Opportunism and Power

Douglas P. McManaman
Homily for Wednesday
20th Week in Ordinary Time
Memorial of the Queenship of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Reproduced with Permission

I always wonder what bishops think when they hear that first reading from Ezekiel: "Woe to the shepherds of Israel who have been pasturing themselves! Should not shepherds, rather, pasture sheep? You have fed off their milk, worn their wool, and slaughtered the fatlings, but the sheep you have not pastured. You did not strengthen the weak nor heal the sick nor bind up the injured. You did not bring back the strayed nor seek the lost, but you lorded it over them harshly and brutally….because my shepherds did not look after my sheep, but pastured themselves and did not pasture my sheep; because of this, shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: Thus says the Lord God: I swear I am coming against these shepherds" (34: 1-11). It is probably a good sign if it makes them nervous. That first reading is really about opportunism, and of course its relevance is not limited to bishops or religious leaders. The word "administrator" implies "ministering to", so this reading is directed to all administrators and ministers of state, at whatever level.

The more I learn about the world we live in, which includes the level of international politics, federal and municipal politics, as well as my own experience in education, I think I'd say that the fundamental problem in the world today is precisely this opportunism. People are very willing, when they get into certain positions of power, to compromise their conscience, all for the sake of their own livelihood. They're willing to do evil that good may come of it. I've witnessed this in education for the past decades where administrators, for the sake of their jobs, will go along with the silliest but latest fads in education, knowing as they do that such fads are contrary to common sense and will only set students back in the end, as many of these fads have done in the past thirty years - parents see it, teachers see it, but for some reason administrators do not, or will not permit themselves to. Many of them choose to go along with it because they want to be "team players", which really means they love their job, and in many cases they love that job more than they love the students. Senior administrators at the board level will push these things because there is an incentive from higher up, from the Ministry of Education. There's that word "ministry" again, which makes this reading very relevant.

This phenomenon exists at all levels of government. I know someone who has decided to relocate his family to another part of the country for the safety of his family; he was part of a municipal government in which council members and the mayor were accepting bribes from a company that was hired for those very kickbacks. The mayor of that town actually said to this person: "It's about time I got my palms greased". But this person objected to the corruption he was witnessing, and the result was that his family was actually threatened. Later on he discovered while driving that the lug nuts on his tires were removed and his tire was about to come off; it was a message to him to keep his mouth shut.

And of course corruption exists at the federal level as well, especially in Intelligence agencies, and the bank cartels, etc. There is so much going on that is hidden from our gaze, so much information we simply don't have, unless we really work to uncover it - and very few will make the effort.

I remember back to my university days when a priest once said: "Evil has no power, only the power that you give to it". I was struck by that, and of course it is true. The only reason there is evil in high places is that individual persons permit it, they go along with it, all because they love their short lives more than they love the good. There have been individuals in the military or in government who choose not to be "team players", and who pay the price for their decision, but there is always someone else willing to take their place and cooperate.

But the psalm says: The Lord is my Shepherd. And of course this is so true. Catholicism is really not about the Church, it's not about bishops or clergy; Catholicism is really about Christ. He is the good Shepherd, and the Shepherd is in control of his sheep. God alone is in control, not only of his sheep, but of the entire order of reality. That's the good news in this. He loves his sheep more than he loves his own life.

At the beginning of the summer I drove down to Cincinnati to visit my brother. On the way down, I kept thinking of the time when I was 17 years old, hitchhiking to Nashville, Tennessee, with a backpack, a tent, and a five string banjo. I got a lift in Columbus, Ohio, from Monsignor Tom Wells of the Archdiocese of Washington DC, who was on his way to a seminary in Kentucky. He was the turning point in my life, the reason I came back to the Church. But while driving down this summer, I kept thinking to myself: "God really is in control". How did I make it down there alive? I kept wondering. There is a God, I said to myself at one point. Even the highway, as you enter Columbus, is a very complicated network; how did I manage to stay on 71? It was a more frightening experience driving there this summer thinking about that time than it was when I was actually hitchhiking as a 17 year old. And of course neuroscience has an explanation for this: it's called not having a prefrontal cortex. Teenagers lack a prefrontal cortex; their brains are not fully wired; they have no sense of danger, which is why they take stupid risks all the time.

But God is in control, that much was clear. It was so clear to me this summer that back then I had no idea what I was doing, and yet every ride was providentially guided.

Christ is Shepherd, and his authority is shared with Mary, who is Queen, and so she has a great deal of power. It's wonderful to know that although great power is currently in the hands of people who misuse it to benefit themselves, unlimited power is in the hands of Jesus and Mary. And so there is nothing for us to fear. Those who are given over to corruption simply don't realize who they are up against. There's no doubt about it, we are at war, and only the most deluded in the Church can deny it. The victory, however, has already been won. You can't beat God in a game of chess, because he knows what move you are going to make, and He's known it from all eternity. So he cannot lose. This is what people given over to corruption fail to understand. Every move that is played by the enemy, even if it is a capture, only brings that victory closer to completion; every move made by the enemy only helps to bring about his own demise. The psalms mention that very point: "They dug a pit before me, but they fell in it themselves". Divine providence is really a marvelous thing.

But what is interesting about this gospel (Mt 20, 1-16) is that it really points out that even those in the vineyard of the Lord often fail to appreciate that God and his providence are beyond our ability to understand and predict. Those who were complaining at the end of the day ('These last ones worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us, who bore the day's burden and the heat') seemed to believe that God was subject to predictable patterns of behavior. But God turned out to be a big surprise; God is not subject to the laws of economics. Even the hearts of human beings are under the dominion of God, and so no one knows how things will end. The generosity of Christ is beyond our ability to conceive. All we know is that it will end well, that God's mercy will have the final word.