Orbiting Dicta

26th Sunday of the Year: True Obedience

September has been another record-shattering period for wildfires in the West and hurricanes in the Southeast. Globally, the last three years have been the hottest on record. In fact, the 10 hottest years ever recorded have all occurred since 1998. The top ten were 2016, 2019, 2015, 2017, 2018, 2014, 2010, 2013, 2005 (tied), and 1998, The hottest of all was 2016, which broke the record set in 2015, which broke the record set in 2014 and so on. But 2020 may wind up topping the charts. Meteorologists say 2020 is on course to be hottest year since records began, breaking the record set four years ago.
www.theguardian.com › environment › apr › meteorologi.

While politicians debate whether climate change is real, the climate is changing whether we like it or not – inexorably now, it appears. One might think it would feature more prominently in the political campaigns this year. It is the gravest problem threatening this country and the world as a whole. But it seems politically convenient to overlook the growing and urgent danger.

Another blind spot concerns capital punishment. Like fire and flood, Federal executions are on the increase in the US. A year ago, Attorney General William Barr, a Catholic, directed the Federal Bureau of Prisons to adopt an updated execution protocol and schedule the executions of five death row inmates. The last federal execution had been in 2003. As a result, more federal executions have been carried out in 2020 than in the previous 57 years combined. The last such executions were carried out on Sept. 22 and Sept. 24.

A few years ago I gave a keynote address at a conference on justice and forgiveness. During the discussion, the topic of capital punishment came up. Although the conference was organized by a Catholic organization and approved by the archdiocese, some people were surprised when I mentioned that both the official teaching of the Church and the bishops of the United States oppose capital punishment and have done so for decades. The news seems not to have trickled down to the level of the pews – or of the Department of Justice or the most Catholic U.S. Supreme Court in history.

That may change, however, as Amy Coney Barrett, the candidate for the vacancy on the Supreme Court nominated by Donald Trump, and a Catholic, is on record opposing capital punishment under any circumstances. This may (and should) ignite another storm of controversy. [https://scholarship.law.nd.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1523&context=law_faculty_scholarship]

Appropriately enough, over the last three weeks, the readings from scripture at our Sunday liturgies have focused on justice, mercy, and forgiveness, themes which are always in season and a favorite of Pope Francis. And we need to hear the Word of God about them, not least since Jesus set such great store by them that forgiveness came to be called “The Law of Christ.” Without forgiveness, there is no peace. Without mercy, there is no justice.

A lot of recent social unrest and political rhetoric have focused on punishment, revenge, and retribution. Not surprisingly, when someone actually forgives a person who has wronged them, people not only sit up and take notice, they think something has gone dreadfully wrong. Today’s readings are strangely out of tune with all that. Together, they tell us something important from very different viewpoints about our relationship with God and each other, basically God’s mercy and our need to forgive. [See Ez 18:25-28, Phil 2:1-11, and Matt 21:28-32.]

First, the prophet Ezekiel again reminds us again that God’s ways are not like our ways. God not only does things differently, but wants us to do them differently as well. Differently from how the world does them. God shows mercy and spares the life of the repentant sinner. And we feel that it isn’t fair. We find it especially disagreeable when it comes to people many of us normally avoid and hope will avoid us as well. What kind of justice is it, after all, where “there is more joy … over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance?” [Luke 15:7].

God forgives us, after all, to the extent we forgive each other. It’s plainly stated in the Lord’s Prayer, but do we really pay attention? I will always remember the execution in Texas of Karla Faye Tucker, sentenced to death for a double homicide, but who had undergone a genuine conversion while on death row and was conducting scripture classes at the time. The State of Texas executed her anyway, despite national and international appeals for clemency.

In the gospel reading, Jesus explains the strange logic of the kingdom of heaven in another parable, those stories that challenge us even as they often charm us. He had just been speaking about John the Baptist, and this parable is also about John, as he makes clear at the end: “For John came to you in the way of justice, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the harlots believed him; and even when you saw it, you did not afterward repent and believe him” [Matt 21: 32].

The point of the gospel has to do less with the notion of true obedience, which succeeds even after an initial refusal, but with our attitude towards those who seem to getting away with something. The attitude is resentment or envy. And that something is salvation, the Kingdom of God. We heard this last week in the parable of the workers in the vineyard, when the Lord of the harvest asks the grumbling workers, “are you envious because I am generous?”

Neither Jesus nor Ezekiel nor Paul are saying that injustice goes unnoticed. Far from it. Injustice denied is an affront to the living truth, and we therefore have a duty to protest injustice. To resist the domination of sin, if only by our suffering, is to serve the Truth and the Light. And with God’s grace, it will bring those responsible for injustice and suffering not to punishment and death, but to conversion of heart. But it’s very hard to write that into a party platform.

Let us pray, then, that in the midst of all the bad news, we will not forget the good news, that God’s ways are more than fair, that outcasts and hard cases will enter the Kingdom just as surely as anyone else. They may even show us the way in.