God's Word on Sunday: Exodus reveals a lesson in social justice

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  • October 18, 2020

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Oct. 25 (Year A) Exodus 22:21-27; Psalm 18; 1 Thessalonians 1:5c-10; Matthew 22:34-40

People have very short memories, especially when there is a past they would prefer to forget. Experiences of poverty, insecurity and injustice seem to fade after one’s circumstances have improved dramatically. Unfortunately, many also forget the kindnesses and breaks they received along the way.

Often those who have suffered inflict the same sort of treatment on others, especially the poor and vulnerable. Sometimes those whose ancestors were immigrants are most eager to keep out immigrants and newcomers. God has always been revealed as taking the side of the poor, weak and victimized.

Exodus warns the Israelites that they must remember who they were and where they came from, especially the slavery from which they had been liberated. They were to ensure that they never enslaved or exploited others. If they did, God would come to the aid of the oppressed and the Israelites would suffer consequences.

Never treat others in a way that you would not want to be treated. Do not pass along ill treatment like some sort of disease to future generations. We need to recall con tinually the unmerited graces and blessings we have received from God as well as the pain of our own struggles.

The Old Testament is clear and consistent in its insistence that worship of God cannot be separated from justice for others and for society as a whole. Whenever Israel was rebuked by the prophets it was for egregious failures in economic and social justice, for these dimensions of human life were not separate from faith. Not only that, the Scriptures insisted on the same treatment for foreigners in the land, not just for Israelites.

Social justice is not a modern liberal concern as some would portray it, but began with God’s response to Cain’s murder of his brother. Cain asked cynically if he was his brother’s keeper, and God’s reply then and always has been, “Absolutely.” This divine teaching was emphasized in the recent encyclical of Pope Francis, which stressed human solidarity and commitment to the common good for all humanity. It is not just a nice thing to do — our very survival depends on it.

Paul was very proud of the Thessalonian community. It was obvious they had received the faith and taken it to heart. Their faith was a way of life that encompassed all of their activities and relationships. They were an attractive example to other communities of Christ believers.

We should never underestimate the drawing power of a good example, especially when it is accompanied by joy. A joyful life given in love and service is the most effective way of evangelizing. No gimmick or technique will make up for this if it is lacking.

If this great commandment were the only surviving scrap of the New Testament, we could still live a godly and Christian life. In Romans 13:8-10, Paul assures us that love is the summation and fulfillment of the Law. This great commandment is uncomplicated, short and to the point. And it was not new — both parts of that commandment reflect the core Jewish teaching in Deuteronomy 6:4-5 and Leviticus 19:18. Jesus illuminated and reaffirmed the Jewish tradition.

In biblical terms, love has nothing to do with romance and little to do with feelings. Love is what one does to and for others. It has many dimensions — in covenantal terms, it describes loyalty and fidelity to God. For individuals, it is the quality of care that one takes for the well-being and happiness of others.

Jesus joined the passage from Deuteronomy with that of Leviticus for good reason. The evidence for our loyalty and fidelity to God is to be found not in the heavens but in our treatment of others. Our relationship with God is both vertical and horizontal — God in the heavens and God in those around us.

There is absolutely no room for an exclusive “me and Jesus” type of spirituality. There is more: this love for our neighbour is intended for all people — we do not pick and choose.

Love as defined above must be shown to those whose opinions or politics are disagreeable to us, as well as to those that are challenging, ungrateful or different in any way. God does not set conditions or play favourites so neither should we.

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