Monday, February 13, 2012

The Old Man and the Sea

Homily from the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2012

I was out at the bookstore on my day off a couple of weeks back and picked up a copy of Ernest Hemingway’s well known book “The Old Man and the Sea.”  I had never read it – this week I finally did. 

What a tale about that old man Santiago.  His suffering was etched into every page in an understated way that was just taken for granted.  Of course you suffer.  Life is not easy.  He could very well have spoken the words we hear today from Job:   ‘Is not man's life on earth a drudgery?  Are not his days those of hirelings?  He is a slave who longs for the shade, a hireling who waits for his wages.  So I have been assigned months of misery, and troubled nights have been allotted to me.”

Such passages are not just the stuff of fiction or spiritual reflection, though.  Santiago reminded me of the men I met in Guatemala while there for a summer doing volunteer work.  It was the description of the callouses that rang true.  I remember feet like that – they are real. Feet that might as well be made of leather - all distorted and twisted from years of not wearing shoes.  When I went to India it was the same thing – and I was struck by how similar poverty felt on opposite sides of the globe.  The same smell: some sort of mix of wood smoke from cooking fires and sewage from the street combined from the exhaust from old cars and busses.  And the same sounds – of cooking and other domestic chores from the shacks packed together along the street as bicycles and large busses weave through crowds of people. 

I realized after the trip to India that most of the world knows those smells and sounds, calls them home.  That is what most of human civilization is like.  We are the exception.
With all of the talk of the 1% and the 99% someone recently told me that by global standards, to be in the 1% you have to have a household income above $35,000. 

That doesn’t mean the rest of the world is depressed.  In fact, many people find great joy in the midst of their suffering and poverty, more than we do with all of our wealth.  Still, the misery of the condition of so many millions of people is a great evil when it exists in a world where some like us live so well.  Just a natural empathy should compel us, as Christ was compelled, to reach out to alleviate the suffering of others and work to help them build a better life. 

But what do we do?  Any solutions seem so complicated – beyond our ability to control.  So many news stories seem to show that the more we get involved in the affairs of other people the more we make things worse.  We cannot in good conscience ignore the suffering of others, yet simply throwing money at poverty can cause more problems than it solves.  We must live the Gospel, which calls us to be responsible and good stewards of the blessings that God has given us.  How we live that stewardship of the Gospel and the blessings that have been entrusted to us is a matter that we must carefully consider, as St. Paul makes clear.  He knew that he, like every other person, would be held accountable by God for how he responded to the Gospel, how he prioritized his life and used the blessings he had been given.  For him, that meant that he would give up everything and spend his days going from place to place preaching.

Now most of us have not been given that same mission, have not been asked to leave everything aside for the sake of the Gospel.  However, we are still entrusted with prioritizing our lives according to the Gospel and using the blessings we have been given in order to serve God.  Instead of preaching from pulpits, most of us are called to preach by our the choices that we make in life.

And in order to meet the demands that the Gospel places upon us, Christ makes it very clear that when faced with the poverty and misery of others, mere apologies or thoughtless handouts are not adequate.  We must use reason to evaluate our choices, seeking to avoid doing harm to others and to instead make use our resources to add value and meaning and goodness to life.

When it comes to the impact of our daily choices on the poor, those that have the greatest negative impact probably are related to our consumption.  Being a responsible consumer is difficult.  Try buying something not made in China today.  Yet let us not pretend that our consumption doesn’t have an impact.  It does.  I was told the other day about Chinese workers who polish laptops – they can tell who they are because they have a strange glistening to their skin from the aluminum.  Companies employ hundreds of thousands of people, housing them in the same complex where they work long hours.  And of course it’s not just China, it’s just about every country other than in the West. 

Until you and I stop immediately going for the cheapest product, this horrible cycle will never end.  Instead we have to be willing to get less bang for our buck.  We must be willing to wait longer, get less selection, and spend more time researching before we purchase something.  We have to be willing to pay more in order to ensure that those who make the products that we buy are being treated like human beings. 
And all of this probably means that we have to be willing to have less stuff.  But we don’t need half of what we have anyway.  We just need to stop consuming so much.  Me too…  I know how easy it is to go out and buy the newest and next best – but do we need it? 

The second piece – living generous lives that bring goodness into the world.

First: it means praying for the poor and suffering and being united to them in solidarity, being aware of their lives and of the places in this world where people are suffering.

Second: giving to charitable organizations that bring help to those areas that are in great need, like Catholic Relief Services.  Such organizations are especially important when unforeseeable disasters strike, disasters like the earthquake in Haiti that are too catostrophic for local safetey nets to cope with.

Third: Being generous with our time and resources at home. 
Often, those who are poor in other countries don't want us to give them our money so much as they would like us to use our money well.  And so we might ask, well, what are some of the more generous and life-giving uses for money and our gifts?

For most of us, one of the greatest acts of generosity will be raising children.  Yes, having children is an act of generosity.  And those who have more wealth can afford more children.  It is ironic to me whenever I hear people who live in this country say they can’t afford a child.  Children who grow up here have more than most children every dream of having.  Here we are buying all this stuff that has no lasting value, when we could be bringing new life into the world.  Our pets have better access to good health care and nutrition that most children in this world do.

Another act of generosity is to take care of those who are older.  To make the sacrifices that are necessary to ensure that we ensure our family members and friends can live in dignity and a reasonable degree of comfort in their final years.

Too often we are tempted to think that the Gospel is about personal belief in Jesus Christ that will help us get to heaven.  But it is not merely that.  Jesus spent the majority of his ministry healing the sick, driving out demons, curing the blind and the lame.  We cannot turn a blind eye to the poor of this world.  We must be good stewards of the Gospel that we have received.

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