25 Sep 2016
26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
The Word of God is pretty straightforward today. In a nutshell, it says: Children of God are supposed to be socially just and look after those who are in need. And so, if we are children of God, then we should take social justice seriously. That’s the message of the Prophet Amos. It’s the message of Jesus.
And, really, it’s a message that goes all the way back to Genesis [4:9]. After Cain murdered Abel, God asked Cain, “Where’s your brother?” And Cain replied with irritation, “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?” Of course, the unspoken answer is: Yes, yes you are your brother’s keeper. The idea of being socially just doesn’t come from Jesus of Nazareth; it comes from the dawning of creation, when God put it into our DNA to be concerned for others.
This is why Abraham says to the rich man, “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.” The call to social justice is in the Law of Moses. Remember the Ten Commandments: Honor your father and your mother, you shall not kill, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not tell lies about your neighbor, and so on. It’s a call to be socially just. And the Ten Commandments aren’t revolutionary; they’re just a reminder of what we humans already know we should do.
And so, the idea of social justice is there from the start of creation, really. And with the coming of Christ, that idea is highlighted even more. So much so that Jesus himself says: “This is how others will know that you are my disciples—if you have love for one another.” That idea of “love for one another” is another way of expressing the idea of “being socially just.” To be just is to give others what is due to them. And, since others are fellow humans and creations of God, we owe it to them (and to us) to be loving in whatever way we can.
And so, the Word of God today is pretty straightforward. If we are, indeed, sons and daughters of God, then it should be natural for us to be socially just, and look after one another and those who are in need. Of course, this opens up a very big can of worms, doesn’t it?
A couple of years ago, my class in seminary went to Rome. We were there for a week, going around to all the usual tourist sites. And the priest who was leading us said, “Do not give any money to the beggars.” And he said that several times: “Do not give any money to the beggars; they don’t need it; it’s all a scam. Don’t give them anything.” Of course, that goes against the idea of social justice and charity, but we followed his advice.
And as we walked around, we’d see people with crunches, sitting on the sidewalk, with their hands out asking for money. Or women would come up to us with a child in their arms, and ask us for money for food for the child. And every time that happened we’d either ignore them or tell them no. This happened every day, the whole time we were there.
One person, in particular, kept following our group around one afternoon. She was a little, frail looking woman in rags who was going from one person to the next, asking for money. And we would each tell her no—even though it felt kind of weird to do that. And the priest who was showing us around had finally had enough and he yelled at her and said, “No! No, grazie, no!” And she gave him the “evil eye” and went away. I watched to see where the woman went to, and I saw five or six other women come to support her—and they were all dressed exactly the same.
It was a scam; she wasn’t lonely or destitute. They had a nice operation going there; they even had their own tailor-made rags. And that gentleman with the crutches, who was too lame to walk or earn a living—I watched him every day, too. And, you know, as soon as another beggar would come into his territory, it was like a miracle! The crutches were laying on the ground, and there he was, chasing away that other beggar away like an athlete. And then he’d return to his spot on the sidewalk, pick up his crutches and be lame again.
That’s the unfortunate side of social justice—people who take advantage of Christian charity; people who know it’s in our hearts to be generous, but who see that generosity as a blank check. And, sometimes, it makes a very clear commandment from God very difficult to live out. Is it socially just to simply give others what they say they need? Is that social justice? Or is it socially just, sometimes, to say: “No, you can handle that on your own.” Is that social justice? And the answer is: Yes and yes.
In his second letter to the Thessalonians, Saint Paul writes, “Those who will not work should not eat” [3:10]. And that sounds rather uncharitable. But he’s saying: Those who are capable of working and contributing to society—but who refuse to—should not reap the benefits of society; food being one of those benefits. When it comes to social justice, it isn’t just the individual who is due something; society—the welfare of the common good—is also due something if the individual has it to offer.
Part of the call to social justice is also the call to help others live more authentically, more fully, using every gift and blessing God has given them. And so, sometimes, it is just to say: No, you can do that yourself. You can do it, and you should do it—for your good and the good of others.
At the same time, though, Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” [Mt 25:40]. Not every beggar is a scam artist. Not every person who asks for help is being lazy. Some people, many people, truly need help; they are hungry, they are homeless, they are lost or lonely.
Right now in our country are a lot of debates regarding social justice. Immigration is one. There’s one line of thinking that our borders should simply be open; anybody can come in and go out. There’s another line of thinking that our borders should be very tight. Neither is entirely right or wrong. It’s a matter of social justice that we help those in real need. It’s also a matter of social justice that our country protect her citizens from danger. An open border can be just; and a closed border can be just—it depends on who you’re letting pass through, and why. What’s just for the individual, and what’s just for the welfare of the country? It’s not a simple answer.
Gay marriage is another debate that centers on social justice. Again, it’s a complex question, especially since it involves not only matters of faith, but also federal and state laws—over which the Catholic faith doesn’t necessarily have much influence. Some people ask: Is it just to say that two people can’t commit themselves to each other just because they’re the same sex? Other people ask: Is it just for humans to think we can redefine the laws of nature; is it just for humans to try and replace God as the Creator? Again, it’s a question of social justice; it’s the question: What is due to the individual as a child of God? What is due to society? The answer, of course, is charity, compassion, truth. The Church loves all her children—whoever they are. The Church also loves the order of creation. The challenge is to do justice to both.
As I consider the life and direction of Saint Clare Parish, and the big questions on our minds, I see that they center, again, on the idea of social justice. Every man, woman and child in our parish is due: respect, forgiveness, a second-chance, a third-chance. Everyone is due such basic things as: charity, a fair hearing, and the ability to contribute to the good of the whole. And that includes our ancestors in faith, as well as the generations to come. It’s a monumental task even just here, locally, in the parish to try to be socially just and charitable.
You know, the poor and the needy aren’t just in the big cities; they’re right here, too. And I don’t mean the economically poor, or the materially poor. What about those who are lonely? What about the elderly who live a full life and, now at the end, are alone? Are they not part of “the poor and the needy?” Or what about our youth?
I was just reading an article in the diocesan newspaper, the Compass, about why 10-year olds leave the Church. Here are some of the reasons the kids gave: “Catholic beliefs aren’t based on fact. Everything is hearsay from back before anything could be documented, so nothing can be disproved, but it certainly shouldn’t be taken seriously.” And “Because I grew up and realized it was a story like Santa or the Easter Bunny.” And “I realized that religion is in complete contradiction with the rational and scientific world, and to continue to subscribe to a religion would be hypocritical.” Are some of our youth “poor and needy?” Yes, definitely.
And then there are those among us—teens, middle aged, and old alike—who simply desire belonging and acceptance. They don’t want to take advantage of Christian charity; they’d just like to receive some every now and then to know they’re loved and that they’re worth something to somebody. The poor and the needy are all around us; we ourselves may be the poor and the needy.
Our Scripture readings today are pretty straightforward. In a nutshell, they say: Children of God are supposed to be socially just and look after those who are in need. “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Yes, we are. And we are because God himself is our keeper. As we heard in the psalm today: “The Lord sets captives free; the Lord gives sight to the blind; the Lord raises up those who were bowed down; the Lord loves the just; the Lord protects strangers; the orphan and the helpless he sustains.”
If God does all this and more in a spirit of what it right and just, certainly we can do it, too—because we are children of God, and looking after one another is just what we do.