Monday, September 7, 2009

The Work of Human Hands

Recently I was having a conversation with a friend about someone we both knew that had some kind of appointment scheduled for a Sunday. And my friend remarked that it seemed ‘weird’ because it just wasn’t the kind of thing you heard of being scheduled on a Sunday. Which was true. And I said it was because as a culture we had lost what it meant to observe Sundays as holy days of rest. Certainly, many of us retain that sense of Sunday being a day set aside for communing with God and taking a break. An opportunity, if you will to recharge our batteries for the week ahead. An opportunity to gather with family and friends to celebrate our bonds and our faith. An opportunity to do the things we love – whether it’s gardening, hiking, watching a football game, puttering around the house. An opportunity to tend to our soul rather than have our labor tend to the workings of the world. And I know often many of us have to work on Sundays. It can’t be avoided due to the nature of our careers. And many of us that do work on Sundays do the things that help others enjoy the sabbath. Whether it’s police officers or the newspaperman on the corner or television workers or store merchants all our lives are made simpler, safer, and more enjoyable by the work of others.

Because of our cultural shift away from the concept of a sabbath day of rest it may be difficult for many of us to grasp why Jesus incurred such wrath from the Pharisees when he healed the man with the withered hand. On the sabbath. In the synagogue, no less. In that culture in that time the sabbath was strictly observed in conformity with Mosaic law. As a faithful Jew you did nothing that could be construed as defiance – no matter how unintentional – of the law. And Jesus was a faithful Jew. And yet despite everything that said “no” Christ healed. It wasn’t reckless disregard and it wasn’t a way to thumb his nose at the Pharisees and embarrass them in their synagogue. Christ demonstrated that there is a moral imperative to do good that transcends law.

You may have seen stories in the news recently about St. Vincent de Paul parish in downtown Baltimore and their conflict with city officials because they were allowing homeless people to squat on their property. And I would guess that if the homeless people were hidden away there would have been little if any resistance. But these poor were living on a piece of property not only in full view but at an extremely busy city intersection. Not easily ignored. A place where many commuters and workers every day were confronted with the reality of homelessness in Baltimore. And it made people uncomfortable. It upset them. They began looking for ways to use the law against the pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Church. And I know the pastor, Fr. Dick Lawrence. And I know for him this is a moral imperative. To be like Christ, serving the needs of the poor transcends the law. Serving the homeless – to heal – is more important than concern about whether or not a commuter feels compelled to look away from something they don’t want to see or acknowledge exists. A compromise was reached, which surprised me to some extent because Fr. Dick is not the type of person to compromise when it comes to serving the least among us. And the compromise? The homeless must vacate the property every day between the hours of 7am and 9am. Presumably so that the structures they use to protect themselves from the weather do not become permanent. Interestingly, between 7am and 9am – morning commuter rush hour – when the greatest number of people would be reminded and confronted with our moral obligation to serve the needy.

Christ’s action in the synagogue is not about justifying work on the sabbath. And while it can be assumed that it was part of the plan that set in motion events that led to Christ’s ultimate sacrifice, I don’t believe that is the lesson we should come away with. The lesson of the healing of the man with the withered hand is that the moral imperative to do good and serve the needs of the least among us transcends law. And I’m not advocating that we all go out and start breaking the laws of the land to do good. But there are laws, dictates, conventional wisdom that is unjust. This nation was founded by people seeking relief from unjust persecution of their faith. This is a nation of people that has risen and stood against injustice here and in our world. Whether it’s been on the beaches of Normandy or the jungles of Asia or the streets of Mississippi Americans have stood up against evils both great and veiled for justice in our world. In the late 19th century when the industrial revolution was in full swing the Catholic Church stood up for the rights of the working class. In his wonderful encyclical Rerum Novarum Pope Leo XIII laid the foundation for what has become more than a century of Catholic thought on social justice in our world. Social teachings most recently addressed by Pope Benedict just a couple months ago in his encyclical Caritas in Veritate or Charity in Truth. In that encyclical Pope Benedict reminds us "While the poor of the world continue knocking on the doors of the rich, the world of affluence runs the risk of no longer hearing those knocks, on account of a conscience that can no longer distinguish what is human."

We have a moral imperative to do as Jesus did. To listen, to serve, to heal. To reach out to those in need. To rise above our discomfort and stand against injustice in our world.

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