28 September 2009

Fatty hearts tempt the Butcher

26th Sunday OT: Readings
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Holy Rosary Priory, Houston, TX

You can go to the webpage, This is Why You are Fat, and find a few paradoxically enticing/disgusting examples of why Americans are bulging around the waists. Deep-fried bacon wrapped Krispy-kreme doughnuts. Chocolate-chunk pizza. Pancakes stacked with peanut butter and bacon. In a culinary rebellion against our nutritional masters, Americans are storming this country's palaces of low-fat, low-calorie monarchs with corn-dog cannons and vats of boiling fatback. Our rabbit-food nibbling betters simply sneer and proclaim from the heights of their emaciated battlements: “Let them eat rice cakes!” This is our fight against an invading horde of Food Nazis, this generation's righteous Battle of the Bulge. Lost in the push and pull of dining strategies and buffet binges is a much more important battle, a fight fought at not around the waist but at the center of our spiritual lives: the heart, the seat of God's wisdom in us. After cataloging the sins of the oppressive rich against the oppressed poor, James diagnoses a malady of the soul: “You have lived on earth in luxury and pleasure; you have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter.” What fattens your heart? What is it that clogs your soul, readying you for the day of slaughter?

Let's not pretend that James is limiting his condemnation to luxurious abuse of spiritual riches. We would cheat ourselves of a significant insight if we remove this passage from the real socio-economic world and confine ourselves to reading it as allegory for sin and redemption. Yes, he's talking about the death of the soul from a spiritual heart attack, but he is also warning us that worldly riches and the temptations they bring are very real, very dangerous. In fact, storing up treasure gathered on the backs of the poor is the fastest way to fatten a human heart, the surest route to a death-dealing coronary. How so? The injustice of ill-gotten, hoarded wealth is unjust for two reasons: 1) the poor are used as tools in violation of their dignity as children of God, and 2) hoarding riches for the last days is a sure sign that those who hoard do not trust in the Lord's providence. Is there a faster way to kill charity in a human heart than to plunder the image of God in His human creatures and then use that plunder to deny the truth of His promised care?

Recently, the mainstream media applauded the documentarian, Michael Moore, for his expose of the excesses of capitalism, calling his work “Christian.” An avowed socialist and Catholic, Moore produced the film, “Capitalism: A Love Story,” as a critique not only of capitalism itself but the consumerist culture it creates and needs to flourish. Moore is often criticized for building boogey-men out of straw and then knocking them down with exaggerated ridicule and outright fabrication of the facts. Regardless, what's intriguing here is the speed with which the mainstream media embraced his cinematic critique of capitalism as immediately identifiably Christian. Listening to James in this morning's readings, we might conclude that opposition to capitalism is indeed an identifiably Christian position to take. But, like most things in this world, it's not that simple; in fact, it's more complex than we can imagine in the time we have on this earth. James' point is not that riches in themselves are evil. Being wealthy per se is not a fast-track ticket to hell. What can bring the wealthy to the edge of the Pit is the means by which they acquired their wealth and how they use it. In other words, there are perfectly just ways of acquiring wealth and perfectly just ways of spending it. The complexity of Christian wealth—and its accompanying dangers—is born and grows in the heart: given your relationship to God, does wealth free you to greater charity or enslave you to self-dependence? As always, Jesus gives us the best answer.

Jesus is confronted by his worried disciples. They are upset because there are those not of their group who are casting out demons in Jesus' name. He tells his disciples not to prevent these people from performing exorcisms. No one who does such holy deeds in his name can be against him. To emphasize his point, he adds: “Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ, amen, I say to you, will surely not lose his reward.” Did you catch that? “. . .because you belong to Christ. . .” Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ. . .will not lose his reward. NOT: anyone who gives you a cup of water. Period. But anyone who give you water because—for the reason that—you belong to Christ. Jesus is putting us on a spiritual diet. No heart can grow fat when it exercises charity in his name.

If using someone elses labor as a means to a wealthy end is unjust, then how much fatter do our hearts grow when we kill another life for a merely convenient end? Recently, I watched a re-run of the sci-fi TV show, Stargate SG1. I won't bore you with the geeky details, let it suffice to say that the episode presented the moral issue of abortion in a strangely straightforward way. The main characters come across a culture that killed others like them in order to live. To carry out these murders with a clear conscience, the needy killers had to convince themselves that the ones they kill are deadly enemies. A prominent member of the killer-culture refuses to stop killing even when offered a bloodless alternative. During a battle, she is wounded and her sister asks her not to kill another so that she might live. Urging the proffered alternative on her, the wounded woman's sister pleads, “Choose life.” Choose not only your life but the lives of all those you would kill so that you might live. The wounded woman's heart had grown fat on the sin of murder and she could not accept that those she killed for her own good were not her enemies. Eventually, she relented and took the alternative. The details of the plot are more complex than this, but the message is starkly clear: there is no room for charity in a heart grown obese with sin. This killer was ready for the day of slaughter.

Are you ready for that day? Are we ready? As individual Christians and as a collective body, a nation and a Church, have our hearts grown fat? Let's not dwell on whether or not Jesus was a capitalist or a socialist. As modern concepts, neither existed in his time. The Church has never preferred one over the other, choosing instead to consistently teach the absolute value of the human person and condemning in both systems any practice or theory that diminishes the sacred dignity we share as creatures created in the image and likeness of God. The Church has condemned profit-exploitation in capitalism and the anti-family practices of socialism. Both often fall short of the Christian virtue of charity and the requirements of human freedom. For us, here in 2009, the question and problem is as fresh as this morning and as old as creation: is the other guy here for me to use and abuse, or is he here for me to love and serve? The fatty deposits of sin begin to collect in our hearts when we deface the image of God in another by treating him as a thing, a means, a way to profit or control. Jesus tells us that it is better to lop off a hand or pluck out an eye than it is to sin in this way. It would be better to be thrown into the sea with a millstone around your neck than to cause a believing child to sin. Drowning and self-mutilation. Both are preferable on the day of slaughter than approaching the judgment seat with a heart grown obese on sin.

Even if you must wiggle to the throne—blind, handless, footless—wiggle to His feet with a fit heart, a polished seat where He can set His wisdom in you. On the day of slaughter, it is better to be crippled and wise than able and foolish.

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