February 5, 2012 - Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Today's Readings

Slavery is horrible. It is difficult to imagine how horrible it really is from the perspective of the freedom that we enjoy as modern Americans. There is still slavery in the world: women enslaved as prostitutes, children enslaved as soldiers. There are also millions of workers whose conditions are such that their lives are no different than slaves, even if they are not called that. The economic system and globalization rely on such virtual slaves. The only way to ensure a constant supply of cheap clothing and electronics to American stores are these sorts of slaves.

Clearly we are not in a position to better their working conditions. We only buy what is for sale; we do not decide how it is made. But we also do not care how it is made. Oh I know that if someone said this shirt was made by people who are abused and forced to work and given very little in return, not nearly enough to survive, we would not buy it, but there is no one to say that. If we really cared we would insist on knowing, but it is easier to forget. The average family has its own struggles and must prioritize. If the shirt can be found for a few dollars less then that helps the budget.

The current system removes us from the guilt; it removes everyone from the guilt. The managers of factories say that the corporate executives have set the production goals. The corporate executives say that consumers demand a certain product at a certain price. Consumers say that they never asked for anyone to the enslaved. Nevertheless, there are slaves. If we owned slaves directly, we would have to look at them and realize that they are human just like us, we would be forced to sympathize and imagine what it would be like to be a slave. Since no one is in charge, no one has to carry that guilt.

What is the solution? Clearly there is a problem. The solution is twofold: support those who are working to end slavery and stop supporting those systems that promote it. As it says in our first reading today, “a slave longs for the shade, a hireling waits for their wages.” On the one hand, through charity we can give some relief to those sort of suffering. On the other hand, through justice we can pay what we owe to those who work for us.

Each year on the Fourth Sunday of Lent, we take up a collection for Catholic Relief Services. This collection does much of the most important work in the world. No one cares for the poor as much as the Catholic Church does. No one cares for the poor as efficiently. No one cares for the poor in more parts of the world. I am mentioning this now, almost two months before the collection is taken up , because our annual giving to this collection should not just be our spare change. If we could meet the people who need our help, if we were the people who need help, how much would be enough?

It is by means of Catholic Relief Services and similar organizations that the Body of Christ is united in charity. It is not possible for every one of us to go serve in Africa and Asia, so some members of the Church go serve there , and we support them. It is in this way that we give shade to those who are suffering.

Then we must oppose all systems that support slavery. What systems promote slavery? First of all pornography and prostitution. We must be opposed to such things because they serve no good end, but we also must oppose them because of how they are supported by slavery. We must also begin to care where things come from. We do not need, necessarily, to “buy American”, but we do need to insist that, wherever a product is made, it is made ethically, with respect for the human soul that labored to create it.

This means, above all, voting with our wallets. If we have to spend a few extra dollars on clothing that is not stained with the sin of slavery, even if that means that we cannot afford to buy as many shirts in a year, even if that means that we cannot be as fashionable as we want. Corporations always give us exactly what we want if we are willing to pay for it. If we demand that people be treated with respect, and we are willing to pay for that respect, they will get it. In this way the hirelings will receive their wages.

Slavery is horrible, but it is the image which St. Paul uses today for the life that he lives. He says that he has made himself a slave to all. What does this mean? Paul was free to do anything he wanted. He was a citizen of the Roman Empire. He was not a slave to anyone. He could have spent his life making money or on any of the pursuits that humans like to pursue. Instead, he dedicated his life to telling people about Jesus Christ.

He traveled long distances to deliver a message, though no one paid him to be messenger. He taught a wisdom greater than any philosopher, though no one paid him to be a teacher. He healed the sick and raised people from the dead, though no one paid him to be a doctor. He exercised concern for all those suffering, the poor and the rich, though no one paid him to be a social worker. He settled disputes that arose in the Christian community, though no one paid him to be a judge. He took up a collection for the poor in the Holy Land, though no one paid him to be a fundraiser. He gave his whole life, and asked nothing in return, because he considered himself a slave.

In this sense we are all slaves. As Bob Dylan said, “it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you're gonna have to serve somebody.” We will spend our lives to some purpose. If it is a selfish purpose, we will be slaves to our addictions. If it is a generous purpose, we will be slaves to those we serve. Are any of you called to be slaves of the poor? Are any of you called to spend your life in order to relieve the suffering of another human being? It is a noble calling to be a slave of the slaves.