Sunday, September 27, 2009

Year B 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Readings: Num. 11:25-29; Ps 19,8.10.12-14; Jas 5:1-6; Mk 9:38-43.45.47-48

Immediately after an infant is baptized, looking forward to her/his confirmation, s/he is anointed with sacred chrism and further united with Christ. The anointing is done accompanied by the words, "he now anoints you with the chrism of salvation, so that, united with his people, you may remain a member of Christ, who is Priest, Prophet, and King." Our readings for this Sunday draw our attention the fact that to follow Christ is to be prophetic. Indeed, it is not too much to say that in and through the sacraments we fulfill Moses’ stated desire "that all the people of the LORD were prophets… that the LORD might bestow his spirit on them all" (Num. 11:29)!

Predicting the future is not the essence of being prophetic. Prophets are commentators on and frequently critics of the present. Of course, what we do or choose not to do in the present has implications for the future. These implications are not divine rewards and punishments. Rather, they are the natural consequences of our acting, or our refusal to act justly. Jesus, who is the prophet par excellence, calls this discerning the signs of the times. A good summary of prophets and prophecy is that, at least from an objective stand-point, prophets quite frequently just point out what should already be obvious to God’s people.

The prophetic message, which calls Christians to fidelity to the new and everlasting covenant, established with us by God through Jesus Christ, is not really that different from the prophets of old. The message of those, like Dorothy Day, Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, Martin Luther King, Jr., Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and even St. Gianna Molla, who gave her life so her infant daughter might live, bear a remarkable resemblance to the so-called pre-literary prophets, such as Amos and Hosea, both of whom were outsiders, that is, non-institutional figures. The fidelity to which we are called through our baptism, confirmation, and participation in this Eucharist is rooted in our fidelity to the two great commandments: loving God with all our hearts, might, minds, and strength, and loving our neighbors as ourselves.

A prophet is not honored her own country because the prophet tells the truth, bringing what most would prefer to leave in the dark into the light. While prophets can be members of the hierarchy, like Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Ezekiel, they usually are not. Even when they are members, once they receive the prophetic calling, their speaking the truth casts them as outsiders. I have in mind here two great Latin American archbishops, Hélder Câmara and Óscar Romero, who still has not been officially raised to the altar, despite his martyrdom.

Above all, being prophetic requires courage. One way that being prophetic requires courage among Christians in the United States today is not being concerned about whether others view us as politically incoherent, either those on the right or the left, who view matters from a strictly secular point-of-view. In other words, whether we come down on what is seen as the liberal or conservative side of any given issue depends on what the Gospel demands, on what following Christ requires, the only criteria against which we measure of judgments on important matters. Bishop Niederauer summed this up well when he said: "Asking me if I am a liberal or a conservative is a little like trying to sell me a car and asking me if I want a brake pedal or a gas pedal."

For example, in our current national situation, we see extending healthcare coverage to everybody as being a moral imperative because access to needed medical care is a human right. Human rights, in turn, arise from the inherent dignity of being human, which for Christians stems from the fact that we are all created in God’s image. When it comes to how best to do this, it is a matter of prudential judgment, which is the proper sphere of politics.

We must be careful, especially with rights language, which we often use very carelessly. In other words, we must be discerning. There are false prophets, many who call us to adhere to false values that are at odds with both God and nature and that do not lead to human flourishing. Such summonses ignore the transcendent meaning and purpose of human existence. Hence, recognizing the dignity of every human being does not entail supporting an ambiguous and meaningless freedom-as-an-end-in-itself agenda. People who falsely claim the prophetic mantle seek to usher in, not the kingdom of God, but a nihilistic utopia, a genuine place of nowhere. In such a place the individual, the dreaded self, with all our distorted wants and desires, not only remains unchecked, but catered to, indulged, an idol sacrilegiously placed on the altar of what is meant to be the temple of God’s Spirit. This utopia is a place where freedom of choice, regardless of what the choice is, is the highest value, where the necessary link between truth and freedom is severed. Here there can be no communio. Hence, it resembles hell, outer darkness, the pit of the self that yearns for but never turns to what will satisfy it, God alone. This is what Jesus speaks directly about at end of today’s Gospel reading.

What is described in James’ letter is nothing other what we call the common good. "In keeping with the social nature of man," we read in the Catechism, "the good of each individual is necessarily related to the common good" (par. 1905). Being concerned about the common good means, at times, subordinating what is beneficial for me to what is good for all. So, concern for the common good first requires respect for each person as such. It is this that leads the church in her teaching across the entire range of social issues, like immigration. Returning to the issue of healthcare, if access to necessary medical care is a human right, then the only qualifier is being human. When it comes to getting needed care, immigrants qualify, despite their legal status. It is also important in the current health care debate to reject any proposal that expands access to and provides federal funding for abortion. Such a reform must also include the protection of current conscience clauses for Catholic and other religiously-based healthcare providers, thus insuring that respect for human dignity, whether at the beginning or end of life, to include all the issues in between, is wholly maintained.

In today’s Gospel, we see Jesus in a very prophetic mode. He is not scared of those who cast out demons in his name, but who remain unknown to the disciples. In characteristic fashion, he states the matter positively: "whoever is not against us is for us" (Mark 9:40). In contemporary Catholic social teaching, these are the women and men of good will, who, while maybe not sharing our faith or being a part of our communal life, are nonetheless concerned about the common good, a concern that is rooted their deep understanding of the human person. Finally, we see Jesus as prophet engaging in hyperbole in order to show us what is at stake, to point to us to our destiny in order that we may live in the awareness of the very purpose of our existence, allowing us to live in a serious, purposeful, and joyous manner, enabling us to sing our Psalm response wholeheartedly: "The precepts of the Lord give joy to the heart." He also warns those who are false prophets as well as those who follow them and urge others to do so; they will reap what they sow, which is not divine punishment so much as fully realizing the individual autonomy that they see as the very point and purpose of life.

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