Justice Up the River
January 25, 2004
Luke 1:1-4; 4:14-21
There is a significant difference between charity and justice. Both are part of the teaching of Jesus. Both are a part of our Catholic faith. But we, like most Christians, are much better at charity than at justice, and we may not even be aware of the difference.
Harry Fagan, who was one of the pioneers of social action in our Cleveland diocese back in the sixties had a favorite story which he would tell frequently to draw out the difference between charity and justice. It was a story about a small Christian village located by a broad river. One day as the people in that village were busy doing their various tasks, a body floated down the river. When they saw it, they retrieved it and gave it a reverent burial, because they were good Christian people. The next day another body floated down the river, and they did the same. As the days passed, more and more bodies kept floating down the river. So they bought a boat and put guards at the river so that no body would escape their notice and each body could be reverently buried. As the days passed on, some wounded people began floating down the river clinging on debris. So again, being a Christian community, they retrieved these people and brought them to the hospital. They expanded their hospitals and in time provided retraining for those who had been wounded, so that they could earn a good living.
After a number of years, almost the entire village was engaged in caring for the dead and the wounded. The mayor decided to call a meeting to see if there was anything more that they could do. A few suggestions were brought up, but almost everyone believed that they were doing all that they could for those who were in need. Then, just before they were ready to dismiss the meeting, a young man raised his hand and said, “I know we are doing a very good job caring for the dead and the wounded. But don’t you think we should send some people to go and find out what’s happening up the river?”
At this point Harry Fagan would stop and say, “That small Christian village is like a typical Catholic parish—very good at some things: very good at burying the dead, of caring for the sick, of ministering to those who are hurting—very good at charity. But it is not so good at going up the river, at finding out why those bodies keep floating down, and seeing if there could be anything we could do to stop them. We are not as good at justice.”
Now doing justice is not easy. But it is essential if we wish to follow Jesus. In our Catholic tradition this truth was expressed in the clearest way in 197l when the bishops of the world met and issued a document in which they said that working for justice and contributing to the transformation of the world is a constituative part of preaching the gospel. That is an involved way of saying that, if we want to be disciples of Jesus, if we want to really follow what he preaches, we must go up the river. We must try to find out the reasons that the bodies keep floating down and see if there is something we can do to stop them.
The bishops of the world were not making up some new dimension of Catholicism. They were merely following the teaching of Jesus presented so clearly in today’s gospel. In this great scene from Luke, Jesus comes to the synagogue at Nazareth and gives us his mission statement, the purpose of his ministry. When he defines his purpose, he does not say that he plans to teach people to pray, although he in fact does that with his disciples. He does not say that we should love one another, although he certainly believes that we should. What Jesus does is find a passage from the prophet Isaiah that says that he is called to proclaim good news to the poor, liberty to captives, sight to the blind, and to set those who are oppressed free. Jesus’ mission is about justice, about going up the river, discovering the structures that oppress people and trying to free them.
We, of course, are called to follow him. Doing justice is not easy. It is much easier to help the elderly lady on our street by cutting her grass than to explore the reasons why she cannot find adequate healthcare. It is much simpler to feed the person who is hungry than to try to discover the structures that prevent that person from feeding his or her own family. It is easier to visit the prisoner in jail than to try to discover the reasons for violence and despair in our society that populate our jails with a disproportionate number of the poor and disenfranchised.
Doing justice is difficult and messy. It calls us to get involved in politics and economics and environmental science and sociology—all areas where religious people are not often welcome. But we must be there, because we are called by Christ to contribute to the transformation of our society.
So how do we do justice? Three simple steps: learn, pray, act. We must learn what the issues are, how people are oppressed by poverty and injustice. Our Social Concerns Committee is always providing opportunities to educate us in these issues. There are also many things that can be read. But once we identify injustice in our midst, the next step is to pray, to ask what God is calling us to do. Then when we see an opportunity, we act. Write a letter. Talk to someone. Make a contribution . Do something that is going to help society change for the better. That is what justice calls us to do.
Doing justice is not easy. But neither is it optional for those who follow Jesus. For Jesus calls us to go up the river, to discover the causes of injustice and to work to change the structures that support them. Yes, we are called to love one another. But we are also called to do justice, to contribute to the transformation of our world.
The Faith Too Seldom Tried
January 21, 2007
Luke 1:1-4, 4:14-21
G.K. Chesterton, one of the great apologists of the 20th century has said, “The problem with Christianity is not that it has been tried and been found wanting. The problem with Christianity is that it really has not been tried.”
Chesterton’s complaint is that the faith of most Christians does not rise to the challenge of the gospel, that many good, well-intentioned believers do not really perceive what is at the heart of Jesus’ revelation. We believe things, but they are not the most important things. And because we miss what is at the center, the impact of Christianity diminishes.
So every once in a while, it is a good idea to ask, “What lies at the heart of the gospel? What does it mean when we say ‘I believe in Jesus Christ’?” We say that frequently. What do we mean? What is the significance of believing in Jesus Christ? And how does such belief set Christianity apart from the other great religions in the world?
What lies at the heart of the gospel? That is the question. If I walked around church now and asked each of you to give an answer, there would be a variety of responses. Many would answer, “The heart of the gospel is love, or justice, or life.” All these realities are certainly a part of Christianity. But they do not make Christianity unique. Most of the great religions of the world would foster love, would promote justice, would promise life. So what do we believe as Christians that set us apart, that makes us distinctive? In other words, what does it mean to be a Christian?
Today’s gospel is helpful in this regard, because Luke gives us Jesus’ first sermon. We should see this passage as Jesus’ mission statement, as his inaugural address, setting out what he is about. He quotes the prophet Isaiah and announces good news for the poor, liberty for captives, recovery of sight for the blind, freedom from oppression. So, is the end of oppression, the end of poverty, the end of blindness what is at the heart of the gospel? Not quite. All people would desire those things, even people without faith.
What is at the heart of the gospel is not that we believe that God will bring an end to poverty, oppression, and blindness, but that we believe that such a destruction of evil has begun. Jesus says in the gospel, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Christians believe that through the dying and rising of Christ, God has begun to destroy the evils of the world, to eradicate poverty, injustice, blindness, and oppression. We believe that God has not only promised to do this, but has begun to do this. Our faith is that God is active in the world now, bringing us and our world towards life, towards justice, towards peace. To use biblical language, we believe that God has begun to establish the kingdom.
“Wow,” you say. “Is that what I am supposed to believe? That’s not easy.” It’s not. You only have to pick up the newspaper to see all of the evils that continue in the world. With all the evil around us how are we to believe that God is now actively causing justice, peace, and life to increase? It is not easy to believe in the heart of the Christian message. This is what makes Christianity a challenge. It takes faith to believe that God is today bringing us and our world towards the kingdom. This is the faith, as Chesterton says, which is all too seldom tried.
But what would happen if we dared to believe that faith? What would happen if we dared to believe that our God is active today in establishing God’s kingdom? What would happen if we woke up every morning saying, “Today, God is going to be active in my life and in our world bringing about justice, peace, and goodness.” We would live differently, if we dared to believe that? We would see more and we would despair less.
If we could really believe that through the dying and rising of Christ God is actively working in the world to establish justice and life and peace, we would see more signs of God’s action and goodness around us. Remember, it is not sight that leads to faith, it is faith that leads to sight. When we believe that God is active, we will see more signs of that action. The person who is most blind is the person who is convinced that no good thing can happen. Christians should be the first to see signs of God’s action, the first to see signs of the kingdom emerging. We call such vision the eyes of faith—eyes which not only believe what happened back in Jesus’ time but can perceive the good things that God is accomplishing in our midst.
If we believed, we would see more. We would also despair less. Because when we believe in an active God, we understand that despite the evils around us God’s plan for the world will not be frustrated. We all have evils in our life: dissensions in our family, sickness, innocent suffering, death. We do not understand how these evils can exist in a world where God is good, but we are convinced that since God has raised up Jesus, the kingdom has begun. And if the kingdom has begun, then in the end God will be victorious.
Christianity is more than a moral system that teaches us how to do good and avoid evil. It is more than a religion that reveals to us a loving God. It is a faith that believes that our loving God is active—active in our lives and in our world, leading us forward into God’s kingdom. Dare we believe that that is true? Dare we believe in that good news? The decision is ours, but I can assure you of this. If we dared to believe that God is active in our life and in our world, we would not only see goodness more often and be discouraged less, we would also maybe for the first time understand what it is to be Christian, what it is to say, “I believe in Jesus Christ”.
The Two Steps to Compassion
January 24, 2010
Luke 1:1-4 4:14-21
There are two steps to compassion. The first is human; the second is Christian. Both are important because one builds upon the other.
I do not know how many of you know about archeology. But archeology is the science of trying to understand the past through the remnants that have been left down to us by past generations. Archeologists excavate ancient sites and then, by the artifacts that they pull out of the ground, they seek to construct an earlier history. In the twentieth century one of the greatest American archeologists/anthropologists was a woman by the name of Margaret Mead. Once in an interview she was asked what she would consider the earliest archeological evidence of human civilization. The interviewer wanted to know what was the first sign that humanity had moved beyond the level of mere animals and had developed a higher level of consciousness. The person who posed the question gave Mead a few suggestions. He said, “Would you consider an arrowhead, or a fish hook as the first sign of civilization; or would you go for a more sophisticated artifact such as a musical instrument or a ceramic bowl?” Mead said, “I would point to none of those things. For me the earliest artifact that points to human civilization is a healed human femur.” Now the femur is the largest bone in the body. It is the bone of the upper leg. Mead went on to explain that in the ancient world it was the survival of the fittest. If you broke your femur, it was certain death. You could no longer walk nor could you gather food to feed yourself. So Mead continued, “The discovery of a healed human femur meant that somebody had cared for the person whose leg was broken. Somebody protected him and brought food to him in order that his leg might heal.” For Meade, a healed human femur is the earliest archeological evidence of civilization, because it is evidence of human compassion. It is evidence of one person caring for another who cannot care for him or herself.
Now compassion remains a common sign of our humanity. Just look at the outpouring of concern and support that the world is showing the victims in Haiti. That support comes from all different people of all different backgrounds, of all different religions, and even some who have no religion at all. They reach out to help because they understand that this is the basic obligation of being human. Christians of course participate fully on this level of compassion. As part of the human race, we know our basic responsibility to care for others.
Yet, for Christians there is a second step to compassion, a step that is made clear by Jesus in today’s gospel. When Jesus was looking for a description of his mission, he turned to the prophet Isaiah and found that scripture citation that we just heard. It is a beautiful list of acts of compassion to others: to announce good news to the poor, release to captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed. These are all humane acts that every human would recognize as our responsibility each other. But the prophet Isaiah adds a second step to compassion. It is the assertion that God is involved in our acts of compassion to one another. For the passage begins: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. God has anointed me to bring news to the poor.” For Isaiah, for Jesus, and for us, it is clear that our acts of compassion are connected to God.
We believe that God is at work in our world and in our lives moving us away from evil and towards good. We also believe that when we do acts of compassion for others, God uses those actions as part of God’s larger purpose. This is the second step of compassion: to believe that our kindness to others is taken by God and used by God to move the world to a better place. Thus Christians do not help the victims in Haiti simply because it is the human thing to do. It certainly is. But we also believe that God will use our prayers and our contributions as part of a larger plan—to bring about God’s Kingdom. To say this in another way: Christians believe that human goodness is not the only goodness in the world. Our goodness is taken up by God and made a part of God’s goodness. God uses our acts of compassion in ways that we cannot always explain or predict. Therefore, Christians believe that every act of compassion is valuable, and that there is no act of kindness that is wasted. Even if our action does not seem to have an effect, God somehow uses our efforts for God’s purposes. For this reason, we as Christians should have more confidence and more energy for doing good than anyone else. We should be more motivated to forgive our spouse, to be patient with our children, to be generous to our co-workers, to be motivated to help those in need because we are convinced that our efforts, as small as they are, are taken up by God and used to build the Kingdom.
Having compassion on others is what makes us human. Believing that our acts of compassion are used by God to save the world is what makes us Christian. We need both of these steps of compassion to be true followers of Jesus.
We Are the Body of Christ
January 27, 2013
1 Corinthians 12:12-30
Today’s second reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians might be the most radical and challenging passage of the New Testament. It presents to us a fundamentally different way of us seeing ourselves. The normal way that we see ourselves is as individuals, individuals with rights and responsibilities. As individuals, if we choose to connect ourselves to other people, we can do so. If we choose to remain aloof, we can do that as well. But, what Paul gives us in the second reading is a very different understanding. He certainly sees us as individuals but he insists that as individuals, we are part of a larger reality. We form with others an organism. Together with others, we are the body of Christ.
As Paul says it, “You are the body of Christ. Each of you is a member of it”. Paul is saying that at the very level of our being we are connected to others as part of Christ’s body. That connection is necessary, because without that connection, we are incomplete. As Christ’s body we need others to be parts with us in the same reality. Paul plays this out later in the letter where he says that as part of Christ’s body, the head cannot say to the feet, “I do not need you.” The eye cannot say to the hand, “I do not need you.” We need one another because we share the same life. It is only in our relationship to others that we discover who we truly are.
Now, if we were to accept this challenging understanding of ourselves and others, it would change the way we see everything, both socially and personally. As a country we seek to address issues of poverty and education. When we approach that effort as a part of Christ’s body, we are no longer trying to feed or educate “those” people, “those” children. We are trying to feed and to educate people who are a part of us, who live with us as the same body. As we try to provide adequate health care for our nation, understanding the truth of the body of Christ makes it clear that we are providing healthcare for ourselves, because we share the same life in the body of Christ. The same truth applies to us, personally, in our relationships with the people with whom we work, the people in our family, the people in our neighborhood. We cannot say to any of them “I have no need of you. You are of no value to me.” Each person is a part with us in the same living organism.
So, look at the person at work who makes you angry, or the person in your family who irritates you, or the person who exhausts you. The teaching of Paul encourages us to see that person as somehow necessary to us, necessary in order for us to be the person we are, and to become the person Christ wants us to be.
Now, we cannot approach this teaching naively. There are people who are dishonest and hurtful and even dangerous. We must, at times, wisely decide to establish boundaries and to keep certain people away. But, even as we keep them away, in faith we still somehow believe they are a part of us, connected to us.
The teaching that we hear today in the second reading is not a simple or easy truth, but Christ did not come into this world simply to confirm all the truths which were established before he arrived. Christ came into this world to present us with a new and challenging vision of ourselves and of others. It is not new to say that we need others. But it is new to say that we need every other, because every other is a part with us in the same body. And this body is not the body practical, or the body political, or the body commercial. It is the Body of Christ.
January 27, 2019
1 Corinthians 12:12-30
Today’s second reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians might be one of the most challenging passages in the New Testament. It drops a bombshell. It does so because it addresses differences. The reading understands that we are different. We do not all have the same roles, the same talents, the same ideas, or the same dreams. We do not agree on what is the most important thing to do or how we should do it. We are many. It is only after Paul establishes this diversity that he drops the bomb. He says that although there are many parts, there is one body. And that body is the body of Christ.
What Paul is saying is that although it appears that we are isolated and different individuals, somehow through that diversity all of us are joined together in a living organism, and the living organism is Christ’s body. At first this might sound like poetry, but Paul is deadly serious. He insists that the way Christ is present in our world today is through a variety of different people joined together to create the Body of Christ. Here is where the challenge comes in. Although we are different, Paul forbids us from rejecting other people because they are different. He says, “The eye cannot say to the hand, I have no need of you. The head cannot say to the feet, I have no need of you.” We cannot say these things because when we reject any person, we are rejecting a part of the body to which we ourselves belong. A rich person cannot say to a poor person, “I have no need of you.” A gay person cannot say to a straight person, “I have no need of you.” A citizen cannot say to an immigrant, “I have no need of you.” A Democrat cannot say to a Republican, “I have no need of you.” Even if someone has hurt us deeply, even if someone is our enemy, we cannot separate ourselves totally from that person because in doing that we are separating a part of the body to which we ourselves belong.
Now, of course, this does not mean that we have to agree with everyone, or trust everyone, or even like everyone. In fact, there are some circumstances where things become so hot that it only makes sense to break off contact with a person for a while. All of these strategies are possible and at times necessary. Paul is short on explaining how we get along with one another across so many differences. But what he demands is that we do not reject anyone because of those differences. If we together with others do in fact form the body of Christ, when we say to any person, “I have no need of you,” we are not only rejecting Christ, we are also rejecting a part of ourselves.