Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Reflection for September 4, 2011

God would never make it as a CPA.

At the end of James Joyce’s short story “Grace” a congregation of Dublin gentlemen has gathered in the Jesuit Church in Gardiner Street to attend a retreat service led by an imposing preacher named Fr. Purdon. The men were mostly dressed in black, relieved here and there by tweeds. They included mostly commercial people, city clerks, moneylenders, even the owner of three pawnbroker shops – men of business (some with alcohol problems). The text chosen by the preacher was Luke 16:8: For the children of this world are wiser in their generation than the children of light. Wherefore make unto yourselves friends out of the Mammon of iniquity.

The preacher went on to say that this text was a text for business and professional men – like his congregation. He said he was there in the pulpit for no terrifying purpose (he wasn’t there to scare them into virtue) but as a man of the world, familiar with money, speaking to his fellow men. And so, even as they believed in tallying and verifying their accounts in every point, so they should rectify their accounts in this and that, balance discrepancies and come out even with God. (A celestial version of the Income Tax?)

That’s a smart way of getting through to commercial fellows; it talks their language. But if accountability is Fr. Purdon’s take on the Gospel, it doesn’t quite measure up to God’s way with us in September’s Gospel readings. There we hear Peter ask, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive? As many as seven times?” And Jesus answers, “Not seven times but seventy-seven times.”

He then tells of a king who wrote off a cheating servant’s debt out of compassion only to hear that this same servant squeezed the last drachma out of a person indebted to him. Rigid accounting despite experienced generosity! “All right,” says the king. “If you insist on a strict quid pro quo way of life, you shall henceforth live under the torture of a relentlessly quid pro quo concept of God – a creed without grace, compassion, forgiveness.

Then there’s that other parable in which a landowner hires early birds at $10 dollars an hour. In the course of the day he hires others at noon, three, five . . . When eleven hours are up he pays the early birds their $110 but grants a full day’s pay to the latecomers as well. That’s bad accounting. In a world of exact accounting some get more and others get less – which helps maintain the caste systems of history. But all the parable tries to do is introduce largesse, magnanimity into our world – making it more human, more divine. Of course we say such largesse is excessive, disruptive of an orderly commercial life – except when it’s you and me – when it comes to moral discrepancies – who need, who welcome such graciousness.

So again, would God pass a course in accounting? He’d probably be expelled – as in fact he so often is in our world of relentless, impersonal (yet often ineffective) quid pro quo accounting, a world always preoccupied with debt, ignorant of grace.