26th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Preached September 29, 2019; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon
There was a lady, now deceased, whom I knew many years ago. Shortly after my baptism at age 20 she commented on how she had travelled many times to Mexico and was appalled that so much money was bound up (we could say) in beautiful churches, while the people were so poor. She was proclaiming the modern revolutionary doctrine of destroying churches to help the poor.
Little did she realize that her words echoed those of a rather notorious Apostle who declared, Why was not this oil sold for three hundred day’s wages and given to the poor. (Jn 12:5) So three hundred poor people might be helped for one day, but otherwise be no better off than before.
Well, the lady I knew, I do not doubt her sincerity, while she lamented what she saw as the hypocrisy of building beautiful churches, she was at the same time an ardent supporter of Planned Parenthood. So her actions proclaimed that the poor are to be prevented from having babies, but not from the actions that naturally tend to produce babies. Or failing the prevention of babies, the babies of the poor are to be brutally killed in their mother’s womb. That pretty much describes Planned Parenthood’s plan of health care for the poor.
The lady I once knew, Planned Parenthood, and the Apostle Judas Iscariot all made use of the language of social justice. The Church does indeed have a teaching on social justice, but the widespread misuse of the language of social justice should put on our guard. We must learn to exercise discernment in this regard.
Today and last Sunday we have heard two readings from the Old Testament prophet Amos, two famous ‘social justice’ readings, but if we attend well to the words of the prophet we might be able to notice that most of the contemporary language of social justice and misses one essential point. Man does not live on bread alone. (Lk 4:4) We have been made for something greater.
Last Sunday we heard about heard about wicked men of antiquity who would have jumped for joy at our great contemporary accomplishment: buy and selling 24/7. Those who could not wait for the Sabbath to be over so that they could resume their mercantile activities, did not hesitate to commit fraud so as to buy the lowly for silver and the poor for a pair of sandals. (Am 8:6) Economic injustice and the rejection of the Sabbath are connected: we could say that the Jewish Sabbath, and for Christians, the Lord’s Day, which falls on Sunday, have been the greatest institutions of social justice that mankind has ever known.
Today, we heard a stark warning: Woe to the complacent in Zion … who are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph – who do not care about the ruin of the people of God.
The complacent in Zion are characterized by their extreme self-indulgence, represented by their ivory couches. The symptoms of self-indulgence are seen in what follows: the wealth and cultural resources that were once dedicated to public worship of God are now given not to the poor, but to adorning the mansions and lives of the wealthy.
This is what happened in the English Reformation, when King Henry VIII confiscated the properties of the Church. The immense wealth of those properties were not distributed among the poor, but given over to the great Lords who were loyal supporters of the King. Likewise, the poor did not benefit from the French Revolution, nor from the Russian Revolution. They were only deprived of God.
This was made manifest in 1979, in communist Poland, when St. John Paul II visited for the first time as Pope. Then, in Warsaw’s “Victory Square” (it is now name Pilsudski Square after the great Field Marshall who defeated the Red Army at the Vistula River in 1920) the Pope declared, “Christ cannot be kept out of the history of man in any part of the globe.” The crowd of a quarter million responded, in the presence of the communist overlords, with a chant of “We want God.”
The various modern revolutions deprived the poor of God by means of force. Today, in this country, we are voluntarily depriving ourselves. The faith is declining and the institutions of the Church are collapsing. Beautiful churches have been sold and the buildings converted to secular purposes, more often than not, money making purposes or purposes that serve the self-indulgence of those who can pay – we can exclusive loft apartments in Boston. The poor end up deprived of beauty in their lives, beauty that once served as a connection to God.
By way of contrast, we could consider St. Peter Claver, a Jesuit priest of who ministered to black slaves in Columbia in the 17th century. While St. Peter could not do much about the institution of slavery, he met the slaves when they arrived in Cartagena, providing them with food and medicine. He wrote: “We spoke to them, not with words, but with our hands and our actions. And in fact, convinced as they were that they had been brought there to be eaten, any other language would have been useless.” (Liturgy of the Hours, Vol. IV pg. 2018)
Nevertheless, he did not stop there. He instructed them in the faith and baptized them. It is estimated that during 40 years of ministry he personally baptized 300,000 persons. He followed up with the slaves, visiting them and ministering to them on the plantations. He provided them with ongoing instruction and guidance, insisting that their masters must at least treat them humanely, and allow them access to the Mass and the sacraments.
When St. Peter Claver went to the slaves of Columbia, he did not just minister to their bodily needs, he worked to set them free for the worship of God and to fulfill the purpose for which they had been created. When he went to the slave masters of Columbia, he did not demand that they set the slaves free, but he did demand that they at least cease from their labors on the Lord’s Day and have the freedom to attend Mass. True freedom does not consist in doing as we please, but in the freedom to worship God in spirit and in truth. (Cf. Jn 4:24)
The Lord’s Day, which falls on Sunday, is the great and indispensable institution of true social justice. The Lord’s Day proclaims that at least on this day the poor must be recognized as created in the image of God, redeemed and set free by the Most Precious Blood of Jesus Christ so as to be capable of offering worship to God, and destined for eternal life. The Lord’s Day puts a limit on all human tyranny, saying, “Thus far and no further.” (cf. Job 38:11)
Social justice, then, does not mean merely the fulfillment of bodily needs nor does it mean simply an equal distribution of wealth and resources; social justice means the realization of the human good in the society of men. This presupposes the justice of the Kingdom of God, which is the Kingdom of Divine Grace, according to the words of Jesus, Seek first the Kingdom of God and his justice, and all these things will be given to you besides. (Mt 6:33)
We cannot attain the true human good if we do not know what it is. We cannot know what the human good is if we do not know what sort of creature man is and for what he has been created. In a word, we cannot know the human good so as to achieve it without reference to God or in ignorance of God.
St. John Paul II, in a great social justice encyclical, “The Gospel of Life”, wrote: “When the sense of God is lost, the sense of man is also threatened and poisoned … He no longer considers life as a splendid gift of God.” Instead, “Life itself becomes a mere ‘thing’, which man claims as his exclusive property, completely subject to his control and manipulation.” (Evangelium Vitae 22) The control and manipulation of human life, which will always mean control by some people over other people, is practically the definition of “social injustice” or tyranny.
The Lord’s Day and the celebration of Sunday Mass as the chief and indispensable activity proper to the Lord’s Day gives to us, through faith, the true vision of God and of human destiny in God (and therefore human dignity), together with the means to realize that destiny in the holy sacrifice of the Body and Blood of Christ, fully shared in through communion in the same.
Yet, like Esau, we so easily sell our birthright, the birthright of the baptized, for a bowl of lentil stew (cf. Gen 25:29-34) or rather a football game, a soccer game, a camping trip, a hunting expedition, a day at the beach, or even a trip to the shopping mall.
We gladly sell ourselves into a new slavery, the slavery of consumerism, recreation, and entertainment and, what is worse, we thereby oblige others to work on Sundays in order to fulfill our wishes.
If we turn briefly to today’s Gospel, we could say that the sin of the rich man was not that he was rich, nor even that he failed to help Lazarus, but that he failed to recognize the humanity of Lazarus, a humanity that was fulfilled after Lazarus’ departure from this world when he found consolation in the bosom of Abraham.
It is, then, necessary to see further than the material needs of the poor; it is necessary to see further than their need for human love and compassion; it is necessary to see the poor man’s capacity to worship God and be united with him in eternal life.
Eternity reveals the truth. The eternal destiny of the nameless and faceless rich man reveal that his fine clothing and splendid feasting were in reality little more than a cheap rag covering the inner destitution of his heart. The eternal destiny of Lazarus reveals the true worth of a human being, while showing that his suffering, his wounds, and his sores by which he shared in the Cross of Jesus Christ, were so many pathways to eternal life. The light of eternity reveals to us the true value of this world and the true meaning and purpose of human life.