Summary: Jesus says we must all choose between God and our stuff. Increasing our hoard or serving our Lord; getting more space or getting more grace. The choice is ours.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen. (Psalm 19:14)

Joseph Valachi was a gangster who worked for various crime bosses in the Mafia during the mid-20th Century. He handled mostly low-level criminal activity such as numbers rackets and gambling.

Valachi was eventually arrested for dealing heroin, along with his crime boss at the time, Vito Genovese. At one point during a argument in the cell they shared with four other mobsters, Genovese grabbed Valachi and kissed him on the cheek.

That action, in Mafia terms, is called “the kiss of death,” and indicates that a contract has been established for the death of the person kissed. I don’t know if the symbolism is deliberate, but it harkens back the image of Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane, identifying Jesus to the Temple guards by kissing him.

Valachi realized he was marked for death by anyone who wanted to collect the money for killing him. The contract on Valachi was $100,000 — quite a lot of money in the early 1960s.

Valachi had known about 50 millionaires in his mob family before going to prison. At a time when the average yearly salary was $8,000, minimum wage was $1 an hour, gasoline was 32 cents per gallon, and a new house cost $15,000, the country didn’t have that many millionaires. Having 50 in your close circle of acquaintances said a lot.

The money and connections no longer were of any use to Valachi. He realized he was about to be killed by his own boss. He had to find a way out of his predicament. He had himself put in solitary confinement, but nearly starved because he refused to eat, since he thought his food might be poisoned. When released from solitary confinement, he killed another prisoner, mistaking him for one of the contract killers out to get him.

Eventually Valachi decided on a way to forestall the inevitable. He contacted the FBI and traded what he had for protection. He testified before Congress in 1963 about the actions of his crime family, especially Vito Genovese. He explained the procedures for induction into the Cosa Nostra, “this thing of ours,” which is the real term for the Mafia. He ripped open the veil of secrecy that until then had hidden the existence of the Mafia from the eyes of law enforcement agencies.

His shrewdness in using what he had to gain his own safety let him outlive Vito Genovese in prison and finally die of natural causes in 1971.

This murdering hoodlum used all his available resources wisely to protect his physical life, and he showed more determination in his effort than we Christians show in our focus on our spiritual salvation.

But would any of us say that Joe Valachi was a good guy whose example we should follow? Or that by testifying about the crimes of his boss, his own behavior was any less evil? Of course not.

Yet I’ve heard all sorts of excuses — even from clergy — about the shrewd manager in our Gospel reading today. Some say he was eliminating the interest that his master had been charging, making the transactions legal again; others say he was taking away the amount the customers were overcharged so that his master couldn’t fire him without incurring the wrath, and loss of business, from those customers whose bills were reduced.

But the Gospel says the master commended the manager for acting shrewdly, not honestly. And nothing indicates the master relented and kept the manager in his position. Rather, the master commented on the shrewdness by which the manager ensured future lodging and employment by making so many customers feel indebted to him.

Those customers were all quite wealthy — remember the average first-century laborer wasn’t buying 100 jugs of olive oil or 100 containers of wheat — and surely one of them would be willing to hire him on in some capacity after he saved them 50 percent and 20 percent of their bills.

This guy was lazy and prideful. He claimed to not be “strong enough to dig.” Well I can tell you from experience, if you’re not strong enough to dig, you will be after digging for a while. That’s how you become strong enough to dig.

He also said he is “ashamed to beg.” His first thoughts are that if he no longer has the comfortable, cushy job as manager, even though he is physical capable of work, he would rather beg than do manual labor. His only reason for not begging is that he’d be ashamed. He should be!

I don’t know anyone who is “proud” of begging. People in that position have reached the depths of their despair. They have often lost hope. And they are often ashamed of their situation, even when it’s beyond their ability to pull themselves out of it. Those people have nothing to be ashamed of. They need our help and our love. As Christians we should be ashamed that there are any people around us, any of God’s children, who need to beg in order to get by each day. We should feel the shame of that, not them.

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