18th Sunday Ordinary Time
Year C

There Is No Slave Or Freeman

Officially the American Civil War was fought to preserve the Union the Americans achieved through the Revolution. But the initial and strongest issue at stake was the preservation or the abolition of black slavery. The North had no economic reason for keeping slavery. Slavery meant much to the economy of the South, particularly in the raising of cotton. Behind the ambivalent struggle loomed the debated question: Should any human person be held in bondage, especially in the "Land of Liberty"?

During the War in 1863, President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation declared free all black slaves in the seceded Confederate states. The war came to an end on April 9, 1865 - four years after the firing of the first gun. Robert E. Lee, beloved head of the Confederate Armies, surrendered to General U.S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. Many of his loyal followers wanted to fight on; but Lee saw it would only waste life uselessly. Having handed over his sword, the Southern leader returned home, now a private citizen.

How would the General accommodate the Emancipation? Basically, he was no lover of slavery, having fought the war in defense of state's rights. A few weeks after Appomattox, he showed his attitude towards emancipation at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Richmond. At communion time, a newly freed Black rose and went to the railing. Now, in pre-war southern churches (Catholic as well as Protestant), there had been a social segregation. Here is how Lee's biographer Charles Bracelen Flood describes what happened.

"The congregation froze: those who had been ready to go forward and kneel at the altar rail remained in their pews … General Robert E. Lee was present and, ignoring the action of the Negro, arose in his usual dignified and self-possessed manner, and reverently knelt down to partake of the communion, not far from the Negro. The other communicants went forward to the altar and the service continued."

General Lee knew what St. Paul had written: "There is no Greek or Jew here, slave or freeman." We who believe that also should be leaders in social justice.

-Father Robert F. McNamara

Q278: How does one reconcile today’s gospel (Lk 12:13-21) about storing the excess harvest with the need to provide for one’s future, including retirement?

I remember Fr. Bill Grimm’s vivid comment a few years ago to the effect that Greed so tightly squeezes shut the heart, that love cannot get out, nor can love get in! It is our attitude towards our possessions, and also our attitude towards their acquisition, that provides a correct insight into our “heart condition.”

The gospels clearly show us that anything that interferes with our call to holiness is useful material for Jesus to criticize. After all, his mission is to show us how to live a life of true discipleship, a life of love modeled on the example of his own life. Jesus shows us how to be giving, loving, and self-sacrificing, even if it means laying down your life out of love for another.

Accordingly, if one is closing one’s heart to the needs of others around them, then the “heart valve” is being governed by the deadly sin of Greed. However, since the poor and needy are always around us, the virtue of justice demands that our first priority ought to be and must be to care for them. One can respond to “undesirable obstacles” in at least four ways: destroy the obstacle (e.g., abortion, euthanasia, war); ignore the obstacle (e.g., like the rich man and the beggar Lazarus always at his doorstep); forget the obstacle (e.g., preoccupation with fulfilling my own desires that crowds out more significant needs of others); and finally, whether reluctantly or joyfully, lovingly engage the obstacle which then becomes not an obstacle but a shared family burden that recognizes another “family member” in need.

KNOW YOUR CATECHISM! Greed or “avarice” is one of the “seven capital sins” – called capital because they lead to other sins (CCC #1866). Greed is also called one of the “seven deadly sins” because it causes the spiritual death of the soul if not resisted. It reflects the intention of the heart, and violates the Tenth Commandment (CCC #2534). An excessive desire for power, riches, and material goods is a serious disorder of natural and good desires (CCC #2535-36). An indicator: at income tax time, what percent of your adjusted gross income goes to charity?

Q591: Why do the New Testament bible stories and exhortations always seem to come down hard on people who have riches?

Over time our language changes, and it becomes more difficult to understand the meaning of certain ancient words or phrases. Today’s First Reading (Eccl 1:2; 2:21-23) is a good example of that. “Vanity of vanities,” says our author. Now be honest: have you ever used that three-word phrase in your life, other than reading the bible? Today we would be inclined to say something like “It’s all smoke and mirrors” – just like we do when we describe the claims and promises and hidden maneuvers of so many insincere politicians. In other words, there is simply no lasting substance; instead there is a real emptiness in terms of accomplishments.

That is precisely the message that the author is trying to convey to his listeners. He is not a prosperity-gospel idealist, but a realist. He is pointing out the real danger of possessions: that when we begin to acquire, we want more, and begin to trust in our prosperity rather than God. Soon we can lose the perspective of recognizing when enough is enough, as well as the true source of all goodness.

The spiritual danger is that we unthinkingly accept false standards and goals. Jesus pointed this out in today’s gospel (Luke 12:13-21) in very vivid and strong terms. It might seem to be a nice goal to accumulate wealth, and then retire to a beach villa. To be able to do that demonstrates that the person has prepared well for his or her physical future. But Jesus asks us: how much preparation have you put into your spiritual future? Is it possible that I am the Fool that Jesus is talking about? Which is more important – my physical or spiritual welfare?

In your home today, take a look around you – including your closets, basement, checkbook, investment portfolio, and charitable contributions. Ask Jesus to take a tour of your home; then ask him to take a tour of your soul. Listen to what he has to say to you about your future. Is your life all “smoke and mirrors”?

KNOW YOUR CATECHISM! Jesus came to free us from slavery to sin, including the sins of greed, lack of trust in divine providence, and indifference to the poor. We cannot be called God’s children when we remain so enslaved (CCC 549). It is good to remember the well-worn phrase, “I am just passing through” this earthly world, and act accordingly.

A Word to the Wise

The Book of Ecclesiastes in the first reading stresses the importance of right priorities for true wisdom.  "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity."  In Hebrew "vanity" was a vapor, a passing breeze, so wisdom should enable us to see the difference between what has value and what is a mere wisp of passing air.  St. Paul too stresses the importance of right priorities: "If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above."  And Jesus gives us a parable about a rich man who is a fool because he cannot tell the difference between what has real value and what is ultimately worthless.

He allows self to take precedence over his covenant relationships.  His land produced abundantly but whatever the human contribution it is the land that produces the food and the land is a gift of God, a gift he has given to the whole people of Israel.  The individual was just the steward for God and the community.  The rich man has forgotten the Torah teaching that the goods of the earth are meant to meet the needs of all, not simply the demands of those who own the land.  He speaks of "my" crops being stored for his own exclusive use rather than as a blessing for the community.  His focus is entirely on himself: "I will say to myself…"  But then, surprise, surprise!  A forgotten voice is heard: "But God said…" The man stands revealed as having allowed his greed to destroy his covenant relationships, with the earth which he manages as God's agent and with his community for whom he was responsible, to his God.

Lord, Is it possible that this parable has something to say to me?  Are my priorities those of the wise? Those of a Christian?  Do I see my possessions as held in trust for the good of the community?  Lord give me wisdom.  Help me to see what the true values are.  Make me more giving, not just of what I own but of my self.