Third Sunday of Lent
March 4, 2018
by Marina McCoy, Associate Professor of Philosophy, Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences
Marina McCoy is an associate professor of philosophy at Boston College, teaching ancient Greek philosophy and in the PULSE program. She is also mom to both a BC alum and a current BC student, and her husband works at BC's McMullen Museum of Art. Her books include Wounded Heroes: Vulnerability as a Virtue in Ancient Greek Philosophy and Literature (Oxford University Press). Marina also volunteers, visiting inmates who form the Lay Dominican community at Norfolk Prison, and writes a monthly column on spirituality for Loyola Press at https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/. She recently did "basic training" in spiritual direction at the BC School of Theology and Ministry as part of her sabbatical.
1 Corinthians 1:22-25
Love and Social Conversion
Love wills the good of others (Aquinas, ST I-II. Q26. A4). Love is not simply a feeling. Love is a choice.
In the liturgy for this Sunday, we hear the Ten Commandments. I once heard a homilist say to a group of children that following them is like getting a “ticket to heaven.” But Hebrew Scripture does not present the commandments as a way to follow the rules now so that we can go to some other, better place later. Rather, the law reminds us of God’s gracious and faithful love for the entire community in this world. To obey the law is to remember a loving God who is always faithful in his covenant. In response, we are asked to be loyal in return to the Lord who loves us. It is all about fidelity of relationship.
Beyond the Ten Commandments, Jewish law provides other guidelines for how to live in community. Justice for those who are poor or marginalized is essential. For example, God commands, “You shall not oppress or afflict a resident alien, for you were once aliens residing in the land of Egypt. You shall not wrong any widow or orphan” (Exodus 22:20-23). The widow, orphan, and the stranger are among the weakest in the community and represent all who are at risk because they live at the margins. We are commanded to care for them because they are part of our human family. Even the alien who lives among us, who is not strictly speaking part of the covenant, still requires our care. God tells us to love them also, because if we delve deeply into our own dependency on God, we find that we are just as dependent upon God as the alien, the widow, or the orphan.
Each individual has a responsibility to be faithful to these demands of justice. But in considering justice in our own day, we must also consider sinful social structures. For example, racism not only includes individual racist thoughts, feelings, and actions, but also systematic structures—such as the lasting legacy of redlining. Individual people may not intend to harm the environment when driving to work, heating their homes, or flying cross country, but our society structures energy consumption in ways that contribute to harmful climate change. To stand passively aside without acting against sinful structures is to be complicit. Thus, the Penitential Rite at Mass wisely asks us to confess not only to what we have done but also “what we have failed to do.” God desires social conversion. Yet even the conversion of a community must begin with the hearts and choices of each one of us.
In the Gospel passage at today’s liturgy, we see Jesus get angry (John 2:13-25). This story does not simply teach us that it is ok to be angry, although it is. It does not simply model righteous anger in general. Jesus is angry about something specific: people are standing in the presence of the holy but have forgotten it. They are turning the temple into a marketplace. Jesus adds that there is something even holier that will be destroyed and then raised up again: the temple of his own body. He anticipates already that others will look at the presence of the divine in the human but not recognize it.
Today, too, we forget about the holy ones in our midst. The black man who is implicitly criminalized simply because of the color of his skin is holy. The immigrant who takes great risks in seeking a better life for her family is holy. The homeless woman who asks for money for the train but plans to spend it on feeding her addiction is also holy. So, too, is the corporate executive who passes her by because he is afraid and uncertain of how to act. We are always standing on holy ground in the presence of one another.
The liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez, OP, writes, “There are not, then, two histories, one profane and one sacred, juxtaposed or interrelated, but a single human progress, irreversibly exalted by Christ, the Lord of history” (Notes for a Theology of Liberation, 255). Love includes not only attending to the care for our partners and families or generosity with our friends, but also a willingness to engage in the mess of human history as it is being made—especially engaging with the poor, hungry, thirsty, incarcerated, and the stranger (Matthew 25: 35-36).
But in order to understand how to love, we have to listen. If love is about another’s good, then in order to choose this effectively, we must learn from others what they really need. Care is not care if one has good intentions but in fact enacts harm. Love communicates. Love listens.
Jesus often asks others, such as a blind man who desires healing, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51). Even Jesus does not presume to know another’s good, but invites communication and listens. We, too, must ask others about their experience and not presume already to understand it: Why is the immigrant who lacks papers here? What motivated her to leave her home? What perils does she now face? How does my neighbor of color differently experience relationships to police in our community? These answers may make us feel vulnerable or uncomfortable, but tolerating some discomfort allows for our own conversion. Lent, after all, is not about the conversion of others, but about my own.
Throughout the gospels, Jesus also makes discerning decisions about how to love. Some of these require looking at the intent of the law. For example, he heals a man with a shriveled hand on the Sabbath, not because he finds the law unimportant, but rather because he understands that the aims of the laws governing the Sabbath are to “do good” and “save life” (Mark 3:1-4). As a good rabbi, Jesus interprets the law with attention to its underlying purpose: to will the good for others. He understands the law beneath the rules, and the love beneath the law.
Near the end of the Gospel reading, we also hear an important caution. Jesus “did not need anyone to testify about human nature. He himself understood it well” (John 2:24-25). He “did not trust himself” even to those who believed in him, because he understood the weakness of human nature. We are asked to work for justice. We are asked to recognize the holiness of others. We are asked to allow ourselves to be converted. But in the midst of this, there is always great human weakness. So, we cannot rely on ourselves alone. We cannot trust solely in human power but must trust deeply in God’s creative power. We must rely on God, as Jesus did, and listen to him.
Suggestions for prayer and practice:
- Remember that when we are with one another, we are standing on holy ground. Where has the unexpectedly holy broken in to my day? How would I like to respond?
- Take time to listen deeply to others, in difficult personal or political situations. Do I listen or only speak? Do I only seek to convert others to my view, or am I also willing to be converted?
- Learn more about the “resident alien” in our own world. See the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops site “Justice for Immigrants” for an overview: https://justiceforimmigrants.org/. Consider taking political action.
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