Who are ‘we’?

Last evening I picked up a book in the library.  I’m a sucker for libraries, book sales, bookstores, other people’s book shelves.  They are all sources of happy temptation – and most of them are legal.

Clive Staples Lewis

C S Lewis (29 November 1898 – 22 November 1963), the Anglican mid-20th century writer of fiction and non-, has been a favorite for years.  I spied at the end of a shelf a book new to me, Letters to American Lady.  Having written a few letters to American ladies myself I was intrigued.  Was it perchance the same lady?  Not much chance as the vast majority of the correspondence was penned before I was conceived.  In fact, many of the letters were posted from England before my Mom had emigrated to Boston from the west of Ireland.

This morning I opened the cover and began reading.  I’ve always loved collections of letters even when, as is true in this case, only one-half of the conversation is available for reading.  It’s amazing how you can hear both voices through the missives of only one. (By the way, if you haven’t read them, get thee immediately to Flannery O’Connor‘s collected letters, The Habit of Being. They are a treasure for humanity).

Lewis is his usual erudite, gentle, realistic, eminently Christian self in the letters I’ve enjoyed so far.  Much is catching my attention.  A few sentences, written on May 30, 1953, got me to thinking.  Though the context is so different, his words provided me a perspective on the social/political movement and moment that our nation is experiencing presently.  To my hearing this moment is deeply characterized by a sense that whoever ‘we’ the people are, we have been ignored and dissed and we have both the right and the duty to do something about it.  Between these people and the elected government, there stretches what they seem to experience as a chasm.  And they seem assured that they the people, ‘us’, are on the right side.

Benjamin Franklin once noted that democracy is the worst form of government known to humanity . . . except for all the others.  In a democratic society we are never far from a mob.

All this came to mind when I heard CS Lewis writing to the American Lady in these terms: “I am rather sick of the modern assumption that, for all events, ‘WE’, the people, are never responsible: it is always our rulers, or ancestors, or parents, or education, or anybody but precious ‘US’.  WE are apparently perfect and blameless.  Don’t you believe it.”

Emphases are original.  Lewis was talking about church politics of the time.  But, as the French are reputed to say le plus ce change, le plus c’est le meme chose.

America Magazine – What Would Newman Say?

“In brief, what am I saying? Look inward rather than outward. Pay attention to your conscience. Nourish your imagination. Trust your living mind and its capacity to reach truth. In short, the roads that lead us to faith are more ordinary than we think, but our ideas and our lifestyles may have robbed us of essential anchors.”

via America Magazine – What Would Newman Say?.

One believer’s take on what the newly beatified Newman might say to us today.

Reflections on Luke 16:1-13

Luke 16:1-13

A Dishonest Manager

1Jesus said to his disciples:

A rich man once had a manager to take care of his business. But he was told that his manager was wasting money. 2So the rich man called him in and said, “What is this I hear about you? Tell me what you have done! You are no longer going to work for me.”

3The manager said to himself, “What shall I do now that my master is going to fire me? I can’t dig ditches, and I’m ashamed to beg. 4I know what I’ll do, so that people will welcome me into their homes after I’ve lost my job.”

5Then one by one he called in the people who were in debt to his master. He asked the first one, “How much do you owe my master?”

6“A hundred barrels of olive oil,” the man answered.

So the manager said, “Take your bill and sit down and quickly write `fifty’.”

7The manager asked someone else who was in debt to his master, “How much do you owe?”

“A thousand bushels [a] of wheat,” the man replied. The manager said, “Take your bill and write `eight hundred’.”

8The master praised his dishonest manager for looking out for himself so well. That’s how it is! The people of this world look out for themselves better than the people who belong to the light.

9My disciples, I tell you to use wicked wealth to make friends for yourselves. Then when it is gone, you will be welcomed into an eternal home. 10Anyone who can be trusted in little matters can also be trusted in important matters. But anyone who is dishonest in little matters will be dishonest in important matters. 11If you cannot be trusted with this wicked wealth, who will trust you with true wealth? 12And if you cannot be trusted with what belongs to someone else, who will give you something that will be your own? 13You cannot be the slave of two masters. You will like one more than the other or be more loyal to one than to the other. You cannot serve God and money.

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Jesus never said anything unless he meant it.  Most of the time this is fine with us as we read and hear the scriptures from week to week.  But once in a while we hear Jesus’ words and think, ‘maybe somebody heard him wrong.  Maybe there was a lot of background noise that day.  Maybe somebody forgot the point of what he actually said before they wrote it down.’

This is one of those days.  Jesus tells us the story, in effect, of a very rich man who lives in Manhattan.  He owns a vineyard on the north fork of Long Island.  He’s put a manager in charge of that property and holds him accountable to make as much money for hi as possible.  Meanwhile he employs people to work the vineyard whose families owned parcels of that land a couple of generations back.  Their land was purchased at bargain basement prices a generation of two ago to form the great vineyard.  Now they work for poor wages, are totally dependent, ever deeper in debt in time of recession, and could afford to buy a bottle a month of the wine that comes from the grapes growing on the land they tend.

For some reason, this year the vineyard brings in fewer dollars for the owner in Manhattan than he thinks it should, even in hard times.  He looks into it, and suspects something is amiss in the way the manager is managing.  He brings him on the LIRR for a meeting in the city and tells him that his days are numbered.  ‘Go back and get things in order for your successor.  You’re done.’

On the ride back, the manager looks out the train window as he travels back and wonders what he can do.  This is the only place he knows.  This is the only life he knows.  How can he go on?  In what direction?  What can he save from the present situation before it is all taken away?

He arrives back at the vineyard a man relieved of all authority and responsibility.  He no longer has the trust of the owner.  He shouldn’t be doing anything but packing up his desk.  But instead, he does something startling.

One by one he calls in those who owe the owner more than they could ever hope to repay over a lifetime.  He turns on the corporate computer, enters his password, and cuts their debt by 20%, by 50%.  Completely illegitimate.  Totally illegal.  Remember now that the workers have no idea, according to the Gospel, that the manager is being fired.  They only know that to them he represents the owner, and that the burden on their back is being lightened in ways that no one ever could have expected.  You can bet that every one of those workers ran skipping and jumping out of that office, and home rejoicing, toasting the generosity of the owner and his manager.

Once a year the owner comes east from the city to visit the vineyard.  This year he comes to take the keys from his manager.  Period.  But picture what happens.  Picture the surprise that greets this man who probably hates surprises and likely hasn’t been surprised for decades.  He arrives at his property and outside the office stand his whole workforce cheering his name, holding signs filled with gratitude, releasing balloons in celebration.  There he hears a representative of his workers speak the reason for this demonstration of thankfulness.  He is smart enough to understand what’s going on.  He enters the office with the manager to talk privately.

Now the owner is still free.  He is still the owner.  He can continue on to fire his manager, as intended.  However, in doing so he will be letting go the man who has brought unexpected goodwill from the staff and unprecedented productivity from the vineyard.  In doing so he would have to go back out to the ground and tell them that the largesse they had experienced from him through the manager was unofficial, in fact illegal.  And then he can take the heat from the transformed workforce.  Or he can keep the manager on, congratulate him for thinking and acting quickly, and let the reduced debts stay as they are.  And so he does.  And you can bet that even if he had been fired, the manager – far from being disgraced – would have had a hundred homes in which he would be welcome.

Something in us, in hearing this parable of Jesus, is likely to say, “Huh?  Would you repeat that?  You can’t be serious!”  Our reaction may be like that I’ve heard on the hearing of another parable, the one in which those hired to work in the vineyard for one hour get paid the same wage as those who worked the whole day in the hot sun.  On that one, anyone who has ever been in a union or know anything about unions says, ‘what a minute, that’s not fair, not just, you can’t do that!’

So what’s up then?  What is Jesus teaching us in this story, for every parable is spoken to teach something of what the Kingdom of God looks like, feels like, and acts like?

The best question we can ask to get at the meaning of Jesus’ words is this: what did the manager actually do?  In response to the untenable situation in which he found himself, what did he do?

Well, he forgave debts.  He forgave debts.  He forgave.  It may have been in an illegitimate fashion, not allowed by custom nor by law, but he forgave.  In deciding to forgive, he allowed himself to be bound neither by custom nor by law.  His reasons for forgiving were suspect.  He did it to save his own skin, his own job, his own future.  It is remarkably self-centered.  He forgave debts that were not even – anymore – his to forgive.

But you know what?  According to Jesus, none of that stuff matters.  What matters is that he forgave.  And that forgiveness entirely transformed a situation that looked for all the world impossible to redeem.  By forgiveness it was redeemed.

Where forgiveness is, there is the presence and the action and the reign of God.  Where forgiveness is, there the impossibly bad, the intractably tragic, opens to reveal new possibilities for good, even for joy.  Where forgiveness is, grief gives birth to hope; the old becomes unaccountably new.

What is Jesus saying?  That His Father and ours does not hold our debts against us.  That the Father of Jesus Christ is not interested in holding us hostage, nor of counting off all that we owe.  God is not interested in doing business with us.  God’s inmost desire, expressed most outwardly in Jesus, is to love us.  And by doing so, to show us how to do the same – and to show us we can.

Decades ago TS Eliot began his poem, The Stranger, with words and a question that echo well the Gospel that frees us today:

When the Stranger says: “What is the meaning of this city ?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?”
What will you answer? “We all dwell together
to make money from each other”? Or “This is a community”?

T.S. Eliot