Friday, September 18, 2015

Why Doesn't Being Good "Work"? 25th Sunday in OT

When I was younger, especially from high school through my early days as a Protestant pastor, I had this strong sense that if a person always did what was right, “things would work out.”  That is to say, righteousness was the path to the good life.  God would pave the way in front of the person that does his will.  

There is some truth to that, of course.  A great deal of interior and exterior suffering is cause by our wicked and selfish choices.  When I used to work as an urban missionary, occasionally I would have the chance to witness a fairly significant conversion in the life of a person who had been living a life basically consisting of criminal activity.  Sometimes there would often be a “honeymoon” period after the person’s conversion, as so much stress and sadness in their life faded away as they stopped making evil choices.  

The wisdom literature of the Bible stresses the link between righteousness and natural prosperity.  Under normal conditions, the virtues—hard work, honesty, kindness, courage—bring blessing and success.

However, the world is not always normal.  In fact, it seldom is. And there are frequently situations where honesty and courage will get you marginalized or even killed, because those who have power are committed to a lie.  St. Thomas More was arguably the most honest man in England in his day, and he got beheaded for his efforts.

Is the answer, then, to just “go along to get along”?  To be righteous, but not so righteous that we provoke opposition?  Not if we are followers of Jesus.  This Sunday’s Readings explore the theme of the suffering of the righteous.

1. Our First Reading is from Wisdom 2:12, 17-20:

The wicked say:
Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us;
he sets himself against our doings,
reproaches us for transgressions of the law
and charges us with violations of our training.
Let us see whether his words be true;
let us find out what will happen to him.
For if the just one be the son of God, God will defend him
and deliver him from the hand of his foes.
With revilement and torture let us put the just one to the test
that we may have proof of his gentleness
and try his patience.
Let us condemn him to a shameful death;
for according to his own words, God will take care of him.

The wicked are numerous, and they are often the ones in power, because they will do or say anything to get into power.  The righteous person, who cannot and will not say what is not true in order to please the changing whims of the culture, usually ends up unpopular and therefore excluded from positions of power. 

So in this text of Wisdom, the wicked control society and find themselves hating the righteous man, who has the virtues of honesty and courage to point out their wrongdoing.  He has the courage to “speak truth to power,” as the saying goes.

So the wicked decide to put the righteous man, and God, to the test.  They will persecute and kill the righteous man, and see if God intervenes.

There is an odd inner thirst for God in this whole process.  I believe the wicked have an interior hunger for God, and often secretly hope that God actually “shows up” and does something.  There is a certain kind of atheism of despair that some people fall into.  Having been disappointed by an apparent lack of God’s presence when they were following the path of virtue, they despair of God and give themselves over to evil, lashing out at God to see if he will do anything in response.  It is a bit like the undisciplined child who subconsciously wishes for some boundaries to be set by his parents, and keeps acting out in a quiet hope that at some point his parents will put their foot down and show that they love him.

Unfortunately, God does not always “show up” in some supernatural way just to prove his presence to those who are lashing out against him.  It’s often the case that he allows the righteous to suffer at the hands of the wicked.  This may not seem just, but God has his purposes.  If righteousness always met with external success, persons would behave righteously simply to achieve that external success, and not because of an interior transformation or a conviction about what is good.  In order that we may come to truly love the Good (which is God) for his own sake, and not for reward or gain, God permits the triumph of the wicked and the suffering of the righteous.  Even pagan philosophers intuited this.  Plato writes in the Republic 2.361e - 2.362a:

"What they will say is this: that such being his disposition the just man will have to endure the lash, the rack, chains, the branding-iron in his eyes, and finally, after every extremity of suffering, he will be crucified, and so will learn his lesson that not to be but to seem just is what we ought to desire."

This phrase is in the mouth of a skeptic in Plato’s dialogue, a skeptic who believes that true justice is not advantageous, but only the appearance of justice.  It’s a kind of Machiavellian position.  However, it’s striking that this interlocutor realizes that, for a man to be proven truly righteous, he must suffer for what is right rather than gain by it.  The Church Fathers saw Plato as an unwitting secular prophet of the Christ.

2. Our Responsorial Psalm is Ps 54:3-4, 5, 6 and 8:

R. (6b) The Lord upholds my life.
O God, by your name save me,
and by your might defend my cause.
O God, hear my prayer;
hearken to the words of my mouth.
R. The Lord upholds my life.
For the haughty men have risen up against me,
the ruthless seek my life;
they set not God before their eyes.
R. The Lord upholds my life.
Behold, God is my helper;
the Lord sustains my life.
Freely will I offer you sacrifice;
I will praise your name, O LORD, for its goodness.
R. The Lord upholds my life.

The Book of Wisdom was written late in the history of Israel, after the people of Israel had experienced Hellenization and encountered Greek philosophy.  But our Psalm shows that David, writing perhaps eight hundred years before the Book of Wisdom, was already grappling with the issue of the suffering of the righteous.  He looks to God as his deliverer, and hopes that God will defend him.  At the same time, he sees himself surrounded by people who don’t care what is true, right, or just, and have contempt for God.  Such men are not content merely to abuse David but seek to kill him. 

God did intervene on numerous occasions to spare David’s life.  All such occasions were types and signs of our ultimate resurrection.

3. Our Second Reading is Jas 3:16—4:3:

Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist,
there is disorder and every foul practice.
But the wisdom from above is first of all pure,
then peaceable, gentle, compliant,
full of mercy and good fruits,
without inconstancy or insincerity.
And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace
for those who cultivate peace.

Where do the wars
and where do the conflicts among you come from?
Is it not from your passions
that make war within your members?
You covet but do not possess.
You kill and envy but you cannot obtain;
you fight and wage war.
You do not possess because you do not ask.
You ask but do not receive,
because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.

How easy it is for each one of us to “go over to the dark side” and become a wicked persecutor ourselves!  James here warns us about how to resist a “deconversion” to evil.  Conflict and lack of peace within our own soul and within our communities often has its root in what James calls our “passions.”  Classically, these “passions” are summed up in a threefold formula from 1 John 2:15-16: “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life.”  Lust of the flesh consists of our urges for physical pleasure: sex, excess food, drugs, physical comfort, etc.  Lust of the eyes consists of greed or avarice: the desire to acquire wealth and objects of beauty.  Pride of life is self-aggrandizement: the desire to be known, respected, perhaps feared, admired, obeyed, etc. 

The Christian has to abandon that junk.  As long as we are leaving for pleasure, profit, and pride, we are not actually following Christ. This involves dying to self.  Daily we have to be reconciled to our own deaths, because on any day, to follow the path of love may involve a self-denial even up to the point of our own death, and we have to be willing to make that sacrifice if called upon.

4.  The Gospel is Mk 9:30-37:

Jesus and his disciples left from there and began a journey through Galilee,
but he did not wish anyone to know about it.
He was teaching his disciples and telling them,
“The Son of Man is to be handed over to men
and they will kill him,
and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise.”
But they did not understand the saying,
and they were afraid to question him.

They came to Capernaum and, once inside the house,
he began to ask them,
“What were you arguing about on the way?”
But they remained silent.
They had been discussing among themselves on the way
who was the greatest.
Then he sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them,
“If anyone wishes to be first,
he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”
Taking a child, he placed it in the their midst,
and putting his arms around it, he said to them,
“Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me;
and whoever receives me,
receives not me but the One who sent me.”

This Gospel is striking and full of curious ironies. 

For once, Jesus does not teach the disciples in parables or figures of speech, but in blunt language he describes how he is going to suffer and die.  Despite this, the disciples “did not understand the saying.”  How ironic!   How much plainer could Jesus be?  But they just don’t “get it.”  And as in a classroom, no one wants to raise their hand and be exposed as the student who doesn’t understand, so no one asks Jesus what he means.  They all just nod agreement and continue taking notes. 

Meanwhile, on the way back to Capernaum, the disciples are engaged in a debate around “the pride of life”—their own self-aggrandizement.  They haven’t understood the message of the cross.  They don’t comprehend that the righteous one must suffer—a theme from Wisdom but also from the great prophets.  They still are controlled, at least in part, by their “passion” for the pride of life. 

So Jesus teaches them the way of spiritual childhood.  “You must be last of all and servant of all,” he says, and embraces a child.  “Who receives a child such as this in my name, receives me, and the one who sent me,” he says.  What does this mean?  To receive in my name must mean, at least in part, to receive because of Christ, for the sake of Christ, with the spirit of Christ.  Thus, kindness shown to a child—to the weak, the humble, the vulnerable—is considered by Christ to be kindness shown to Himself and to the Father.  This is a very different way of thinking than the “passion”-controlled logic of the disciples.  The world’s scale of values is inverted. 

So the Readings this Sunday are calling us to discard our usual standards for judging success in this world, and adopt a radically supernatural outlook on life.  We are committed to following Jesus, which means accepting that we may be rejected and killed, and that we may never achieve any position of authority or recognition.  But in return, what we gain is God Himself, who makes himself present in a special way among the “children” of the earth—the unnoticed, the weak, the innocent, the marginalized.

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