22nd Sunday of the Year
The readings challenge us to demonstrate our faith by the breadth of our love and not external observances. The reading from Deuteronomy has a strong message for us about our treatment of vulnerable people. We include the negligence in Australia of our treatment of vulnerable people. The recent rhetoric from our political leaders speaks of failure to vaccinate First Nations peoples, the failure to bring people home from overseas for the last 18 months, the failure go beyond a failed immigration policy that continues to traumatise people in our midst and now the failure to bring to safety people escaping Afghanistan.
Clearly, observing the letter of the law is not enough as we witness now as people flee for their lives cannot and told they will not be received if they do not come here ‘the right way’ by checking the right boxes. People around the world, like the people in Egypt, seek freedom from oppression. The reading from James reinforces the point of true religion amounts to helping and caring for the vulnerable in society. Faith is only be authentic by caring for people who are most marginalised and disadvantaged.
The Gospel story tells us of the dispute between Jesus and the Pharisees on the question of religious observance. The Pharisees observed the law’s external requirements which was shallow, self-serving and a means to enhancing one’s status.
Pope Francis constantly calls us to go to the peripheries to hear the cry of the poor and the cry of the earth. We cannot enclose ourselves from the pains and sufferings of others who experience exclusion and encounter love, inclusiveness and solidarity. People deprived of love, of care and compassion, need to hear the voice of love and compassion. When the call of God is transformed into a legal text and oppressive, we cease to follow Jesus. We see how human law is often not consistent with the sentiments of God’s heart. The message of the crucified Jesus is that God is always on the side of the victim. The coming of God’s reign, the coming of God’s powerful and loving presence into the world, called for ongoing change. Jesus showed this when talking to women in public, when talking to women who were not of the Jewish family such as the Syro-Phoenician woman whose daughter was ill, or talking to the Samaritan woman at the well, embracing lepers and healing on the Sabbath. These all were evidence that something new was happening. It is like Pope Francis welcoming transgender people to the Vatican and listening to their stories or embracing Muslims. The coming of God’s reign of justice, peace and love necessitates change in relationships. Let’s remember this now.
In the sharp exchange between Jesus and some religious leaders we are confronted with the question as to how close we are to God’s heart. The measure is how we care for the least amongst us. If we are not walking with them, then our hearts are far from God. We can look down on the moral rigidity of the religious leaders Jesus encountered, but we need to look to our hearts. Don’t we set up religious litmus tests for each other, and decide who’s in and who’s out based on conditions that have nothing to do with Jesus’s open-hearted love and hospitality?
On this Social Justice Sunday we lament the state of the world that engages in war; children go hungry; people die for lack of health care or discriminated because of their social status; asylum seekers turned away to rot in foreign countries or die at sea; homeless people and elderly people living lonely and neglected; young people left without meaningful employment or no employment. As we lament this, we need to transform these situations as the Body of Christ in our world.
In recent weeks we focused on Christ’s presence in the Body – not just in the bread but in our community-the Body of Christ. The bread and wine becoming the body and blood of Christ are the entry point in the suffering of Christ in the world today – in people, nature and creation. The real presence of Jesus is our presence where exclusionary walls are removed.
Jack Nicholson, in As Good As It Gets, plays Marvin Udall an obsessive-compulsive author who lives alone. He is obsessed with protecting his personal world/space from contamination by obsessively avoiding cracks on the footpaths; each day takes his own cutlery to the café/restaurant for breakfast, whilst writing about love and romance. He avoids passersby in case they brush against him in the street. He insults everyone he meets including his gay neighbour and the Jewish patrons in ’his’ favourite restaurant. He does not listen to people. He engages in the daily ritual of hand washing. His cupboard is filled with bars of antiseptic soap each wrapped in cellophane and thrown out after his handwashing. The point here is that his verbal garbage wounds people, and his clean hands isolate him from people. Finally, in the movie, we see Marvin slowly move into a truth where cleanliness cannot be used to isolate himself as he moves to help his gay neighbour and the single mother waitress.
We see this process having clean hands in the privileged world – of which Australia has shamefully become a leader where more and more treats people fleeing violence, poverty and the chaos of war suspected of being criminals and terrorists. Politicians and sections of the media have not lost opportunities to inflame suspicion, fear and loathing towards the other especially the Muslim or African. In Europe, the perceived threat posed by so-called swarms of people coming across the Mediterranean has led to countries erecting more barriers to protect themselves – identity, culture, and way of life and standard of living. Such rhetoric has stoked visceral fears of the ‘wretched of the Earth’ without recognition or acknowledgement that it is violence, war and poverty often caused by western nations that makes people flee their homes. Matthew 25 shows how Jesus radically identifies with the least of this world. We are the Body of Christ. We are called not only to minister to the so-called ‘victims’ but to identify with them.
Pope Francis calls us to build ‘a church of mercy’ – the great challenge are mercy, kindness, openness, hospitality, compassion, advocacy and solidarity. The controversies Jesus encountered have been repeated in the life of the early church. They continue in different ways today. In early Church controversies over food laws have given over to other controversies or issues [treatment of asylum seekers and refugees, climate change or global warming, abortion, genetic research, stem-cell research, war, medical care, education, the environment, gender, women priests, homosexuality and same-sex marriage]. They are all opportunities for violent disagreement that could prevent Christians from coming to the table. We can become fearful that my existence, my livelihood, my security, my comfort is threatened.
Today we are called to action; to check our true allegiances; to discover where our true centre or heart is. True religion enables us to participate in fashioning a world where social justice and compassion prevail. Our actions with others witness to the heart - and world-changing power of true religion. Our actions toward the most defenseless among us speak clearly about where our hearts truly lie.
So, we are again challenged about our commitments. What do we burn for? What are we passionate about? Does our fear, worry and greed define us or is it a passion for justice and peace, genuine concern for and practical action on behalf of others? How willing we are to reach out to the people across the street. For James, authentic faith presupposes a corresponding lifestyle. True religion is an affair of the heart that leads to action. It is not about making sure our hands are clean. Ironically, often those who have washed their hands, or wear nice suits, are corrupt. They have washed their hands from engagement on the social and political level. The gospel story is alive as ever. ‘Hand washing’ at the time of Jesus, as today, reflects our desire to maintain ourselves ‘pure’ and ‘uncontaminated’ by those who are different; those who inconvenient; those who live in ways we do not understand. True religion is a threat to the powerful because people become active and engaged in their everyday lives and the lives others rather than being passive. The whole point is to maintain a heart, a heart of flesh not of stone, a heart alive not dead, a heart compassionate not selfish, a heart large not small, a heart hospitable not judgmental.
The resurrection shows that God who has sided with all people who are victims. Matthew 25 makes clear how Jesus radically identifies himself with the least of this world. Christ does not just identify himself with people who help the hungry, visit the imprisoned, or welcome the stranger, but Christ is the hungry and imprisoned person, the person who is a refugee and stranger. We are the Body of Christ and we are called not only to minister to the so-called ‘victims’ but to identify with them. So when God’s word calls us together we are meant to connect with the pain, hardship, suffering and injustice in our world.