25th Sunday in OT / C / 2019
Msgr. Patrick S. Brennan
I want to say a few words this morning about our 1st and 2nd readings—one from the Prophet Amos and one from St. Paul’s 1st Letter to Timothy. These readings sum up the Church’s attitude toward those in power.
Power, of course, is a fundamental theme in our society—who has it, and who doesn’t. Some of our view of power comes to us from the 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. I remember studying Nietzsche in college and being fascinated with his view that "power" is the fundamental reality in society—the "will to power" which was above any sort of morality or ethics. The ideal was the "superman," the Übermensch, who dominates the weak and whose only value is his own gain.
This Nietzschean perspective has found its way into our society—made popular by the novelist Ayn Rand—and all of us have a touch of it, sniffing out power and how we might achieve it and use it.
So what about the Bible? What is its attitude of the Bible toward power? The Bible would certainly not be sympathetic with the Nietzschean view of power. Yet, on the other hand, God is recognized as powerful. "Lord" and "King" are terms of power. In the Creed, we say we "believe in one God, the Father Almighty." The Bible reminds us that power, in itself, is not bad or evil—even power wielded by earthly rulers. The ideal is that earthly rulers participate in God’s righteous rule.
We find this in the second reading from Timothy: "First of all, I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life." Political power can be used for the good—in fact, we need power and authority to maintain order in society. A "quiet and tranquil life" comes from the rule of law.
Catholic social teaching does not condemn power—political power or economic power. Rather, it sees all power as a potential force for good.
Following WWII in Europe, many countries united church and state into political parties such as Christian Democrats, with the hope (at least at the beginning) that their political will was for the good of all. And we remember that there are many kings and queens who became saints! And don’t we, in the liturgy, in the Prayers of the Faithful, pray for our civil leaders. They need prayers!
So, having said that, there is a flip side, a dark side of power: power that is not used for good, that is "self-serving," power that is evil. The Bible is very much aware of the ways that power can be abused.
And this brings us back to the first reading from Amos—a kind of "patron saint" of social justice, a prophet who fought for the powerless.
The reading today begins: "Hear this, you who trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land!" Amos here speaks of unjust merchants who can’t wait until the religious festival is over so that they can get back to cheating the poor!
Do these things happen today? Yes, perhaps a little more sophisticatedly, but look at all of the trouble we have had with banks, large corporations, and Wall Street. Amos says, "We will buy the lowly for silver, and the poor for a pair of sandals." Power gone awry. The "will to power" of Nietzsche. The power that destroys.
Catholic Social teaching embraces power, but power that is constrained both by morality and the worship of a just God, who—how does Amos say it—"will never forget a thing they have done."
Use power for good, and your reward will be great.