Orbiting Dicta

Monthly Archives: September 2020

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.


25th Sunday of the Year: Beyond Justice

This past week, the Chicago area was witness to a nurses’ strike for more just wages and fairer conditions, which may seem odd when the country is still held fast in the grips of a pandemic. In this most prosperous nation on earth, as we are informed, where millionaire politicians enact the laws, it would be even odder if there weren’t such strikes. The struggle for just wages, not least for those who are essential workers in a desperate situation, is hardly something new. That it persists in the so-called richest country on earth should be deeply troubling.

Today, the gospel reading, which continues the section of Matthew’s gospel devoted to expounding the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven in parables,
focuses on justice and generosity not only in labor relations, but in all our relations. The kingdom of heaven, God’s reign, is revealed to us in the form of a vineyard, one of the favorite prophetic symbols from Hebrew scripture and one Jesus used several times. There are echoes here of the Book of Isaiah, of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, and even perhaps of Tobit, where the issue of generous wages comes to bear. What is distinctive in this parable, however, is that, typically, Jesus stands ordinary logic and even conventional notions of strict justice on their head to tell us what God’s reign is really like. [See Is 55:6‑9, Phil 1:20c‑24,27a, and Mt 20:1‑16a.]

For here, at first glance Jesus seems to know as little about labor relations as he did about herding sheep, fishing, farming, and economics. What the men were doing in the vineyard is not clear. We don’t even know what time of year it was supposed to be because that isn’t important. It was probably harvest tine. But the fact that Jesus mentions a vineyard essentially tips us off that this is a story about God’s realm and how things are done there, which is to say, very differently from how they are done in the ordinary human realm.

Traditionally, a vineyard was a symbol of Israel. Here, however, Jesus is not interested in the vineyard, or even in the grapes, but in the workers. Specifically, in their attitude toward each other’s wages. Fair wages and prompt payment for a fair day’s work were an important part of ancient Hebrew ethics:

“You shall not oppress your neighbor or rob him. The wages of a hired servant shall not remain with you all night until the morning” [Lev 19:13].

“You shall not oppress a hired servant who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brethren or one of the sojourners who are in your land within your towns; you shall give him his hire on the day he earns it, before the sun goes down (for he is poor, and sets his heart upon it); lest he cry against you to the Lord, and it be sin in you” [Deut 24:14-15: 14].

A strong echo thunders in the Epistle of James: “Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts” (James 5:4).

But even basic justice, much less generosity, fall short of what Jesus has in mind in his sweeping revision of human relationships. He is not really interested in money. His warrant is found in the Book of Isaiah, from which we took the first reading. God’s ways are no more like ours than our thoughts are like God’s thoughts. Mercy and forgiveness are here at stake, which reminds us of last week’s readings. God, Isaiah tells us, is generous in forgiving. The question is are we generous in forgiving? As generous as the Lord of the Vineyard is to the laborers? Are we really comfortable with the Law of Christ, the topsy-turvy world of the gospel in which the first shall be last and the last first? Are we willing to receive the mercy of God, or, rather, are we also willing that others receive it in ever greater measure because their need is greater?

Are we really at home with a God for whom mercy means overwhelming generosity, complete remission, total reconciliation? With a realm in which there will be more joy … over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance? (Luke 15:7) Envy, we are told, is being pleased with someone’s misfortune or saddened by their good fortune. But what is the opposite of envy?

In the end, it gets down to this: it is not the sense of justice Jesus preaches that rebels in us when the person next to us in line or at table gets a bigger slice of pie than we do. Or, for that matter, a bigger salary. What is it to you or me what Oprah Winfrey , Bill Gates, or Elon Musk earn? What does matter is fundamental justice and inclusive mercy, the divine generosity without which love and forgiveness remain empty concepts.

Small wonder that Paul could long to be free from the burdens of this life to be with Christ. But because he was at home in the upside-down world of the gospel of Jesus, he was a true bodhisattva, content to remain in the world to preach that gospel to every living creature. He did not require to be admitted first. Last was good enough. He was even willing to give that up if more of his countrymen would be saved. That is God’s way. Let us pray that God will so increase in us the spirit of generous giving and forgiving, beyond strict justice, that the word around us will be shocked at the scope of our foolishness.


24th Sunday of the year: The Wondrous Cross

Tomorrow’s observance of the Triumph of the Cross marks the half-way point to the great Paschal mysteries that ordinarily begin around the middle of March. It’s a moment to recall the dying words of Jesus, which are so much at the heart of his teaching: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:34). For today’s readings focus on forgiving and being forgiven, sometimes called the Law of Christ. It’s not a comfortable message, especially when great harm has been done. And after the great harm of 9/11, commemorated again last Friday, and all the outrages against people and property since then, it might seem natural for people to want revenge, to seek retribution. But what have we gained from the slaughter that followed? (See Sir 27:30–28:9, Rom 14:7-9, and Mt 18:21-35.)

Since 2001, close to a million people have died in the wars we declared in our desire for vengeance, a majority of them most likely innocent civilians. In 2018, Brown University’s Costs of War Project released an estimate of the total death toll from the U.S. wars in three countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. “The numbers, while conservatively estimated, are staggering. Brown’s researchers estimate that at least 480,000 people have been directly killed by violence over the course of these conflicts, more than 244,000 of them civilians. In addition to those killed by direct acts of violence, the number of indirect deaths — those resulting from disease, displacement, and the loss of critical infrastructure — is believed to be several times higher, running into the millions.” [https://theintercept.com/2018/11/19/civilian-casualties-us-war-on-terror/]

Over a thousand European civilians also died in retaliatory attacks and other terrorist acts in Paris, Brussels, Nice, Berlin, Manchester, London, Madrid and Barcelona. The cost in national treasure has been enormous – more than $4.8 trillion for our wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan alone.

More recently, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), the death toll from the U.S.-supported war in Yemen, is now over 100,000, including more than 12,000 civilians, as well as estimates of more than 85,000 dead as a result of an ongoing famine due to the war. [https://acleddata.com/2020/03/25/acled-resources-war-in-yemen/]

Add to these four examples, the staggering loss of life in the United States from gun violence, including suicides and accident: “When all firearm injuries are considered, over 100,000 Americans are killed or injured each year as a result of firearms and nonfatal firearm injuries have increased from 22.1 to 26.7 per 100,000 population during the last decade.” [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5849457/]

We don’t seem to know how to stop the killing and the destruction. And yet we read today in Ben Sira, “The vengeful will suffer the Lord’s vengeance…”

Yet forgiveness is a recurrent theme in Christian teaching. In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul says “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” [See Deut. 32:35]. No, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” [Rom 12: 19-20.] But do we really believe that? Are we likely to write it into our campaign speeches and foreign policy?

If we have come to think of forgiveness as something distinctively Christian, it is certainly at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. But today especially we find the same message in the Book of Sirach, expressed three hundred years earlier: “Forgive your neighbor’s injustice, then, when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.” He makes the point three time over, and in each instance he links being forgiven with forgiving. If we are slow in healing from the terrible events of 2001, perhaps it is because we are still lacking in forgiveness.

For Paul the opposite of vengeance is active forgiveness, as it was for Jesus. For they were schooled in the Jewish Law, where it was written very early on, “You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” [Lev. 19:18].

One of the most enduring memories I have of the events of 9/11 is the image of hundreds of thousands, probably millions of people around the world, gathered that night and in the nights that followed, holding candles and praying for the victims who perished and the survivors. I distinctly remember a woman in France shouting “Today we are all Americans!” — a cry that was echoed over and over around the entire planet. That is, until the desire for vengeance overrode the possibility of healing and we let loose the dogs of war that continue to prowl to this day.

Like those of Ben Sira and St. Paul, Jesus’ message to us today and every day remains the same – we say it so frequently that it has probably ceased to have much meaning – forgive us our trespasses – our debts, our sins – as we forgive those who sin against us. The metaphor of debt-forgiveness, cancellation, that we find so prominent in Jesus’ parable, is not an accident, as we see in Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt 6:12). Forgiveness means writing off the debt, and is still used that way in banking. It is an apt metaphor and one perhaps never more appropriate.

Above all else, the cross of Christ is a sign not of punishment, but of love, a love that the power of hate, the lure of revenge, and the might of oppression can not stifle, “a love,” as the old hymn has it, “so amazing, so divine that it demands our soul, our life, our all….” [“When I survey the Wondrous Cross,” Isaac Watts, 1674-1748].


23rd Sunday of the Year: Love in Troubled Times

[It has been a very difficult week according to the news media—not watching it helps to keep cheerful, by the way. What I find oddly disturbing is how similar things are today to what was going on in 2017 – civic unrest, political turmoil, wildfires, unprecedented storms, to name a few —but no Covid Crisis. Does that make them “the good old days”? Consider this excerpt from my homily for today from Sept. 10, 2017… The bottom line has not changed: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Readings: Ezek 33:7-9, Rom 13:8-10, Mt 18:15-20.]

Reporters speak of “nature’s fury,” although it would not be amiss to remember “human negligence,” as decades of hesitation to curb carbon emissions have undoubtedly contributed to the increase in both atmospheric and ocean temperatures that bear very greatly on the scope and intensity of hurricanes and wildfires. Bickering about the science for political gain simply compounds the problem.

Attention to the storms, not to mention the devastating wildfires in the Pacific northwest and far west, as well as the storms and fires in other parts of the world, have at least temporarily diverted media attention from the ongoing drama of investigations into possible political malfeasance on the national, state, and local levels. For political storms also abound this year. And it is these that provide a kind of coincidental background for today’s liturgical readings.

In recent months, it seems that some inhabitants of the political arena seem to have developed a special interest in digging up dirt on other inhabitants, especially if they happen to be politicians, and most especially if they’re in the other party. It is unarguably true that “the price of liberty is eternal vigilance” – an American slogan traceable to Thomas Charlton’s biography of General James Jackson in 1809. (No, Virginia, Thomas Jefferson did not coin the phrase.) But checking into suspected wrongdoing, while a civic responsibility of those charged with public order, does not simply extend to the domestic arena, where motives of rivalry, jealousy, and revenge can gravely disrupt the fabric of ordinary life.

One of the most difficult tasks in life (and love!) is pointing out someone’s faults. Given many different ways of approaching the same issue, it is fair to ask what should we do when we become aware that someone has done something wrong?

In law, there’s not too much of a problem. To conceal a crime by not reporting it to the police is itself a crime. It’s certainly not necessary to confront the criminal, or even someone who in a case of domestic violence has overstepped themselves. But we are morally obliged to report it. Unlike God, the legal authorities are kind enough to provide special phone numbers for that.

So why would someone want to confront another person with evidence they have committed a sin? There is really only one possible reason, one possible justification for a Christian. And the second reading and the gospel point it out very clearly. It’s love.

St. Paul’s letter to the Christians at Rome is based solidly on what Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel, where Jesus responded to a difficult heckler, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets” [Matt 22: 37-40]. Paul simply says, “He who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.”

Now what’s interesting in today’s reading from Matthew is that you might expect Jesus to say, “If your brother should commit some sin against you, just forgive him.” But here he says, “Go and point out his fault, but keep it between the two of you.”

Notice that it is a wrong committed against you. Not some general wrong, like cheating on income tax or not voting. This is a special case that had to be faced in the early Christian community, which like any other, had conflicts of interest and spite and people getting out of sorts with one another. In Matthew’s community, this is the way they remembered Jesus telling them to handle such disputes. It ends with a little twist, based on the Jewish legal tradition that two witnesses had to agree on any charge brought against someone. Jesus moves that to a consideration of just two Christians united in his name about anything at all. And where they are genuinely united in his name, he is present. Jesus is the third witness: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in their midst.”.

Here Jesus is alluding to a Rabbinic teaching from the Mishnah, the ancient Jewish commentary on scripture, in the words of Rabbi Chanina: “Two who sit together and there are words of Torah between them, the Shekinah [Divine Presence] rests with them ‘‘ (Pirqe Aboth 3:3).

The prophetic stance of correction is still part of the spiritual life for Christians, especially for parents, but also for teachers, and husbands and wives, and anyone who truly cares for the moral and spiritual well-being of others. We are responsible for each other. That does not give us the liberty to go around fault-finding, shaming and blaming in public, which will certainly not win us many friends or influence anybody for long. The art of pointing the finger is to make sure that it isn’t loaded – bearing in mind that we are sinners just like anyone else, and far from perfect. But when someone has done something manifestly wrong and it concerns us (and especially others), Jesus says that we must bring it to light. Not the public limelight, but the light of truth and love.

And that’s the difference between Christian responsibility and being a “journalistic investigator” or simply a “busybody.”

So what are we to make of constant digging into every aspect of a celebrity’s or politician’s past, much less our neighbors’? Should we go looking under rocks to dig up what dirt we can find on each other? Should we revel in disclosures of wrong-doing or shameful misdeeds of the past? Should we glory in the belief that we, like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable, “are not like the rest of men”? [Luke 18:11].

Not according to Paul: “Love never does any wrong to the neighbor, hence love is the fulfillment of the law.” Let us go, then, in peace and love. We have some work to do.