Father Donald Senior, CP

Aug. 29: 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Doing justice

Dt 4:1-2, 6-8; Ps 15:2-3, 3-4, 4-5; Jas 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27; Mk 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

In an opinion essay in the July 30 New York Times titled “This Is Why America Needs Catholicism,” the author pointed, in particular, to the strong and abiding social justice teaching of the church such as challenging racism, espousing economic justice for the poor, striving to take care of the environment, opposing war and standing on the side of migrants and refugees.

The author, himself a Catholic, noted that the church also affirms the sacredness of human life from conception to death, and therefore opposes abortion, capital punishment, euthanasia and other ethical positions endorsed by most Americans.

The readings for this Sunday reflect some of the foundations for this social justice stance of the church, which is a stance whose roots reach deep into Judaism and the teachings of Jesus himself. 

As a Jew steeped in a tradition that emphasized action over mere words and who was fiercely committed to caring for those in need, Jesus revered the commands of God that underwrite the covenant between God and Israel. He surely knew and embraced the words of Moses in today’s first reading that to observe God’s commands was to live to the full.  

Those words are echoed in the responsorial Psalm 15: “The one who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord.”

This is also one of those rare Sundays when we hear a passage from the Letter of James, a text that has the strongest Jewish flavor in all the New Testament. 

James writes bluntly: “Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for the orphans and widows in their affliction and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” 

In other parts of his letter, James, who was probably the leader of the church in Jerusalem, has no time for those who pander to the rich or who express sympathy for the poor but don’t do anything about it. “So … faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead,” he writes.

This same strong commitment to respond to people in need stands behind this Sunday’s Gospel selection from Mark.

At the outset, it is important to note that in criticizing the Pharisees in this story, Jesus is by no means criticizing Jews or Judaism. In fact, Jesus challenges these particular religious leaders for not being Jewish enough.

In their zeal to keep some aspects of the law — for example, attending to the details of maintaining ritual purity at meals (a sacred tradition that no doubt Jesus himself observed) — they overlooked the more important aspects of God’s commandments to actually do something for those in need. 

More important than the food that goes into our bodies, Jesus declares, is what comes out from the depths of our hearts.

Jesus’ words are reminiscent of a searing passage from the prophet Isaiah who presents the Lord as mocking worshippers in the sacred Jerusalem temple who were carefully attending to its rituals but neglecting the poor.

“Trample my courts no more! To bring offerings is useless; incense is an abomination to me,” Isaiah writes. “Wash yourselves clean! … learn to do good. Make justice your aim; redress the wronged, hear the orphan’s plea, defend the widow.” (Is 1:13-17).

In another New York Times opinion column, a different Catholic author lamented the recent Vatican restrictions on the celebration of the traditional Latin Mass. He found the older pre-Vatican II ritual spiritually comforting in contrast to the reformed liturgy now in place. 

I suppose there is room in our big-tent church to debate issues such as the most appropriate ways to celebrate the liturgy or how decisions are made by church authorities. And, obviously, the appropriate political and social means to address the needs of the poor and vulnerable are open to exploration and debate.

But regarding the church’s foundational commitment to social justice there can be no wavering. Not only is it clear from the Scriptures, as we hear this Sunday, but it is also reflected in the lives of the saints from Paul of Tarsus to Francis of Assisi to Teresa of Kolkata.


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