18th Sunday 2019
Ecclesiastes: 1:2; 2: 21-23; Colossians 3:1-5,9-11; Luke 12:13-21.
It must be around forty years ago that I read a newspaper article about a man who had effectively worked himself to death, slaving every hour God sent in order to raise the money to send his daughter to a private school. He succeeded in his aim, but suffered a fatal heart attack brought on by overwork.
The newspaper in question was full of praise for his self-sacrifice: I have to say that I was appalled. I am sure that his daughter would gladly have binned her new school place to have her father back—or even to have had his company at home during all his hours of overwork. Unlike the man in the parable, this father was not guilty of avarice—he wasn’t seeking personal gain—but his sense of priorities was equally disordered.
In certain parts of the world today, there are still people who must work desperately long hours in order simply to put food on the table, and modern slavery is a widespread phenomenon. This is a grave injustice, and we have a duty to do all in our power to change the situation. Our own desire for cheap food, cheap clothing, cheap commodities is partly to blame , and we need to be more discerning than we are about the working and living conditions of those who produce the food and goods that we buy; we must be more concerned that our greed does not come into play, making life more harsh for our brothers and sisters. Was it CAFOD, or some other organization, which coined the slogan “Live simply, that others may simply live”? Whoever devised it, we need to take it to heart, but, I suspect, we rarely do.
The situation of those who are forced to overwork in order to survive is very different from that of the tragic father whom I mentioned at first. His was a case, not of necessity, but of mistaken priorities. His daughter did not need the advantages, real or imagined, conveyed by a private education: what she needed was the presence of a loving, caring father.
For more than a century, beginning with Pope Leo XIII, the Church has been building up a body of social teaching, which is often ignored, if not unknown altogether. For so many who would love to wield power in the Church, and who are appalled by the present Holy Father, social justice plays no part in their understanding of morality, which is concerned purely with sexual ethics, and with who should, or should not, be allowed to receive Communion. I could not help rising an eyebrow a few year ago on leaning that, in one seminary, candidates for the priesthood were studying Pope St. Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, on the subject of birth control, but not his far more important Populorum Progressio, on “ the progress of peoples”.
Does the Church’s emphasis on social justice, which has been a preoccupation of all the twentieth and twenty first century popes, detract from St. Paul’s injunction “Let your thoughts be on heavenly things, not on things that are on the earth”? Far from it: if people haven’t enough to eat, if they are exhausted by overwork, it is very difficult for them to contemplate the things of heaven, and one of the most heavenly instructions that we have is the commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves. If we are not striving for the well-being of our neighbour, then we are failing to give proper thought to heavenly things, no matter how regularly we worship; and, in fact, if we are serious about our prayer, then we will not be able to continue to be indifferent towards those who suffer.
All three of today’s readings make it clear that our chief preoccupation must be building up our life in God, fulfilling God’s call to us. That call entail a concern for justice: it does not entail a concern for relentless material advancement.