Overcoming what divides us

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B: Sept. 5-6, 2009
Isa 35:4-7; Ps 146:7-10; James 2:1-5; Mark 7:31-37

Last year, while I was a transitional deacon, my assignment was at the Catholic Student Center at the University of Maryland. While I was at a student retreat with them in the fall, I learned that a couple movies were pretty important to several of the students: namely, “High School Musical” and “Mean Girls.” I hadn’t seen either one of those movies, so I took that as homework over my Thanksgiving Break.

And I found there was something very similar between the two movies. One of the enemies that characters struggled against was simply the social structure in the American high school: a world of cliques, in which the students divided up into small groups of similar people. And all these cliques enforced rules about how their members were to treat others: who they were to interact with, who they were to shun. In both movies, the main characters struggle against this social system; and the movies show the whole school somewhat overcoming it by the end of the movie.

It was important for me to remember that those college students had only just left that high school world; and that reality, and those struggles, were very real to them. But now, of course, they are in college; and now, and for the rest of their adults lives, they won’t ever again face such social divisions. Because adults don’t divide according to differences of what race they are, or what language they speak, or what country they come from, or where they live now, or how much education they have, or how much money they make. Only high school students do that. Right?

Well, no. We all deal with a natural inclination to be with those similar to us, and find it more difficult to be with those different from us. And even among those similar, we may make up divisions. I remember one day in the comic strip “Boondocks,” which ran for a few years in the Post, when the two brothers Huey and Riley had been playing a video game. And Riley wins and shouts, “Represent!” And Huey responds, “What? We live in the same town, on the same street, in the same house. We even live in the same room. What exactly are you representing?” And Riley shouts, “Left side of the room, fool!”

Again and again in St. Paul’s letters, we hear him urging the churches of the first century not to follow the ancient world’s rigid divisions between Greeks and non-Greeks, men and women, slave and free. And in our second reading today, St. James addresses the entire Church about the division between rich and poor. He writes: if a man with gold rings on his fingers and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and a poor person in shabby clothes also comes in, don’t treat the rich one with special honor and humiliate the poor one. Show no partiality, he says; do not make distinctions among yourselves.

And perhaps we should acknowledge straight off that, even though the Holy Spirit inspired St. James to warn the Church about this right in the first century, we haven’t done a perfect job of following what he says. Throughout the centuries, and still today, we hear of rich and powerful people being given special honor and special treatment by some bishops, some priests, some groups of the faithful. And every time anyone hears about something like this, isn’t it likely to make us a little more cynical? And to make those looking at the Church from the outside a little more cynical?—a little more ready to believe that our words about loving others and living for Christ are only on the surface, while really everyone is motivated by advancing their own interests?

Of course, our own interests are involved. When it comes to rich and poor, there are very practical consequences. Those who have money and power do have great ability to do good for us; and they have great ability to do harm. St. James says, in the verses that follow today’s reading: Are not the rich oppressing you? And do they themselves not haul you off to court? He says this to bolster his argument of why the faithful should not give the rich special treatment. But we might answer back: don’t you see what that means for our lives? The rich do have jobs to give—or to fire from—and in a recession that matters even more. They do have the resources to take us to court; and an average family can’t afford the legal costs to fight back.

And so there are practical reasons to give special treatment to the rich and powerful, wherever we meet them, including if they walk into our assembly. As long as we are bodily creatures living in this world, we need food, clothing, shelter, and protection against all kinds of threats. Our families need these things. And we have other needs too. We want to feel good about ourselves; and we want to be respected by others. If the rich and powerful like us and associate with us—just like in high school—doesn’t that help our self esteem and reputation?

We say, “Money talks.” “Everybody’s got a price.” “We are living in a material world, and I am a material—”

These physical needs, these emotional needs, these natural tendencies are deep-seated. They cannot be truly overcome by getting together in a high school gym, and everyone dancing and singing, “We’re all in this together!”—no matter how heart-warming that may be. They cannot be overcome just by electing a president—even though that might be a step in the right direction. And as we watch these divisions persist around us, and in our own hearts, what are we to do? Do we consider it impossible to overcome them? Unrealistic? Do we tell St. James, “I’m sorry, brother James, but you can’t ask us to show no partiality and make no distinctions among ourselves”?

But St. James knows us. My brothers and sisters—he writes—show no partiality as you adhere to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. “Our glorious Lord.” St. James had walked with Jesus during his life on earth. He had seen Christ miraculously heal people, like the deaf man who had a speech impediment in today’s gospel. He had seen him feed the hungry, and calm the storms, and raise the dead. He had seen him show no partiality—something that even his enemies acknowledged [Luke 20:21]. He had seen Christ love the poor, and proclaim the Good News to them, and call them to repent and follow him. He had seen Christ love the rich, and proclaim the Good News to them, and call them to repent and follow him. He had seen Christ’s courage, never intimidated by the rich and powerful. He had seen Christ’s love, never poisoned by hatred for anyone.

The center of Jesus Christ’s being was his identity as Son in relationship with God the Father, from whom he received everything, and to whom he gave everything, in thankfulness, praise, and loving obedience. We come to this relationship right at the altar in this Mass. As Christ was grounded and nourished in this relationship, no physical or emotional need could hold him back, for these needs were all met by his Father; and no social barrier could stop him from reaching out to each and every person and supplying them with the supernatural love of his Sacred Heart.

And this didn’t stop with Christ. St. James was there at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was poured out into the hearts of the apostles, and when they too began to overcome these divisions—preaching across language barriers to every manner of people gathered there in Jerusalem—as the ancient divisions of the Tower of Babel began to be overcome as the Holy Spirit drew together the mystical Body of Christ, the Church.

And the story continues through the centuries in the lives of the saints. If we flip through the pages of the saints, what do we find? People like:

  • St. Francis, who embraced poverty in the 1200s in northern Italy.
  • St. Hedwig, who founded hospitals for the poor in the 1200s in Bavaria.
  • St. Martin de Porres, who served the poor in the 1600s in Peru.
  • St. John Eudes, who reached out to prostitutes in the 1600s in France.
  • St. Joseph Calasanz, who reached out to poor boys in the 1600s in Rome.
  • St. Peter Claver, who reached out to the slaves brought to Colombia in the 1600s.
  • St. Paul of the Cross, who reached out to the poor and sick in the 1700s in Italy.
  • And in our own country, in the 1800s and 1900s, St. Frances Cabrini, who established schools, hospitals and orphanages;
  • and St. Katherine Drexel, who reached out to African Americans and Native Americans.
  • And of course the glowing example in our own lifetime is Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, whose feast day was yesterday, who reached out to the poorest of the poor amidst the tight social divisions in India.

All of these men and women, and many, many more, not only followed St. James’ words to show no partiality when a rich man and a poor man walked into their assembly; they reached out and gave their lives, their fortunes, everything they had, to find the poor, the orphans, the homeless, the injured, the sick, the disabled, the oppressed. Nothing dissolves the hard rock of cynicism like the blood of the martyrs and the living example of the saints, who have their needs met by the Lord and then pour themselves out in service and true love for others. And it turns out: it’s all true after all.

This is Good News. This enables us, as our first reading tells us, to say to those whose hearts are frightened: Be strong, fear not! Here is your God, he comes with vindication; with divine recompense he comes to save you.

When we allow God’s grace to meet our needs and transform us, we can stop acting like what St. James calls judges with evil designs; we can stop being like corrupt judges who look at every person only to evaluate, what can this person do for me; and instead we can become like Christ, and like the saints, who reach out to give this love that the world so desperately needs.

It was in a high school 35 years ago that my dad was a new teacher in his first teaching job. It was a high school on an Air Force base, and he saw, on top of all those other divisions that every high school has, the students were also divided by their parents’ military ranks. But he saw that one group of Christian students really loved each other and truly overcame all those divisions. My dad considered himself an agnostic when he arrived at that job; but he began to see in these Christian students’ lives that Christ was real, that the Holy Spirit was real. It made a difference for him that they lived out what St. James urges us.

Let us pray again the words of our opening prayer: God our Father, you redeem us and make us your children in Christ. Look upon us, give us true freedom, and bring us to the inheritance you promised. Grant this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

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Published in: on September 6, 2009 at 7:11 pm  Leave a Comment  
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