Monday, September 23, 2013

The Virtuous Christian

          This weekend I was able to preach on one of my favorite topics: virtue.  Virtue is about achieving excellence and overcoming mediocrity, which leads to becoming the best version of yourself (that is, the version of yourself that God made you to be).  Hopefully this will inspire some of you to rededicate yourselves to pursuing virtue, which is what inspired Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati to regularly exclaim, Verso l'alto!


Homily: 25th Sunday of Ordinary Time – Cycle C
          In the film Oceans 11, a gangster by the name of Danny Ocean rounds up a gang of associates to stage robberies of three major Las Vegas casino's simultaneously during a popular boxing event.  Whether you’ve seen the original 1960 version or the more recent 2001 version, you’ll know that, at the end, we’re all left to feel like Mr. Ocean and his gang of associates are heroes, even though they just succeeded in committing a major crime.  And why is that?  I would argue that, in a sense, we’re acknowledging the virtue that was needed to accomplish such a complicated and daring feat.  Mr. Ocean and his gang needed prudence and wisdom in order to plan the heist for success; and they needed courage and temperance during the heist in order to pull it off.  So I would argue that what we commend at the end of the film is not the robberies themselves (hopefully, we all disapprove of any act against the seventh commandment), but rather the virtues that enabled them to pull it off.
          The problem, however, with this situation is that these virtues were used to do something morally reprehensible.  Therefore, instead of being true virtues, they are rather false virtues.  Virtue comes from the Latin word virtus, which means “power”.  Thus a virtue is a power to do something.  But if God has given us a power, then he intended it to be used for good: that is, for the building up of the common good of mankind.  Therefore, if the power of prudence (which is the power to know the right thing to do in a given situation) is used, for example, to take advantage of an elderly lady and swindle her out of her income, then it is an evil use of a good power.  Thus, while it is still a virtue, in this case it is a false virtue.  The true virtue of prudence would be to use this power to help the elderly woman manage her income so as to ensure that she will always be secure, financially.
          In our Gospel reading today, Luke records another one of Jesus’ parables.  This one, however, ought to strike us as odd.  In most of Jesus’ parables involving a master and a servant, the master commends the servant for doing the right things and punishes the servant when he has failed to live up to expectations.  In this parable, however, although we see the master getting ready to punish his steward for mismanaging his property, we then see the master commending the dishonest acts of the steward who seems to be acting for nobody else’s good but his own.  And Jesus, for his part, seems to give the master credit for doing that!  So what is this all about?
          Well, it seems like Jesus can recognize virtue in unvirtuous behavior just as much as any of us can.  For what Jesus is commending is the steward’s prudence—his shrewdness with his master’s debtors so as to garner favors for himself after he has been removed from his position as a steward.  This, of course, is false prudence, but what Jesus seems to be saying is that even false virtue is better than no virtue at all!  For he says, “make friends for yourselves with dishonest wealth, so that when it fails you will be welcomed into eternal dwellings.”  What he seems to be saying here is “Go learn virtue, even if for the time being it’s false virtue, because eventually that dishonest enterprise will fail; but you will have learned virtue and, thus, you will be ready to embrace true virtue, which will lead you to eternal dwellings.”  And why does he say this?  Well, because he saw a complete lack of virtue—false or true—among the “Children of Israel”, whom God had chosen for eternal dwellings.  For he said: “the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”
          So let’s say that we brought this up to the current day.  If Jesus appeared here before us and looked at the current state of our society, what do you think he would say?  Probably we wouldn’t want to think this way, but perhaps he would commend our politicians, because even though for the most part they seem like lousy stewards of the responsibilities given to them, at least they are prudent in their dealings.  To them, perhaps, he would even give commendations, because, even though their virtue is false, they at least are showing virtue!
          What, then, could he say about us?  Do we truly practice what we preach?  You know, virtue is not just the absence of doing something wrong, but rather it is the presence of doing something good.  And so, just the fact that we have not committed any sins is not enough to be a virtuous Christian.  Rather, we must also act out of our convictions—in other words, we must do good—in order to acquire virtue.  Thus, to despise the world completely and to cut ourselves off from it—saying “I’ll just stay at home and say my prayers and come to church every week and that will be enough”—is false piety, that is, false virtue (but, at least it’s virtue!).  Of course, the opposite is also true.  To say “I come to church and say my prayers and so whatever else that I do doesn’t really matter” is not only not true, but it is completely unvirtuous and it reveals a heart that is divided trying to serve both God and mammon.  My brothers and sisters, if the Gospel doesn’t seem to have influence in today’s world it’s not because of any fault in the Gospel; but rather it is because, as Jesus observed, “the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light.”
          “Ok, Father,” I can already hear you saying, “perhaps I have been lacking in virtue and have allowed myself to become divided trying to serve both God and mammon.  So where do I begin?”  Well, why not start with Saint Paul’s exhortation that we heard in today’s second reading?  He says, “I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority…”  Perhaps instead of complaining about our politicians, what if we prayed for them?  When they seem to be lousy stewards of the responsibility that we’ve entrusted to them, let’s offer up supplications to God on their behalf.  And when they do something truly virtuous, let’s offer up thanksgivings that God’s grace has worked in and through them.  For Jesus says, “The person who is trustworthy in very small matters, is also trustworthy in great ones.”  Thus, if we show prudence in this small matter, then God will reveal to us even greater things that he will entrust to us: positive things that will have an even greater impact on our families, our communities, and on our society as a whole.
          Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said, “Not all of us can do great things, but we can do small things with great love.”  “Small things done with great love.”  I like this as a definition of true virtue.  My brothers and sisters, any move towards virtue is a good one.  Therefore, let us commit ourselves again today to serving God alone by striving to do all of those little things that make up our days with great love.  In doing so we will make ourselves virtuous, and thus ready, so that when everything else in the world fails we too, like Mother Teresa and all of the Saints who have gone before us, will be “welcomed into eternal dwellings.”

Given at All Saints Parish – Logansport, IN: September 21st & 22nd, 2013

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