Joseph Wiesenfarth's Homily from September 1, 2013

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September 2013

Proverbs 25:6-7, Hebrews 13”1-8, 15-16, Luke 14:1, 7-14


If you don’t know the name Lee Child, you will not know the name Jack Reacher.  Child writes crime thrillers and Reacher appears in each of them.  Child came up with Reacher’s name in a supermarket when, as he tells it, “a little old lady approached me and said, ‘You’re a nice tall gentleman, so would you reach that can for me?’  My wife said to me, ‘If this writing thing doesn’t work out , you can always be a reacher in a supermarket.’  I thought, great name!  And I used it. . . .”  For a first name Child wanted something “blunt” and “straightforward” for his blunt straightforward character and came up with Jack.  His Jack Reacher is “six feet five inches tall, and around two hundred fifty pounds, all of it muscle.”

An Army brat educated at West Point, Reacher is a veteran of thirteen years in the military police, having spent the last five of them investigating homicides.  He retired at the rank of Major six months before we meet him in Child’s first novel, Killing Floor (1997).  He is not married, has no house, owns no car, has no credit cards, no driver’s license, no cell phone or computer; and he carries no gun. In today’s world—that is, in our world–he hardly qualifies as a person.  But he lives on his army pension, carries only cash, travels by bus or hitch-hikes to random destinations where he buys his clothes at thrift stores, wears them three or four days and then tosses them, keeping himself washed and clean mornings by stopping at motels as they are being tidied up and tipping a worker to allow him the use of a shower.  He often acts on the spur of the moment as when he asks the driver of a Greyhound bus going to Miami to stop at a road that leads to the town of Margrave, Georgia, because he hopes to find there the grave of Blind Blake, a country singer he admired.  Walking the fourteen miles from the highway to the town, he stops at the diner for breakfast when he is suddenly surrounded by armed police and arrested for murder.  He is, of course, innocent of any such crime, but knows how to investigate such a crime.

Now, you might quite rightly ask, what does Jack Reacher have to do with today’s readings from the Scriptures?  First, he’s doing what Proverbs suggest one do:  he’s not putting himself “forward in the presence of royalty” or standing “in the place of the great.”  Second, he is also doing what we read in the Letter to the Hebrews when he spends two days in prison and saves the life of another prisoner:  “Remember,” St. Paul says, “those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them.”  Reacher cares for the tortured and is himself tortured.  He obviously keeps his life “free from the love of money” and is “content with what” he has, as Paul advises we do.  And, finally, Reacher follows Jesus’ injunction to avoid choosing a place of honor.  Indeed, among the characters in the novel, he sits in “the lowest place” until he intuits the equivalent of “Friend, move up higher.”  But he wouldn’t be Jack Reacher if in the process of accepting this invitation he didn’t kill twelve people —if I count correctly—in defending his own life and the lives of others who are defenseless.  This, I think we must say, is rather more Old Testament than New.  Indeed, Jack Reacher ain’t a saint!

But who are those who are killed?  They are people in high places: those who, in Jesus’ words, “choose the places of honor.”  They are the mayor, the chief of police, their hired assassins, and a spate of corrupt police officers.  They are all involved in the nefarious affair of printing $400,000,000 in perfectly counterfeited $100 bills.  Some of these are used to make Margrave a spotless town in which they pay store owners by the week to stay in business and keep it that way.  Eventually, however, the warehouses that store the money are set ablaze in a fire that just about destroys the town.  A new Sodom or Gomorah, perhaps.  For money is the God of the counterfeiters; consequently, anyone who interferes with them is killed, and two are put to death by crucifixion.  Enough is never enough, whether it is money or brutality.

But we all know, do we not, that enough is never enough in other ways too.  Having three Steinway pianos, which he is incapable of playing, John Paulson, the founder of a hedge fund, recently bought the legendary Steinway Piano firm.  Why not have the honor of owning all the pianos and playing none of them?  Then there is American Airlines’ attempt to merge with U. S. Air to make the largest airline in the world and thereby cut down on the number of flights, downsize the space between seats, and raise prices for both flights and for checking baggage.  The Justice Department, having had enough of airline mergers and the decline of service and the increase in fares, at last, amazingly, said No.  Why amazingly?  Because the House Committee on Banking now has 61 members and some of them fought this executive action.  Both Republicans and Democrats want the banking money to support their reelection to the places of honor that governance gives them—to say nothing of the money they make once they retire.  But can you imagine a committee of 61 members ever getting anything useful done?  As a New York Times headline put it, “We’re All Still Hostages to Big Banks” (26 August 2013).

Now I am not suggesting that we need a Jack Reacher to come along and do away with these people as malefactors of a kind.  But I am suggesting that we might want to remember how Jack Reacher got his name.  The little old lady got the can on the higher shelf because her need was seen and satisfied.  It suggests, does it not, that we try to see what is needed by our sisters and brothers and lend them a helping hand in getting it, as Martin Luther King did so memorably fifty years ago.  If we do that with some regularity, we need not worry about the seat at the head of the table.  We can patiently wait till we hear the words that Jesus speaks in Luke’s gospel:  “Friend, move up higher.”

Prayer:  a paragraph from the third of Jane Austen’s three night prayers:

May thy mercy be extended over all mankind, bringing the ignorant to the knowledge of thy truth, awakening the impenitent, touching the hardened.  Look with compassion upon the afflicted of every condition, assuage the pangs of disease, comfort the broken in spirit.

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