Twenty Second Sunday of the Year
Despite complaints that things are going downhill, we still encounter people who refuse to be conformed to the world’s standards and show through their commitment God is passionate about people and cares about what we do to one another. Jeremiah offers a window into being engaged prophetically and vulnerability is part of the experience.
He is ridiculed as he confronts his people with a message that puts him on the margins. Despite wanting to give up, justice enflames his heart where God is like a ‘burning fire shut up in [their] bones’ where he cannot walk away. Life for him does not become easier but still experiences experiencing God’s tangible presence in his engagement with people. Might this not be what Cardinal Alvaro Ramazzini meant when he said to the people in his diocese in Guatemala that when they feel the anger arise from the pit of their stomachs through their throats to listen to it: that is the voice of God speaking. The tone of the readings is captured by a powerful book called Naught for your Comfort (1956) by the late Trevor Huddleston, an Anglican priest and later bishop in South Africa on the consequences for people opposing Apartheid.
The Gospel invites us to embody the Christ who, like Jeremiah, is on the margins. It is not comfortable. We see Jesus challenging the political, social, cultural and religious structures and attitudes of the day. His work for justice ended with crucifixion but this is where our work begins as people on the margins continue to be ‘crucified’ every day. The temptation for the privileged is to stay comfortable.
In 1989, the Profiles in Courage Award, created by the Kennedy family to honour President John K Kennedy, recognises and celebrates - women and men - who risked and sacrificed their livelihoods, their safety and their lives to highlight injustice and human rights abuses. Such ‘profiles of courage’ are evident in people such as Jerimiah who finds the courage to voice an unpopular message to people who refused to listen. Jesus’ proclaimed a message even when his disciples found it unacceptable – as many still do. Yet, Jerimiah and Jesus challenge us to be courageous in our living the gospel. We are invited to and into the margins.
Jesus’ view is that the world is full of sisters and brothers and only by renewing our minds can we be transformed to operating in ways different to the world. In Australia it is Social Justice Sunday the Catholic Bishops’ Social Justice Statement for 2020–21 is titled ‘To Live Life to the Full: Mental health in Australia today.’ Today, renewing our minds means allowing ourselves to be transformed so that we abolish distinctions that people make; to recognise and treat as brothers and sisters people we might fear, mistrust, hate, or dismiss; and to look at the face of the other and see their vulnerability that calls out for presence, care, and protection.
‘Our challenge is to accompany people from the margins into a journey towards the fullness of life and love. We are meant to be in the coalface, in the messiness of it all and at the same time in fidelity to the Gospel… Like Christ in his ministry among the sick and the lost, we are called to meet God in the most unlikely people and places. We, too, must be in that frontier space.’ Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM Conv.
Jesus is teaching us a different way. He came to set the oppressed free, to proclaim liberty to captives, to offer sight to the blind, to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord. This is our call. ‘Naught for our comfort!’. It's the way of hungering and thirsting for justice. It's a way of identifying with the poor, the way of being with those who mourn and grieve, the way of the peacemaker. This is the way of Jesus – and it took time for even Peter to understand or accept it. Progress cannot be realised without struggle. People like Peter may try to divert us and calls us to be reasonable. We can all exercise a ministry of presence because the people we are remembering especially this year through the Bishops’ call through the Social Justice Statement is that it is about each one of us, it is a member of my family, it is literally a brother or sister in the family or beyond, it is a work colleague, it is a community member, it is often the young and not so young person who is living on the street. It is about all of us at some time. There is no place for ‘othering’. Once we know, we have an obligation. Once our eyes are opened to the reality around us, we cannot then close them and not see. Once we’ve heard the cry of the poor, marginalised and the oppressed, we cannot unhear their voices or stop listening.
Paul acknowledges the challenge of following Jesus and encourages us to live according to God’s mind and heart rather than conforming to a culture that is punitive rather than liberating and rehabilitating; a culture that meets violence with more violence; a culture of silence and looks the other way to avoid confrontation or rocking the boat. Paul exhorts us to not allow ourselves be conformed to a world view where we get things done by force, coercion, violence, power trips, money trips, ego trips; showing hatred when we are expected to hate our enemies; of developing always bigger sticks or bombs to use against others; of being suspicious and mean towards the outsider and the stranger. Paul offers an ongoing challenge to allow ourselves to be transformed as we work for the transformation of structures, mindsets, attitudes and policies that have caused and continue to cause systemic oppression time immemorial. Conformity to and comfortability with discrimination and oppression in any way, shape or form on this planet is not acceptable. All of the readings are a ‘call to action’ which cannot be ignored. Paul calls people to be transformed by the renewal of their minds. The experience of climate crisis, COVID-19, the rising up of the margins and death within all human and non-human communities on the margins should shake us to realize that we can no longer think the way we do, especially if we think the way dominant cultures do. Renewing our minds in a global context for the 21st century is no longer an option. We are in the midst of a global pandemic with 100s of thousands of preventable deaths, the politicisation of public health, the uncovering of white nationalism and systemic racism not to mention God’s creation being disfigured.
Some evangelical Christians see the mercy and inclusiveness proclaimed by Pope Francis threatens their lifestyles , thus embracing Donald Trump as a protector of a culture they see as endangered. In terms of Paul’s words, safety and protection comes at the cost of a bully who persecutes others for them. We need to recognise the dangerous toxicity where earthly power and clout is sought in society and church where people want to throw their weight around, and lord it over others to feel safe. We know that when Christians have had power they forgot to follow and imitate the vulnerable and nonviolent Jesus. It is powerful people who murder, torture and imprison people such as those who disrupt mining companies that destroy Indigenous ancestral lands; who commit genocide; who rip Indigenous children from the arms of their mothers and destroy culture; who buy and sell people for profit; who commit sexual abuse and cover it up by blaming the victims; who run institutions that neglect the aged, people living with mental illness and disability; who devised and supported the Doctrine of Discovery that justified the taking of Indigenous lands and was justified in the name of Christianity. We are all capable of similar injustices and atrocities where power is sought instead of imitating the vulnerable Jesus. ‘Who do you say I am?’
‘Do not conform yourself to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your minds that you might know what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect.’ The spirit of the world tries to convince us that we need is power. The way of the world focuses on the self as the centre of activity. When everything is centred on the self, we conforming to the values, goals, and objectives of our age. We move from the ‘we’ to the ‘I’. We can how clearly this approach has failed us over and over especially the poor. Let us challenge ourselves to keep learning and growing, allowing God to transform us, so we might act with courage in spite of the obstacles and struggle to bring about a time acceptable to the Lord. So, once again, we are asked ‘Who do you say I am?’