Sunday, May 31, 2009

10-26-2008: 30th Ordinary Time (A)

Exodus 22:20-26/Psalm 18/First Thessalonians 1:5-10/Matthew 22:34-40
Today’s exhortation from the Book of Exodus, about not demanding interest on a loan made to poor people, takes on an eerie applicability these days. Presumably the author of Exodus would have expected the poor person to at least pay back the principal. The bible is chock full of references to money, loans, usury, interest and debt. Those parables from the gospels, about being thrown into prison until every penny on a loan is repaid and those myriad references to debtors’ prisons in Victorian novels, help you appreciate that money demands responsibility – not only on the part of the borrower but for the lender as well. Loaning money to those who demonstrably cannot pay it back is sort of like the driver who stops at a green light to let pedestrians cross a busy boulevard. The driver thinks he’s being kind and charitable, doing a good deed, being christian and all that, until the poor pedestrian gets hit by oncoming traffic halfway across because the other drivers are following the accepted rules, trusting that both drivers and pedestrians are complying with the same accepted norms. It seems at this point in our economic saga lenders, whether acting out of greed or charity, decided to stop on green and go on red, effectively sentencing the rest of us to on-coming traffic and that proverbial debtor’s prison.

[Although the Church forbade taking interest on loans for many centuries – a practice originally called usury -- it was eventually judged to be a legitimate enterprise. The word usury fell into disuse and was reserved only as a pejorative term for those exorbitant interest rates charged on loans -- that twenty-percent interest rate charged by your credit card company might just qualify.]

It’s only relatively recently that we’ve begun to understand that money itself is a manifestation of the body politic, a measurement of the trust each places in the common good. Money, far from being the root of all evil, is in many ways a sign, a symbol (dare I say, a sacrament of sorts) of the collective trust we are called to place in each other as a community. That confidence has been badly shaken of late and no one seems to know what precisely to do.

Describing the situation as an economic crisis might miss the full import of the problem. But then again the word economy, coming from the Greek, refers to the management of a household. It is used in theology to describe the relationship within the Holy Trinity, the harmony between Father, Son and Spirit. When theologians cite the divine economy they aren’t referring to a heavenly budget, but to the relationship between God and his creation. Economics is ultimately a theological concern, because it’s all about community as the realm of responsibilities exercised by those who seek the common good. That common good will sometimes produce wealth, but sometimes demand sacrifice. Good government cannot avoid the demand for sacrifice or, indeed, guarantee wealth; but it can create the needed climate of trust by assuring, by persuasion or threat of penalty, that participants follow the basic rules: green for go, red for stop, tickets for jaywalking, and points on your license for blocking the box.

Theologians describe the essence of the divine economy as harmony. And harmony is just what we seek in our human economies as well. The first step on that long journey toward an ordered and harmonious society is the elimination of chaos which, sometimes, demands a firm hand exercised by an extraordinary leader. Let’s pray the next president will do and be just that.

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