If we look for justice, on this side of heaven, we will probably die very disappointed. Whenever I hear of a child born with a permanent disability or born into an abusive household, or a child robbed of their childhood, or a child raised in squalor or a war zone, or in a refugee camp, it simply does not feel fair or just. Some things should be and can be corrected if we took the gospel seriously and loved our neighbour–even our enemy–as Jesus commanded us to and as he did himself. Other things cannot be fixed per se, but they still feel unjust.
Many injustices come about because people’s basic rights are either not granted in the first place or not respected. We should all be working for basic human rights like the right to life, the right to clean water and air, the right to freedom, the right to adequate housing, the right to education and healthcare, etc. I am also aware that I need to be willing to give up my rights, from time to time, so that a greater good—greater than my personal rights—will have a chance to go forward in this world.
If you know anything about the Biblical character Job, who was mentioned in the first reading, you know that Job was a righteous man. Being righteous means being in right relationship with God, neighbour and with self. That was Job to a tee. He was honest, hard-working, and would daily thank God for blessings and ask God for forgiveness for his shortcomings. However, unknown to him, the devil entered into a wagered with God that if God would take away some of Job’s prosperity, like his wife or children or livestock or harvest, Job would actually turn against God and curse God. God laid a counter wager and bet the devil that Job would never curse Him even if Job was deprived of everything. Well, Job does have everything taken away from him—his wife, children, fields, cattle, house, even his health—but does not curse God. Poor Job did nothing wrong, yet, ended up on a dung heap covered in sores. He had a right to a better life, and he had a right to complain, but he did not. He forfeited his rights, you might say, for something greater—his relationship with God. Eventually, because of his faithfulness, everything was restored to him. Job gives up his right, so that something greater—God’s glory—could be experienced by him and others.
St. Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, is also willing to give up his personal rights. He says, “I make the Gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my rights in the Gospel.” In other words, “I have a right to a living wage from you Corinthians, for all the hard work I have done so that you may know Christ and his Gospel. But, I wave that right so that I can be freer in offering you this good news of God’s love for you. He asked for no money, although he had a right to expect payment. Apparently, in the Greco-Roman world philosophers and preachers built up audiences in order to line their pockets from their followers. Paul wanted to be free from preaching only what the people wanted to hear—and were willing to pay for–and even freer to preach the truth God had placed on his lips. What was the price he paid for giving up his right to an income? Poverty. Financial instability. So, he kept on working as a tentmaker. But the greater good, in giving up his right, was that God’s salvation was reaching the people.
Love of neighbour, which is the only assurance that we are actually loving God, must eclipse and surpass my personal rights. In that same letter to the Corinthians (chapter 8), Paul speaks of our freedom in Christ. However, Paul advises those, who knew that idols were not real, to, nonetheless, refrain from eating meat that was used in idol worship. He thought it might scandalize those who were weaker in their faith. In other words, you have the right to eat this meat (because you are no longer under the Law), but I would prefer you give up this right. Why? Because some people are not as strong in their faith as you are, and I want you to think of them. They are fragile in their faith; they need baby steps to get to where you are in your faith. So, make this little sacrifice out of love them. Let your love for them eclipse your personal rights.
There is a five-year controversy that is still before the courts. It resurfaced on the news the other day. You have probably heard about it. It centers around a Nova Scotian of German descent who has his last name on his personalized license plate. His real name is Lorne Grabher. Grabher (“Grab her”) is the part on the license plate. The kerfuffle is between him having a right to publicly display his family name vs the possibility of promoting sexual violence against women, which is not his intention. St. Paul would say, if I dare to speak for him, “Lorne, you have a right to displaying this license plate, but I ask you to forfeit this right for the sake of those who feel offended.”
Which is more important: being sensitive to people’s feelings or always exercising your rights? Do my rights come before love of neighbour? I get ticked off when I have to wait more than five minutes for an order that’s supposed to be “fast” food. I inwardly murmur to myself, “I have a right to faster service!” Or, “they have no right to make me wait!” as if two more minutes is going to make any difference in the grand scheme of things.
What about Jesus? How did he see private rights? Jesus preaches an inspiring homily in the synagogue, restores a possessed man from a demonic influence, heals Peter’s mother-in-law and cures numerous people in and around Capernaum. He has a right to be hailed a hero and receive the adulation that goes with it. Instead, he forfeits that right and goes off to a quiet place to pray to God. He gave up his right to be the hero in Capernaum so that God can use him to spread the message of love and mercy to the whole world, not just Capernaum. Jesus just knew there was something bigger and more pressing afoot in the land than his personal rights.
Every Palm Sunday, we hear about Jesus giving up his right to equality with God. He gave up his right of freedom in order to become a slave; slaves have no rights. Yet he did it for our sake. By being born a human being, Jesus gave up his right to be with God, his Abba. He gave up his right to a home saying that the birds of the air and the foxes have holes but that the Son of Man had no place to lay his head. He gave up his right to money. Remember he had to borrow a coin to make an illustration. He gave up his right to marriage and his right to his reputation. As far as most people were concerned, he was an illegitimate baby, raised in a town with a sketchy reputation. He gave up his right to a valid trial and gave up his right to defend himself with legions of angels he could have summoned from heaven. Why would somebody give up so many rights? Because beyond our rights, we all want to know if there is a love out there that can touch our deepest pains, restore our divisions, bridge our separateness and bring us healing. With Jesus, we know beyond a shadow of a doubt, there is. He will leave both Capernaum behind and his personal rights behind a thousand times to bring us such a love.
Fr. Phil Mulligan