January 26, 2003 (3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time)
As you know from your diligent and careful reading of the bulletin, this is the weekend we begin our Stewardship Initiative, with some thoughts on the ‘theology’ of stewardship. The Gospel reading for today was not selected with that in mind, the Church gave us this gospel today, but you could not find a gospel that is more appropriate for what does it mean for us to be stewards, because the call to conversion that we just heard is the heart of our life. It’s the heart of what it means to be a steward; it’s the heart of what it means to be a Christian.
A steward is someone who has been given gifts by another for the sake of the other. Those gifts are entrusted to him, to be used, as that other would wish. Jesus likes the image of steward; He uses it in parables over and over and over again, sometimes with happy results: those who were given their talent to go out and actively cooperate with His grace, and they double it and they hear, “Well done good and faithful servant.” And then there are some other stewards. But if we’re going to understand what it means to be a steward, we need to understand that there’s something that comes first. Steward is what we do. We steward the gifts of the Kingdom, our life, our gifts, our talents, the Power of the Holy Spirit, the grace that we’re given. But in order to understand being stewards, first we’re going to have to understand who we are.
There was a game on TV several years ago where people were given shopping carts, and they would go to a supermarket and they were supposed to rush around the supermarket and in a certain amount of time fill their shopping carts with the most expensive things that they could. When the shopping carts were all full, and time was expired, they took them to the check out counter and whomever had the most valuable filled shopping cart won the prize.
The story is told that this was going on, and during this mad dash, three of the contestants were running screaming through the supermarket gathering everything they could. The smart one went right to the meat counter, filled it up with steak, lobster, caviar, etc. But there was one who just kind of sauntered down the aisle, taking a little bit here a little bit there, and it was really irritating the rest of them who were knocking themselves out rushing around like crazy people. At the end the other three contestants come up and there’s food dropping out of their carts, they’re totally exhausted, breathing heavily, and glad the ordeal is over. The other one comes up calmly, and he just has a few things in his basket, but not all that much. One of the exasperated other three turns to him and says, “You don’t understand, you’re supposed to get as much as you can!” And he turns to the person, smiles and says, “No, you don’t understand, my father owns the supermarket”.
Well, that’s who we are. Only our Father doesn’t own the supermarket, our Father owns the planet, the Solar System, the Galaxy, the Local Group, the Local Group of Galaxies, etc., however far out you want to go, our Father owns it all. And the greatest gift, the greatest identity that we have, is that, long before we do anything for Him, or even consider doing anything for Him, we have to remember that we are His sons and daughters.
We’re sons and daughters in two ways: one, because we have a pulse- every human being with a pulse is a son or daughter of God because they were made in the image and likeness of God. In that sense, all human being are sons and daughters of God. But that sense is not the crucial one, because that’s not the one that will get us to Heaven; that’s not the one that matters the most. Sons and daughters by adoption is what matters the most. That is not from the gift of our creation, it’s from the gift of our baptism.
By baptism, we are taken from the kingdom of Satan and placed in the Kingdom of the Beloved Son. By baptism, we become sons and daughters of God. It is important to be born, but it’s not enough. If you’re not born again, simply being born doesn’t cut it. To be adopted into the life of the Trinity is an act of grace, not the act of creation. This gift is the greatest gift we’ve been given: a gift to actually share in the very life of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit; and it makes us sons and daughters.
That gift that we were given at baptism obviously at some point needs to become a gift that we ourselves choose to cooperate with. We begin to do that when we reach the age of reason, when we approach the wondrous gift of new life in Jesus offered us when we make our first communion, when we come forward to the altar and receive Jesus. That gift is strengthened in us when we’re confirmed; when we make for ourselves the promises that were made for us, when we take our place as adult Christians. That gift is affirmed every time we come here to say “yes” to the Savior Who loved us first.
The danger in seeing ourselves as stewards before we see ourselves as sons and daughters, is that it could easily begin to seem to us that our relationship with God is a function of our performance. “He will love me if… Or He will love me when…”; “If I am good and I do everything perfectly, then God will love me.” This is the heresy of Semi-Pelagianism- the idea that my efforts alone get me to Heaven, etc…. that it all depends on us. The idea behind grace and mercy is that in the first instance it starts with Him, not with us. Everything we can do is a response to His moving first, to His action, to His love, to His grace. We cannot perform for Him. We will never ever be worthy of Him.
Oddly, that’s the kind of spiritual attack that Christians seem to suffer a lot from, the idea that they are fundamentally unworthy and it’s the easiest of all spiritual attacks to deal with. When the devil comes to you and says, “You are unworthy!” then our response is simply, “And?” Because it’s perfectly true. When we come to Mass, we do not come in here, strut down the aisle and say, “God I am so perfect, I deserve that You should die for me, I am worthy to receive Your body and blood, soul and divinity.” No, that’s not what we say! If we said that, it would be megalomaniacal.
Instead we say, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive You,” because that’s the truth. We are not worthy; we will never be worthy. And it’s not about our worthiness. It’s about His love, His mercy. He desires to lavish on us gifts of grace, gifts of His presence. He has already lavished on us so much, the gift of our life itself. But He always wants us to remember who we are in relation to Him.
When Jesus says over and over and over again, “Come to me as little children” what’s one of the things you notice about little children? They’re not capable of a whole lot. They can’t dazzle you with their sophisticated articulation. They’re incapable of a whole lot except to be cute. But they’re trusting. They don’t try to impress. They know they’re not very impressive, except on some level of cute. They just come. When the little kid comes running up and extends his arms up to daddy or to mommy, he has no sense that “Because I perform so well, they will pick me up and hug me.” His or her only sense is … “That’s the daddy or the mommy who loves me. Because they love me, they will pick me up, they will hug me, they will give me the love I want.”
Jesus invites us to have that same attitude. When we come here, it’s not because we can impress Him; we shouldn’t even try. Yes, we should try to live in a way that yields to His grace, etc. etc. But the bottom line is, it’s not so that we can strut in here and pretend we’re worthy. We have a gracious Father who loves to give us mercy. We have a spectacular Savior, Who delights in giving us His love and His mercy. We have a wondrous Holy Spirit, who delights in giving us His power. But not because we deserve it, not because we’re worthy of it, just because They have chosen to love us in this way. Performing for Them is not an option. As St. Paul points out: Everything we have is a gift, so what have we got to brag about?
In the first place we are sons and daughters; that’s who we are. The wondrous gift that Jesus moves on to from there is, He calls us to assist Him in building the Kingdom. And for that He gives us gifts and grace to build this Kingdom. And He uses us even when we don’t want to do it; when we don’t want it to work, which the first reading points out in probably the prototype experience of the reluctant steward. Jonah fled because Jonah knew he was the steward of an incredible gift, the gift of the prophetic word of God. He knew that if he walked into Nineveh and unleashed that prophetic gift of God, there was a high likelihood that Nineveh would repent, and it was the last thing Jonah wanted. What Jonah wanted was for nobody to go to Nineveh’s rescue. Jonah knew as a prophet that the decree of judgment had been issued on Nineveh; Nineveh was going to be blasted to the ground in the same way Sodom and Gomorrah was, and Jonah was all for it. God says to Jonah, “Go to Nineveh”. Jonah gets on the nearest boat and runs in the opposite direction- encounters a large fish. Encounters some rather unusual travel plans, eventually comes to his senses and heads back to Nineveh.
And the Ninevites, when Jonah begins to preach, Jonah’s only a third of the way into the city, and the Ninevites think to themselves: “Hmm, the God of Israel, isn’t He the One that beat up the Egyptians? Isn’t He the One that toasted Sodom and Gomorrah? We’d better clean up our act!” And they repent, from the king down to the poorest sackcloth-clothed cows. And Jonah is furious. Jonah storms at God, “This is exactly what I was afraid of! Now you’re not going to destroy them.”
Jonah’s preaching converted them. Jonah absolutely didn’t want it to work. He was steward of a gift that he was reluctant to use; he tried not to use it, eventually used it, and then saw a result he didn’t like, because his heart was absolutely in the wrong place. He had this mighty gift but he did not understand anything about the nature of the Father’s heart that he served. To understand more of the Father’s heart, the Father’s delight in mercy, is what it means for us to be sons and daughters.
Before we can even think about using the gifts He has given to us to build His Kingdom, we need to realize who we are in Him. Let us plead with Him to open our hearts more deeply to understand the gift of mercy that we’ve been given. To understand that the Savior we have is not looking for excuses to throw us into Hell, but is looking for opportunities to lavish His love, His grace, His forgiveness upon us. And let us take advantage of those opportunities we have to simply come before Jesus and invite Him to just love us the way He desires to, that He could open our hearts more to the presence of the Father and the presence of the Spirit, that the wondrous gift of union with Him, we would actually open our hearts to and receive.
You cannot give what you do not have. If we’re going to give away His presence, we need to walk in it first. Let us plead with Him today to open our hearts to this gift we’ve been given that we would truly delight in being sons and daughters as He has called us to be. And so with gratitude for this wondrous gift, this gift of sharing our hearts with the Triune God, let us stand and profess our faith.