Sunday, August 22, 2010

Someone asked him, "Lord, will only
a few people be saved?" He answered them,
"Strive to enter through the narrow gate,
for many, I tell you, will attempt to
enter but will not be strong enough. After
the master of the house has arisen and
locked the door, then will you stand
outside knocking and saying, 'Lord, open
the door for us.' He will say to you in
reply, 'I do not know where you are from.'
And you will say, 'We ate and drank in
your company and you taught in our streets.'
Then he will say to you, 'I do not know
where (you) are from. Depart from me, all
you evildoers!' And there will be wailing
and grinding of teeth when you see Abraham,
Isaac, and Jacob and all the prophets in the
kingdom of God and you yourselves cast out.
And people will come from the east and the
west and from the north and the south and
will recline at table in the kingdom of God.
For behold, some are last who will be first,
and some are first who will be last."

Luke 13: 23-30

The last two verses here are ones that I think really speak to our situation as a nation and indeed as a culture in the "Western" world. It is a message that was unthinkable to the Jewish people of Jesus' time, just as it seems to be equally incomprehensible to our current age. God came down not only for the pious and the self-righteous, not only for the rich and the light-skinned, but indeed for the whole of the human race. God does not care if a person is a CEO or a fruit picker, a descendant of the Pilgrims or an illegal immigrant, a rich man or an unemployed single mother of multiple children on public assistance. What He cares about is located within the heart, and I think that many rich and supposedly pious people will be shocked on Judgment Day to find that their riches are inadequate to earn salvation. God will indeed gather together people from every nation and language, from every class and situation in life, and those who are considered last in our society will indeed be the first ones welcomed into Heaven.

In our society today there are many who would question the worthiness of the immigrant and the laborer to be counted among the righteous. Just today in his homily my pastor mentioned some grumblings that had been expressed to him about the creation of a Spanish Mass at our parish. Our parish has had non-English language masses for a long time, having been blessed with a large Portuguese and then Brazilian immigrant community since I was a child, but this would be the first time that the Spanish immigrant community has been welcomed in such a way there. Unfortunately, there are many among us who think that even the Portuguese-speaking Mass is a problem and that adding a Spanish Mass is a move in the wrong direction. To them I would say that God does not love us because we speak English or because our families have been here for some "respectable" period of time. He loves us because we are His children, and He loves the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking people here just as much as He loves us. God does not look at our "pedigree" as if we are pure-breed dogs, he does not care where we come from or how we got here. What is important to God is whether we are willing to serve Him and love our brothers and sisters, and from experience I can say that there are many among the immigrant communities who would put many of us "well-established" Americans to shame in those departments.

In my experiences of the marginalized and downtrodden I have always found that the poorest and most disregarded among us feel the closest to God and have the richest faith. I didn't grow up rich but compared to many even in our own country I was relatively well-off, so my experience of this phenomenon didn't begin until I was in college. For my first spring break of my time in college I decided to participate in an Alternative Spring Break service trip to Kingston, Jamaica, a trip that brought me face to face not only with crushing poverty but also the gaping divide between rich and poor that exists in many countries but is often not acknowledged by those who can choose to ignore it. In my time there I was blessed to meet a man whose condition would be considered a curse to most of us, and yet his outlook was one of intense faith and gratitude to God. This man had been stricken by leprosy back when that disease was less treatable, and by the time that he gained access to life-saving treatment he had lost his sight as well as all of his toes and fingers. The disease had scarred his body, and yet his spirit was unafflicted. To hear him sing praise to God in spite of his sufferings brought into perspective a truth that is not easy for those of us who are more affluent, that true faith comes not in thanking God for an easy life but in praising God through the hardships and trials. How many of us in our comfortable existence would choose to praise God instead of blaming Him for our pain and becoming bitter and angry? I think that many would choose the "curse God and die" response favored by Job's wife rather than keeping the faith as Job himself did. It is not for no reason that Jesus preached the difficulty of salvation for the rich, indeed great wealth fosters a mindset of self-reliance and even self-adoration that is antithetical to the teachings of Christ. The poor have nothing and therefore have no choice but to lean on God, their utter helplessness leads them to the true Rock in a way that is impossible for those who have learned to put their trust in self and in temporal riches.

It is a shame that so many among the Catholic faithful have embraced the millennial rhetoric of those like Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, rhetoric that poisons them against their neighbors and makes them see enemies and rivals where they should see brothers and sisters in Christ. You can see this in the objections that some have leveled against the Park51 project, objections that seem to imply that all Muslims are terrorists or terrorist sympathizers. Imam Rauf was previously such a non-controversial figure that he was sent on bridge-building missions to the Middle East by President Bush after 9/11, but now that the right wants to start a fight they're condemning him for insufficiently condeming the actions of other Muslims. They chastise him for making (in my opinion accurate) statements about US policy contributing to the popularity of groups like Al Qaeda, and they attack him for not being penitent enough for the attacks on our country by supposed followers of Islam. I have to wonder what these conservatives would say about Christian sins against human dignity, such as the treatment of Native Americans not to mention the current atmosphere of xenophobia that prevails among many so-called followers of Christ. I'd also wonder whether they think that Americans should express penitence for the terrorist actions of our government in places like Dresden, Nagasaki, My Lai, and Baghdad (anyone remember "shock and awe"?), but then I think that I already know the answer. The great irony is that people like Beck and Palin hold up our nation as the chosen land of God Almighty a land of justice and peace obedient to the teachings of Jesus Christ, and yet in their actions and their disdain for the poor man and the foreigner they betray themselves as descendants of the Pharisees and bring down upon themselves the condemnation chosen for that group by Jesus himself. May God have mercy on them, and on us all.

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