September 4, 2011 - Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Today's Readings

Did you catch that, at the beginning of the second reading? “Owe nothing to anyone.” This is very good advice, but it is often ignored today. To be in debt is to be in slavery. To be free of debt is to be free. So many people today have sold themselves into slavery for a new car, for a bigger house, for a thousand little charges on the credit cards! You are worth more than that car, than that house, than the computer and the clothing and the restaurants.

Advertisers try to convince us that we need something else. You cannot watch TV without seeing an ad telling you to buy a car, and not just a car but a new car, and not just a new car but a luxury car, and not just a luxury car but a car that parks itself. Houses today are a sign of this problem in society. A hundred years ago the idea that each child would have their own room would have been ridiculous; today this is seen as a necessity. A good home today has to be thousands of square feet. Because of this unreasonable standard, many people bought houses that they could not afford and lost everything. Owe nothing to anyone.

I know that there are people who have to charge groceries on the credit card to get by each month, and why do they need to use credit cards for the basic necessities? Because their paycheck each month goes to pay the credit card bills. Owe nothing to anyone. Such a life is unsustainable. If a family is so poor that they struggle to feed themselves, how can they afford to send money each month to the billionaires of the world? If it means never going to a restaurant again and never buying a new car or even new clothes, freedom from debt is worth far more than any of the pleasures of this world.

Greed is not just a sin for millionaires and billionaires who are trying to get higher up on the list of the richest people. Greed is believing that material goods can bring us happiness. They cannot. They promise happiness in the short term, but they add up to a burden on our souls.

This is the way of all sins. A sin promises happiness in the moment, in the individual instance, but the aggregate adds up to a cause of sadness. Consider gluttony: a person should be in good shape, and I am not referring to looking like a supermodel, just being healthy and fit. In the individual moment, the food looks good, the cake seems irresistible, but it all adds up to an extra 20 or 50 or 100 pounds which make us unhappy. Consider sloth: watching TV and other ways of wasting time in the short term seem desirable, but when your work is not done and you have not become the person you want to be, when you have wasted years of your life, it has all added up to unhappiness. Items call out at us, promising happiness, but it all adds up to debt.

Virtue, on the other hand, is the opposite. The short-term seems difficult, but it all adds up to happiness. Volunteering to care for the sick is not desirable, but then you have become a person who cares for the sick; you like yourself, so you are happy. Denying yourself food or forcing yourself to work or exercise is difficult in the short-term, but a body you can move around in and success in life are sources of happiness. Denying yourself purchases on credit is difficult in the short-term, but it adds up to freedom.

Why do some people in this world have more than enough while others have to struggle to get by? It is a consequence of sin, but it is the world we live in. We are blessed in this country; it is relatively easy to survive. Rather than trying to have more than that, we should be looking out for those who do not even have that much.

Which brings us to the exception to this rule: “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another.” Here is a debt that we are happy to have. The whole law can be summarized in the commandments of love. If we love God above all and our neighbor as ourself, then we do not need any rules. We could throw away the Ten Commandments and every other commandment, if we were perfect at love. This is what St. Paul means when he says that love is the fulfillment of the law. St. Augustine says it this way: “Love and do whatever you want.” It is not as if a person perfect in love could kill and commit adultery and what not. If you love someone, you will not kill them. All of the commandments and rules of the Church are simply teaching us how to love.

Jesus says to us, “Love one another as I have loved you.” This is a tall order, but we can try. Jesus is not speaking about an emotion that we cannot control. He is speaking about an action: the action of love. Love begins by looking to see the good in the other person, and everyone has some good. Our tendency is to think of people generically, but if we love them we learn all about them individually, looking for the good, whether they are right in front of us or they live on the other side of the world. No human being created by God is just nothing. There truly is good in everyone because God put it there.

Second, love is goodwill, helping the other person achieve their goals. Love involves giving of ourselves without controlling, asking in return only to be loved back. This is the love of God for us, who knows us through and through and who has given us life, the universe, and everything. All he asks in return is that we will love him back, not because he needs it but because we were designed to love God and each other.

What a pleasant fact, this debt of love we owe to every human being whom we meet! This debt is not a burden, weighing us down. This debt is the meaning of life and the source of true happiness. When we spend our lives not seeking after material things and entertainments, when we spend our lives to pay this debt of love, we lose nothing and we gain happiness.