September 25, 2017

Christians must put charity into action: Archbishop’s Homily

Quinton Aaron and Sandra Bullock star in <i>The Blind Side</i>.

Quinton Aaron and Sandra Bullock star in The Blind Side.

One day, an affluent white Christian family sees the lad, known locally as ‘Big Mike’ walking through the snow in only a t-shirt and shorts – the same ones he wore every day.

Leigh-Anne, who is not the kind of woman to take ‘no’ for an answer, invites him to stay the night at their home and from this moment Michael becomes a member of their family.

They offer him not just accommodation and food – which Big Mike consumes in copious quantities – but more importantly affection, security and assistance with education.

The Blind Side

The Blind Side

He eventually graduates with high enough grades to gain a college football scholarship. At one stage a friend says “you’re changing that boy’s life” to which Leigh-Anne responds, “no he’s changing mine”.

So powerful was this movie that Sandra Bullock has since been inspired to adopt two children of her own, saying “adoption and foster care [are] on the forefront of my mind every day now when I get up”.

This movie (and the true story behind it) has many excellent qualities: it’s funny, sad and heart-warming all at the same time.

It is a modern parable of Christian charity.

An interesting aspect of the parable is that the family could not have helped Big Mike were they too poor themselves to feed, clothe, accommodate and get a private tutor for him.

Though the movie challenges our priorities with respect to money, it remains clear that without it we could do much less.

Jesus was not a global economist or even a private financial adviser, but He did have a bit to say about Christian economics. He often encouraged people to worry less about finances, to trust more in Providence and to be wary of acquisitiveness and abuse of financial power: this master of the human heart you all know too well how our possessions can end up possessing us.

God cannot be our master if Mammon is, He observed; if we make money our lover, indeed our master, we will end up treating God with scorn. Indeed, there can be a blessedness about being poor, whether financially or in other ways, as our new St Teresa of Calcutta illustrates.

Of course as soon as we recall these things, we invite the caricature of Christians as haters of the world, as impractical, ‘otherworldly’ people. As a corrective to this we hear Jesus today (Lk 16:1-13), as elsewhere in the Gospels, encouraging prudence, even shrewdness in the management of money.

He clearly thought money can indeed be used well, in support of good works both spiritual and more mundane, and He praised voluntary charity, paying just taxes, investing wisely as well as generously forgiving debts.

If he and his followers were to be “good news to the poor”, they had to be both willing and able to do something for them.

They required both the means and the motive to be stewards in the household of God and Good Samaritans in the world. St Teresa of Avila was once criticised for being too worldly: a true saint, her critics suggested, would have no need of money. Teresa, ever a practical woman, responded with Spanish humour, “With God I can do much; with God and money, I can do even more!”

Not that she was licensing personal materialism and selfishness, or preaching the ideology of unbridled capitalism and consumerism. No, this eminently practical woman was also a deeply spiritual one and knew well the temptations of the human spirit.

Money has its uses but will not, in the end, fulfil us human beings, let alone divinise us as saints.

So what could Jesus mean in our Gospel this morning when He tells us to use “tainted money” to “win friends”?

Is he promoting bribery and corruption, or at least the childish hope of gaining popularity through pretended beneficence?

Is the Gospel of Luke an ancient near-Eastern version of the pop classic How to Win Friends and Influence People?

How are we to get the balance right and avoid serving the wrong Master in such matters?

Well, a good starting point is to hear with open ear and heart the prophets of old, of which Jesus was the fulfilment.

When Amos, in our first reading this morning, condemns the rich, it is not because they are rich per se but because they ‘trample the needy’ and ‘oppress the poor’ (Am 8:4-7).

So, too, when Jesus criticises those who have much, it is often because instead of using their financial power to build relationships – to make friends – their objects are darker and more selfish.

A second thing we might remember is what is meant by the word ‘friends’ in this context. St Gaudentius of Brescia, a fourth century bishop, wrote that the friends Christ asks us to “win” with our resources are the needy – whether financially, emotionally or spiritually needy (Gaudentius, Sermon 18).

What Jesus is talking about here is what came to be called “the corporal works of mercy”: feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, attending to the sick, visiting the imprisoned, and burying the dead. This is what the Tuohy family did in The Blind Side, even if they didn’t have the language of corporal works of mercy.

And Pope Francis hoped to draw our attention to these important activities of the Christian life by proclaiming this Year of Mercy; indeed, the Holy Father has reminded us of Jesus’ challenging, even chilling, words that at our judgement He will say “Whatever you did for these hungry, thirsty, naked, imprisoned or strangers, you did for me; whatever you neglected to do for these least of my brethren, you neglected to do for me.” (Mt ch 25)

It is the poor, St Gaudentius observed, and especially the poor Christ, who will befriend us at our judgement, stand up for us before our accusers, guide us through the gates and host us in heaven.
For as Jesus asks rhetorically today: if we can’t be trusted to do the right thing with ordinary tainted money, “who will trust you with genuine riches”, that is, the reward of heaven?

This is the edited text of the homily given by Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP at St Mary’s Cathedral on 18 September.

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