If They Won’t Work, Let the Rich Starve! (Sunday Homily)

Work Eat

Readings for 33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time: MAL 3: 19-20A; Ps. 98: 5-9; 2 THES 3: 7-12; LK 21: 5-9. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/111713.cfm

Today’s readings appear to centralize “the end of the world.” So you can expect your preacher this morning to focus on the after-life, pie-in-the-sky, and all the “Left Behind” nonsense that has become the staple of Christianity ever since the 4th century.

Expect them to point to natural disasters, “plagues” like the AIDs pandemic, and the wars of choice so near and dear to our politicians – as signs that the end is near, that God is pissed, and we’d better repent and accept Jesus as our personal Lord and savior.

And, Oh yes, there’s Paul’s dictum in today’s reading from Second Thessalonians “. . . if anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat.” Expect that one to evoke anti-welfare themes of bootstrap self-sufficiency, references to God-helps-those-who-help-themselves, and easy references to “welfare queens.”

I’m not kidding, 2 Thessalonians 3: 10 is a favorite of the Christian right. North Dakota congressman, Kevin Cramer, used it recently to justify his vote to cut nearly $40 billion from the Food Stamp program that keeps the children of poor families from starvation, along with the elderly and disabled. Tea Part darling, Michelle Bachman, did the same thing. When trying to get her party’s nomination for president, she said, “Our nation needs to stop doing for people what they can and should do for themselves. Self-reliance means, if anyone will not work, neither should he eat.”

It’s all so tiresome and predictable.

The right loves embracing Paul’s out-of-context remark. Tea Baggers love ignoring Jesus’ feeding thousands free of charge. It’s as if Jesus’ parable about sheep and goats in Mt. 25 didn’t base everything on a practical recognition of his identification with the hungry, thirsty, homeless, imprisoned, and ill-clad. The right loves “tough love.” It loves apocalypse.

But, of course, there’s not a trace of “tough love” in Jesus’ treatment of the poor. And “apocalypse” is not about the end of the world. It’s about unsustainability. The word apocalypse means “unveiling.” It’s about “revelation” in that sense – making evident what’s hidden about the world and who’s in charge. Apocalypse affirms the unsustainability of empire. Radical change is inevitable.

Apocalypse emerged a few centuries before the birth of Jesus. To convey its message of impending radical change, it employed stock images of natural catastrophe, plagues, wars, earthquakes, and portents involving the sun, moon, and stars. The change would be cosmic.

The audience of this strange literary form was empire’s victims. It was meant to encourage the poor and dispossessed, the unemployed, sick, widowed and orphaned – not the rich and well-off. Apocalypse assured the poor that all systems of oppression end in flames whether they’re Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, or Roman. (Those are the global giants that oppressed Israel at one time or another in its history.) Where are they today? They’ve been swept away by the tide of history. And the apologists for “Eternal Rome” find themselves somewhere in antiquity’s dustbin.

So it’s ironic that apocalypse should be embraced by conservatives and their rich patrons – by those who want to keep things as they are. Things do not have to be that way. And “by God,” they won’t be! That’s the message of apocalypse. A new era is dawning, and you’d better be on the right side of history or you’ll lose out. Being “left behind” means supporting the old order that’s doomed.

The problem is that right from the beginning, believers took literally the cosmic and highly poetic symbolism of apocalypse. (We always get in trouble for being too literal.) That’s the attitude that caused Paul to tear his hair out in today’s second reading. Some in the early Christian community took the imminence of this expectation so seriously that they even stopped working.

What was the point of work, they reasoned? Everything was about to change profoundly by God’s intervention. That made human work meaningless. All believers had to do was sit back and wait for Jesus’ triumphant arrival. Eat, drink, be merry, and whistle past the graveyard in the meantime.

Those are the people Paul addresses in this morning’s excerpt from Second Thessalonians. He’s clearly exasperated. He says, “Look I’m working. And I’m the one responsible for your believing in Jesus’ Second Coming! Get real, people. Go back to work. Stop sponging off the community. Instead, be like me and do your part to bring about the new order we all expect. “

Paul’s words bring to mind the people who refuse to work today because they deem apocalyptic expectations divinely ordained or “natural.” And I’m certainly not referring to welfare queens.

Instead, I’m talking about people so committed to the old order that (with Margaret Thatcher) they’re convinced that “There is no alternative,” even though the “inevitable order” they support threatens the very survival of their own grandchildren. So they do what must be done to perpetuate what in God’s eyes is unsustainable.

Such “busy-bodies” refer to their endeavors as “work,” but in reality, their occupations represent a refusal to work. That is, if we identify that term with what contributes to life and the establishment of the Kingdom community Jesus proclaimed.

On this understanding, involvement in the military and the military-industrial complex is certainly not work. Neither is labor in financial market casinos or in the health-insurance and fossil fuel industries and their nuclear power counterparts. Advertising, fashion, professional sports, or much of what we refer to as “education” and journalism might also qualify as anti-work. Such occupations are not only highly questionable in terms of building up human community and protecting the planet. They are often positively destructive. Their purpose is to ward off or distract from the impending Big Change promised by the great unveiling.

Do I mean followers of Jesus should renounce such “work?” Yes I do. Or at least, we need to work to bring about a world where such occupations are not rewarded with pay – i.e. with a ticket to overconsumption even in terms of food and drink. And, to quote St. Paul, if arms manufacturers want to continue their anti-work as inevitable, let them starve! The world will be better off.

What about the unemployment caused by such radical change? It’s simple: share the remaining work. Make sure everyone is working – say for four hours each day, or three days a week, or six months each year. Get everyone to work building or rebuilding infrastructure, paving highways and covering rooftops with solar cells, and cleaning up the dump sites where all our toxic waste has been buried.

Think of the freedom such changes would create for building up God’s kingdom – to play, to garden, write, converse, make love, raise our children, and do all the things that make us human!

“Totally unrealistic” you say? Precisely! Apocalypse is by nature unrealistic. It calls us to work for an entirely different order we can hardly imagine. It calls us to reclaim our humanity from the insanity of destructive anti-work.

I’ll bet you won’t hear much of that from your preacher today!

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.)