Be Nice and Be Bold

Pentecost 15
First reading: Prov. 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; Ps. 125 Alternate: Isa. 35:4-7a; Ps. 146 • James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17 • Mark 7:24-37

We do not need a religious reason for every good deed, nor a divine prohibition against every hurtful act. Thomas Aquinas told me this morning that divine love leads directly to the love of one’s neighbor; he told me that a divine commandment commends such love; but he raised his voice at reason number three. “Because all human beings are similar in nature, they ought to love one another.” “Do not rob the poor!” Why? “Because they are poor.” “Do not crush the afflicted at the gate.” Why? Because they are afflicted (Prov. 22:22, 23).

God hears the cry of his people. “Who is like the Lord our God, who dwells on high, and yet inclines himself to behold the things that are in heaven, and in the earth? He raises the poor out of the dust and lifts the needy out of the dunghill” (Ps. 113:5-7). The Lord beholds his handiwork, a human family and human persons who were and are summoned to be because the Lord, in love, has spoken an irrevocable and creative word of love. Thus we are. “To be consistently Christian,” therefore, “means to be consistently human” (Hans Urs von Balthasar, Test Everything). Or, to quote the very best wisdom of my daughter, whose cognitive impairment incites her to seek order and goodness and safety: “Be nice!” It was nice of God to make you; therefore, be nice. Your neighbor is a human being.

Here’s the problem. We’re not very good at being nice. We seem not to notice that the rich and poor are similar in nature. Even in church we fail. “If a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please,’ while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there,’ or ‘Sit at my feet,’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?” (James 2:2-4). Faced with such failure, we are aided by divine mercy, and aided no less by a divine rebuke. “What good is it, brothers and sisters, if you have you have faith but do not have works?” Sometimes — as at this particular moment — we do well to keep the Epistle of James well pasted in our Bibles and to admit that the overwhelming sense of Scripture is that “works” do matter. “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

What, then, are we to do? We start by respecting the dignity of every human being, which rule puzzles our reading of Mark 7. Did you hear Jesus? “Let the children first be fed. It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” The searing eye of a serious reader recalls, however, that just as the bishop, priest, and deacon act in persona Christi, every biblical person may say a word of Christ or gesticulate with sacred and venerable hands. The Syrophoenician woman says, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Speaking in this way she speaks both to Christ and in Christ. “For that saying, you may go — the demon has left your daughter.” Start then by respecting your own dignity and expect something from Christ. Be nice and be bold.

Look It Up
Read Mark 7:31-37, concerning which I said not a word. Do your own meditating.

Think About It
The mere fact of being human directs us to God. Fecisti nos ad te.

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