Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters.
R. The Lord hears the cry of the poor. - Psalm 34
"But who do you say that I am?" ...
I feel personally challenged by these readings. The first reading and the psalm deserve serious reflection. James is obviously writing about a human behavior which he has observed in this community. Showing "partiality" is something we've all been guilty of at some time, perhaps all the time. A weathy person in our assembly gets more favorable attention than a poor person does.
I recall a particular moment this became very apparent to me, more than twenty years ago, when I was a pastor of a thriving Jesuit parish in downtown Milwaukee. I was having a series of "breakfasts with the pastor" for the top contributors in the parish, to thank them and to tell them about some of the challenges we were facing. At one of these breakfasts of ten leading parishioners, in our parish hall, one seat was empty as we begin. Then, the door opened and an African American woman entered the room. We all recognized her as the woman who often sits in one of the last rows at a busy Mass and is often greeting people coming in and going out. I'll call her "Mary." Mary was quite distinguishable by her well-worn white, cloth coat, which hadn't been really white in a long time. One of the men at the table asked quietly, "Father, do you want me to take care of her?" I responded, "No, it's okay. Mary is one of the invited top 100 contributors." Every person at the table looked at me like I was crazy. Mary came over and took off her coat and sat down. "Thank you, Father, for inviting me. I really love this parish. I was a nurse all my life and I saved up my money all those years so I could support my parish. Some people come up to me and offer to buy me a new coat. I tell them that I don't need a new coat. I save my money so I can support this wonderful parish." It was clear that judging by appearances can be quite desceiving. The breakfast went well and every other invitee at the table increased his or her contribution that week.
James reminds us that "God chooses those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the Kingdom." He reminds us that we can dishonor the poor. This reading is followed up by Psalm 34 and the powerful refrain, "The Lord hears the cry of the poor." That is a refrain of good news for us who are poor. It is a challenge for us who fail to hear the cry of the poor.
Jesus asks his disciples - and he asks us - "Who do YOU say that I am?" The question can be addressed to us: "Who am I for you? What place do I have in your life? Are you ready to follow me, unreservedly?" Apparently, it isn't enough for us to say, "You are the Christ, the anointed one, the promised one who is to come." He tells his disciples not to tell that to anyone. They aren't ready for the full implications of that message.
Sometimes, I'm not ready, either. I hold back. There is still too much self-protective care in me. And, the "calculation" about what is best for me, who is better to be with, is still too much a part of my heart. Jesus invites me to say, "You are my savior. You are the one who died for my sins - to take away the power of sin and death - for me and for us all. I am so grateful, that all my anxieties and self-absorbed concerns just melt away. I so want to be with you in your mission of announcing this good news to others. I want to lay down my life with you. I want to love the way you love"
Instead, too often, we respond the way Peter did. We fight Jesus' acceptance of his mission. We don't want to let him suffer and die for us, because we know - perhaps we fear - that to let that happen would transform us and draw us into the pattern of his life, death and resurrection. We become guilty of thinking the way the world thinks, rather than the way God thinks.
I feel the invitation for me - for us - today is three-fold. To re-accept his love and saving mercy with deep gratitude; to respond with a growing desire to be with him in his mission from the Father; and to love others the way he has loved us - in a dying to self way. And, if we do this today, the people close to us will experience the difference in our spirit and in our care today. And, ultimately, the poor will know that we hear their cry.
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