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Archive for the ‘Social Justice’ Category

Sometimes the stories from the Gospels have become such a part of our cultural heritage that we don’t really hear them. Sunday’s parable of the Rich Man (sometimes called Dives) and Lazarus is one of those stories. The rich man neglects the poor beggar at his door, they both die, one goes to heaven, the other goes to hell and their roles are reversed. The rich man is now the beggar, pleading for just a drop of water to quench his thirst.

This is the stuff of all the classic stories, fairy tales, mythology. Even jokes rely on this notion of status shifts and role reversals. And we respond with a deep-seated recognition of both the oppression inherent in the situation and our desire to see bad people punished and good people rewarded, even if it only happens in the afterlife.

We know that we’re often indifferent to people who are suffering from poverty, hunger and disease. It might not be as close as a beggar at our front door that we literally step over to go to work. Or it might be. But we’ve become almost numb to the stories on the nightly news of the ongoing suffering in Darfur and other places in the developing where starvation is an ever-present reality, in Iraq and other war-torn regions, in the thousands who are still unable to return to their homes after Hurricane Katrina.

The best among us take an active role in helping these people. Most of the rest of us donate time, money and a collective voice lobbying in the halls of power when we can tear our attention away from the many distractions of our lives. At the least we occasionally feel guilty that we have so much when others have barely enough to survive.

The words of the prophet Amos remind us that this has long been a problem in human society. Words of contemporary prophets remind us that the problem continues unabated. An unlikely prophet, the Irish-born rock star Bono of U2, long active in campaigns to end AIDS in Africa and bring about debt relief and an end to global poverty, gave a rousing speech to the NAACP. Like a tent revival preacher, he closed with these words: “The poor are where God lives. God is in the slums in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house. God is where the opportunity is lost and lives are shattered. God is with the mother who has infected her child with a virus that will take both their lives. God is under the rubble in the cries we hear during wartime. God, my friends is with the poor and God is with us if we are with them.”

There are no easy answers to this problem. The least we can do is to stay aware of it, even when we’d rather not. The greatest hope for us lies in the heavily ironic words at the end of Jesus’ parable. The rich man has asked that Lazarus be sent to his five brothers to warn them to change their lives and avoid his fate. Abraham tells him: “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.”

We have heard the words of the Risen One. Are we persuaded? And if we are, what are we going to do about it?

Here’s a great advantage blogging has over publishing on dead trees. I found this student video on You Tube when I was looking for U2’s song “Crumbs from Your Table” from 2004’s How To Dismantle the Atomic Bomb.

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Today’s Gospel contains that oft-quoted line, “You cannot serve both God and mammon.” The key here is not the word mammon or money, but the word serve. If we let our concern for money or material goods overmaster us, we will be in trouble. Maybe not in the short term, maybe not in how we appear to others, but our eternal soul will be in peril. Someone, perhaps Benjamin Franklin, said, “Money is a good servant but a poor master.” Sir Francis Bacon said, “If money be not thy servant it will be thy master.” These quotes and others like them are commonplace, almost cliches, because there’s a deep truth to them.Sometimes when we hear Jesus’ parable, we get distracted by the fact that he seems to be praising the steward for what we might see as dishonest business practices. In fact, some commentators have suggested that the amount the steward was taking off the bill was the amount that would have been his self-determined commission. But if we focus too much on the business details, we miss Jesus’ point.

The steward seems to have realized that he has come to a point in his life when he needs to rely on the generosity, even the charity, of others. If he has been treating his business associates harshly in the past, he knows that he has no chance of getting another job. If he’s only been concerned about his proficts and doing well for himself, he will find himself alone and destitute. So he sacrifices his profits, uses his money to buy at least some sort of good feeling from others. While he’s probably as aware as any parent of a teenager that you can’t buy friends, he’s still at least on his way to a deeper truth, the awareness that he does need the good will of other people.

The prophet Amos reviles the people of his day who resent the sabbath for the way it interferes with their business, particularly as their business seems to involve not only commerce but a particularly vicious cheating that shows a complete disregard for others.

His words still hold a bite for us today. We pride ourselves on abolishing slavery, and yet when Amos says, “We will buy the lowly for silver and the poor for a pair of sandals,” we might recall images from the nightly news of children in developing countries being paid pennies a day for working in a sweatshop sixteen or seventeen hours a day making high-priced sneakers and brand-name clothing.

The underlying message throughout Scripture is that if we’re right with God, our only true master, we will be right with other people. If we put something in place of God, that misplaced desire will throw our other relationships out of whack. Money can never be more important than God. It can’t be more important than God’s creation, either—other human beings, the earth that supports us, the air that surrounds us.

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I’ve been mulling over last Sunday’s readings and putting the first reading and the Gospel together, as the lectionary intends. Nathan’s words to David remind us that although the woman’s extravagant public display of affection seems to dominate the center of the reading, Jesus’ strongest words are for Simon, who was far more concerned about his reputation than about hospitality. Both were key issues in the culture of the day. Shame and honor governed social status. And a culture that had come from nomadic roots knew the importance of hospitality. Sharing food and shelter with another created a true interdependency.

Only the saints among us are without mixed motives, intentions and actions. And even they would say that they struggled every day with overcoming their faults. Jesus is asking us to let go of our fear of how we might appear and our judgments about other people and see the good that we can do, the love that we can show, the justice that we can bring about. And in the end, the only way that we do that is through the grace of God.

Like the woman in Luke’s Gospel, only when we realize how much we have been forgiven for are we free to set aside our fragile egos, to let go of our need for approval. When we have done that, we will be able to live and to love bathed in the only opinion that matters, the love of God who knows the worst we have done and loves us anyway.

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Today in the weekday lectionary cycle we begin the book of Tobit, one of my favorite books in the Catholic Old Testament. As I was reading through today’s selection, one of the things that I noticed was that the opening scene takes place on the Jewish feast of Shavuot or Weeks. Shavuot was a harvest festival, but it also celebrated the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai, and this is fitting for the beginning of Tobit’s story, because it’s one of those books of the Bible that reflects on what it means to live God’s law, often at a great personal price. In the case of Tobit, it’s also about living a godly life in a culture that often misunderstands and even ridicules its importance.

If we look at Tobit’s opening scene more closely, however, we see a character familiar in both the Old and New Testaments, someone who might be a little too impressed with his own righteousness. He’s sitting down to a splendid feast day dinner and sends his son out to find a poor man to share that meal with him. But listen to the qualifications: “My son, go out and try to find a poor manfrom among our kinsmen exiled here in Nineveh.If he is a sincere worshiper of God, bring him back with you,so that he can share this meal with me.” The question of the “deserving poor” is one that we still wrestle with in our own time. And as we go through the week, we will see many of Tobit’s notions being tested by the difficulties he himself faces.

Tobit, like many of us, gets a bit too complacent, a bit too sure of himself, in the good times, in the times of feasting and enjoyment. But when push comes to shove, when tragedy strikes, we see his true colors. He does what needs to be done, he does what he knows he’s called to do. He doesn’t do it perfectly, he doesn’t always shine, but he always tries to live a good life. I’m reminded of the well-known quote from Blessed Mother Teresa: God does not call us to be successful, he calls us to be faithful.

I’m looking forward to exploring these stories over the next few days, but now my tea water is boiling and it’s time to call it a night.

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Too often wealth and power go together in our society. Scandal after scandal in the political and business worlds reveal a web of bribery and deceit, people who use money and influence to further their own desires rather than the common good. This isn’t anything new. Sirach reminds his listeners that bribing God will do no good. He tells them that their God “is a God of justice who knows no favorites.”

We might keep Sirach’s advice in the back of our minds when we read about Jesus and his disciples discussing their having given up everything to follow him. It’s not about impressing God or looking for a reward. It’s about letting go of what we don’t need so that we can focus on our need for God. Mark tells us that Peter “began” to tell Jesus how much they’ve done, but Jesus cuts him off.

The activist philospher Peter Singer has suggested that people limit their income to what they need for a reasonably comfortable life and donating anything above that to causes that support the common good. Most of us recoil from that suggestion, but it’s no different than what Jesus is telling us in the Gospel. The difference, perhaps, is that he doesn’t hesitate to put his ideas in concrete economic terms. We’ve become adept at spiritualizing Jesus’ advice. But I have a feeling he might agree with Mr. Singer.

I suspect there are few of us who don’t have more than we need. And at times we might be tempted to hold money over others in subtle or not so subtle attempts at influencing their behavior. Jesus is telling us that this isn’t God’s way. Jesus is challenging us to remember that all the good things we have come from God. We’re to use those gifts for the good of all, whether it’s the people close to us or vast numbers of people in the world who struggle with the most basic needs: food, water, shelter, adequate medical care. Our God doesn’t compromise and neither should we.

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It’s a lovely day to celebrate Earth Day. The birds are in full chorus outside my windows (open at last after all the cold and rain we’ve been having) and the rooster was awake around 4 this morning. I live as close to the natural world as I can in the middle of a big city, so environmental concerns are never far from my mind. But it’s good to take time to reflect on the way these issues are rooted in Scripture. Our Bible comes out of a culture that was far more dependent on the earth and the natural world than we are. And because of that, they were perhaps more aware of their dependence on the God who created and sustains that world.

Sr. Elizabeth Johnson has this to say in a past issue of Scripture From Scratch:

A flourishing humanity on a thriving Earth in an evolving universe, all together filled with the glory of God; such is the theological vision and praxis we are being called to in this critical age of Earth’s distress. We need to appreciate all over again that Earth is a sacrament vivified by the living Spirit of God. We need to realize that the way we are destroying it is tantamount to a sacrilege. And we need to act as members of the Earth community called to be partners with God in the ongoing creation rather than destruction of the world.

And for those who think this is a 21st century phenomenon, here’s the great Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins:

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

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We’ve all heard the saying, “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” This struck me anew listening to Bono’s acceptance speech at the NAACP awards at the beginning of March. All over the Internet, the response has been one word: Wow!

What he said should not come as news to any of us who read the Scriptures, who follow Jesus, who profess faith in the one God. But the word spoken with power and poetry breaks through what we know or think we know and we feel the truth of it all over again.

This is more powerful than much of what passes for preaching these days and I hear in its cadence the voice of Isaiah, who said, “When you share your bread with the hungry…. Then shall your light break forth like the dawn (58:7). I hear the voice of Amos, who said, “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream” (5:24). The prophets remind us again and again that we are responsible for the least ones, the little one, the poor in our midst. This is what Lent is about, this is what our faith is about, and we need to hear the message wherever it’s being proclaimed.

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