Ten business men once invited me to spend a few hours with them – the invitation said, “to talk about life.” That wasn’t much of a clue, so I had really no idea of what to expect or what they expected of me. I knew from the names in the margin of their letter that they were persons of substantial wealth, men who possessed the power of money and good connections.
One of them began by expressing the basic values of his life – what suffering and failure had done in the development of his own character and outlook on life; how love and family were the greatest of his treasures; and so forth. He said, “You know, don’t you, that it wasn’t the poor people who jumped to their deaths during the Great Depression? It was the rich, who were afraid of losing what they had, of course. The poor had each other, and they could be happy with very little in the way of material possessions.” I remarked that I had just read in the newspapers about a railroad magnate who committed suicide when his personal fortune dwindled to a mere two million dollars – which might, I believe, be translated to 10 or more million today.
Another of these business men told of his mother, who had worked in a factory until she was 79 years old, a long-time widow whose hard labor made possible her children’s education and good careers while relieving them of the burden of caring for her at a time when that would have been very difficult for them. There were many other stories, personal confessions, fond memories, of such a homely nature.
I began to wonder why the conversation had moved in that direction. No one was saying how much money he had made in sales or production or the stock market. In fact, my questions to a couple of them about how business was going were met with reluctant and short answers, as if they didn’t want to talk about that – not here, not now. Instead, they wanted to talk about their families, their roots, their faith in God, and the values they held as persons. I should have known that from the outset: they certainly wouldn’t have invited me to give them financial or business advice!
Maybe, I thought, it was because they and we are all aware of how we become tainted by the systems we are a part of. It isn’t only business people by any means: it’s physicians and lawyers and teachers and priests and politicians and truck drivers and sanitation workers – it’s all of us. The systems we live in and work in take on a life of their own, as if they were exempt from the law of God, the Creator of Planet Earth and the vast universe of which it is a part. They tend to go on and on with shameless autonomy whose only rationale is “This is the way it’s always been” or “Everybody’s doing it; why shouldn’t we?”
The system becomes so large and so powerful that it is virtually unaccountable to anyone and takes on the status of a god who will not be challenged. No one questions it. The members cover for each other in a conspiracy of silence.
It’s from that context that heroes eventually emerge, whistleblowers who stand up and say, “This is wrong! It’s immoral! It’s got to change. This is not the way God wants it to be.” That’s what the prophets were whom we hear from every Sunday. Most of them were humiliated and ridiculed and rejected; and some were killed – like Jesus.
Isaiah, in today’s first reading, has God saying, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not mine.” And doesn’t Jesus make that clear in his “That’s-not-fair!” story in today’s Gospel?
My businessmen friends were stepping out of the system for a short while that evening, trying to be their best selves and beyond, acknowledging what was good and honorable about their profession as well as what was corrupting, and proclaiming that they are, above all else, persons, God’s beloved creatures. It seemed to me that they were expressing a preference, a longing, for God’s way in every department of their lives, including business. We’d all do well to do the same.