in the place you’ve merited not down there with the unwashed and poor.’”

Now Jesus is standing. He throws out his chest and strides towards the seat right next to his pharisaical host. He chuckles again. “That enables you,” Jesus continues,” with great protestations of unworthiness, to take your ‘rightful’ place at table. Your stock has risen in everyone’s eyes.

“So congratulations are in order,” Jesus says. “All of you have learned your lessons well. You’ve just created a show, and have actually exalted yourself by pretending to be humble. In a sense, you’ve received your reward.”

Jesus is seated now and looking intently at everyone. Their mouths are open with shock.

“So here’s my wisdom, friends. . . . Your ‘humility’ is not what Sirach was recommending. In fact, it’s a form of pride and self-promotion.

“Instead, real humility is this: when you throw a party like this one, invite the poor, the lame and the blind, and then serve them. Place them at the head of your table and treat them as honored guests. People like that can’t or won’t repay you. But in fact, YOU OWE THEM.” Jesus fairly shouts those last three words.

“I’m telling you the truth,” he says. And humility is nothing but the truth.”

Jesus pauses, but he hasn’t finished yet. “You see, those belonging to what you consider the Great Unwashed are actually God’s favorite people. Recall what the psalmist said about them in Psalm 68. He said God is the Father of orphans; he’s the defender of widows, of prisoners, of the homeless, and of farmers without land.”

Jesus is quiet now; his smile is broad and friendly. He searches the faces of his table companions one-by-one.

Then he turns to his host and adds.

“To be fair, my friend, you yourself are on the right track. By inviting us today, you’ve shown that you already understand what I’ve been saying. As I say, none of us can repay you, and yet you’ve invited us to this abundant table. We are sincerely grateful.

“But don’t think that you’ve somehow performed an act of charity by your invitation. No, it’s an act of justice – of compensation to make up for what you have stolen from the poor by underpaying them and taxing them heavily. In supporting the poor and even the “lazy,” you are simply imitating our generous God.

“I mean the earth and its produce are all gifts from God. No one has earned them. No one owns them but the creator. If you have food, then, you are obliged to share it with the hungry – even with those unwilling to work. As difficult as it might be to understand, that’s simply the divine dispensation.

“The earth and the life it supports have been freely given to everyone – even to people like me and my friends who refuse to work and live from the alms of friends like you. No one deserves life or food more than anyone else. So in effect, you are obliged to do what you’ve done.

(Homilist’s note) None of this needs commentary from me.

What’s your commentary?

War Again!


So we’re going to war again – this time in Syria.

And the reason? We’re outraged by the killing of innocent civilians through the use of the “weapons of mass destruction” that we so famously abhor. That is we abhor them when used by others. And these days everything qualifies for the category – even a pressure cooker filled with nails.

Meanwhile, the drone is never described as a weapon of mass destruction. Nor is the white phosphorus used to slaughter masses in Fallujah considered a chemical weapon. And what about the Agent Orange and Agent Blue “we” used in Vietnam and which is still claiming lives and causing horrendous birth deformities fifty years later? How about the depleted uranium that has caused not only deaths but an epidemic of child deformities wherever it has been used?

Have you seen those pictures? No, they’re too “graphic” for our sensibilities. But sensibilities be damned when it’s a question of our enemies atrocities instead of our own which absolutely dwarf the latter.

And where’s the outrage about our cooperation with Saddam Hussein in targeting Iranians, when Hussein was still our friend and ally? Just yesterday it came out that the CIA supplied him with targeting information for his famous use of chemical weapons . We were his collaborators in that crime! But that’s ancient history — way back in 1988.

And yet we rend our garments over this “unspeakable” crime that may have been committed by Bashar Assad – the latest personification of Hitler and evil itself just ahead of Saddam Hussein, Manuel Noriega, Slobodan Milosevic, and Muammar Gaddafi.

No one asks “Can we afford this?” Where are the millions (billions?) necessary for this intervention coming from? What has Syria to do with us? How is it connected with U.S. problems of unemployment, income gaps between the super-rich and the ever-expanding ranks of the poor, failing schools, overcrowded prisons, voter suppression, crumbling infrastructure?

To address those problems we have no money. But for war, don’t ask. There’s always money for war.

And so our newscasters and pundits take John Kerry seriously when he wrings his hands over Syria’s use of chemical weapons. We have no option but to intervene militarily, Kerry assures us. And he’s the head of our “Diplomatic Corps!”

Where’s the diplomacy? Where’s the call for a cease fire, for U.N. peacekeeper intervention, for talks between the admittedly al-Qaeda-affiliated “rebels” and the Assad regime? What are we paying these guys for – these so-called diplomats?

And the mainstream media goes along with all of it. Putting on their most solemn faces and using their most serious voices the newscasters intone: “We have ‘undeniable circumstantial evidence’ that Bashar Assad is the one responsible for chemical weapons deployment. And there’s no time to wait for a fuller investigation.”

Sound familiar? When was the last time such certainty moved us to “shock and awe” an enemy, meanwhile killing untold innocent civilians in the process?

So our brave military stands ready to fire Cruise Missiles into population centers to retaliate for the killing of innocent civilians. The strikes will be as surgical as possible we’re reassured.

Have we learned nothing from recent history?

Is God Speaking to Us through Our Muslim Enemies? (Sunday Homily)


Readings for 20th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Is. 66: 18-21; PS. 117: 1-2; HEB. 12: 5-7, 11-13; LK. 13: 22-30. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/082513.cfm

Messages from God can come from the most unlikely places – even from our enemies and those our culture considers inferior and evil. That’s the teaching I find in today’s liturgy of the word. There God speaks to Babylonians through Jews, and to Romans through Christians. This suggests to me that God might be evangelizing Americans today through Muslims.
Consider our first reading from Isaiah.

Imagine yourself a Babylonian in the 6th century BCE. You belong to an empire – one of the most powerful nations the world has ever seen.

In 586 your people conquered a small insignificant nation called “Israel.” Its leaders have been taken captive, and for more than three generations (586-516) have remained prisoners of your country. They are your enemies. You despise them as inferior, superstitious and violent.

Now towards the end of the 6th century, one of their “holy men,” someone called “Isaiah,” claims that those captives, those refugees, those “fugitives” as Isaiah calls them, are agents of the single God of the Universe. They have been sent specifically to call you away from your polytheistic worship of your Gods, Anshar, Ea and Enlil, and to recognize that there is only one God. They call him Yahweh. This God has special care specifically for refugees, slaves and outcasts in general.

For you, recognizing that entails releasing the prisoners your government has held captive for so long.

Even more, Isaiah says you and your proud people are being called to actually worship that God of refugees, political prisoners, and slaves! That means putting their needs first, while subordinating your own.

As Babylonian, you find all of this incredible and obviously insane.
Now to grapple with today’s gospel selection from Luke, imagine that you are a Roman living towards the end of the 1st century CE.

You belong to an empire recognized to this day as the greatest the world has ever known. As with the Babylonians more than 500 years earlier, Palestine and its Jewish people are provincial possessions of the empire; they are your captives. Roman legions continue to occupy Palestine whose haughty people resist their occupiers at every turn.

“Jews are nothing but terrorists, every one of them,” you think.

Among the most infamous of those terrorists was a man called Jesus of Nazareth. You’ve learned that he was a Jewish peasant crucified by Rome about the year 30 CE. You’ve heard that a new kind of religion has formed around that so-called “martyr.” In fact, his followers acclaim him by a title belonging to the Roman emperor alone – Son of God. To you that sounds absolutely seditious.

In any case, this Jesus asserted that the God he called “father” was blind to people’s national origins. He told a parable (in today’s gospel) whose refrain from a thinly veiled God figure was, “I do not know where you are from.” Apparently Jesus meant that in God’s eyes no nation – not even Rome – is superior to any other.

You wonder, was Jesus blind? No nation superior to any other? Did Jesus not have eyes to see Rome’s power, its invincible army, and feats of engineering – the aqueducts, the roads, the splendid buildings and fountains?

According to Jesus, Israel itself is not above other nations in the eyes of God. Nor are his own followers better than anyone else. Even those who drank with him and shared meals with him could not on that account claim special status in God’s eyes.

In fact, the only “superiors” are what Jesus called “the least” – his kind of people: artisans, peasants, the unemployed, beggars, prostitutes, lepers, immigrants, women and children. As in today’s reading from Luke, Jesus calls these people “the last.” In God’s eyes, they are “the first,” he said. Meanwhile those who are first in the eyes of Rome, Israel, and even of his followers end up being outcasts.

Worse still, many Romans, especially slaves and criminals, are embracing this new religion. Some in the Empire’s capital city are already worrying that if not stopped, this worship of an executed criminal from a marginal imperial province might undermine the religion of the Roman Gods, Jupiter, Mithra and of the emperor himself.

How absurd, you think, that Romans could be schooled in matters theological by riff-raff, Jews, and terrorist sympathizers.

Finally, imagine that you are an American today. Many think that your country is the proud successor of Babylon and Rome. In fact, the United States may have surpassed Rome’s greatness. Certainly, it has the most powerful military machine the world has ever known. It has the capacity to destroy the earth itself, should its leaders take that decision.

Some attribute America’s greatness to its embrace of the faith of Jesus of Nazareth and to its partnership with Israel, the biblical People of God. As a result the U.S. has become the light of the world, the “city on a hill that cannot be hidden” (Mt. 5: 14-16). America can do no wrong.

This is not to say that its leaders aren’t fallible. They make their share of mistakes and even commit crimes. Yes, they torture, support dictators across the planet, imprison a higher percentage of their citizens than anyone else, drop atomic bombs, even threaten the extinction of human life as we know it, and have declared a state of permanent war against virtually the entire world.

But as a nation, the United States, you continue to believe, is idealistic; it stands for democracy, freedom and equality. As a result, America continues to enjoy God’s special protection.

Nevertheless, there are those in your midst who say that none of this is true. They are like the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob living in 6th century Babylon. They are like the first Christians who refused allegiance to Rome. They are the foreigners found in U.S. prisons all around the world – in places like Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

By and large, those prisoners, those (in Isaiah’s terms) “fugitives” and exiles share a religious faith (Islam) that is as difficult for most Americans to understand as it was for Babylonians to understand Jews or for Romans to understand Christians. The faith of those held captive by America today is largely the faith of poor people called “terrorists” by your government – just as were the Jews and early followers of Jesus.

However, closer examination shows that Allah is the same as the Jewish God, Yahweh. Moreover Muslims recognize Jesus as the greatest of God’s biblical agents.

With that in mind, you realize that Muslims routinely invoke their faith to resist U.S. imperial rule. And they are critical of the use of Judaism and Christianity to justify oppression of their brothers and sisters in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Bahrain, Somalia, throughout the rest of Africa and elsewhere.

Could it be that these exiles, captives, fugitives, “terrorists,” might be your empire’s equivalents of 6th century Jews in relation to Babylon and of 1st century Christians vis-a-vis Rome? Could they possibly be God’s agents calling us Americans away from heartless imperialism and to the worship of the true God (even if called “Allah”)?

Are our Muslim captives reiterating the words of Jesus in this morning’s gospel: God is oblivious to people’s national origins and to physical ties to Jesus? The Master “does not know where we are from” even if we’ve shared table with him. It makes no difference if we’re Jews or Christians, Babylonians, Romans, Americans, or Muslims.

Only the treatment of “the least” is important in God’s eyes. And for us Americans, those “least,” those “last” happen to be the poor of the Islamic world against whom our government has declared permanent war. And what is their God’s demand? It’s simple: Stop the war on us and our religion!

Is their God – our God – trying to save us – and the planet from the crimes of American Empire?

The fates of Babylon and Rome hang over us all like Damocles’ sword.

Which Side Are You On? (Sunday Homily)

Readings for 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time: JER 38:4-8, 8-10; Ps. 40: 2-4, 18; HEB. 12:1-4; LK. 12: 49-53. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/081813.cfm

I think we all might agree that today’s United States is marked by deep divisions – a concept raised in today’s gospel reading. Some say our country is more divided now than at any time since the Civil War. I’m talking about conflicts of:

• Conservative against liberal as anywhere you tune in on the AM dial, you’ll hear harsh and threatening words vilifying those who stand for social justice, equality and tolerance.
• Rich against poor as the income gap widens and the poor and immigrants are identified as lazy freeloaders.
• White against black as Stand Your Ground laws and voter suppression measures gain ground, while Trevon Martins are killed with impunity and their brothers are “stopped and frisked” by racist cops.
• Men against women, as the “War against Women” finds expression around issues of contraception, rape, abortion and women priests.
• Straight against gay as the LGBT community still struggles for domestic partnership benefits and recognition of the legitimacy of their love relationships.
• Christian against Muslim, as the United States continues its brutal wars in Afghanistan and throughout the Muslim world with daily drone strikes killing innocents along with those who resist the U.S. War on the World and are branded as “terrorists” for doing so.
• Old against young as twenty-somethings like Bradley Manning, Edward Snowden, and Aaron Swartz are harshly punished for exposing the crimes of their elders.

And Jesus is deeply involved in all of those conflicts. He is routinely invoked as endorsing conservatives, the rich, whites, men, straights, Christians, and the geriatric patriarchal establishment that rules the world. More specifically, a “devout Catholic” like Paul Ryan invokes his Catholicism to endorse social Darwinism as he crafts and promotes budget cuts that favor the wealthy and militate against single mothers, their children, and undocumented workers that increasingly form the backbone of our economy.

Even kindly Francis I invokes Jesus to continue the exclusion of women from the priesthood and the control of women religious by the male hierarchy which by church law remains strictly segregated from intimate contact with women. This same hierarchy finds some of its members deeply implicated in what Pope Francis himself calls a “gay lobby,” all the while denouncing homosexuality.

Such forces and movements embrace a Jesus who endorses conservative values and the status quo.

We get a different picture of Jesus from today’s gospel reading – and from the Christian Testament in general. This Jesus is anything but conservative. He’s not even liberal. He is deeply radical – an enemy of the temple establishment and the Roman Empire. Rather than supporting the status quo, he calls for fire to consume it. He can’t wait, he says, till it’s all gone – to be replaced by God’s reign. Jesus’ words this morning are fierce. No doubt, Jewish insurgents against the Roman occupation of Palestine found them congenial.

Closer to home, today’s Jesus even seems to endorse family strife. Luke has him say, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided father against son, and son against father, mother against daughter, and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law, and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

In the light of our own divisions, Jesus seems to be calling us to take a stand even if it means opposing our nearest and dearest. Maintaining family peace is less important for Jesus than the radical change demanded by God’s Kingdom. Standing with Jesus means taking sides. In the light of our divisions, it means for me:

• Standing with the poor and immigrant communities and recognizing corporate “persons” as the enemies of the world’s majority.
• Tuning out the hate ranting of the Limbaughs and Hannitys and recognizing that their values are antithetical to those of Jesus.
• Combatting Stand Your Ground Laws, racial profiling and efforts at voter suppression.
• Recognizing the absurdity of men attempting to control and pass legislation about women’s bodies – and of the church patriarchy contradicting virtually all biblical scholars in its chauvinistic exclusion of women from the priesthood.
• Saying clearly that the Bible teaches nothing about homosexual orientation – a totally modern understanding of a perennial human reality whose conformity with nature has been nearly impossible to understand for most in the West so thoroughly indoctrinated by a homophobic version of Christianity.
• Recognizing that the United States is the modern equivalent of the Roman Empire which Jesus resisted along with all patriotic Jews of his time. This implies that Muslims resisting U.S. Empire and occupation of their lands have more in common with Jesus than with us Christians who live in the belly of the beast. What our government calls terrorists are the analogue of the Zealots of first century Palestine. And Jesus’ inner circle of 12 incorporated Zealots. Think about it.

In its most specific terms, today’s gospel reading also asks us to think about the conflict of old against young. Jesus himself, of course, was a young man – barely 30 when speaking these words: “They will be divided father against son, and son against father, mother against daughter, and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law, and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

Notice that the conflicts named by Jesus are generational. They pit the old against the young and the reverse. (There’s not talk here of brother against sister or sister against brother.) This seems to be a call then for elders to respect their juniors. Are we doing that with Manning, Snowden and Swartz? We should, it seems, if we’re attuned to Jesus’ words this morning.

As for practical responses to Jesus words . . . . How about:

• Staying out of the Big Boxes as much as we can.
• Listening to “Democracy Now” or “All Things Considered” rather than to Limbaugh or Hannity.
• Going door-to-door to register voters in minority neighborhoods this fall.
• Withholding church contributions till our church reverses its stand on women’s ordination.
• Supporting the LGBT community in any way we can.
• Phoning the White House and congressional representatives about ending drone strikes
• Supporting the campaign to award Bradley Manning the Nobel Peace Prize.

What I’m saying is that the gospel call today is to become more deeply radical and determine which side we are on.

Can you think of anything else we might do “take sides” in the spirit of Jesus?

(Discussion follows)

Jesus Is Cutting Your Lawn! (Sunday Homily)

immigrant jesus

Readings for 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Wis. 18: 6-9; Ps. 33: 1, 12, 18-20, 22; Heb. 11: 1-2, 8-19; Lk. 12: 32-48. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/081113.cfm

Today’s liturgy of the word invites us to consider the hot-button issue of immigration. The issue is contentious because conservatives in our country generally oppose immigration reform. More accurately, they tie changes in the legal status of immigrants to strengthening border security with Mexico and the building of walls along our southern border to keep undocumented immigrants out. Until such measures are foolproof, conservatives generally promise to oppose reform of immigration laws.

That’s ironic because Evangelical Christians make up the strongest component of the U.S. conservative party, the GOP. So the dominant attitude of that party on immigration ends up militating against American Christians’ brothers and sisters in faith. After all, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, an estimated 83 percent, or 9.2 million, of the 11.1 million people living in the United States illegally are Christians from Latin America and the Caribbean.

Our readings this morning call into question such exclusionary attitudes about immigration. They suggest that far from excluding immigrants, insisting on observance of law, and building walls to keep them out, Christian response to immigrants should take the form of welcoming, wealth-sharing and service.

Let me show you what I mean.

To begin with, today’s first passage from the Book of Wisdom underlines the point that the biblical People of God were all immigrants. They were unwanted strangers whose ancestors had come to Egypt to escape famine in Palestine. Remember those Bible stories of Joseph and his brothers? Read them again (Genesis 37-50). Those legends explain how the families of Jacob’s sons came to be enslaved in Egypt in the first place. As you no doubt recall, Joseph’s brothers sold him into Egyptian slavery.

However, in Egypt, Joseph landed on his feet and eventually became the Pharaoh’s Minister of Agriculture. That meant that when famine struck Joseph’s former homeland, his brothers were forced to come hats-in-hand to beg food from the very one they had betrayed. However, when they came into Joseph’s presence, his own brothers didn’t recognize him. In one of the most beautiful stories in all of world literature, the unrecognized Joseph finally discloses his true identity. Instead of punishing them for their betrayal, Joseph feeds his brothers and invites them to join him in Egypt.

In other words, Joseph’s response to immigrants and refugees was to recognize them as members of his own family and to welcome them “home.”

In today’s second reading, Paul digs further into Israel’s past only to find that Abraham himself (the original father of Israel) was himself an immigrant. He entered a land that God decided was to belong to Abraham and his descendants though the ones dwelling there didn’t share that secret understanding. (The Canaanites, of course, thought Canaan belonged to them.)

So Abraham and his sons were forced to live in poor housing – in tents, Paul recalls for us. All the while, however (like most immigrants) they dreamt of better lodging “with foundations.”

Meanwhile Yahweh saw to it that Abraham’s family grew prodigiously. They begat and begat until they seemed to everyone to be “as numerous as the stars of the sky;” they were as plentiful as grains of sand on the beach. Such legendary fertility eventually came to be seen as threatening and led one pharaoh to order the death of all of the Hebrew immigrant boys (Ex. 1:22). By Yahweh’s special intervention, Moses alone was saved from such genocidal population control.

Again, this was Israel’s God protecting immigrants as his chosen people. That’s the point today’s responsorial psalm underlines with its refrain, “Blessed the people the Lord has chosen to be his own.” Ironically those people were persecuted immigrants.

Then in today’s Gospel, Jesus presents a riddle about the identity of his faithful servants. Jesus asks, “Who, then, is the faithful and prudent steward whom the master will put in charge of his servants to distribute the food allowance at the proper time?” His answer has implications for immigration reform measures.

In any case, you can imagine a lengthy interchange between Jesus and his audience about his riddle. No doubt, some identified “faithful and prudent stewards” with those who kept the absolute letter of the law. Others probably cited the Jewish purity code and said fidelity meant keeping the bloodline pure; it meant keeping foreigners out of the Holy Land and preventing inter-marriage with gentiles. Still others may have responded in economic terms. For them the faithful and prudent steward was probably the one who defended Jewish livelihood by keeping foreigners from taking Jewish jobs.

Jesus’ own response is different. He replies in terms of generosity, as well as in terms of service with its “law of abundance.” Jesus also invokes the law of karma. God’s faithful servants are those who sell what they have and give it to the poor. They are not the ones who are served, but those who serve. Meanwhile those who mistreat God’s servants will reap what they sow.

Above all, notice that the emphasis in Jesus’ words today is on service. His riddle brings us entirely from the “upstairs” culture of dominance into the “downstairs” culture of servants. The steward is the head servant. He’s in charge of others, but his service consists in distributing food allowances to his fellow servants. Even the Master ends up serving. When he returns from the wedding, his servants don’t wait on him. Rather as an expression of gratitude, he brings them upstairs, sits them at table and waits on everyone! (How consoling is that?! The “law of abundance” says that what we receive in life is determined by our own generosity.)

Similarly, we can’t mistreat others without harming ourselves. The law of karma decrees that we reap what we sow. Jesus endorsed that law in today’s reading. More specifically Jesus says that those who mistreat God’s servants will find themselves similarly mistreated. Here Jesus gets quite graphic: to the degree that they beat others, they themselves will be beaten. Again, it’s the law of karma; and it’s inescapable.

What does Jesus’ riddle have to do with immigration? First of all, remember it’s told by a former immigrant. According to Matthew’s story, Jesus lived in Egypt when Mary and Joseph sought refuge from Herod’s infanticide. Yes, Matthew’s Jesus must have known first-hand the experience of being an unwanted immigrant. In Egypt he spoke with a Jewish accent. Or maybe his family didn’t even bother to learn Egyptian.

Remember too that the riddle about faithful servants is posed by the Jesus who identifies with “the least of the brethren.” He said that whatever we do to the least, he considers done to him. In terms of today’s considerations, does that mean that what we do to immigrants, we do to Jesus?

As for Jesus’ response to his own riddle, it reminds us to receive immigrants as we would our Master returning home – yes, as our Master, Jesus himself – the one who ends up serving us! Again, Jesus identifies with the least of our brothers and sisters.

Does that mean that Jesus appears to us today in our service industries and in the informal economy where immigrants work as our kids’ nannies, our house cleaners, as construction workers, hotel maids, and gardeners?

At this very moment might Jesus be out there cutting my lawn, roofing my house or cleaning my bathroom?

When our border guards beat “illegals” (and worse!) are they beating Jesus?

And what does that mean for their karma – and for ours?

Those are riddles worth discussing and solving!

The way we answer will determine the side we come down on in the immigration debate.
(Discussion follows)

Combat Greed (and illness): Boycott McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, Subway . . . (Sunday Homily)


Readings for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Ecc. 1:2, 2: 21-23; Ps. 90; 3-6, 12-14, 17; Col. 3: 1-5, 9-11; Lk. 12: 13-21. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/080413.cfm

This week’s liturgy of the word focuses on greed, its idolatrous nature, and how death (the Great Leveler) puts greed in stark perspective.

According to the prophet, Qoheleth, the shortness of life renders “empty” (vain) any life devoted to amassing wealth. Life is not about money, Paul agrees in this morning passage from Colossians. It’s about following Jesus by bringing forth our true Self which is identical with the God who dwells within each of us. But our time for doing so is short. As the Psalmist puts it in today’s responsorial, our days are numbered; that realization alone, he says, should give us wisdom. Then in today’s gospel selection, Jesus contrasts such wisdom with the foolishness of human surrender to the economics of growth. Paul even terms such greed “idolatry,” the ultimate biblical sin.

Those readings have driven me to think about greed in my own life. It makes me think about my own approaching death and what I do each day to hasten its arrival. At the public level, I’m driven to consider today’s headlines about fast-food workers and the difference in pay between them and their ultimate bosses. It makes me think about resisting greed at both levels (personal and corporate) in very practical, effective ways. Let me explain.

Last week I traveled from our summer home in Michigan back to our permanent residence in Berea, Kentucky. When I arrived home, the cupboard was bare – no food. So I set out to get something to eat for supper. Problem was, our local health food store, “Happy Meadows,” was closed.

Fast food options like McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Subway called to me. Despite nearly forty years of sharing board with a dedicated vegetarian, the urge to eat meat is still strong. However, I was too haunted by what I’ve learned from “Food Inc.” and similar films, books and articles. Their images of factory farms and the cruel mistreatment of cattle, pigs, and chickens can never be erased from my consciousness. In their light, eating dead animals raised on feed lots and super-cramped pens, and then killed for my platter almost turned my stomach. I just couldn’t bring myself to eat meat.

I remembered that Walgreens and Rite Aid sold packaged fast food. So I went to the drugstore to look around. As I probably should have foreseen, the food offerings there were . . . well, highly drugged. I mean I easily found non-meat offerings on the Walgreens shelves – items like Kraft Mac & Cheese; I found vegetarian frozen pizza, and other similar items. But they were mostly full of fats. And as I looked at some lists of ingredients, I found many I couldn’t even pronounce. Chemicals were often high up on the lists, meaning their presence was rather intense. “Why would I put that stuff in my body?” I thought. “Do I want to get fat and sick?” So I walked out still hungry, still searching for something to eat.

I drove to Subway remembering their veggie sub. The young man behind the counter asked, “May I help you?”

“Just looking,” I said.

I scanned the brightly lit menu over his head. There it was, the Veggie Sub. Should I get the six-inch or the twelve-inch? I looked at the young man again. There he was with his plastic gloves in place smiling and eager to serve me.

Then I remembered. This kid is making $7.35 an hour. Whether he’s aware of it or not, his comrades all across the country are striking to double that wage to $15.00 an hour. They’re walking off the job in places like New York City, Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Detroit and Flint, Michigan. They’re demanding not just a living wage but the right to unionize. Unionization would mean the end of the Fast Food Industry’s routine practice of “short-working” employees, i.e. preventing them from putting in enough weekly hours to qualify for the benefits that come with full-time employment.

Those striking workers don’t want me here, I thought. So I turned on my heel and left.

Soon I found myself cruising the aisles of Save a Lot. I bought some pasta, and some sauce. I picked up a head of broccoli (Dole! Ugh!). I returned home to throw my supper together.

The little episode helped me come face-to-face with greed – again the topic of today’s liturgy of the word. I had to confront my own greed and that of the corporations that dominate our culture.
My particular greed manifests itself at least three times a day at the table. There my actions say a whole lot: I want meat. I want its flavored grease. I want salt. I want sugar. I want convenience. I want instant gratification.

My spiritual teacher, Eknath Easwaran, would say all of that means, “I want a heart attack. I want diabetes. I want cancer. I want to die as soon as I can.”

My well-ingrained tendencies also imply that “I don’t care about justice or workers who put in forty hours or more (often on two or more jobs) and who still cannot put together a dignified life without Food Stamps. I don’t care that they want to unionize and they’re asking me to boycott McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, and other corporate giants who underpay their workers while amassing obscene fortunes for themselves.

To those workers (and their bosses), the words of Qoheleth apply:

“Here is one who has labored with wisdom and knowledge and skill,
and yet to another who has not labored over it,
he must leave property.”

Usually, these words are taken to apply to the rich who are thought to labor long hours without really enjoying life. In the end, they leave their property to their heirs who benefit from their now-deceased relative’s work.

However, with the Bible’s overwhelming “preferential option for the poor,” I think the words apply even more fittingly to workers like the one in Subway and those in McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, Wendy’s, etc. Those “associates” labor with wisdom, knowledge and skill and then get underpaid. The wealth they produce (their property) goes to their fat-cat bosses. Meanwhile the rest of us are forced to subsidize those fat-cats by making up the difference (in food stamps, Medicaid, WIC Programs, etc.) between the wages the bosses pay their workers and the true living wage those workers deserve.

Yes, so-called “welfare programs” are more directed towards the rich than the poor. For working people such “welfare” should be replaced by a living wage.

Qoheleth says such selfishness and greed creates empty lives, anxiety, sorrow, grief and sleepless nights for all concerned both rich and poor.

A friend of mine constantly reminds me that little can be done to change the world. We just have to go along with the way things are, he often says. Sometimes I think he’s right.

However, today’s liturgy of the word reminds us that he might not be completely correct. At least we can do something about underpaid fast food and big box workers. That’s not trivial. We can relieve the “vanity,” the emptiness of their lives by joining them in their efforts to unionize and achieve a living wage.

We can abstain from the products of McDonald’s, Subway, Wal-Mart and similar corporations – and perhaps even become more healthy in the process.

Our presence here at the Lord’s Supper says we’re willing to do that, so that all may share in the gift of God’s bread with dignity and joy.

Am I right in saying that? What do you think?
(Discussion follows.)