DOING JUSTICE AND LIVING IN GOD’S PRESENCE
Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflection
16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
I take my cue for today’s reflection from our response after the first reading: “He who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord.”
Traditional scholastic philosophy that reached its apex in the writings of
speaks of justice as based on what is “due,” from the Latin word “debitum,” that is, what is “owed” to someone else. St. Thomas
Biblical tradition as a whole, and the readings today, in particular, going far beyond what the scholastic treatise on justice demands, show us what this “due” is all about, and to whom it is owed – to widows, to the poor, to strangers, and to orphans … everyone who has no one else to rely on. God’s justice shines best in His compassion, His mercy, His loving-kindness.
Today’s liturgy offers us a whole lot more on this issue of the “debitum.” It refers to a state of healthy tension between two seemingly irreconcilable polar realities. It refers to a delicate balance between giving too much attention on one, to the detriment of the other; between being present to oneself and one’s concerns, and being present to others, including, and, most of all, God Himself.
Thus, in the first reading, Abraham’s “attention” – his being meaningfully and actively present to three strangers who happened to pass by his dwelling; his hospitality and his giving “due” concern to weary and hungry travelers, was ultimately looked at kindly by God, who rewarded him and Sarah with a son.
Abraham’s generous and selfless act of “attending,” that is, his being fully present to his guests, occasioned more than just a visitation from above. He literally “lived in the presence of the Lord,” after giving what was “due” to his guest-messengers from God.
Good old Henri Nouwen years back, had already written about the need for us followers of Christ to cultivate this virtue of hospitality. He contrasts hospitality with hostility, and says that spirituality, among other things, ought to be a movement from hostility to hospitality. At the risk of misrepresenting his ideas, I would like to suggest that this virtue is basically what this “delicate balance” is all about. Hostility is to be so focused on oneself, and one’s concerns, on one’s needs and wants, as to be effectively against the same needs and concerns of others. Hostility, which comes from the Latin word for “enemy,” is to be turned against others, while hospitality, which comes from the Latin word for “guest,” connotes being turned towards others.
Our world is deeply mired in a culture of hostility, in what the late Holy Father John Paul II calls, the “culture of death.” Why, people cannot even be magnanimous enough to welcome new life into their busy, cluttered, and self-centered lives. People polarize themselves and align themselves with either the Pro-Life or Pro-Choice banners, reducing morality to a superficial choice between two political ideologies. Nations are preoccupied defining and safeguarding “borders” to prevent outsiders and strangers from coming in. Civilizations are at figurative loggerheads, trying to outdo each other, trying to be two steps ahead of one another, in a mad race to eradicate each other in a violence and hate-ridden world of terrorism and counter-terrorism. The so-called G-8 (industrialized) nations are aeons ahead of what I call the P-8 (most impoverished) nations of the world. In a very real sense, “east is east, and west is west, and never the twain shall meet.” A great social, economic, cultural, developmental, moral, and spiritual divide separates the so-called “lender” from the perpetually enslaved “debtor” countries. Within individual nations, divisions and distinctions abound between the “haves” and the “have-nots.”
Hostility, not hospitality, seems to be the name of the game.
The good Lord, today, offers us not a set of new rules for this vicious cycle of a political, economic, and ideological game. He offers us a different paradigm, a vision, a distinct way of looking at things. Instead of rules and prohibitions that many people mistakenly identify Christian morality with, He offers us a virtue, an interior attitude of heart and mind. He offers us a path that does not give quick and instant solutions, but which slowly leads to a gradual personal and social transformation.
The Lord offers us a path away from hostility to hospitality. He offers us a spirituality.
What, then, are the hallmarks and elements of this Christian spirituality? Abraham acts as the driving wedge that opens the way for us. He shows us how “doing justice,” that is, giving more to those who have less, indeed, can lead to “living in the Lord’s presence.” He shows us how being attentive to others’ needs, instead of being cooped up in one’s own, can give our lives that needed state of balance and spiritual equanimity. Indeed, as the old song goes, whilst there is enough for everyone’s need, there is never enough for everyone’s greed. Hospitality, in Abraham’s example, came into full bloom in charity.
This same spirituality that moulds us all into one body, the Church, also makes it possible for us, like
, to “rejoice in [our] sufferings,” in order to “fill up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the Church.” Hospitality becomes transformed to hopefulness. Hostility becomes replaced by gentility and gracious charity. St. Paul
This is the same charity and love that led Martha and Mary to learn from each other as each showed their own version of sincere and effusive love for the Master. Mary “sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak.” Martha was “burdened with much serving.” Both did what they did for they both sincerely loved the Lord. Different strokes for different folks, as they say, but motivated by the same love and devotion.
I would like to caution my readers to go easy on condemning Martha and facetiously favoring Mary. No. The Lord does not intend to make us choose to either “do a Martha,” or “do a Mary” act. He wants us to do both. The Lord leads us to a healthy balance between two extreme poles. Nay more, the Lord does not want us to get fixated at some point in an imaginary continuum, but wants us to be perpetually on the move, ever on the go, again, to quote Nouwen, from hostility to hospitality. Spirituality is not something we attain once and for all, but something we grow into. If this spirituality is genuine, there ought not to be tension between tasks and people. Both are important. Both need our attention. We need to serve, that is, engage in diakonia. But we also need to sit still and listen, and take care lest we forget the very people we serve. We need to be busy for the Lord, but never too busy as to be ultimately away from His presence, even as parents need to toil for their children, but never too much as to miss the very children they are toiling for.
Doing justice … giving others their due; giving God, too, His due … in a spirituality that integrates faith and life … all this will assure that biblical promise we have proclaimed: “He who does justice, will live in the presence of the Lord.”