Friday, July 24, 2020

What the? The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost and Its Collect

"Parable of the Unjust Steward" by Marinus van Reymerswaele

Lost in Translation #9
   Each year, the Gospel for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost hits me like a slap in the face and makes want to say at the end of its proclamation "What the?" instead of Laus tibi Christe (Kudos to the ancient architects of the Roman liturgy for including one of the "hard sayings" of the Gospels.) The Gospel is perplexing because it appears to approve the injustice of a corrupt employee. The master in the Parable of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16:1-9) praises his assistant as one worldling admiring the clever maneuvering of another; our Lord, on the other hand, commends the man’s foresight in providing for his future. It is also possible that by reducing the amount which his master’s debtors owed, the unjust steward took out his own unjustly added commission and thereby became, in his actions if not his intentions, more just.
   Christ’s command in the Gospel to “make yourself friends with the mammon of iniquity” is not a call to worldly compromise but an admonition to use riches and so on in such a way that we are worthy of eternal life, fit to be received into our Father’s everlasting dwellings. For as St. Paul explains in this Sunday's Epistle (Rom. 8:12-17), we are to live not by the light of temporal goods but according to the Spirit, mortifying the deeds of the flesh.
It is in light of these readings that the Collect seems almost ironic:
Largíre nobis, quǽsumus, Dómine, semper spíritum cogitándi quæ recta sunt, propítius et agéndi: ut, qui sine te esse non póssumus, secúndum te vívere valeámus. Per Dóminum.
Which I translate as:
Graciously grant to us, O Lord, we beseech Thee, the spirit to think and do always the things that are right; that we who cannot be without Thee may be able to live according to Thee. Through our Lord.
I say "almost" because there is no contradiction between the Collect and the biblical readings. Indeed, the Collect functions as a hermeneutic or lens by which to interpret them. Of course God wants us always to think and do what is right, but that does not mean carrying on like babes in the woods or deer in the headlights. Rather, as Our Lord says elsewhere, "Be as prudent as serpents and as innocent as doves" (Matthew 10:16). In Theology for Beginners Frank Sheed observes that "prudence" is often misconstrued as timidity or playing it safe, but it simply means the virtue of  seeing "the world as it actually is and our relation to it as it should be" (136). There are therefore circumstances in which it is prudent to be subtle and clever, and there are circumstances in which it is prudent to be martyred, for as Sheed points out, "there is no gain in avoiding martyrdom at the loss of one's eternal soul" (136). Live, then, prudently, like St. Thomas More. It is a good lesson to keep in mind at all times but especially in an age such as ours.
But the Collect is even more specific than that: it does not ask for the ability to think and do what is right but for the spirit to think and do what is right. The petition ties into the Epistle's call to live according to the Holy Spirit, who makes us the adopted children of God, transposing us into a supernatural state of intimacy with, and participation in, our Maker; it also reminds us of a spirit world of good and evil. During Rogationtide and other litanies we pray for deliverance from the "spirit of fornication"; here we pray for the infusion of a better spirit. "Spirit" is breath, and we want to be filled with and breathe the good in order to think it and do it.
Finally, the petition for the spirit to think and do what is right is subordinate to the main request of the prayer: to be able to live according to God. What a wonderful life that would be. The verb used for "to be able" is valeo/valere, which also means to "have the strength to do" (Vale, for example, means "Wax strong" or "Fare well" in Latin and is used to say goodbye). We want God to infuse a spirit of right thinking and right action not for its own sake but to have the strength to live in total conformity with His will, which we cannot muster on our own. For if we can't exist without God, we certainly can't live consistently as a perfect reflection of His will without Him.

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