Homily of Bishop Kevin Doran at Ecumenical Service for Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
“Justice And Only Justice You Shall Pursue”
Homily of Bishop Kevin Doran at Ecumenical Service for Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, Friday 25th January 2019, St John’s Church of Ireland Cathedral, Sligo
What do Confucius and Buddha, Socrates and Plato have in common? They were, of course, great teachers, lovers of wisdom and seekers after truth. They all lived around the same time, in the 6th Century BC. During that same period, the people of Israel were in exile in Babylon. That doesn’t sound particularly enjoyable. It turned out to be both “the worst of times and the best of times”, because it was during their exile in Babylon that the people of Israel, encouraged by the prophets Ezekiel and Daniel, began to reflect more deeply on who they were and where they were going as the people of God. I find it fascinating to think that all of these people, although they never met, or sent one another emails, were alive at the same time and engaged in the same search for truth.
One of Plato’s greatest works The Republic was a dialogue about the search for Justice. He had seen how his beloved teacher Socrates was executed by the government of Athens, who forced him to drink poison, because they didn’t like his ideas. Plato was quite pessimistic about the possibility that authentic justice could be found in any human society. He believed that true justice could only be found in some other place beyond the material world, but that truly wise leaders could aspire to building a society which would put the principles of justice into action. Long before Plato, the people of Israel came to recognise the same truth. God had revealed himself to them as a God of Justice; he had entered into a covenant with them, and given them a law. Moses tells the people that “there is no other nation that has their God so close to them”. Looking at how they live, the other nations will say to themselves “this surely is a wise and understanding nation”.
So What is Justice? One very common answer to that question is the “Justice involves giving every person what is due to him or her”. In modern society, that comes down to equal shares of everything. It is a rather mathematical view of justice. It doesn’t take into account the fact that, while we are all undoubtedly equal in dignity, we are all different, or if you prefer we could say, each one of us is unique. Depending on our circumstances, our needs may also be different. To treat everybody the same may in fact be a great injustice.
Plato came up with the idea that Justice is really about the appropriate balance in the relationship between different groups in society, with each person playing the part assigned to him or her. For reasons which are a bit too complex to go into here, he ends up with a society which is based on a very rigid class structure. But his insight that justice is about right relationship is not a million miles removed from what we find in the bible.
As he gives the ten commandments to the people Moses says to them:
“ Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
The People of Israel will live with justice and integrity because they are the people of God who is Just. As Christians, our first and most important relationship is our relationship with God. He is the one, above all others, with whom we need to be in right relationship, because it is in him that we live and move and have our being. You can see this in the first reading that we listened to this evening. We are invited to remember who God is, and to remember who we are and then to worship him, giving thanks and offering sacrifice. Our form of worship may have changed over the centuries, but the truth remains that, if we remember with humility and gratitude all that God has done for us, then there is a much better chance that our relationships with one another will also be appropriate. By contrast, when we have an exaggerated sense of our own importance and an attitude of entitlement, it is very difficult to be in right relationship with one another.
There are places in the bible where it is suggested that prosperity is the outward sign of virtue and that those who are poor, or sick, or marginalised are probably sinners and only have themselves to blame. Jesus condemned that as a misrepresentation of the Word of God. Going back as far as the Books if Deuteronomy and Leviticus, what we find is that the people of Israel understood very well how somebody could fall on hard times and there were a number if mechanisms built into the law of Moses which were specifically designed to restor the balance. Among the most significant of these were the law of the Sabbath and the law of the Jubilee, which provided for the cancellation of debt, the granting if freedom to slaves and the care of the environment.
When we go on to read the prophets, it becomes even clearer that right relationship with God goes hand in hand with right relationship with the people around us. God detests the “wicked scales and the dishonest weights”. He calls on his people to “act justly, to love tenderly and to walk humbly with God”. (Micah 6).
Right relationship is at the heart of the life and ministry of Jesus. As we heard in the Gospel this evening, He defines his mission as an outreach to those who are on the margins, spiritually and materially. It is in the power of the Spirit of God that he comes to gather them in. And he asks his disciples to do the same. In his teaching on the Last Judgement, the promise of eternal happiness is directly linked to the way we live in right relationship with others; giving food the the hungry, shelter to the homeless, visiting the sick and those in prison.
In the past, Christians argued over whether salvation came from faith or from good works. I think we would all agree that salvation is a gift which comes to us through Jesus Christ and which we could never earn through our own efforts. Equally, however, the “good works” that we do are an essential response to the gift of faith, without which we cannot honestly say that we have really accepted Jesus or his gift.
The first Christians, we are told, lived in a way which inspired others to join them. In the Acts of the Apostles, we read that “the believers remained faithful to the teaching of the Apostles, the fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers”. Fellowship is not a word that we use all that much in our daily conversations. In the language of the bible, it is a way of expressing the right relationship between believers, which comes from our participation in the relationship of God the Father, with his Son Jesus, through the Holy Spirit. Another word for it is “communion”. I find it interesting tha, in the Acts of the Apostles, “fellowship” is sandwiched in between the “Teaching of the Apostles” and the “Breaking of Bread”. It seems to be a way of reminding us that right relationship with one another is the fruit of our listening to God’s word and of our Eucharistic communion. The Acts go on to tell us that “the people owned everything in common and that they sold their property and gave the proceeds to the Apostles to provide for the poor.
One of the questions that strikes me is whether this was Justice or Charity. As I suggested earlier, if we think of Justice in purely mathematical or legal terms, it is quite different from Charity; but if we think of Justice as right relationship, then Justice really prepares the way for Charity. Charity, which Pope Pius XI describes as the “soul of the social order” (Rerum Novarum, 137) rather than being something that we fall back on when Justice fails, is seen as the perfection of Justice.
Another way of looking at this is to say that, while we struggle to balance the rigid face of justice with the warm friendly face of charity, God in Jesus seems not to see the contradiction. The mercy of God, buy which he reaches down to us and lifts us up, is the meeting point of justice and charity.
I would like to draw all these thread together by inviting you to a moment of reflection on what entering into right relationship might mean in our society, in our city or indeed in our own communities of faith. When I worked as chaplain at UCD, I often found that, coming up to exam times, students got into a panic because there was so much to do and they didn’t know where to start. The solution I used to suggest to them was to start somewhere, because it was better than just sitting there in a cold sweat doing nothing. If you ask me what can I do in order to pursue justice, my answer would be quite similar.
Who is excluded from right relationship and how are they excluded? We can read about it in the newspapers or watch it as it happens on the TV; the disregard for human life; the housing crisis; the hospital trollies; the way asylum seekers are left for years in limbo; the abuse of children and vulnerable adults; the fraud and the destruction of the environment. As Pope Francis has frequently said, “everything is connected”. By that, he means that all our issues of social justice come down to one thing, namely “a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society.”(Laudato Si). Perhaps this is what Jesus meant, when he said to Mary and Martha “one thing alone is necessary”. We need to be activists, but all our action needs to be rooted in love; love of God and love of one another. That is what gives its uniqueness to the Christian pursuit of justice.