Paul Knitter’s Homily from October 30, 2022

Holy Wisdom Monastery Homilies 1 Comment


(Isaiah 1: 10-18; 2 Thess. 1:3-4, 11-12; Lk 19: 1-10)

Oct. 30, 2022

            Our first and third readings today are helpful in answering a question that scholars of religions often pose:  What is distinctive of each of the world’s religions? We understand that each of the religions is a window onto the Holy Mystery that shines through all of them but that cannot be captured by any one of them. But what particular aspects of Holy Mystery does each religious tradition see?  What are the distinctive qualities of the way each experiences and speaks of Holy Mystery?

            Today’s passages from Isaiah and from Luke’s Gospel make  pretty clear what is distinctive about what is to be seen through the Jewish and Christian windows. These passages tell us that to experience and to know the God of Israel who, of course, is the God of Jesus, is also to experience and feel a particular concern for those who have been unjustly marginalized or neglected by society. In the simple and trenchant words of another prophet, Jeremiah: For Jews and Christians, “to know God is to do justice.” (Jer. 22:15-16)

            Scholars of the Jewish Bible tell us that this particular passage from Isaiah is a “covenant lawsuit” or a “legal suit’ that God brings to God’s people. They have breached the covenant.  Isaiah is scathing in expressing God’s rejection of religion or religious ritual and practice that are not based on, or don’t lead to,  a concern to seek justice for the oppressed. Listen to the verbs that Isaiah piles up to express God’s rejection of such religion: “I’ve had enough…It’s an abomination to me…I cannot endure…My soul hates…It’s a burden to me…I’m weary” of such ritual.”  I don’t think you will find many, or maybe any,  passages in the sacred scriptures of other religions that so express divine disgust for religious ritual and practices.

            Such rituals, God tells the Jews, can be acceptable to God only if the Jewish people “cease to do evil and learn to do good.” But what does doing good mean? God gets specific:  “seek justice” the text states.  And God gets even more specific: “Rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”  Unless you’re doing this, God tells them, you really don’t know me. In more contemporary terms, your religious experience is faulty, incomplete, misleading.

            The story about Zacchaeus is an example of the same message.  Luke tells us that Zacchaeus is  not only a tax-collector but a chief tax-collector, and Luke adds “and was rich.” That “and” is really a “therefore.” This meant that Zacchaeus was one of the most despised and despicable elements of Jewish society.  Tax-collectors were exploiters, working for the Romans and usually taking more than their cut.  And then Luke reports something that was utterly astounding and politically incorrect for Jews at the time; as the text says, it made them “grumble”: Jesus looks up to the inquisitive Zacchaeus in his tree perch and tells him “Hurry up, come down, for I must stay at your house today.”  Note the wording: not “I would like to,” but I must, I am obliged to.  And stay at your house, for Jewish customs, meant, I have to have a meal with you.

            This is an example, NT scholars tell us,  of one of the few things we can know with certainty about the historical Jesus – that he practiced what John Dominic Crossen calls  an open table policy. Contrary to the hierarchical norms of whom you can eat with in Jewish society of his time, Jesus invited everyone to eat at his table, and was eager to eat at theirs. To quote Crosson: “…Jesus symbolized his message of radical egalitarianism through eating with slave and free,  male and female, sinner and pious, sick and healthy. He brought every class of person to his table” – even one of the oppressors, the despised chief tax collector. As Rex Piercy put it in his sermon of two weeks ago: “Jesus was a champion of the least, the lost, and the lowest.”

            So in the dialogue of religions, in the conversation of religious people in which they try to learn from each other, this is one of the distinctive contributions that Jews and Christians (and I might add, Muslims) offer:    However deep and assuring your experience of Holy Mystery may be (whatever name you give it),  however real the Love that you feel holds and strengthens you, however sure the meaning your God gives your life – if this experience does not include, in some way, a call, a concern, a desire to do something about the widespread suffering in our world due to social or economic injustice, then, however authentic and consoling your religious experience may be, something essential is missing.  Christians and Jews have much to learn from other religions. But this is what they have to give witness to.

            But if this is what our readings today imply for interreligious dialogue, what do they mean for each of us, personally? In general, I think that’s pretty clear: if we have chosen to be Christians, that is disciples of Christ, then we have committed ourselves to following his example of knowing God and doing justice, of linking and nurturing our spiritual practices, our liturgies, our personal prayer or meditation with an awareness of and concern for, in Isaiah’s words, “the oppressed, the orphans, the widow” — those in our society who basic needs are not being met, who have been subordinated or neglected or taken advantage of in a culture still so strongly influenced by white supremacy and male and heterosexual privilege.

            How each of us “do justice” will, of course, vary according to our status, our age, our health, our responsibilities as parents or care-givers. Some of us will do more, some less. Our Holy Wisdom Community of communities offers opportunities: the  Sunday Assembly Social Justice Group, or Luke House, or the programs of Vera Court or Moses. Or Friends of Wisdom Prairie (for the Planet itself is among the oppressed). We can also do justice in the way we vote or talk about political and social issues with friends and family. Perhaps there’s no greater work of justice than bringing up children who will carry on the work.

            So yes, as Christians we are called to follow Jesus in this way. But if we take St. Paul seriously, we are called, or better, given the opportunity, to do more.  We are called to be Jesus.  This is how St. Paul, throughout his letters, understood the risen Christ – as a presence, an energy, a spirit that lives on in us. He tells us that we can “live in Christ Jesus.”  We can “put on Christ.”  We can “have the mind of Christ.” We can feel that “it is no longer we who live but Christ who lives in and as us.”  This is essentially what it means to be a Christian – to wake up to the wonderous reality that Jesus as the risen Christ can continue to “know God and do justice” in each of our lives.  His experience of knowing God and doing justice can live on as our experience.

            We can grow in awareness of this Christ within us through prayer and daily meditation, through lectio divina.  But it is especially in the Eucharist that this Real Presence of Christ is available. To gather around this table, to break and partake of bread as we remember his life and example is meant to be a contemplative experience by which we can feel Christ living in each of us and among all of us.

            So we gather around the table now to eat together, to remember, and to allow the risen Christ to know God and do justice in us and through us.

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