Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time 'B'

Sunday October 11, 2009

A Level Playing Field

The Bible is a compilation of ancestral stories, a veritable anthology of inspired writings written down for our instruction so that we know how to live God’s wisdom in our own time. It contains some historical facts but most of its truth is woven into sacred history or faith history, that is, history concerned not with a chronology of events or the accuracy of times, dates and places but with the interpretation of what was perceived as God’s interventions into historical events and life experiences of our ancestors in the faith. But the Bible must still be interpreted further in the light of both our own personal stories and our communal experience as a faith community as viewed through the collective unconscious memory of the Church throughout the ages. This blend of our human family stories and our ancestral biblical stories enable us to hear God’s voice in a new way. They should move us to respond to personal and collective concerns in unique ways both as individuals and as a church.

Speaking of family stories, those of us who lived during or after the great depression have lots of stories to share about ‘our poorer days,’ as my mother used to refer to them.

My maternal grandparents lived next store to us and despite her advanced age, my grandmother always found a reason to ‘go up town’ two or three times a day looking for bargains. One day she brought home a nondescript item and asked my father to identify it. He didn’t know and asked why she purchased it in the first place. She said it was on sale and couldn’t pass up such a bargain! She knew everyone in Morristown and everyone in Morristown knew her. She used to sit at the doorway at Epstein’s where my mother worked. She would tell everyone that this is my daughter’s store! I suppose she assumed my mom was at least part owner because she worked in bookkeeping. If only that were true!

In any event, every so often, my grandmother would appear in what we used to call tattered gypsy attire. I found out later in life that she dressed in that outfit whenever she went to pay bills. She didn’t want anyone to know she had any money. Of course she didn’t. My grandparents lived frugally. They had ‘migrated’ from Jersey City just after the depression. My grandfather was a staunch Republican in a city ruled by a strong Democratic major, Frank Haag, who literally owned the city and its people. My paternal grandfather was a Democrat and a committeeman and therefore was guaranteed a job. My mother’s father lost his house, suffered a breakdown and moved to Morristown with twenty-five cents in his pocket. The playing field was no more level in those ‘simple’ days than in today’s complex global economy.

Speaking of which, a story is told about the high school economics teacher who engaged his students in a ‘tootsie roll’ exercise. He divided the class of 30 into three sections: two in group A representing the first world; eight in group B representing the second developing world; the remaining twenty in group C representing the third underdeveloped world. To the two in group A he gave twenty tootsie rolls; to the eight in group B, he gave eight tootsie rolls and to the twenty in group C he gave two tootsie rolls. Then he watched the dynamics as the group began to interact. Within very short period the participants moved beyond friction to a war of words but before they came to blows, he intervened and gathered them around in a circle to talk about what was going on. Of course, there was no level playing field. Given the fact that group A were given a disproportionate amount of the commodity, no one used their creativity to determine how to equalize the distribution without simply giving their individual shares away.

To be sure, this rather simple exercise could lead to simplistic solutions to very complex global economic issues. Nevertheless, there were lessons to be learned about what happens when there is no level playing field. Beginning with the encyclical of Leo XIII on down to the most recent encyclical of Pope Benedict XVI, Truth in Charity. Catholic social doctrine has been very clear about the obligation of those who have to give to those who have not. But it’s not just about giving; it is more about equalizing distribution by providing equal opportunity and fair competition on a level playing field.

Many international meetings on global economics over the past several years have been less than helpful to underdeveloped and developing nations who simply cannot compete on a world market with first world countries who subsidize their industries in order to keep the price of products on a worldwide market low.

We all want to pay less for more even in our own country while at the same time we decry the increasing number of manufacturers securing cheaper labor in foreign markets.

Those who make decisions to outsource the production of goods and service looking at short-term profits do not contribute a great deal to the national economy. As we have learned over the past few years, the long-range effect of short-term profits can be disastrous not only for those who lose their jobs but more so for their children and this eventually redounds on the world economy.

The Scriptures are not to be taken literally but they must be taken seriously. The wealthy are not doomed to condemnation any more than the poor are destined for heaven. Wealth is not a curse but a blessing. Indigence is not a virtue; it’s a deprivation. Nevertheless, there are truths in every story and lessons to be learned for every age.

Book of Wisdom read this morning was written only minutes before the birth of Christ. It paraphrased Solomon’s prayer recorded centuries earlier in the first book of Kings and was echoed in the responsorial from Psalm 90.

On the occasion of his enthronement as king he prayed not for power and wealth but for wisdom. He prayed that he might think with God not for God. This is spiritual maturity at its best.

“Beyond health and comeliness, I prayed for wisdom over all else. Yet, all good things came to me in her company and countless riches at her hands.”

In the end, Jesus was not asking the young man for his gold but for his heart because he knew that if he gave his heart to God, he would give all he could to his brothers and sisters in humanity.

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