October 23, 2016
Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18
It’s easy to get stuck in a pattern of bad habits. They start so small, but their effect can be pernicious. “A little late” once can turn into very late always. “Just one cigarette” can turn into a pack a day. We don’t usually think about what we’re doing as a “habit” until it’s gotten to a problematic point. Good habits, by contrast, are difficult to develop. They take time, effort, persistence and getting up when you fall down.
Sirach’s Zeal for the Justice of God
This Sunday’s first reading from the Book of Sirach points us toward some powerful habits that are rooted in the justice of God. Really, our reading is a kind of elegy on the justice of God—how impartial he is, how empathetic he is, how responsive he is to our pleadings. But his poetry on God’s justice comes in the midst of his discussion of broader practices in our relationship with God. Sirach is zealous for keeping God’s commandments, particularly in regard to the poor, and he wants us to be as well (35:1-5). He also encourages making sacrifices at the Temple (35:6-13). What is astounding about these two dimensions, justice and worship, is that we usually see them in tension. It often seems that a Catholic is either devoted to social justice or devoted to Eucharistic adoration. Rarely do both coincide in one individual. A lot of Catholic writers have commented on this problem, a kind of bifurcation of our Christian life, so I won’t repeat their ideas here, but I think Sirach might help us find a way out.
Sirach starts this chapter off with a simple equation: “He who keeps the law makes many offerings” (Sir 35:1 RSV). That is, in his view, the keeping of God’s commandments is equivalent to making sacrifices in the Temple. Practicing justice is a kind of worship. Indeed, “he who gives alms sacrifices a thank offering” (Sir 35:2 RSV), meaning that whoever gives to the poor is like the person at the Temple actually giving a grain offering to the Lord. Do these principles mean that we should abandon prayer in order to give more to the poor? No, but they do show us that God views our efforts to serve the least among us as acts of worship, not just humanistic endeavors. In addition, these acts of justice are some of the good habits I mentioned earlier. There’s no better way to conquer the vice of greed than to give away your money. There’s no better way to conquer pride than to humble yourself and serve other people.
Yet all these acts of justice lead us back to worship. Sirach warns us, “Do not appear before the Lord empty-handed,” (Sir 35:4 RSV), meaning without a sacrificial animal to offer. He thus encourages sacrificing to God in worship, but there is a caveat. Only “the sacrifice of a righteous man is acceptable” (Sir 35:7 RSV). If we approach God to offer sacrifice while our behavior is deplorable, he considers it an unworthy bribe:
Do not offer him a bribe, for he will not accept it;
and do not trust to an unrighteous sacrifice;
for the Lord is the judge, and with him is no partiality. (Sir 35:12 RSV)
Our behavior, whether just or unjust, is fundamental to our relationship with God. If we come to worship him while living in opposition to his law, then our worship is tainted and even unacceptable. God will not be extorted by our offerings to him, since he is just.
God’s justice brings these two dimensions, justice and worship, together. It is because of God’s generous and demanding justice that we help others, give our money, and serve the community. If we don’t do these things, each of us in the way God has appointed, then we aren’t really incarnating the Gospel, and our worship comes to be vitiated of its power. Yet on the other hand, if we are only helping people and never directly worshiping God, never actually praying, then our impact dwindles. Why? Because God’s justice demands that we worship him. It’s what we were created to do, after all, so we might as well get started doing it. It can be argued that spending time in prayer and worship of God subtracts from the available time to help others. That’s true, but in fact, growing in prayer with the Lord strengthens us, empowers us to be better at serving. Both are necessary and one fuels the other. Worship fuels our practice of justice.
In the end, this tension comes down to habits. We can develop the bad habits of not praying and not serving others—winding ourselves up into a little ball of self-seeking quasi-pleasure. But if we listen to Sirach, we’ll instead develop the right habits: worshipping God and serving others. God’s powerful mercy that hears the cries of the distressed and responds to their needs will become a reality in us—on the one hand when we receive his mercy in prayer and on the other when we live it out in doing acts of justice. Now there are two habits worth developing!