September 9, 2018
Homily for the Sixteen Sunday After Pentecost – September 9, 2018 – Christ Church, Ontario
Proverbs 22: 1-2; 8-9; 22-23
James 2:1-10; 12-13
Mark 7: 24-37
The author of the Letter of James states clearly that practicing favoritisms in the Church equals lack of belief in the glorious Lord Jesus Christ. It is quite a strong statement, paralleled by the following: “If you show partiality, you commit sin” (James 2:9). So when I was told, quite recently: “Gianluigi, you treat everybody equally!” I was, of course, pleased. But I had just received another comment: “You make preferences in the community” so the whole thing balanced out! This is to give you a small window into the life of a priest. But, of course, James was not talking to an individual, to a pastor, but to the whole community. So today our initial question is: how do we extend our welcome to those who walk into our doors, and especially to the poor.
The ancient wisdom of the people of Israel, which we heard in the first reading, said something important: that the difference in wealth is really not relevant to judge or understand a person. Rather, being affluent is a responsibility and a risk. According to the Torah, one is supposed to share his riches. In Ancient Israel, not sharing would bring social shame on the rich, who always risked to forget that their life and all their possesions did come from the same Origin from which everything comes. James builds on this ancient wisdom, which his addressees were supposed to know, but also makes reference to one of the core points of the preaching of Jesus: that God has “chosen the poor in the world” as inheritors of God's own kingdom. If they remembered correctly, if they knew that Jesus had radicalized the ancient wisdom to the point of preaching this strange idea, i.e. that the poor are in the center of God's attention and God's activity, how could the Jewish-Christian communities to which James addresses his words be unwelcoming to the poor? The question is rethorical and the example is extremely sarcastic. Where our translation says “Sit down at my feet” the Greek says literally “Sit under my footstool”.
If we think that we are much better than those ancient communities, we might be deluding ourselves. When we are confronted with the poor as a concrete human being standing in front of us, a number of strange things happen. If we are decent enough, we feel the impulse to do something, an impulse which, however, may not go anywhere. Here at Christ Church, people walk into our gates on Wednesday mornings to receive our bags of food, and when I happen to talk to one of them and discover his or her tragic story, I feel the impulse to help and fix the situation. Invariably, I cannot fix the situation, mostly because there is a chain of events that have led the person where he or she is, which cannot be changed at will. But then, because fixing the situation is impossible, I risk to fall into a vicious mental cycle. I want to help at the maximum level. I can't do that. I feel guilty. I forget about it. That's what happens, not only to me. Guilt in the soul produces a kind of obliteration.1 A more balanced soul, not obsessed by guilt, does instead accept the situation and finds inventive ideas that do not solve magically anything, but may help the other person to see light at the end of the tunnel.
How do we, today, at Christ Church in Ontario, obey the greatest of commandments, the royal rule, as James calls it: “Love your neighbour as yourself”? I would like our pantry to increase its budget and activities and to be flanked by a group that can help our guests, listen to them, and direct them to helping agencies. I know it's not easy.
The author of the Letter of James wants his readers to feel ashamed of their behavior. Neither shame nor guilt, however, are the engine of his reasoning. Being a fine theologian as he is, he does not begin with a moral sillogism: “You should welcome the poor, you do not welcome the poor, you are bad people!” He begins instead with defining God as the Origin of all goods. He then proceeds to revolutionize the notion of “pure religion”. Religion is pure, says James, not when believers are obsessed about their religious rules, excluding those who do not fit, thus remaining “undefiled”. Religion is pure when those who are most in need are being helped, and believers remain undefiled... from “the world”, which is not other people. Other people do not bring with themselves defilement or impurity qua people.
Real impurity is created by the common way of reasoning and by that agitation of the soul which is pervasive and contagious. When we receive all our moments of life as a gift, our soul becomes more and more purified from that anger that is the root of the problem. I take the “anger” (οργη) of which James speaks to be more than a passing irritation. I take it to mean that deep-seated turmoil that at times we do not even know we host within ourselves, that may emerge as destructive rage at times, but that nevertheless regulates our behavior all the time. It is an anger/turmoil similar to the agitation of the ocean. The sea at the bottom of our souls is angry, and cannot “produce divine justice” (James 2:20). What does instead produce justice, that is, balance in the soul? The virtuous circle of welcoming the gift, being purified from anger/instability, being enabled to help anybody in need as a simple and natural thing to the extent of our ability. Only then we do not question anymore if this person has the right to be helped, we stop being judgmental, and we may feel a very natural feeling of communality as human beings. Surely, we do not fear contamination. At some point, we might even start to understand what it means that God has chosen the poor as inheritors of his kingdom.
In the Gospel of Mark, after dealing indeed with the topic of impurity, Jesus starts a trip deep into the land of the pagans, we are not told for what reasons. The land of the pagans was understood as presenting numerous risks of contracting impurity. Here Jesus meets two very simbolic figures. The first is a pagan woman, somebody who has no business talking to a rabbi anyway, and especially not when he travels incognito. She dares entering the house where he is staying, presumably a Jewish home, and she wins a diatribe with him, a dialectical game which, however, is extremely important with respect to the content of the discussion. Jesus presents himself, as he does in other Gospel passages, as being sent exclusively to the Jews, but this woman convinces him to break through all previous understanding of himself. As one commentator puts it: “This drama represents an example of status-equalization. Jesus allows himself to be 'shamed' (becoming 'least') in order to include this pagan woman in the new community of the kingdom”.2 Jesus loses the argument and the daughter of the woman is freed from her captivity. Behind this story, we can see the original community of Christian Jews which is debating among themselves what does it mean to welcome those who walk into their doors, and is learning to let go of their original understanding of boundaries and purity in order to welcome pagans, and indeed women, as equals.
The other encounter happens between Jesus and a man who cannot hear well and has an impediment in his speech. Here it seems to me that the symbolic identification between this character and the disciples of Jesus should be prevalent. Jesus opens up this man, gives back to him his life and his freedom, by opening his ears and untying his tongue. This man is each of us. We may think that we already know the Holy Scriptures, that our ears are open because we have heard the message of Christ very clearly, but to the extent that our mouths do not sing the joy of our liberation, to the extent that we are lamenting our life, to the extent that our inner chaos does prevent us from loving freely and we are mired in arguments about who deserves help and who does not, we are still very much in need. We are the deaf who need to be brought to Jesus by our friends. Perhaps, one day, we will come to understand not only that God has chosen the poor as inheritors of his kingdom, but that we are among them. Amen.
2 Ched Myers, Binding the strong man, 1988, p. 204.