Thoughts on the 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time, February 24, 2019
by Rev. Jim Ryan, firstname.lastname@example.org
Today’s passage from the Gospel of Luke may have been one continuous teaching by Jesus from the beginning of the reading to its end. But, I doubt it. It occurs to me that what we have here is a compilation of one or two lines each that Jesus said at various times. The gospel writer has put them together as verses 27-38 of the 6th chapter of Luke. Separate these lines and you still get guides for living. But when you read these teachings, spread them out as it were, I believe they become even more powerful.
Take this as a standalone, for example, “Love your enemies and do good!.” What I’m getting at is this compilation can appear to be a list of personal choices on how to act, how to live a generous life following the teachings of Jesus. But Jesus is about much, much more than generosity.
Being generous connotes choice, as in I will love the enemy; I will pardon; I will offer the other cheek. That’s nice but it allows too much wiggle room under the banner of generosity.
Try this one out for size. During the Irish Famine Years of 1844-1849 it was presented to the Irish people that out of the generosity of the British government and local Lords (also British) soup kitchens would be opened to spread thin soup and crusts of bread around the country.
Now there’s a reason why the Irish refer to these same years as the Great Hunger. Famine carries with it the connotation that resources had evaporated, literally died on the vine, and in the eyes of the British politicians those lazy, ignorant Irish peasants required generosity to “see them through.” But the thing is we now know that all resources had not evaporated in Ireland at the time. In fact records show that in those same years food was shipped to Britain from Ireland that went to feed that country’s population while the Irish were forced to starve. Under the banner of generosity charity got a pass.
No, generosity as charity was and is not enough. It is justice that must drive charity and generosity. Today’s 1st Reading was a selection from the 31st chapter of the Book of Job. It hits the nail on the head about justice driving charity. Here are a couple of lines from Job:
“If my land cries out against me or its furrows weep together –
If I ate its bounty without recompense,
or gave its workers reason to complain –
let weeds flourish where once there was wheat,
let thistles take over the barley field.
If I have struck the defenseless
Because I know I had judges in my pocket,
Then may my arm fall out of its socket,
May my arm be broken at the elbow!
For then the fear of God’s punishment would overpower me;
How could I defend my actions before the Almighty?”
The stark bluntness of Job is a testament to justice driving charity. Jesus is less blunt but no less pointed when he explains that the measure of how to treat others is the overflowing cup. This cup of blessings brimming over and spilling all over is my life. By responding to the obligation of justice, Jesus says, I must spread these blessings because their coming back to me will be the measure of justice coming back. It is not about choice, it is about obligation. In the Great Hunger the obligation of the British government was to cancel all their shipping arrangements and allow the food to stay in Ireland.
The same applies today when the injustice of massively accumulated wealth in this country prevents resources like food and medicine from being equitably provided among the people. One reason that the justice teachings of Job and Jesus have not been put into practice is simply that people – Christians, Catholics – do not believe that this obligation of justice is a central reality of their faith.
In his book, “Connecting Jesus to Social Justice,” Tom Hughson reports the findings of some very telling surveys . When Catholics are asked if charity is a central teaching of faith they respond upwards of 80% in the affirmative. When they are asked if justice is a central teaching of faith only 40% respond favorably. It should be clear, I think, that charity only goes so far. As Jesus says in one those lines in today’s compilation, “Sinners do as much.” I love that line.
If I say, “I do good and love those who love me,” Jesus says, “Sinners do as much.” If I say, “I do good and lend to those I love,” Jesus says, “Sinners do as much.” Justice, emptying the overflowing cup, gets us way beyond charity and generosity.
This passage from Job referred to earlier came to me in an article I read about Timothy Keller. He is a Presbyterian pastor from Manhattan. He has one of those stories that he started his ministry in Manhattan with a congregation of 50 people attending Sunday services and now has 5000 worshipers each Sunday. Keller used this passage to make the point of what he calls “Generous Justice.” As praiseworthy as his effort is he still doesn’t get beyond the belief that we do good because we choose to do good. And we are justified by God owing to nothing that we have done – it’s God’s justice which makes us correct to go and do good, to be generous with our charity.
It is unfortunate that Keller doesn’t seem to see that justice in this world and at this time puts on us the obligation, not the choice, to share from the overflowing cup to make the fairer distribution of resources a reality.
Realizing this obligation of justice saves us from the embarrassment of having Jesus dismiss us with those blunt 4 words, “Sinners do as much.”
You call us by name, each one, Creator God.
By this call you invite us to grow in understanding, love, courage, and compassion. We join our name to the Name of your Son, Jesus Christ.
By this Name we grow into knowledge of Jesus by other names – Messiah, Anointed One, Center of the Cosmos.
By this knowledge we accept the call to act as Jesus did – with care, acceptance, service, humility.
To act in the Name of Jesus, we who are named for God’s service, is the bond of our gathering as church. Strengthen and love this bond, O God. It is our connection with you whose Name of Love fills all creation, now and forever.