Living in the midst of turmoil is trying in normal times, but somehow it has recently become a habit. Last week was burden enough, but just seven days later we see Hurricane Ida bearing down on New Orleans, the airport at Kabul under perilous siege, the Covid pandemic gaining strength, global temperatures soaring, and wildfires still roasting the western United States, northern Siberia, north Africa, and southern Europe.
Like the ancient Hebrews, contemporary Americans are prone to forget that there is a proviso attached to the frequent pledges that God will be near and will strengthen and protect the promised Kingdom. The proviso is the same, for the Hebrews, for the early Christians, and for us now, as we heard today in the reading from James, who in today’s second reading echoes Isaiah [1:17] as well as Deuteronomy [27:19] and especially
“Only if you thoroughly reform your ways and your deeds; if each of you deals justly with his neighbor; if you no longer oppress the resident alien, the orphan, and the widow; if you no longer shed innocent blood in this place, or follow strange gods to your own harm, will I remain with you in this place, in the land which I gave your fathers long ago and forever. But here you are, putting your trust in deceitful words to your own loss!” [See Jeremiah 7:5-8].
As tens of thousands of Afghan refugees crowd into makeshift shelters in Germany, the US, and other countries opening their borders, we would well in days to come to recall what Scripture reminds us so forcefully about compassion for widows, orphans, and the resident aliens in the land, because now and always God does play favorites – those same desperate people. The measure of the justice of Israel and, if St. James is our guide, of Christian faith, is how we care for those who are poor, wretched, unfortunate, displaced, and hurting. Since the Second Vatican Council, that has been known as God’s preferential option for the poor. And should be ours as well.
There will be pushback, of course. There always is. But it is not conscience that makes cowards of us all, it is self-interest.
Mark’s gospel takes up these themes by focusing on the false promise of religiosity, the smokescreen thrown up by those who promote what we now call “the virtue of selfishness” with the slogan made famous by Gordon Gecko in the film Wall Street: “Greed is good.” It is the kind of religion that elevates customs and traditions over human compassion and justice: observing the unimportant, neglecting the important. Jesus here cites Isaiah, but any number of passages in the Hebrew scriptures would suffice.
The greatest danger to Christian life, to all spirituality, is false religion, the tendency to idolize the elements of creed, code, and cult, forgetting what these verbal and behavioral metaphors stand for. Dogmatism, Moralism, and Ritualism are the enemies of the gospel from within. And yes, they do defile.
Toward the ends of the fourth century, the patriarch of Constantinople, St. John Chrysostom, recognized the tendency at work in the imperial church when he said,
“Of what use is it to weigh down Christ’s table with golden cups, when he himself is dying of hunger? First, fill him when he is hungry; then use the means you have left to adorn his table. Will you have a golden cup made but not give a cup of water? What is the use of providing the table with cloths woven of gold thread, and not providing Christ himself with the clothes he needs? What profit is there in that? Tell me: If you were to see him lacking the necessary food but were to leave him in that state and merely surround his table with gold, would he be grateful to you or rather would he not be angry? What if you were to see him clad in worn out rags and stiff from the cold, and were to forget about clothing him and instead were to set up golden columns for him, saying that you were do¬ing it in his honor? Would he not think he was being mocked and greatly insulted? [Homily 50, on the Gospel of Matthew].”
As someone who has devoted his life to the profession of religion, as we call it, I find these words scary. What they tell us is that to minister is not merely to serve, not even essentially to serve. Diakonia, ministry, means to represent, to make the presence of Christ visibly and tangibly real in the world. And the greatest danger to Christian ministry is reversion, bending spiritual energies away from the world back onto the religious institution itself. It is in this way that ministers become functionaries.
As emissaries of Christ, we are often ambassadors without portfolio, even if we have managed to survive the formal gauntlet of professional accreditation. Our message is ultimately our life, as his message was himself. In that sense, what we do is what we are, and our main task is simply to become that.
One thing is indelibly clear: the first place where Christian ministry should focus, as Jesus himself did, is on the poor, the oppressed, the infirm, the vulnerable, all the wretched of the earth. The rest will largely take care of itself.
“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.
Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” [Luke 12: 29-34].