During my pop-philosophy years as a youngster, I happened to catch the “Longshoreman philosopher” Eric Hoffer on “60 Minutes.” Fascinated by his street wisdom I eventually got around to reading his book The True Believer where he wrote: “Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”
“Racket” can be an ugly word when applied to religion—though not always. I recalled his remark during a recent pilgrimage to Fatima and Lourdes.
This memory wasn’t stirred by the abundance of religious souvenir shops that crowd around the sites. I’m in favor of commerce as long as the money changers steer clear of basilica sanctuaries. (My main scruple is that the religious goods should be locally produced rather than imported from, say, China. So I bought my rosaries from a community of cloistered Carmelite sisters who pay their bills by selling their religious handiwork.) Indeed the souvenir shops at least provide something to show for our money, unlike some of those second collections at Mass. There are, after all, good rackets and bad rackets.
A reasonably benign racket came to my mind during the pilgrimage. It has to do with bargaining with God over His gifts, gifts that do not really last. At Lourdes I offered Our Lady a sweetheart deal—at least from my point of view. Having a chronic age-related physical infirmity I washed in the spring waters of Lourdes and made my pitch. At the moment, still no response. I’m coming up with another package to offer her. Sometimes Our Lady drives a hard bargain. The miracle racket can be tough.
Gospel accounts reveal that the Lord’s miracles had a limited spiritual effect on many around Him, even as they confirmed His power and authority as the Messiah. He healed the ten lepers but only one returned to render Him thanks. The Pharisees criticized Him for healing on the Sabbath. Several of those healed, of course, became His disciples.
But these miracles—like the miracles attributed to Our Lady of Lourdes and Fatima—had a limited shelf life. Even his good friend Lazarus, whom He raised from the dead, died a second time. Miracles are short-lived and can lead to an entitlement racket mentality if they become too easy to obtain. “And sighing deeply in spirit, he saith: Why doth this generation seek a sign? Amen, I say to you, a sign shall not be given to this generation” (Mark 8:12).
Furthermore, in a kind of lust for the extraordinary, we often overlook the everyday miracles of God. And like the nine ungrateful lepers we typically fail to acknowledge the handiwork of God. Years ago my sister (a nurse) noticed a spot on my ear and insisted, over my don’t-tell-me-what-to-do objections, that I have it checked out. Had the lesion not been removed– an easy and routine procedure– the doctor said I would have died within a year. Looking back, I think there were several “ordinary” miracles. Not only did my sister prevail over my obduracy, a competent doctor and his supporting medical infrastructure– all by the providence of God—were in place to work the necessary magic for the cure. So far I’m living happily ever after. (Thank you, Lord, for saving my life. Sorry I’m late.)
The Lord honors our freedom and refuses to force Himself on us. His miracles in the Gospel– as well as through the intercession of Our Lady at Lourdes and Fatima—are relatively “easy” because they were generally physical healings (although often in response to personal faith). But it wasn’t unusual for these mighty deeds to be met with ingratitude or an unworthy sense of entitlement or even hostility. And so we pray, expecting Jesus to be our personal kitchen magician, always granting our heart’s desires and feeling dejected when He doesn’t respond to our liking. "We played the pipe for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn” (Mt. 11:17).
The “wealthy man” Zacchaeus was in his own way a racketeer by trade. He was “a sinner,” to a large extent because of the easy corruption connected to his job as a “chief tax collector.” Nevertheless, he exuberantly sought the Lord through the crowds. In response to his enthusiasm Christ in turn pursues him (revealing his love for the eager hearts that seek Him): “’Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.’ And he came down quickly and received him with joy.” Henceforth Zacchaeus promises to give half of his possessions to the poor and to make fourfold restitution to those he defrauded. His corrupt tax racket was broken by his encounter with Christ and his eager response to a gracious Lord. But the chief tax collector did not depart empty-handed. Jesus cannot be outdone in generosity: “Today salvation has come to this house…” A true miracle of personal conversion with eternal consequences. Such a deal!
Other conversions in the Bible are similarly poignant. David writes the timeless hymn of repentance—Psalm 51, the Miserere—after Nathan calls him out for his adultery and murder. The Good Thief “steals heaven” from his cross by acknowledging his sins and recognizing the innocence of Christ at his side. After his threefold denial, Peter restores his good standing with the Lord by his threefold expression of love after the Resurrection.
A price cannot be affixed to the joy of conversion to Christ, nor the promise of eternal life. The joy and peace of soul that accompany reconciliation with God are gifts greater than life itself. If this be a religious racket, make the most of it.
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