Bottom line: Our desire for possessions can lead to conflict, even war. Jesus shows us way out of this trap.
Journalist Peggy Noonan describes an interview she had with the CEO (Chief Executive Officer ) of a large corporation.* It was annual report time and he told Ms. Noonan that he was looking forward to reading the reports of his competitors. "Why?," she asked. He replied that he always flipped to the back of the report. He wanted to see what the other CEO's got as part of their deal - corporate jets, private helicopters, whatever. Peggy Noonan was silent. "We all do that," he said. "We all want to see who has what."
What Peggy Noonan saw in that CEO, St. James spoke about back in the first century. He explains how our desire for possessions can set us against other people. Possessiveness can lead to bitter conflicts, even war.
Something is wrong in our hearts. A few years back, the insider trader scandal rocked Wall Street. It involved brokers trading inside knowledge to make huge windfall profits. The amazing thing about this scandal is that these men were already super rich before they began this fraudulent practice. One of the brokers who got in on this scheme had assets worth one hundred and seventeen million dollars! I think most of us could live pretty comfortably on that amount of money; we could purchase anything we could possibly imagine. Yet that man wanted more. He risked his reputation and his freedom - and he wound up with a long prison sentence. We can shake our heads, but we might ask ourselves: are you and I really so different from him?
We can desire possessions not for themselves, but because we think they make us better than someone else. Advertisements constantly play on that desire for superiority. A car ad says, "Confuse the Jones." They want you to buy their car not so much for its worth, but to compete with the other guy. As St. James points out, this type of competition can easily lead to enmity and conflict.
In todayís Gospel Jesus shows us the way out of this trap. He provides an answer to our competitive spirit. It happened when Jesus noticed how the disciples were having a private discussion; they were trying to figure out who was the most valuable. This is what Jesus did. He brought in someone whom people then looked at almost like a nonentity. He brought in a small child. It was like placing a newly hatched chick in front of some strutting roosters. Here is the one you must receive, he said, if you wish to receive me - and the One who sent me. It must have hit the disciples like a bucket of cold water. They certainly remembered it. And even though it made them look bad, they told others about it.
Now this does not mean we should settle for mediocrity. No, we should strive for excellence and even for wealth - but for the right motives. Time magazine recently did a cover story on the question: Does God want you to be rich? Jesus gives the answer today: it depends on where your heart is. If your heart is with the little ones, God wants you to have the means to assist them. But if your heart is bent on making yourself the greatest, wealth will not bring a blessing, but a curse.
Sometimes we Catholics make fun of evangelical "health and wealth" preachers. Well, we donít have a lot to brag about. That same Time article contained a survey of Christians. The survey asked whether they agreed or disagreed with this statement: Giving away ten percent of your income is the minimum God expects. Forty-seven percent of Protestants agreed. Only Eighteen percent of Catholics agreed that God expects us to give away at least ten percent of our income. Hello. For many years now, we have been emphasizing Stewardship. That means it all belongs to God. To give away the first ten percent is a legitimate expectation.
In our talks on Stewardship, we have suggested giving five percent to oneís parish and five percent to other charities. Now, I know that many are still a distance from that goal, but if we worked toward it, it would do a lot to help curb our spirit of possessiveness and false competition. And many of us could give away a lot more than ten percent - but that is minimum expectation for one who takes Christís call seriously. And, please God, we will not do it in a grudging way, but with a joyful heart. As todayís Psalm says, "Freely will I offer you sacrifice; I will praise your name for its goodness."
Pope Benedict gives an example of the simplicity we should strive for. Those who know him personally testify he has a gentle, almost child-like disposition. Even the ones called before him for correction admit that he was always courteous and scrupulously fair. We should keep that in mind as we read reports of the hostile reaction to the address he gave last week at his former university. The reaction was not immediate. It took a few days for the speech to filter through the world media, but when it did, it provoked a huge controversy.** The address was titled Three Stages in the Program of De-Hellenization. (I have run off some copies of the talk with an appropriate introduction. It is well worth reading.) Basically it analyzes the inter-relation between faith and reason. The problem is that many people today, especially in the media, look down on faith. They want nothing to do with it.*** On the other hand, many people prefer violence to reasonable dialogue. The pope has gone as far as he can to appease them without compromising his own integrity. We need to pray for our Holy Father, but also to learn from him. He keeps his eyes fixed on Christ - who today tells us that he must be handed over to death, but will rise again after three days. May we have that same humble spirit to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus.
*From her book Pope John Paul the Great.
**The offending line, you should know, was a quote from a fourteenth century Orthodox emperor. The pope in no way implied that he agreed with the quote, but was simply using it to illustrate a broader point about dialogue - a point evidently missed by those who are burning effigies of the Holy Father, fire-bombing Christian churches and who murdered an Italian nun.
***Even though they have their own set of assumptions, in which they passionately believe but seldom state explicitly. They imagine that peace will come when men give up religious faith. Meanwhile they are delighted when those who believe in God attack one another. It shores up their secular faith.
From Archives (Homilies for 25th Sunday, Year B):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Bulletin (New Murals, Annual Catholic Appeal shortfall, Sister Leonella Sgorbati)