26th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Rebuilding with Charity and Justice

Moses Elects the Council of Seventy Elder, Jacob de Wit, 1737, Royal Palace of Amsterdam

Moses Elects the Council of Seventy Elder,
Jacob de Wit, 1737, Royal Palace of Amsterdam
(About this Image)

Then the LORD said to Moses:
Assemble for me seventy of the elders of Israel,
whom you know to be elders and authorities among the people,
and bring them to the tent of meeting.
When they are in place beside you,
I will come down and speak with you there.
I will also take some of the spirit that is on you
and will confer it on them,
that they may share the burden of the people with you.
You will then not have to bear it by yourself.
(Numbers 11:16-17)

Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Twenty-Sixth Sunday of Ordinary Time
Letter of St. James 3:16-4:3
September 26, 2021

This week we will end our examination of the Letter of St. James. Although it is not the final section of the letter, it will allow us to clarify two themes we have been following throughout. James has spoken to the community as a whole and provides a “community ethics.” Today, he will show us the individual consequences of participating in corporate sin. We have often commented on James’ connection to what we now call Catholic Social Teaching. This week we will see the roots in greater depth but also where it must be expanded.

For James, riches can cause progressive moral decay. In the section immediately following last week’s reading he writes to the entire community:

Lament and mourn and weep.
Let your laughter be turned into mourning
and your joy into dejection.
Humble yourselves before the Lord,
and he will exalt you.

(Jas 4:9–10)

These are strong words, but there is great hope. Compare this with the opening of today’s selection:

Come now, you rich, weep and wail
over your impending miseries

(Jas 5:1)

He defines the rich not so much as those who have wealth but those who have used it badly. He gives four examples within two basic categories: luxury and injustice.

God judges our use of wealth by how we help other people especially of course those who are in dire straits. At the very beginning of the letter James wrote:

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this:
to care for orphans and widows in their distress,
and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

(Jas 1:27)

The church has built on this insight not only by holding that we have responsibilities to the common good but to the universal destination of all goods. Everything belongs to God, and we have the use of property here on earth, but those who have much must use it for those who have little or nothing.

James expresses this very powerfully, but he is not unique. This theme may be found in both the Old and New Testaments. James is writing to a predominately Jewish audience and often quotes the great Wisdom writers, most notably Sirach. As we have seen, the Letter from St James also has much in common with St. Matthew’s Gospel written for a mixed community of those born Jews and Christians.

James speaks about the futility of laying up treasure that will all be destroyed as did Matthew:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth,
where moths and vermin destroy,
and where thieves break in and steal.
But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven,
where moths and vermin do not destroy,
and where thieves do not break in and steal.
For where your treasure is,
there your heart will be also.

(Matthew 6: 19-21)

And to the rich young man:

Jesus said to him,
“If you wish to be perfect, go,
sell your possessions,
and give the money to the poor,
and you will have treasure in heaven;
then come, follow me.”

(Mt 19:21)

And Sirach:

Lose your silver for the sake of a brother or a friend,
and do not let it rust under a stone and be lost.
Lay up your treasure according to the commandments of the Most High,
and it will profit you more than gold.

(Sir 29:10–11)

The effect of this is that the rich literally eat themselves:

You have lived on earth in luxury and pleasure;
you have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter.

(Jas 5:5)

Their tragedy is that they had the means to have the treasure which does not rot and did not use it.

Another distinction, and one which is perhaps more obvious, is injustice.

Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers
who harvested your fields are crying aloud,
and the cries of the harvesters have reached
the ears of the Lord of hosts.

(Jas 5:4)

This was a serious and not uncommon problem from the earliest days of the Jewish people.

You shall not defraud your neighbor;
you shall not steal; and
you shall not keep for yourself
the wages of a laborer until morning.

(Lev 19:1)

The parish Bible study group has been reading Isaiah. Isaiah preaches that the Judah is being destroyed from within. With the land itself being gobbled up by unscrupulous business people who then hire the former owners back as day laborers, something between a gig worker and a consultant but only being given enough to support himself and his family for a day.

Ah, you who join house to house,
who add field to field, until there is room for no one but you,
and you are left to live alone in the midst of the land”

(Isa 5:8)

Sirach centuries later shows that it is still a live issue:

The bread of the needy is the life of the poor;
whoever deprives them of it is a murderer.
To take away a neighbor’s living is to commit murder;
to deprive an employee of wages is to shed blood”

(Sirach 34:25–26)

James is well within Jewish prophecy when he writes:

You have condemned;
you have murdered the righteous one;
he offers you no resistance.

(Jas 5:6)

For James the poor were righteous, because they were innocent and had no one to defend them but God. He will emphasize that the rich need to be aware that they will be judged by how well they treat the poor.

For judgment will be without mercy to anyone
who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment

(Jas 2:13)

Their salvation depended on almsgiving. Sirach writes of giving alms:

A man’s goodness God cherishes like a signet ring,
a man’s virtue, like the apple of his eye.
Later he will rise up and repay them,
and requite each one of them as they deserve

(Sirach 17:17-18)

Almsgiving is still a wonderful act and is always encouraged. Yet it is not enough. The options to improve the condition of the poor were very limited in James’s world and indeed very near our time as well. Personal charity and justice were the only real ways of having a positive effect.

That has changed.

We not only have democratic forms of government but also a monetary economy which allows us to provide more security. We live in a world of humanly fashioned structures, some beneficial for the common good, others sinful. We are charged to strengthen the former – e.g., independent judiciary and labor unions – and to dismantle the latter – e.g., racism and inadequate health care.

The world has received a bad shock from COVID-19 causing many of our institutions to falter. Let us give it a good shock by rebuilding them in charity and with justice.