Sunday, September 19, 2010

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time

How do you react in a crisis?
When you find yourself at a crossroads
and are confronted with events
that threaten to turn your life upside down,
what do you do?
Where do you find the resources to know how to act?

In today’s gospel Jesus tells the story of a man who is faced with a crisis
that many people today are also faced with: the impending loss of his job.
Of course, in his case he is about to lose his job
not because of an economic downturn
but because he has been squandering his employer’s money.
But what is important is that he doesn’t panic but rather, true to form,
sets about securing a golden parachute for himself.
He does this by, as it were, cooking the books to help out those
who are in debt to his employer,
so that when he is turned out on the street
they will all owe him a favor
that he can cash in.
Funny enough, by means of this craftiness,
he earns the admiration of his employer,
who is probably none too honest himself.
The rich man praises his dishonest employee for his prudence;
the Greek word is phronesis,
which is the name the philosopher Aristotle gives
to the disposition of the mind
by which we know how to act in a particular situation
so as to achieve a fulfilling life.
And in this case, the dishonest employee certain shows phronesis,
particularly given that his own understanding of “fulfillment”
seems bound up with having material possessions.
Indeed, he does not hesitate;
it is as if he had been preparing for this crisis his whole life,
and he knows exactly how to respond.

Earlier this week, the Church offered for our consideration
the story of another man facing a crisis.
Last Thursday was the feast of St. Cyprian of Carthage,
who was a bishop in North Africa in the third century AD.
Cyprian had guided his flock
through a period of severe persecution under the emperor Valerian
until the time came when he too was arrested
and put on trial for being a Christian.
At his trial the Roman governor of the province told him
that if he would perform a ritual sacrifice to the emperor,
signifying his renunciation of the Christian faith,
his life would be spared.
Cyprian responded, “I will not do so.”
The governor said, “Consider your position,”
to which Cyprian replied,
“In such a just cause there is no need for deliberation.”
The governor then decreed that Cyprian would be executed,
as an example to other Christians,
to dissuade them from resisting the emperor’s decree.
So the sentence was carried out.
Like the dishonest employee in Jesus’ parable,
Cyprian too does not hesitate;
it is as if he had been preparing for this crisis his whole life,
and he knows exactly how to respond.

What makes us capable of responding in a crisis,
and what determines how we respond?
How do we acquire prudence or phronesis?
Jesus says,
“The person who is trustworthy” –
the Greek word is actually pistos or “faithful” –
“in very small matters
is also trustworthy in great ones;
and the person who is dishonest in very small matters
is also dishonest in great ones.”
In other words, we prepare for great moments of crisis
by means of the little choices we make each and every day,
the choices that form our character,
that make us the people that we are.

The dishonest employee in the parable
spent his life being dishonest in small matters,
and when the moment of great crisis comes,
he is dishonest then as well.
St. Cyprian spent his life seeking God’s grace to be faithful
and when the moment of great crisis comes, he is faithful to the end,
boldly professing Christ even in the face of death.
This single moment of boldness
grew out of a multitude of small acts of love,
thousands of brief prayers for grace and assistance,
hundreds of occasions when he gathered with God’s people at Christ’s altar
to be strengthened by the Eucharist.
These are perhaps small matters, taken singly,
but they were for Cyprian
what prepared him for the decisive moment
in which he would witness to Christ at the cost of his life.

The Roman governor said Cyprian would be executed
as an example to others.
As sometimes happens, he spoke better than he knew,
for he meant that Cyprian’s death would be a warning to other Christians,
but instead, Cyprian became for them an example
of a truly fulfilling life: a life of faith.
He became an example of how being faithful in small matters
can lead to faithfulness in those moments
when everything in our lives comes together as if at a crossroads,
a moment of crisis.

It is not so different with us here today.
Many people in this parish have had to face moments of crisis,
when everything comes together as at a crossroads:
the death of someone they love,
the loss of a job or a home,
the painful ending of a relationship,
the realization that they or someone they love suffers from an addiction,
moments of doubt about themselves and even about God.
And I have seen them respond
with a faith and a resilience that is astonishing.
Of course, in the end all of this is a matter of the sheer grace of God,
freely given to us out of love.
But this is not a grace that is suddenly dumped on us in that moment of crisis,
but a grace that works its way into our hearts and minds
over the course of a lifetime,
as we have sought to be faithful and hopeful and loving in small matters.
So let us pray for the grace to live our lives in such a way
that when the decisive moment comes,
and it seems as though the meaning of our entire life
hangs on how we respond,
we will be able to speak and act in a way
that shows us to be who we have become:
faithful disciples of Jesus, who live by his Spirit.