Immersed in Christ: September 27, 2020
Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A)
Take Responsibility for Change
What does it mean to “know, love and serve God”? If we go to Mass on Sunday and try to keep out of sin, are we good Christians? What more does it take?
Jesus said, “When you have done all you have been commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.’” He also said, “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” And St. Paul said, “Think of us in this way, as servants of Christ and stewards of God's mysteries. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.” Do you think of yourself as Christ’s servant, friend, or steward? What does it mean to “be found trustworthy”? 1
In the Entrance Antiphon we acknowledge that God has “just cause” to judge us, because we have not been faithful in living up to the trust he has placed in us. But we appeal to God’s “greatness of heart” and “unbounded kindness.” In the Opening Prayer(s) we say the “beauty” of God’s power is revealed in his “unbounded mercy” and forgiveness. And so we ask him to keep giving us his gifts of love, life and joy, whether or not we have used them well. And we ask that the “power of his love” will be in us to bring, not only his pardon but his kingdom to all we meet and deal with. We count on God, not just to forgive us, but to empower us — as stewards of God's mysteries — to free others from all that keeps them from the fullness of life. The Responsorial (Psalm 125) is appropriately, “Remember your mercies, O Lord.” The Readings go into more detail about how he does.
Guilt and Consequences:
In Ezekiel 18: 25-28 God assures us that he will not hold children responsible for the sins of their parents or vice-versa: “The person who sins shall die. A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent…” (18:20). But we still say, “The Lord’s way is not fair!” And God asks, “Is it my way that is unfair, or rather, is it not that your ways are not fair?”
We are only guilty of our own sins. But God did say when he showed himself to Moses, that although he is “a God merciful and gracious… keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,” nevertheless he “visits the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:7). How do we explain this?
Sin involves more than guilt. Every sin has a destructive effect on the human environment. Individuals’ sins put the infection of false attitudes, bad values and wrong priorities into a culture. And everyone who lives in that culture is conditioned by it. God does not hold children guilty for the sins of their parents; but neither does he make them immune to their influence. Every free choice we make, for good or evil, starts a chain reaction that affects other people “to the third and the fourth generation.”
That is why it is never enough for us just to refrain from sin — or even to help others stop sinning. We also need to repair the damage done to society and social structures; to reform destructive patterns of behavior and whatever pushes people to follow them. As stewards of Christ’s kingship, we need to establish the life-giving reign of God over every area and activity of human life on earth.
This is the way God “remembers his mercies.” He doesn’t just forgive, he forestalls. He works through us, Christ’s living body on earth, to “make the crooked ways straight, and the rough ways smooth.” He works with us, in us and through us to transform social structures, to reverse trends, to restore order and justice on earth. To cooperate with him in this is to live up to our Baptismal consecrations as stewards of Christ the King. 2
To Hear Is To Do
In Matthew 21: 28-32 Jesus tells us what it means to hear God’s word. To “hear” is to obey. And to obey is to do.
“Obey” comes from the Latin word oboedire (ob/audire), which means “to listen to.” The proof that we have really listened to Jesus is that we actually do what he says. If not, we are like those who have ears but do not hear, who “listen, but never understand.”3
On the day of our Baptism we heard the words, “As Christ was anointed Priest, Prophet and King, so live always as a member of his body.” As these words were spoken, we ourselves were solemnly anointed with chrism to be what Jesus is and fulfill his triple function as prophets, priests and stewards of his kingship. Have we been “found trustworthy” in doing what we were consecrated and empowered to do?
If not, we call out, “Remember your mercies, O Lord,” and we repeat the Opening Prayer(s): “Continue to fill us with your gifts of love” and “May the power of this love be in our hearts to bring your pardon and your kingdom to all we meet.”
In Philippians 2: 1-11 Jesus tells us how to work together as stewards. Stewardship is common to both leadership and authority, but they are not the same thing. What they have in common is responsibility for doing what needs to be done, changing what needs to be changed, in order to establish the reign of God on earth. Authorities have the power to command. Leaders must win people to follow them.
Those in authority are responsible for making decisions that determine the course of a whole community. The only reason they have authority over the community is because they are responsible for making those decisions. Every right is given in virtue of an obligation. Authorities have the right to command because they have the obligation to guide the community. They must “respond,” answer to God and to others, for what the community does. This is to be “found trustworthy.”
But leadership is the responsibility of everyone. We are all responsible for making decisions ourselves, and suggesting decisions to others for the good of the community. “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” If the Spirit gives us an inspiration (which we may perceive just as common sense), we are responsible for using that gift to help others. If we do, we are “found trustworthy.” We are faithful stewards.4
Every obligation entails rights. So all of us, because we have the obligation to exercise leadership, have the right to do so — to speak up, make suggestions, take personal initiatives and encourage others to take them with us. Authorities have the right to intervene if we are leading people in the wrong direction. Leaders move the community forward; authorities keep it together.
Bishops and pastors always have the right, because they have the obligation, to correct what is doctrinally false. And they can forbid what is contrary to Church law and the current direction of the community. But this is not an absolute right. The bishops teach that the bishops have no authority over the action lay Catholics take to establish the reign of God on earth, so long as it is not done publicly and officially in the name of the Church. Because the bishops are not “responsible” for what lay leaders do as Christians or as Catholics in their own name and in the name of Jesus, they do not have to “answer” for it. But they are obliged to speak out against anything they think is against the common good. And all must listen and weigh their words respectfully.
Here is the problem. What if leaders and authorities disagree about an issue over which the pastor or bishop has no official authority? Can the hierarchy squelch prophetic witness?
The answer is in Philippians: “In the name of… encouragement… fellowship in the spirit… unanimity… never act out of rivalry or conceit; rather, let all parties think humbly of others as superior to themselves…. Your attitude must be Christ’s…. He emptied himself and took the form of a slave….” Jesus said, “The greatest among you will be your servant” and “the leader like one who serves.” Only the spirit and Spirit of Jesus can keep us united. We pray for unity at every Mass. And in the Rite of Communion we can experience it if we make ourselves conscious of what is happening. All are being fed equally with the Bread of Life. Jesus comes to each one as much as to any other. And as “many grains of wheat” made into the “one bread,” we experience that “communion in the Holy Spirit” that both leaders and authorities are charged to maintain. 5
What encourages me now to exercise leadership? What attitudes must I adopt?
Speak up about one thing you believe should be done — in church or elsewhere.
1 Luke 17:10; John 15:15; 1Corinthians 4: 1-2. 2 See Luke 3:5. 3 Matthew 13: 9-17. 4 1Corinthians 12:7. 5 Matthew 23:11; Luke 22:26.