Pastor Column: Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, September 23, 2018
Msgr Joseph Tracy, St. Stanislaus Parish
Dear friends / Estimados amigos,
Judaism was unique among ancient religions because of its emphasis on building proper relationships. Other religions – like fertility cults in and around Palestine, for instance – were built upon rituals guaranteed to control the actions of the gods in peoples’ lives. If one used specific words the correct number of times, and accompanied the words with the required gestures, one could be certain to get what one prayed for. The goal was to control the god or goddess, not to relate to them. Maybe some of us grew up with a little bit of that mindset. Not to diminish anyone’s private devotional practices, if we made the nine first Fridays, if we wore a scapular, prayed to a specific saint for this or that, recited an astronomical number of prayers before Christmas Eve, then things would go our way. If done correctly and consistently (often times routinely and without understanding), these practices guaranteed we would one day get to heaven, be able to buy that expensive new thing, experience a change in a troublesome situation, or bring about whatever effect or outcome we desired. God really does not have a choice, does He? We had forced God’s hand by using some of the things God had given us in order for us to reach Him.
The conflict between the cultic religions and Judaism resulted in the well-known story of the struggle between Jacob and the angel in Genesis 32. While today we refer to the biblical followers of Yahweh as “Jews,” that name was probably applied to them by “outsiders” who falsely presumed all people were members of the preeminent tribe of Judah. Not so however: biblical Jews call themselves “Israelites.” Many devout Israelites are proud to say they wrestle with their God. This was/is in stark contrast to their pagan, fertility cult neighbors who constantly tried to control their gods. Biblical Jews spend their lives relating to God. The wrestling metaphor is an essential, ongoing dimension of all true human relationships. In ancient days, someone who was committed to forming a proper relationship with Yahweh is “just,” a word frequently employed by the biblical authors of the Wisdom books of the Old Testament. Just relationships are undying. It follows that if we have worked at building a just relationship with God during our lifetime, it does not end with death. God continues that relationship in heaven.
One of the ways we demonstrate a proper relationship with God lies in the proper living out of the relationship with those around us in daily life. The way we relate to others (who are created in the image and likeness of God) is an outward sign of how we are relating to God. Also clear in the first reading is that those who work at developing controlled relationships can face lots of problems. How right we find that in our current situation!
It has been stated again and again in commentaries about the PA Grand Jury Report (and others like it) that the desire to control is one of the things at the heart of the clergy abuse crisis we now live through. Jesus’ ministry of healing and reconciliation was all about healthy relationships. These were more important than almost everything else, certainly more important that institutions or man-made laws. He preached a counter-cultural message against the pecking order of the day. Jesus’ reforms proclaimed equality to all Jews, not just those who presumed they were superior to others. When the disciples were arguing about their places in the Lord’s new order, Jesus was strong in asserting that unless one became as a child he or she would never receive Him. In contrast to some of our modern cultures, children during the time of Jesus were regarded as being insignificant. Jesus words and action make clear, however, that the most insignificant in Jesus’ community are to have the same stature and privilege as the most important. This involves wrestling with our individual egos, recognizing the sacredness of the human person more profoundly, and treating the most important and the most defenseless or dependent in the same way. The Catholic Church, with regard to children, sadly failed to do that effectively and consistently over the last 50 years or so. If there even was a wrestling match in the minds of those in authority and others, children lost. Today, then, let us examine for ourselves the wrestling aspect of all our relationships. Non-controlling relationships are difficult to establish even between husbands and wives, the most intimate human relationship of all. We must keep equality in the back of our minds when building community, enacting laws, and dealing decently with others where we are. Preaching the Word matters, but living it means more.