We heard in the first reading,
Thus says the LORD:
Observe what is right, do what is just;
for my salvation is about to come,
my justice, about to be revealed. (Is 56:1)
Each year as school starts, I become very concerned for the students returning to school; it is a concern for their honor and virtue, for their faith and their souls. They will be faced with new temptations and challenges. My hope for them is that they will do as their faith instructs them, to “Observe what is right and do what is just.” But this concern is not just for the children, but also for their parents.
When I was a permanent deacon men would ask me a certain question with some frequency. When I was working with men’s groups in my parish they would ask me this same question. They knew that I was still working in my business career, like most of them, in the world, in the marketplace. I got similar questions from the men who worked with me.
This question is an important one: How do you combine your faith with your work in the world?
This question affects students as well as adult workers.
The assumption behind the question is that you must suspend your faith to be successful in the world, because business and religion don’t mix. There was a time when I believed that to be true.
As I matured in my faith I came to see the LIE in that assumption. It is not true. On the contrary, there will always be great demand in the world for men and women of honor, virtue, trust and courage, faithful people who live their faith openly. In fact, true progress requires faithfulness, honesty and integrity. Faithful, practicing Catholics will always be in demand.
With time and spiritual maturity I came to see the lie. Over time I learned to answer that question: First, I would ask, “Did you get paid last month? Did you cash the check?” Then, you are not owed another penny! In return for your pay, the company expects of you two things: 1) To do well the job they hired you to do; and 2) to be a faithful steward of company property and reputation. If you cashed your paycheck, then it’s up to you to be a faithful employee. Then, I would tell them, “So, STOP STEALING PAPER CLIPS!”
They would look at me strangely, so I would continue, “Don’t look at me that way. You know what I mean! When we cashed our paychecks all debts were paid. The company didn’t owe us another penny! Not even a paper clip! Or a personal Xerox copy; or pens and pencils; or paper or envelopes; or personal long distance phone calls. We are supposed to be trustworthy stewards of the employer’s resources; all of them.
If I couldn’t trust myself in the small things, how could the company trust me to be a good steward with large things? So, my challenge for myself, and everyone who asked that question was: “If it doesn’t belong to you, it’s not yours!”
That has become my personal standard.
One of God’s Ten Commandments is, “You shall not steal.” I decided a long time ago that it was useless to try to convince myself that taking little things like paperclips is not stealing. And, I began to realize that there is a huge demand in the world for good stewards, courageous youth and adults, men and women who are truly dependable and trustworthy.
It’s not that God is going to send me to Hell for stealing a paperclip. If I am to be condemned for breaking one of God’s commandments, it’s because I chose to break it! It doesn’t matter whether it was over paperclips. A wise Christian man or woman knows three things. First, only God knows how many days we have on earth, and we can’t add a single day with any amount of money. And, second, a wise person knows to share fairly his bounty with others who have less, and third, Eternal Life is promised for those who keep God’s Commandments.
In practice, becoming a Christian is a lot like learning a sport, like golf or baseball or tennis, or swimming or riding a bike. It takes practice and perseverance to build strong Christian habits, like never missing Sunday Mass! Or to stop stealing! Or lying! Being a Christian is a lifelong struggle to grow in personal discipline and learn good habits; and to stop bad habits. At first it is often difficult to change a habit. With time and perseverance, and with God’s help, we get better at the good habits, and overcome the bad ones.
We call good habits “virtues”, Christian virtues, like honesty, charity, chastity, faithfulness, respecting the property of others, loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. I decided that if I couldn’t keep God’s Commandments regarding paperclips, then I was on a really slippery slope, even a “hypocrite” for calling myself a Christian.
If stealing paperclips is not stealing, then at what point does taking something that is not mine become stealing? One dollar? One hundred dollars? I decided to draw the line with one simple definition as my personal standard, “It’s not mine.”
I have found peace in this personal standard. By holding myself accountable I began to see a number of other personal areas in which I could improve, like small lies, or cheating in small ways, or gossip. It’s all the same thing: It’s respect for what is true! Respect for others. I began to be better at discerning my own flaws like greed and dishonesty and gossip.
But there was one area of growth that surprised me. As I learned the discipline of not stealing paperclips, growth in generosity became easier.
We need to talk with our young people as they return to school. We need to prepare them to do as Isaiah, the Prophet wrote,
Observe what is right, do what is just….
Pray for the youth of our parish.
How did I learn to reconcile my Christian faith with my work in the business world? I stopped stealing paper clips! You know what I mean!