Sunday, November 12, 2006

Schindler's List and the Law of the Gift

(32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time-Year B;This homily was given 11 & 12 November, 2006, at Our Lady of Mercy, East Greenwich, R.I.; read 1 Kings 17:10-16 and Mark 12:41-44)

It is perhaps the most beautiful and profound statement of the entire Second Vatican Council. It would later become one of the major themes of the life and pontificate of John Paul the Great; and it provides the only context that allows us to understand the radical generosity we find in the first reading and in the Gospel this morning.

It is called the “Law of the Gift” and it is found in Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes:

“Man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”
—Gaudium et Spes, #24

Describing how God is a Trinity of persons, each of them giving themselves to the other in love from all eternity, Gaudium et Spes went on to proclaim how we—made in that very same image and likeness—are created for love and to give ourselves away in love. By nature, we are creatures who are fulfilled only by giving to others: our families, those around us, and most especially, God Himself.

“Man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”

We discover the “Law of the Gift” in the first reading this weekend, in that widow from Zarephath. Far from sitting down with her son to starve to death (as she laments to the prophet Elijah), she gives generously everything she has and instead continues not only to live, but the thrive and flourish. She has life abundantly, because she gave with great abundance to the man of God, Elijah.

The widow in the Gospel, who “contributed all she had” (Mark 12:44), is held up by Christ as the very icon of generosity and faithfulness.

And if we take a moment to consider this Veteran’s Day Weekend, and all the men and women who served and continue to serve our country so faithfully, we discover that they, too, live by the “Law of the Gift.” We honor and remember them today, not because of what they kept for themselves or what they accomplished for themselves, but for what they gave to obtain the freedoms we celebrate and enjoy today.

“Man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”

You may have seen the movie, Schindler’s List, which tells the remarkable and true story of Oscar Schindler. Born in Czechoslovakia, as a young man Schindler followed the coattails of the German army into occupied Poland at the start of the Second World War. He quickly enmeshed himself in the ranks of the Nazi party, not because he espoused their ideals or wanted to follow their way of life, but because he saw a tremendous opportunity to make an awful lot of money.

He was placed in charge of a factory located about 60 kilometers from Auschwitz, where he “employed” over a thousand Jews. Basically, it was slave labor; he had to pay them next to nothing and he hardly fed them anything. He made a mint in that place.

Yet, somewhere in the middle of the war Schindler began to realize the absolute brutality of the Nazis, that they had no intention of merely holding the Jews captive or exploiting them. Their “master plan” was to simply exterminate them, every Jewish man, woman, and child. That shocked Oscar Schindler into reality.

He began to use his influence and contacts in the Nazi party, as well as his money, to save the lives of the very people he had exploited. It was dangerous business, entailing that he risk not only his resources and his name, but also his very life.

Twice Oscar Schindler was arrested under suspicion that he was working to save Jews. Both times his influence, and his money, got him out of it. Each time he immediately returned to that factory and continued what he had been doing: literally buying time, and buying Jewish people from the Nazis.

If you have seen the movie then you remember the haunting final scene, when the war ends and Schindler takes account of the whole ordeal. He gets out of his car, along with his friend, Stern. The factory and all the workers are off in the background. He turns to his friend and he says:

“I could've got more. I could've got more, if I'd just...I could've got more...”

His friend says, “Oscar, there are eleven hundred people who are alive because of you. Look at them.”

But Oscar Schindler won’t hear a word of it. He continues:

“If I'd made more money...I threw away so much money, you have no idea. If I'd just ...I didn't do enough.”

His friend continues to argue, in vain, as Schindler begins to look around him at the car they drove up in. “This car,” he says. “Why did I keep the car? Ten people, right there. Ten people, ten more people.”

He rips a swastika pin from his lapel, and says, “This pin, two people. This is gold. Two more people…At least one. One more. One more person. A person, Stern. For this. I could've gotten one more person and I didn't. I didn’t...”

Of course, no one would fault Oscar Schindler for keeping his car or a gold pin. But the point is, he convicts himself. He is himself convinced that he could have and should have given more. He was aware of the “Law of the Gift,” that we are made to give ourselves completely to others, to God. He had come to understand that “Man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”

In the New Testament, in the Acts of the Apostles, there is a compelling and rather disturbing story about a married couple named Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11). It occurs at the very foundations of the early Church, when many were selling off their lands and property and laying the money at the Apostles’ feet.

Now, nobody was under an obligation to do that. Nevertheless, many willingly gave all they had to benefit the work of the Gospel. Ananias and Sapphira had sold their property, and they, too, chose to bring their money to the Church. But they decided to keep some of it for themselves, and simply tell the others that they had given all.

St. Peter confronts Ananias and explains how the money was his, before and after he sold his property. He could have done anything he wanted with it. But what he chose to do was lie, and for what? St. Peter says to him, “You have lied not to men, but to God” (Acts 5:4). At that, Ananias drops dead!

A few hours later, his wife Sapphira comes before St. Peter, completely unaware of what just happened. He asks her about the amount, and she confirms that her and her husband have given over the whole thing. St. Peter replies: “The footsteps of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out” (Acts 5:9). And then she drops dead! Again, a very disturbing story.

Yet that scene is displayed, in living color, near a side altar, in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. A friend of mine gives tours of St. Peter’s, and one day he was doing that very thing and explaining what is called “The Altar of the Lie.” A woman in the group seemed a bit upset, and asked,

“Why on earth would the Church include that scene in a mosaic for this basilica? Of all the beautiful scenes in the Acts of the Apostles or the rest of the New Testament, why that one?”

My friend didn’t miss a beat, but simply responded that the reason for that scene in this church was because of its location. He motioned to a doorway across from the “Altar of the Lie,” and said:

Those doors over there are the doors to the sacristy, where every priest—whether he be newly ordained or a cardinal of the Church—gets ready for Mass. And every priest who comes out of that sacristy door, no matter which altar he is heading to, must first look at that scene of Ananias and Sapphira before he celebrates the most sacred mystery of our faith. And he must ask himself: ‘Have I given everything? Have I given everything, like I said I would on the day of my ordination, or have I held something back from God, or from the people of God.’

Each one of us, whether priest or not, must ask that same question before we approach the Eucharistic table this morning. Not because God will strike us down, like Ananias and Sapphira; and not because God is greedy and wants to take from us the very things we are reluctant to give.

But because we are created to give completely of ourselves and we will not be fulfilled nor complete until we do so; like the Trinity, three Persons eternally giving themselves to each other in love, we are made to give ourselves completely away, to our families, to the people around us, and to God Himself. Might we look into our hearts and into our lives this day, and simply give everything—our will, our desire, all that we can muster—because “Man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”