Way back in ancient history, 1964, Malcolm X gave a speech where he said that every human being deserved to be respected, that every human being had inalienable rights and that people had the obligation to secure those rights “by any means necessary.” While this caused no end of anxiety in certain sectors of society I suspect that the steward in today’s gospel would approve of that sentiment. He was going to make sure that he found a soft landing spot after he lost his job by any means necessary, even if a bit shady. And the fact that Jesus praised the dishonest steward says that he is suggesting that the ones he called “the children of light” should pursue their goals by any means necessary as well.
What are those goals? St. Paul describes them in the epistle for today: “To come to the knowledge of the truth: there is one God and one mediator between God and the world, the man Christ Jesus.” If that is our goal we’re not doing very well with it. As recently as 1990 almost 90% of Americans said they were Christian. Today, thirty or so years later, that figure is about 64% and since most of the leakage is from the younger cohort demographers project that, unless there is a dramatic awakening, in the next generation Christianity will be a minority religion in the US. What are the “any means necessary” to reverse this trend? A look at history shows varied ways that the truth of God and Jesus has been spread. In the earliest Church the martyrs witnessed to the faith by giving their lives for what they believed. In the age of the missionaries the kings would be converted and they would bring their people along with them into the faith as sort of a national religion. During the Crusader period Christianity was imposed on people by force of arms. As the centuries marched on to make sure that everyone believed the right thing the Inquisition created a judicial structure to demand a strict adherence to Church authority. Once we moved into modernity education was seen as the key to spreading the faith and the vast parochial school system was set up. Today there are TV evangelists, megachurches, podcasts and blogs spreading the word. Quite literally, over the centuries the Church has tried as many means necessary as it could think of to fulfill its mission. But here we are. Since we aren’t having much success today, what do we do now?
St. Paul, a little further on in the epistle, gives his suggestion on what would be the most effective means to help people come to a knowledge of the truth; “That in every place the men and women should pray, lifting up holy hands, without anger or argument.” After trying all those other means why not give prayer a try as the best way to bring God into the world. What a concept! But the Apostle puts two conditions on the kind of prayer that would be effective. It requires “lifting up holy hands” and it should be carried out “without anger or argument.” What would that look like? Do you ever think of yourself as having “holy hands?” Check them out – some hands are callused and others soft; some are strong and some are arthritic; some are young and supple and others are blotchy and wrinkled; some are black and some are white. Hands can caress and they can smack, Hands can open a jar and hands can slam a door. Hands can write a love letter or make a rude gesture. What does it mean to have holy hands?
St. Paul asks us to look at our hands as a reminder that the first person we need to attend to in sharing the faith is ourselves. Instead of worrying about what is going on out there, we are to address what is going on in here. Our prayer cannot be merely about them changing, it is also about us changing. What do we have to do so that our hands can be holy when they are held aloft in prayer? Are we committed to the truth? Do we trample upon the needy, as Amos warns against? Do we try to serve two masters, as Jesus cautions about? If so, our prayers won’t have their desired effect. It’s always easier to demand that someone else make a change than to make the necessary changes in one’s own life. There’s a “Peanuts” cartoon where Charley Brown says to Lucy, “It’s a good thing people are different. Wouldn’t it be terrible if everybody agreed on everything.” To which Lucy responds, “Why? If everybody agreed with ME, they’d all be right!” We’ll only have holy hands after we have gone through our own conversion to live in a way which is “good and pleasing to God” as St. Paul puts it.
The epistle continues: the necessary means to transform the world is to lift up holy hands in prayer without anger or argument. That seems a tall order in the world today. Certainly on the national stage there is plenty of anger and argument, particularly in this election season. That is why St. Paul urges us to pray for those in authority. Even in the Church there is anger and argument: closing churches, Latin Mass, women’s roles, clericalism, politicians receiving communion. If we are going to find our way through anger and argument we need to learn to trust that God’s plan is better than my idea. We overcome anger and argument when we trust in Jesus shared a human life so that we might live a divine life. We overcome anger and argument when we trust that being the one body of Christ is more important than any disagreement or difficulty we might have. We overcome anger and argument when we trust that every individual, even the least of the brethren, bears the face of Jesus. The bottom line: pray by any means necessary and let’s see what God can do.