29 Sunday A #145
Is 45, 1. 4-6
1 Thes 1, 1-5
Mt 22, 15-21
Deacon Tom Cornell
St. Mary’s Church, Marlboro, N.Y.
October 19, 2008
As Catholic Christians and as American citizens we face dilemmas approaching the polls two weeks and two days from now. Our bishops have instructed us to consider “the life issues” first as we decide how to vote, abortion and embryonic cell research, euthanasia, the death penalty, and unjust war and the stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction. And we are to consider immigration policy, poverty here and abroad and the threats to the earth and sea and sky, the very air we breathe by climate change and our part in it. The right to life covers a broad area. The right to life does not end at birth. And the right to life includes by necessity the right to the means to life. That means food, clothing and shelter and medical care. But it also means the right to education and training for an honest job that pays a living wage because without these there is no decent life for us or our children.
No party and no candidate fills the bill. We have to weigh matters and all too often we have to choose the lesser of two evils. No candidate and no party has offered a full employment goal or a living wage policy. A family should be able to live on the salary of one full-time working parent. That has been the teaching of the Catholic Church in this country since World War I. And yet we still don’t have it. In fact, for the past thirty years, under Democrats and Republicans alike, we have been going backwards. Have you noticed?
The American worker is the most productive worker in the world, year after year, we like to boast. For every hour of work the value of what the worker has produced has increased. In the past, wages and productivity have risen together, more or less in step. If workers produced more, then they earned more. But not for the last thirty years. The buying power of all but the top 10 percent of our population has actually declined since 1973. The minimum wage, if it had kept up with increased productivity over the past thirty years, would now be close to twenty dollars an hour instead of less than the seven dollars it is today. Everybody’s wages would rise as we shared the product of our own labor! Take a guess where the extra profit has gone. I don’t have to tell you. It’s gone to the same people who cooked up the mess we are now entering, the worst economic crisis since 1929. Democrats as well as Republicans have allowed this to happen. The blame lies at both their doors, and at our own too because we let it happen. We were asleep at the switch. What to do now? No party and no candidate passes muster on each and every issue and some issues are more important than others. Each voter must weigh them. There is no one litmus test that’s going to help you make up your mind, and no bishop, priest or deacon is going to do it for you either. Maybe it’s time to consider a third party. We’re all in the same boat, and we’re taking on water.
No matter who wins on November 4th, no matter who takes the White House on January 20th, our country, our society will have much the same problems we have today. Our problems are at base spiritual. Because our problems are at base spiritual they must be addressed spiritually, with the weapons of spirit. The weapons of the spirit are first of all prayer, the prayer we say with or without words alone in quiet and the prayer we pray together here today as we break open the Word of God in Scripture and share the Sacrament of the Altar breaking bread together, the Body and Blood of the Savior.
Then the works of mercy, the corporal and the spiritual works of mercy, feeding the hungry, giving shelter to the homeless and the rest. We must cultivate a merciful and loving attitude to those in need, not a judgmental one as is so often the case, not a “Why don’t they pull themselves up by their own bootstraps?” way of thinking. Pray God’s mercy upon us. Pray that he take away our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh. And the spiritual works of mercy. The spiritual works of mercy are as important as the corporal: instructing the ignorant, counseling the doubtful, comforting those in grief, pointing out their errors to those who are on the wrong path in the spirit of charity, forgiving those who have hurt us and praying for them.
Our national problems, our societal problems can be laid out on the grid of the seven deadly sins. The same vices that beset our private lives bedevil our common life: pride, greed, envy, sloth, lust, anger and gluttony. The cure for them can be laid out on a grid too, the virtues that are their opposites: for pride humility, for envy kindness, for anger patience, for lust self-control, for gluttony temperance, for greed liberality, for sloth diligence.
Both Senator McCain and Senator Obama mentioned greed in their debate last Wednesday night. They might have gone down the list to include each one of the vices. Gluttony! Too many of us, even many of us who are poor by ordinary standards, live wasteful lives, unsustainable for the planet. If everybody on earth wasted as much as the average American does the earth’s resources would run out in a very few years. We have to find different ways of living. Put the laundry out to dry on a clothesline rather than into an electric dryer. Turn down the thermostat five degrees and dig out Grandpa’s long johns and put on a sweater. How about the old Christian practice of fasting? Our bishops pledged that they would voluntarily abstain from eating meat on Fridays as a sacrifice for peace. Meatless Fridays are no longer obligatory, except in Lent. That’s why it’s even better to skip meat on Fridays, because you don’t have to, you want to. And it’s a good idea to skip a meal or two every week and send what you save to a soup kitchen or a food bank. Fasting and almsgiving cancel out sins, so the ancient fathers taught.
“Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” The Pharisees tried to set a trap for Jesus. Jesus didn’t answer their question. Jesus gave an answer to a question they didn’t ask. Modern politicians have adopted that tactic, if little else from Jesus. “Show me a coin,” he said. Jesus did not have a coin of his own. He had to ask for one. Dorothy Day used to say the less we have of Caesar’s the less we have to give him back. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.”
Where do the things of God end and the things of Caesar begin? Surely we must obey God rather than man, and just as surely, we are called to responsible citizenship. The things that are God’s are human life, human dignity because God created man in his own image and likeness. Come to think of it, there are no things that are not God’s things ultimately, for God created them all and saw that they are good and gave them all to all of us, not to some of us, but to all of us to share and to pass on.
“Render unto Caesar!” Our boast as Americans is that we have no king, no Caesar. Ours is a “government of the people, by the people and for the people,” as Abraham Lincoln put it, unless we let it fall from our grasp into the hands of invisible and irresponsible corporate managers for them to pull the strings that move our Congress and even our courts and to speak with ventriloquist voice from the Oval Office.
The old American Indian saying goes, “When you see that your canoe is heading toward a waterfall, pray to God and row as hard as you can to shore!” Pray to Archangel Michael to help us row the boat ashore. Old-timers remember a prayer we all recited after every Latin Mass for the conversion of Russia:
“Saint Michael the Archangel, defend us in the battle. Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the Devil. May God rebuke him, and do thou, Oh prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God, thrust into Hell Satan and all evil spirits who wander the earth seeking the ruin of souls.” Pray that prayer now for the conversion of the United States!