Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Seeking Justice

You don't have to know much about the Bible to know that one of St. Paul's key words (at least in his tour de force letter to the Romans and its prequel, Galations) is "justification," along with its cognates. And that his prime example of a "just man" is Father Abraham, who appears in today's first reading (acting, indeed, not just "justly," but very generously). As I read the passages for today's Liturgy of the Word last night, it struck me that this particular configuration of texts for Tuesday of the 12th Week in Ordinary Time might best be read backwards: starting with the Gospel, then to the Psalm and finally the first reading, because while the Gospel shows us the path of justice, with Jesus' teaching from the Sermon on the Mount, and the psalm sums it up with a description of a righteous person, the first reading shows us what that justice looks like, through Abraham's example.
There's been a whole lot of talk in churchly circles over the past decades about "doing justice." Generally, that means "social justice," not the "justice before God" that St. Paul was specifically writing about. The funny thing is, for St. Paul, neither kind of "justice" could come about through observance of a law or code; justice is the flowering of holiness. The "fruits of the Spirit" in things like "charity, joy, peace, patience" and so on are the external overflowing of grace. But much of the justice talk these days focuses on what seems suspiciously like another Law. Instead of "charity, joy, peace and patience," you see a rather grim determination that social "justice be done, though the heavens fall," and not a little snide criticism of those who give priority to things like faith and piety. St. Paul would probably say that this is putting things backwards.
Don't get me wrong! Social justice is a very good thing. Jesus made it clear that the Last Judgment would not be on doctrine and prayer, but on how we treat "the least of my brothers." St. James (as strict a "Law man" as you could ever find) said as much, too (James 1:27). But how do you become the sort of person who treats the least one with goodness and self-forgetting generosity?
If the Church's mission is first of all sanctification--conformity in mind and heart with the mind and heart of Christ through faith and worship (self-giving in thanks and praise, in union with Christ's self-giving), then, "though the heavens fall," justice will be done by these holy people. Holiness comes first, and justice, even the basic social kind of justice, will come about. You only have to look at the saints for the evidence.

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