Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Cycle C
Justice. Social Justice. Terms that have exponentially grown in popularity and that we hear much about in our world today. Over the past year there have been many campaigns taken up by various groups around the world clamoring for Justice. Political discourse is filled with debates concerning justice, and the sports and entertainment world has followed suit. The National Basketball Association even went so far as to establish what it calls a “Social Justice Coalition,” and on the front page of its website appears the slogan, “We turn People Power into Public Policy.” For its part, the Walt Disney company has launched its “Reimagine Tomorrow” initiative, through which Disney says it is committing itself “to using the power of storytelling to reflect the world as it is and imagine it as it can be.” Countless other examples could be cited, all of which demonstrate that the human person has a natural desire for justice, for each person to be given his or her due, as the traditional definition of the virtue of justice says (St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae II-II, q. 58.1). These various initiatives would seem to be echoing a Scriptural ideal embedded deep within the roots of our culture. We hear this in the refrain for today’s Responsorial Psalm, which together as the Body of Christ we sing, “He who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord.” The question for Christians, therefore becomes, to what extent are the various calls for Justice and Social Justice in our world today authentic echoes of the Scriptural understanding of Justice?
Sadly, the Church itself would seem to be deeply divided on this. For years now there has been a division within the Body of Christ with respect to those who focus their attention and effort towards participation in the Liturgy and practices of popular piety and those who give greater time and energy towards social justice activity. In some ways, today’s heated socio-political climate has exacerbated this division to the extent that those within the Church who focus on liturgical participation are very dismissive of the term “social justice.” In Christ Alive in Me, Fr. David Meconi asserts that
This is not what Jesus intended nor what he wants for us going forward. Those who understand Christ’s divine presence in the Holy Eucharist must also be the ones who seek ways to attend to their brothers, sisters, and neighbors; those who are instinctively activist and socially-minded must also make time for silent Adoration in order to prioritize their souls rightly and serve others charitably (Christ Alive in Me, 141).
Meconi here voices a truth which Jesus Himself proclaims in the Beatitudes when He calls blessed those who “Hunger and thirst for righteousness (dikaiosynēn),” assuring us that “they will be filled” (Matt. 5:6). A short four verses later, Jesus says something similar, although now the claim is made in the context of social strife. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ (dikaiosynēs) sake,” Jesus says, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:10). These Beatitudes reveal how it is impossible to remain true to one’s name as Christian while dismissing the concept of “social justice.” The Greek word translated here as righteousness are various derivations of the word dikaiosuné, which could be translated as justice just as appropriately as righteousness. To dismiss social justice, then, would clearly be to dismiss something that Jesus is deeply interested in, and therefore, not a Christian option. In fact, taking our cue from Jesus, we should go further and assert that being a Christian means being someone who is deeply identified with Justice, to the point of hungering and thirsting for it and even being willing to suffer for its sake.
The reason for this becomes clearer in the following beatitude. There, as a capstone to the Beatitudes, Jesus tells us: “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matt. 5:11). Hungering and thirsting for Justice, willingness to suffer for Justice, Jesus is telling us, is intimately caught up in living through, with, and in Him. In fact, Jesus is telling us that we must hunger and thirst for Justice be willing to suffer for the advancement of Justice on all fronts precisely because He is the Just One. This is an extraordinary claim, blasphemous for many in Jesus’ own time and place. For the Jewish tradition justice and righteousness, tsedaqah, is associated first and foremost with the nature and activity of God. Psalm 50 tells us that creation itself “declares his righteousness (tzidko)” (Ps. 50:6). Accordingly, in Psalm 4, the Psalmist cries out to God, “Answer me when I call, O God of my right (tzidki)!” (Ps. 4:1), and in Psalm 35, the Psalmist pleads, “vindicate me, O Lord, my God, according to your righteousness (chetzidkecah)…” (Ps. 35:24). From the perspective of the ancient Hebrew tradition, it is we who are unjust and God Who Is Just, and it is by living in relationship with God that we become just once again. The Hebrew Scriptures make clear that living in covenantal relationship with God meant learning how to become like God. Thus, in giving the Law to the People of Israel, God tells Moses to say to them on His behalf, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2). Our Responsorial Psalm for today echoes this when it states clearly that it is only by living in God’s holy Justice that we are admitted to His presence. “O Lord, who may abide in your tent? Who may dwell on your holy hill?” the Psalmist asks (Ps. 15:1). The response is short and succinct, “Those who walk blamelessly, and do what is just (tzedek)…” (Ps. 15:2).
The People of Israel had learned this lesson the hard way. Time and again they strayed from the ways of God’s Justice. The most famous calling to account for this carried out by Amos, known widely as the Prophet of Social Justice today. In words appropriate to our own time and place, Amos condemns the elites of society, who live lives of luxury even as the country falls into religious and moral decay (Amos 6:4-7), exchanging injustice for justice in the courts of law (Amos 5:10-12), and practice all sorts of economic injustice against those most in need (Amos 8:4-6). There is no way to make God look the other way, Amos says, no amount of praise or worship is acceptable when the People are living like this. In words at once scathing and medicinal, God says to the people through Amos:
I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness (tsedaqah) like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:21-24).
The only way to change this situation is to live as God lives, justly. However, St. Paul states explicitly what Salvation History implies. Living justly is impossible under one’s own steam. For the Law, while good and holy, is combated by the impulses of sin that plague our fallen nature. Thus, Paul says, “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Rom. 7:18b-19).
The Good News proclaimed up and down the centuries by the Church is that in Jesus Christ, the God Who Alone is Just became Incarnate, having done so precisely to reestablish Justice in our unjust world. For our part, justice can only be had by living in right relationship with God, and thereby participating in His Justice. This is only accomplished by the saving Passion of Jesus Christ. Thus, in the First Letter of Peter, the Apostle proclaims that Christ “suffered for sins once for all, the righteous (dikaios) for the unrighteous (adikōn), in order to bring you to God” (1 Pt. 3:18). We find the same asserted by St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans. Proclaiming the nature of God’s Love revealed in Christ’s Passion, Paul begins by saying the obvious, “Indeed, rarely will anyone die for a righteous person (dikaiou)—though perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die” (Rom. 5:7). How unfathomable must God’s Love be in Christ Jesus, then, Paul goes on, for “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). The result of this extraordinary and unmerited gift of Divine Love, is that the unrighteous, the sinful, are justified (dikaiōthentes), made just by the Blood of the Just One (Rom. 5:9). Here we come to a twofold conclusion. First, we are only made just by the grace won by the saving Passion of Christ Jesus, who alone, as true God and true Man, unites the human family to God once again, thereby restoring true Justice in the world. Consequently, it is part and parcel of being a Christian, a little Christ, another Christ, that we be willing to suffer for the sake of Justice. We must hunger and thirst for righteousness because Christ hungered and thirsted for righteousness to the point he willingly suffered for it, and thus, so too must we be willing. And more to it, to live in such a way makes present that very same Justice. Accordingly, in Christian terms, Justice can be defined by the greatest commandment which sums up the whole Law, the twofold command to love God and neighbor (Mt. 22:36-40; cf. Rom. 13:8-10). In contrast, anything that distorts this twofold love necessarily undermines Justice.
It is therefore clear that Christians have a vested interest in advancing the cause of Justice in our world. However, it is here that the conversation turns back on itself, as it were. For the Justice that Christians have been called to live is not a Justice of their own definition, and still less is it a Justice established by their own will. You see, on the scriptural account, there is only One Justice, God. Therefore, any authentic justice in human society will be reflective of God’s Life, a Life wherein the Triune Persons gift everything that they are, One to Another, in an exchange of complete self-giving Love that knew no beginning and will know no end. It is this Love that is made manifest in the Life of Jesus Christ. Therefore, it is imperative that as we hear the cries of social justice around us that we ask ourselves, to what extent do the various calls for Justice and Social Justice in our world today conform to the life of Christ? To what degree do the claims to justice we hear express the idiom of Scripture? In short, for the Christian, a judgment of whether or not something is just means first and foremost remembering the Just One.
It is here that those within the Church who are dismissive of movements for social justice put their finger on something true. The eminent theologian Cyril O’Regan has made the case that various philosophies and theologies of today express a misremembering of the Christian message. As O’Regan suggests, this is nothing new. Christianity has always struggled with remembering rightly. He writes,
There was never a time in Christianity in which we do not find either straightforward forgetting of the mystery of Christ, or memories which themselves are sophisticated modes of forgetting the essential (The Anatomy of Misremembering, 10).
O’Regan goes on to explain that there are various ways of misremembering. Some are accidental. For example, on the one hand, we may simply forget of one portion of the Gospel even as we emphasize another. On the other hand, we may misremember what it was that Scripture actually says (Ibid., 13-14). However, O’Regan rightly points out, there are other ways of misremembering that are not so benign. Such a misremembering is manifested by theories which co-opt and distort the Christian message (Ibid., 34). These approaches O’Regan likens to doppelgängers, which may look like the real thing, but are merely a mirage, a ghost, a distortion of the Christian message which has eviscerated its central and irreplaceable aspects (Ibid., 47). O’Regan has especially in mind the resurgence of various forms of Gnosticism, which set out to distort the Christian message by getting behind and beyond the scriptural text, condemning the physical creation including the body as meaningless, and thereby undermining the dignity of human life, especially its embodiedness. Contemporary examples of Gnostic thought include the innumerable movements which reject the gift of the human body and instead treat it as a piece of machinery to be violently wrenched upon in order to produce an artificial aesthetic to our liking. We see this also in the increased popularity of various forms of artificial intelligence technology that holds out a disembodied reality as an ideal to be enjoyed as often as possible.
The doppelgängers of Christianity do not stop here. We also see it in what Dr. Christian Smith has called Moralistic-Therapeutic Deism (MTD). Smith coined the term MTD to describe the de facto religion of today’s young adults after conducting longitudinal sociological studies. He summarizes the “creed” of MTD in five points.
1) A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth; 2) God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions; 3) The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself; 4) God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to solve a problem; 5) Good people go to heaven when they die (“On “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” as U.S. Teenagers’ Actual, Tacit, De Facto Religious Faith”).
“Good” here is a very loose term, because within this tacit set of beliefs is that “no one can tell anyone else that what they are doing is morally or intellectually right or wrong, because there is, they assume, no objective right or wrong” (Christian Smith, Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults In, Out of, and Gone From the Church). At bottom, the goal in life is to be happy, and the way you do it is completely up to you. Along lines very similar to O’Regan, Smith notes that, basically, the central characteristics of MTD sound like a very watered down form of Christianity, or any other major religion for that matter. Smith explains that the reason for this is that this religious creed cannot sustain itself, but acts as a parasitic faith, attaching itself “like an incubus to establish historical religious traditions, feeding on their doctrines and sensibilities, and expanding by mutating their theological substance to resemble its own distinctive image” (Christian Smith, “On “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” as U.S. Teenagers’ Actual, Tacit, De Facto Religious Faith”). With respect to Christianity, the subversive nature of MTD is apparent whenever you hear someone say something along the lines of, “Jesus was accepting of everyone just as they are, and calls us to do the same.” Of course, there is truth in this. Yes, as we have seen St. Paul say, while we were sinners, Christ came to die for us. However, Christ was no relativist, nor did He say turn a blind eye to the beam in your neighbor’s eye. Instead, from the first he called people to a radically conversion of life (Mk. 1:14-15) and to leave their old selves behind in order to follow Him (Matt. 16:24). Moreover, He didn’t say turn a blind eye to your neighbor’s shortcomings, or to the injustice committed against God and neighbor. Instead, He called us to “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye” (Matt. 7:5, my emphasis). In short, the “I’m okay, you’re okay” mentality has nothing in common with the Gospel.
We see these doppelgängers of Christianity and more everywhere today. So what is the solution? The solution is the Christian life in its fullness. It is a life formed by worship and saturated in prayer so that it might be lived in self-sacrificing love of God and neighbor. The order here is important, for if we do not love God first, we will have no love to give to our neighbor. This is what all of the readings for today proclaim to us, seen most especially in the Gospel. There, we encounter the famous story of Martha and Mary. Martha is concerned above all with actively serving Jesus to the point where she “was distracted by her many tasks” (Lk. 10:40a), and became irritated with Mary, “who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying” (Lk. 10:39). Accordingly, the disgruntled Martha asks Jesus, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me” (Lk. 10:40b). To this Jesus responds, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her” (Lk. 10:41-42). Notice that Jesus does not say that Martha is doing something bad. Rather, the implication is that she has gotten the order backwards. Mary has started with worship, a loving encounter with Jesus that seeks only to be with Him. What Jesus is saying is that this is the only place to start. Recall that in a short time, it will be Mary who serves Jesus literally at the same feet she sits before now, as she anoints His feet in preparation for the Passion (Jn. 12:3). Mary had taken the better part because in beginning with worship, her whole life is to become worship, expressed most especially by this entering into Jesus’ Passion with Him beforehand, thereby enacting a love for all whom Jesus’ Paschal Mystery was to save.
Mary, then, becomes the exemplar of how it is that we ought to remember Justice rightly and commemorate it in our lives daily. For the Christian, Justice can be succinctly described as the twofold love of God and neighbor, in that order though not at odds. As the above discussion has demonstrated, we have no justice of our own. Any justice we have is a gift, the result of participation in the life of our Just God. Therefore, as we hear the various calls for social justice around us today, we can determine which are authentic and which are merely doppelgängers of authentic Justice by imitating the example of Mary, who first offered right worship to God, and thereby through, with, and in Christ, became a living sacrifice of Justice to the Heavenly Father out of love for the world.
Your servant in Christ,
Tony Crescio is the founder of FRESHImage Ministries. He holds an MTS from the University of Notre Dame and is currently a PhD candidate in Christian Theology at Saint Louis University. His research focuses on the intersection between moral and sacramental theology. His dissertation is entitled, Presencing the Divine: Augustine, the Eucharist and the Ethics of Exemplarity.
Tony’s academic publications can be found here.