17 – 18 September 2022
Seeking first the King and His Kingdom
Thrifting is on the rise: rather than participating in commercial novelty, many people would rather try their luck at a second-hand store, leafing through the “previously loved” things of others. Not only is it a source of bargains, but we might find something old and precious. A vintage jacket might cross your path. You might stumble into a mildly beaten statue of Our Lady, which needs a little care and a dust. Or a pair of little brass candlesticks; you can never have too many sets of those!
I wonder if Amos, the prophet born in Bethlehem from whose prophecy we heard in the First Reading, went thrifting in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, about eight centuries before Our Lord, what might he have found? Amongst the ruins of the city of Samaria, the capital of the north, which was attacked by the Assyrians, was an intricate piece of furniture; a daybed of intricately carved cedar. On its front, a lavish ivory panel depicting a woman looking out of a window. In terms of its natural goodness, we would marvel to see such a thing.
Likely one of these ivory inlays adorned the day beds used by the idolatrous Samarians at the time of Amos, approximately 800 B.C.
But Amos was no fool; what he had really found in his thrifting was idolatry. This seemingly benign image was a fertility goddess, imported from the religions of the reigning powers, and an affront to the One True God. It wasn’t just a bed, but a sign that Israel had rejected God. And there were other signs, too, of which we hear in the First Reading: the people are treated horribly, especially the poor, considered so expendable that they could be sold for a sandal. The owners of mega-industry abused their workers so much so that they were often treated worse than slaves. And those on the margins were disregarded to the point of being invisible.
Amos, appalled as he was by this, wasn’t in the least surprised. It’s no wonder, he might have said, you treat the poor so badly because you’ve treated God so badly. Many people propose Amos as a great prophet of social justice, and the alleviation of the poor; this is only partly true. Amos was certain that when the nation abandons God, it will treat the poor appallingly as a result. And he was right. The social unrest, and the abuse of those who suffered, was caused, and deepened, by widespread apostasy, or turning away from the faith.
This truth is taken up, and fulfilled, by another Who was born in Bethlehem, though this man is more than a prophet. This man, the God-man—”the one mediator between God and man” Saint Paul reminds us—understood this tragedy all too well. It is right to assert that Our Blessed Lord preached powerfully against social evils. But, like Amos, and more than him, Jesus diagnosed that the social crisis was a symptom of something awry in the heart, in our relationship with God. It was a lack of faith that made people more inclined to forget the poor, and to bring harm to them. Because they abandoned the Lord, or prioritised things in their lives poorly, people were inclined more and more to violence, hatred and indifference. “Seek first the kingdom of God,” says Our Lord, “and all these things will be added unto you”. Like Amos, though in a more perfect way, Jesus asserts this truth: prioritise the Lord, and then all things, even our aid to the poor, will take on a new and perfect character, and flow naturally from your devotion to God.
And then we come to today’s difficult parable, which seems to commend dishonesty. (This is obviously contrary to the Divine Nature: that Christ, Who is the Truth Himself, would praise lying!) There must be something deeper in the parable which wins the praise of the Incarnate Son. To understand it more, at least in one way, we need to think a bit about the Jewish laws. From the beginning of the covenants with Israel, God offered His Chosen People tangible ways to come closer to Him. They were rules, in their outward appearance, but, in their spiritual effects, they more resembled primitive sacraments. By following the ordinances and rules of the Lord, the Hebrews were able to show their love for God, Who gave them graces to live upright lives worthy of the One Who gave them. These rules governed their liturgical life (how they worshipped), their moral lives (how they treated themselves and others) and even their domestic life (how they cooked, cleaned and ate). One domain that didn’t escape these laws of holiness was finance: a good Jew, who recognises that all he has is a gift from God, does not charge interest to another Jew. This would be a type of theft, levying interest against one of God’s Own People. And so the financial laws of Israel prevented usury; they were also a good reminder that all that we have is a gift from the Lord, Who has given us generously. And, in imitation of Him, we should give generously, too. To charge interest to a child of the covenant was not only theft, then, but an offence against God Himself.
When the prudent steward slashes the interest-heavy bills of his master’s debtors (the same type of bills that Amos condemns in the First Reading), he is not only alleviating the financial burdens of those who need to pay. He is actually helping the master fulfil his Divine obligations; to lend without extorting the needy. How could the master be angry at this steward now? He, the master, was now charging a legal amount, without the excessive surcharges. He was called not only to financial integrity, no longer abusing the debtors. He was called back to follow the Divine Precepts, honouring God Himself. And after this spiritual rectification, it’s possible that all other parts of His life, now rightly orientated, could fall into place.
Both Amos and Our Blessed Lord remind us of this salient principle: God first, and then all other things in their order, as a consequence of our love for Him. When we abandon God, or make Him take a lower place in our list of priorities, our lives fall apart and lose direction. But when we seek first the kingdom, and give priority to the King, our lives take on a new direction that seeks blessing and can be receptive to grace.
Our rightly ordered love for God will also have an effect on how we minister to the poor. Our love for God, Who is eternally generous, should naturally extend to our care for the poor. Were Israel to have been faithful to the Lord, and not fallen for idol worship, they would have cared for the poor as a consequence of their love of God. Had the religious in the time of Our Lord considered, carefully, their obligations to the Lord, much of the social angst of the time would have been alleviated. When we abandon God, or relegate Him to second priority, all sorts of evils invade the heart. But when we seek Him first, giving priority to worship and prayer as Saint Paul urges in the Second Lesson, all other things will fall into their rightful place, illuminated with His love.
Many things war for our attention and focus. Not all of them are bad, even: we need to work and to save, and to spend wisely; maybe we could thrift more! But with many demands on us, we do need to prioritise how we spend our time and wealth. Even when we think we’re not prioritising, by making elections, we are. When we choose to come to Mass and not stay home to watch the rugby or the Sunday night movie, we’ve prioritised and well. When we choose to contribute to the upkeep of the Church, even if we have to hold on to our old cellphone for a while longer, we’ve prioritised—and prudently. When choose to avoid the “Watch Next” button on Netflix, and stop to say our night prayers, we’ve prioritised again—and well. When we choose God first, our lives take on a new, hopeful colour. It’s not a promise that we’ll avoid suffering or disaster. But we’ll be able to process it with greater clarity, trusting more wholly in God’s generous love. When we don’t give God the first place, serving wealth, honour or power instead, it will only be a matter of time when things in our lives go horribly wrong. It will be no surprise when we sell our poor for a sandal, or feel nothing for their neediness while we remain comfortable and secure.
And so? God first. This principle must penetrate every part of our lives. And, honouring God as He deserves, we will want to care for the poor as a result. This service of God and the poor is a “both-and” in the Christian life. We can’t neglect either, but God must take the first place. And, if our worship of Him is true, and spiritual, we will be moved to care for the material needs of others. The love of God, which He pours into our hearts, will overflow to others, too.
Even in our life of faith, we need to prioritise. A good priority is that of the confessional over our pride. In the confessional, we’re presenting the Lord the bill of our own debt due to sin. And, through the agency of the priest, who acts in Persona Christi, the spiritual debt isn’t halved, but is completely removed. That is the tremendous generosity of God, Who wills to set us free from the eternal consequences of our sinfulness. And, so prepared by a good confession, we’re able to participate fruitfully in the Sacrament of the Altar, where the generosity of God finds its full expression. For here, in simple forms, God gives us His Whole Self, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity. Though we’re not even worth His sandal, He gives us Himself. Strengthened by this generosity, and inspired by it, we will be empowered to give generously of ourselves in the world, too.
Maybe, as we continue to offer this Saving Sacrifice, we might want to make a small resolution: to find one moment at least this week in which we can prioritise God, and give Him the first place. It could mean enduring some suffering; it may mean passing something by. We might even have to give up our thrifting time to help the needy, or say the rosary with a loved one. But this act of love will store up treasure in Heaven, where God’s primacy is the glory of the saints. Amen.