God's Economy

Deacon Tom Cornell, a longtime friend of the magazine and a member of the Catholic Worker, sends this homily from from St. Mary’s Church in Marlboro, N.Y. He preached on September 18, the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time:

Today’s Gospel reading is not a recommendation for the reform of labor law.  (By the way, have you noticed that politicians use the word “reform” when they actually mean “weaken” or “destroy” in talking about Social Security or Medicare?  But that’s another matter.)  Here in today’s Gospel we have a parable of Jesus about the kingdom of heaven.  

The owner of the vineyard stands for God.  The laborers are all of us.  God keeps looking for more laborers all through the day.  Some of us came to the vineyard early.  Or rather, we were brought to baptism as infants and grew up and were confirmed in the Faith and never abandoned it.  Others, though baptized, never really appropriated the Faith until later in life.  They were baptized but not evangelized.  Still others sought baptism as adults or even as old folks at the verge of death, coming to belief literally only at the last.  I think of an old uncle of mine, long gone, Uncle Lawrence, Zio Laurienz’.  He went to church three times in his life, and twice they had to carry him in, for his baptism and his funeral, and in between for his wedding, at age 14!  He was a skeptic and a cynic; he mocked the Church and the priests and all of us faithful who supported them.  But at the last I pray that he held his hand out to Jesus, as Peter did when he was sinking, and asked for mercy.  Did he get it?  Let us hope so.

"Seek the Lord while he may be found,” Isaiah warns.   While he may be found!  We must not presume.

"He is near to all who call upon him,” sings our Psalm.  “He is kind and merciful… compassionate to all his works… near to all who call upon him.”

Paul was touched by God mightily on the Road to Damascus, thrown from his horse.  Then he was so filled with energy and enthusiasm for the Faith that he, more than any of the other Apostles, spread the Faith throughout the Mediterranean world.  And yet he so yearned for the kingdom that he could write, “I long to be freed from this life and to be with Christ… . Yet it is more important that I live for your sakes.  Conduct yourselves, then, in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” 

In today’s parable all the workers get the same wage no matter how long they worked.  This is a metaphor for entrance into God’s kingdom.  Is that fair?  In God’s economy it is!  Where would any of us be if God treated us as we deserve?  Would any of us be jealous or complain if we, who have born the heat of the day, faithful all our lives, were to find Uncle Lawrence at the Lord’s banquet table in heaven?  I’d be overjoyed to see the old rascal!  So we pray for our dead, that at the last they held out their hand to the Lord.  We can pray now for them then because with God there is no time. 

There is one startling sentence in this reading that deserves a closer look.  “I am free to do as I please with my money, am I not?” says the master of the vineyard.   No, my friends, he is not.  Remember this is a parable, a metaphorical teaching device.  Jesus was not giving a lesson in social justice in this story but a lesson in the infinite mercy of God.  But it poses an important question.  I have heard it said many times, “It’s my money.   I earned it by my own hard work.  I can do with it what I please!  Can’t  I?”

You can, brother, yes you certainly can, but you may not!  Not if you wish to conduct yourself in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.  Catholic Social Teaching for over one hundred and ten years has been strong and clear on this.  On the one hand, all God’s creation is meant for the benefit of all God’s children.  On the other hand, the Church defends the right to private property.  That seems like a contradiction.  How are these principles to be harmonized?  By the principle of the common good.  We have a right to own property, not just our toothbrushes but productive property as well, our farms and factories and shops, most definitely, and we have a right to the fruits of our labor.  “Property is proper to man” (Peter Maurin).  But that right is not absolute.  It is limited by the requirements of the common good (cf. Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII, 1891).  As individuals we deal with balancing our rights and our needs with the rights and needs of others in the privacy of our own consciences.  As a community we determine tax law and regulations democratically, whether to have them and how much. 

One of the functions of government is the redistribution of wealth (cf. Mater et Magistra, Pope Paul John XXIII, 1961).  We’ve all played the board game Monopoly.  How many winners are there at the end?  One!  Unregulated capitalism results in money and power funneling up into fewer and fewer hands.  The game Monopoly was invented by a pious Quaker lady to teach that very lesson.  The problem with unregulated capitalism is that “ it doesn’t get enough capital to enough people” (G.K. Chesterton).   

A just, not to say a Christian society will not allow the defenseless to fend for themselves.  Twenty-five years ago, our bishops declared that all economic and social policy initiatives should take into account first their effect upon the most vulnerable among us, the poor, the young, the sick, the elderly and the unborn.  Not as an after-thought, but first and above all (cf. Economic Justice for All, USCC, 1986). 

God will not be outdone in generosity, and man will not be outdone in greed and selfishness, or so it would seem.  But then we see acts of self-sacrificing generosity as at the Twin Towers ten years ago and our hope is renewed in the Spirit, for still “the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods, with warm breast and with ah, bright wings.” (God’s Grandeur, Gerard Manley Hopkins).  He is near to all who call upon him.



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ed gleason
7 years 5 months ago
John you have posted this too many times' Government does not create wealth'
Eisenhower's interstate , Hoover dam. nuclear power, Railroads given by the Gov. every other square mile to build the transcontinental thus  opening up the wealth to all .
Walter; Solyntra failed but GE made it twenty to fifty times to the good. How would you feel as an American if we had no US car manufaturers.. as they say in baseball win some, lose some..  
7 years 6 months ago
You can only restribute wealth if it first exists. Government does not create wealth - it may facilitate it's creation with just and wise laws but in and of itself it does not create value.

This is why the USSR literally ran out of money during the arms race. If wealth was a creation of government printing presses or fiat commands, there would be no real-world problem with inflation, deflation, debt or deficits. That human history is full of economic crashes and subsequent socio-political collapses should help anyone realize this to be the case!

So if Government is to redistribute wealth, and it does not create this wealth in the first place, wouldn't it stand to reason that the nation with a growing private economy vs. size and scope of government is on the road to less poverty? Yes, yes it would!

And wouldn't it stand to reason that inasmuch as government increases as a percentage of any economy and the percentage of "poor people on life support" also grows that nation is headed for dark days ahead? yes, again, the math would agree.

On the other hand, if this is capitalist bs, then places where liberals run the show for decades and have total, monopoly control over government spending and regulation etc. would - one would assume - be utopias compared with places run by evil conservatives, right? Then again we have the USSR, Venezuela and Detroit to explain though.

So how to figure this out?

Well, let's define some terms shall we?

Capitalism is an economic system. Socialism is a system of government. They are not opposites. Capitalism needs a legal system and some sort of police so as to at a minimum enforce contract laws. Who makes the law and how doesn't really matter so Communist China or Fascist Italy could very well have functional capitalist economies with no contradiction.

But any time a person has power over others, be he a capitalist or a communist, a CEO or a Church person, the chance of abuse of power becomes possible. This is why what works on paper in theory doesn't always translate well in practice!

The solution to abuse of power is not to abolish power but to find a way to spread it around. But what happens when some company causes a problem? Cat calls are raised for GOVERNMENT oversight. As though giving other people more power will magically make the lower order safer and the higher order somehow magically impeccable!

No, the solution to capitalist abuse is not more law, it's more competition! The solution to government abuse is not bigger government but "wider" government. Checks and balances, subsidiarity.

Don't conflate economy with the law. Don't confuse regulation with wealth creation (it doesn't automatically help the poor to heap regulatory compliance costs onto private enterprise)!

It makes no sense to assume private enterprise is always prone to evil (and thus in constant need of regulatory oversight) while not also assuming that government too is always prone to evil mischief!

It makes no moral sense to show outrage over some private enterprise spate of corruption and abuse - with the go-to solution being more government, but then turn a complete blind eye to vast swaths of our world under total government control which suffer far worse outrages and abuse at the hands not of capitalists but of bureaucrats. Chicago and Detroit come to mind.

Before you sneer at us conservatives you'd better do your homework. You don't get to claim moral credit for being generous or lovers of the poor if you are "in favor" of other people spending their money! You only get moral credit if you spend your own!

Beth Cioffoletti
7 years 6 months ago
"One of the functions of government is the redistribution of wealth (cf. Mater et Magistra, Pope Paul John XXIII, 1961)."

C Walter Mattingly
7 years 6 months ago
@ William Taylor,
It may strike you as counter-intuitive, but as the prominent liberal humanitarian summarizes in "Bleeding Heart Tightwads," NYTimes, 12/08, it is those conservatives in your church who give their money and blood donations to the needy, not the liberals who may nod along here. In 2005 Dick Chaney gave 2/3 of his income, $6 million dollars, to charitable causes, while Joe Biden gave $367 according to their tax returns. (Some talk the talk, others walk the walk.)  What consevatives tend not to want is the government "investing" half a billion in a Solyntra or buying $16 cupcakes with their monies. They've seen enough of that.
Bill Taylor
7 years 6 months ago
Wonderful, and this sermon took a lot of courage.  As a priest, I can imagine myself preaching this way and all over the church are the folded arms and scowls of all those conservatives in the midst of the flock.   Next come the letters of protest to pertinent authorities. 


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