It has been a dreadful week – the Amazon burns on, destroying square miles of irreplaceable rain forest and costing the lives of countless millions of rare animals and plants as well as the habitations of the indigenous peoples. It not the only area on fire – devastating forest fires are spreading in Siberia as well as parts of southern Europe and even the Southern Pacific regions, greatly worsening the peril facing the planet because of climate change. Hurricane season is reaching its height, with Dorian now approaching the eastern US coast with incredible force. And Americans awoke this morning to the news of yet another mass shooting in Texas, just four weeks to the day after the horrifying El Paso shootings.
Lethal shootings erupted in other parts of the country as well, as those who live in Chicago can usually testify. But Chicago is far from being the chief battleground, as St. Louis and Los Angeles know too well. Overall, more than 35,000 people die from gun violence each year in the United States, far more than any other industrialized nation of comparable population size. Two-thirds of these deaths are suicides. Yet the US is not the worst example in terms of per-capita deaths from gun violence, most of which occur in Central and South America and even Greenland. It is a growing national and international catastrophe. Yes, Virginia, guns kill people. That’s what they are FOR.
Strangely enough, if the TV is off, and news flashes on our cell phones and tablets are ignored, the world seems peaceful enough. There maybe fewer song birds now, the skies are often hazy, and the heat can get oppressive, but it’s possible to ignore the warning signs of planetary peril brewing like a hurricane off the coast. And it’s no sin to enjoy a day of rest and even a weekend off, if one is lucky. And today, our scripture readings also point us in a different direction.
Two themes connect the readings – humility and almsgiving, which may seem pretty disparate. But in the mind of God, they are closely related.
The first reading from the book of Jesus ben Sirach is part of the Wisdom tradition, which was developed to provide spiritual and moral guidance for young Jews who were living in Persia, Egypt, and other parts of the world outside of Israel a few centuries before the birth of Jesus. The name given it was hochmah, wisdom. This particular selection focuses on the wisdom of humility, much as Jesus does in the Gospel reading. In both cases, the counsel both Jesuses offer seems counter-intuitive – if you want to advance and succeed, keep your head down. Don’t exalt yourself at the expense of others, particularly those less fortunate than yourselves. Don’t force your ideas or plans on others. Treat people with respect, and they will respect and honor you. They may even listen to you.
Jesus also told us not to put our lamps under baskets, but here he seems especially concerned with avoiding arrogance, the kind of rudeness that walks on the feelings of others as if they didn’t matter. No one shines brighter by casting shade on other people. It’s a lesson for nations as well as individuals.
Treating others with respect, even by taking a back seat, may not seem wise, but according to both Jewish and Christian teaching it is part of the Golden Rule. And that is the link with almsgiving, sharing the goods of this world freely with those who lack them. The example Jesus gives is striking. Don’t favor your rich friends with your generosity, but reach out to the poor and infirm – beggars, cripples, the lame and blind, those the world of high society doesn’t even notice. There are many ways to do so today, not least by contributing to food drives, providing shelter for the homeless, and disaster relief. Almsgiving has not ceased to be relevant in an age of credit cards and bitcoinage. Jesus ben Sirach puts it simply enough: “Water quenches a flaming fire, and alms atone for sins.”
Yesterday I was struck by a long discussion of almsgiving and contributions to beautifying church buildings and lavish rituals by St. John Chrysostom, the beleaguered Patriarch of Constantinople, a reading appropriately selected for the coming celebration. [Homily 50 on St. Matthew, Patrologia Graeca 58.] “Of what use is it to weigh down Christ’s table with golden cups,” he preached, “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 golden thread, and not providing Christ himself with the clothes he needs?”
St. John was referring to the poor, of course, the “least” of Jesus’ sisters and brothers (see Matthew 25:34-46). Later, he remarks, “Apply this also to Christ when he comes along the roads as a pilgrim, looking for shelter. You do not take him in as your guest, but you decorate floors and walls and the capitals of pillars. You provide silver chains for the lamps but cannot bear even to look at him as he lies chained in prison.”
I wonder what the old patriarch would say about the many hundreds of desperate refugees, especially children, being incarcerated in the lockups along our southern border? It’s easy to see why he found himself at odds with the imperial family and was banished more than once and in fact died in exile. It’s risky to speak compassion, much less truth, to power. But it can be divinely wise.