Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
The twentieth century political philosopher, John Rawls, summarily restated his most famous work, A Theory of Justice, as “Justice as Fairness.” Many who know little of his learned, complex argument may have heard of his “Original Position,” the thought experiment that serves as creation myth for Rawls’ social contract.
Rawls asks his reader to imagine a meeting where all parties choose a common social structure from behind a “veil of ignorance.” No one knows his/her/its origin, history, gender, ethnicity, class, religion, talents, abilities, or conception of the Good. This artifice, Rawls believes, forces participants to choose the basic rights and duties of citizens impartially, rationally, and fairly — and Rawls confidently tells us what they will decide.
Many of Rawls’ subsequent conclusions are appealing, but his starting point strikes me as a progressive “just so” story. For Rawls, it seems, people emptied of nearly every personal quality will nevertheless share his late twentieth century bourgeois liberal values.
This week’s lectionary readings envision a radically different universe. Ezekiel learns just how distorted human conceptions of fairness are, and how Divine justice never stands in isolation from Divine mercy. God takes no joy in anyone’s death, refuses to punish the many for the sins of the few, and is forever ready to pardon the sinner.
Though Ezekiel hears God speaking in a new register, the message that God’s justice and mercy come as a package isn’t new. (See, for example, Psalm 85:10: “Mercy (Chesed) and Truth (Emet) are met. Righteousness (Tsedeq) and Peace (Shalom) have kissed.”) It’s an ongoing biblical theme, a conversation we can’t be reminded of too often.
The conversation is still going strong in first century Judea, where rabbis debate matters of authority and obedience (from ob-audire, “to hear thoroughly”) in this week’s passage from Matthew. Some of the disturbing power of Jesus’ parable is lost on those unfamiliar with ancient Mediterranean cultural expectations: sons must publicly honor their fathers at least as much in word as in action. The first son dishonored his father through his direct, verbal refusal, yet he ultimately does his father’s will. The opposite, of course, is true of the second son, who is, as we say now, “all talk and no action.”
Then Jesus, good rabbi that he is, brings his parable back to the present moment’s messy circumstances by telling his listeners, “…tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.” Replace “tax collectors and prostitutes” with whatever groups rouse your own thinly-disguised resentments (and if you’re among the saints who harbor no resentments, pray for those of us who still do) and you’ll feel God’s mercy as the chief priests must have – less like an embrace than a slap in the face.
And what more can be said of the much commented-upon kenosis hymn in Philippians 2? Perhaps just this: That God’s justice is apprehended, if at all, not from behind a veil of ignorance but through vulnerable presence. The usual English-language renderings of verse 2:5, along the lines of “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,” miss the fleshy, visceral connotations of the Greek root phroneo. Modern Western Christians like me often interpret the passage as a mind game, an intellectual puzzle, a matter of getting the right ideas and attitudes in ones head.
But that misreads Paul as a philosopher and not as a mystic. Paul truly wants his readers to feel the self-emptying presence of Christ in our guts. Paul asks us to be present to that Presence with our vulnerable and needy bodies and our soiled and lately repentant hearts at least to the degree we are present to Him with our scattered and desirous minds.
There is no denial, then, of who we are, where we come from, or what accidents of history and fortune distinguish us from others. Nor are we asked to feign blindness when it comes to others, but rather to see everyone as wounded sinners like ourselves, who need only to change our stony hearts before we discover we’re already forgiven.
Make no mistake: if we do as we are asked, we shouldn’t expect to be treated fairly or find the world suddenly transformed into a kinder, gentler place. Christ, Paul reminds us, was obedient even unto horrific death on a cross, embodying God’s mercy to us while we were still sinners. Paul’s not asking us merely to admire or even imitate Christ, but to let that mystery enter our every vulnerable part of our body and being, so we may both will and work for God’s good pleasure.
So we work out our salvation in fear and trembling, not because it’s up to us to get things right, but because God’s mercy and justice are most often encountered in great love and great suffering, channels of grace far more alike than we imagine. “Love Hurts” goes the hit song (sung by Nazareth, Roy Orbison, and others), something anyone who’s gazed on the tortured, unveiled body of the crucified Christ already knows. But we’re not to stop at merely knowing it. We, who call ourselves followers of Christ, are invited to enter into that painful and loving Mercy and to know it as the only true form of Justice.