Let me start by summarizing the three readings. The first reading from Nehemiah, tells us about the priest Ezra bringing a scroll or a book of law before an assembly who initially react with reverence – rising, bowing down, prostrating before the Lord; but, on hearing the words of the Law, weep ….presumably from not having followed the Law. Nehemiah tells them: don’t be sad; today is holy to the Lord (presumably because they are repentant); celebrate…..rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength.
This reading is followed by the responsorial hymn which emphasizes the law of the Lord – that it is perfect, trustworthy, right, clear, and true and that fear of the Lord is pure.
The second reading is St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. He is addressing an early Christian community in Corinth that was divided over which leader they should follow and he is calling the community to unity. He compares the many parts of the body, yet one body, to the variety of roles leaders in the church take on…. If we just substitute “person” for the word “parts” we get it. Each separate part/person is intended by God to be different; some parts/persons appear weaker, but are all the more necessary; some parts/persons are considered less honorable, and we will surround them with greater honor; to the parts/persons that are less presentable, we will treat with greater propriety.
We do this so that there is no division in the body/church and all parts/persons have the same concern for one another. If one part/person suffers, all suffer; if one is honored, all share the joy. Paul goes on to rank the leadership roles: apostles, prophets, teachers, doers of mighty deeds, healers, those who assist, those who administer, those with the gift of tongues (in that order). As women, we have difficulty seeing ourselves in many of those roles in the Church. This Sunday’s reading stops there….yet, what follows is Paul saying we should strive for the greatest spiritual gift (of leadership) and then his much-quoted discourse on love being the greatest spiritual gift of all, that if one has one of the leadership gifts mentioned above, but does not have love, it amounts to nothing.
And of course we can apply this analogy of the varied parts making up the whole to more than the issue of leaders in the different roles mentioned by Paul. We can apply it to our own participation, with our varied gifts, in the Body of Christ, as well as to the diversity of whole communities making up the richness of the Body of Christ.
Then we come to the Gospel: It is a passage mentioned only in Luke. It follows Jesus’ baptism and his hearing “You are my beloved Son with whom I am pleased,” and then his forty days spent in the desert. He is coming back to his home town, Nazareth. He is feeling the Spirit is with him. He goes to the synagogue, where he is known, and is handed a scroll of Isaiah to read to the assembly (here we have the scroll and assembly again), and he does so: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.” He rolls up the scroll and announces for the first time what his ministry is about, saying: “Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” He is saying: I am the Christ, the anointed one that Isaiah was referring to, and this is what I have come to do. End of Sunday’s reading.
Perhaps we should say this is Luke’s understanding of what Jesus’ ministry was primarily about. In Luke, the above passage continues with Jesus’ reference to a prophet not being accepted in his own land, at which point the people assembled get angry and run him out of town to a precipice intending to hurl him over it, but he vanishes from them. We get a glimpse of the consequences that can come from being the anointed one and the bearer of the Good News in a community living strictly by the Law.
For me, these readings offer us a contrast between the Law and the Good News. Law can be helpful to people as a guide to upright living, to figuring out how to relate to one another and to God. Most of us need some sense of guiding principles or laws. Yet the Good News is less about following the letter of the Law, and more about living with the indwelling of the Spirit and, as we would say today, within the spirit of the law. To me, living with the Spirit within us means striving to live with compassion and action….acts of loving kindness and acts of/for justice.
When Luke mentions the poor, he includes in that the downtrodden, the afflicted, the forgotten and neglected. We can all figure out who that includes today - which individuals, what communities. When Luke/Isaiah/Jesus says “to let the oppressed go free,” it is a call to all of us to join Jesus’ mission to work for the liberation of people held captive by the injustice of being downtrodden, neglected, marginalized, and treated unfairly. Bringing glad tidings to the poor calls us to act with compassion – the love that Paul says is the most important characteristic to have. We use that compassion and our gifts to alleviate suffering, grieving, neglect.
Let me go back to Paul’s characterization of the Church as One Body with many varied parts, with people with different gifts. Paul’s message was not accepted by many Jews, so he started Christian communities among the Gentiles. This of course brought into question whether the Gentiles must first follow Jewish practices before becoming Christian. In the end Paul opts for diversity within unity.
Today. we are called to radical inclusion, to open our doors wide, and welcome people, not with the Law, but with loving compassion and concern. We are called to honor the richness that diversity brings. Jesus’ mission calls us to not confine our “church” to the four walls of a building, but to take the Good News with us everywhere, and, as the Luke passage (and the Beatitudes for that matter) point to, take it especially to the margins: the poor, the suffering, victims of racism, the neglected, those imprisoned unjustly, the disrespected or patronized. Pope Francis encourages us to go out be the field hospital for the persons and communities that are on the margins.
We women are called to offer our gifts fully to enrich the Body of Christ; yet, within our church, our gifts as women have not been fully honored. Women have been marginalized and patronized, so we are also called to struggle for more justice for our own community of women within our church.
I recently saw the film “Radical Grace” which profiles three nuns who reflect on their lives, their spiritual calling, and the Vatican’s investigation of Network, a Catholic social justice lobbying organization, and the Leadership of Women Religious, the umbrella organization for about 90% of the congregations of U.S. nuns. At the heart of the film is a discussion of what it means to be church. And yes, they all three had very different gifts of leadership: one, Sr. Simone Campbell, founder of Network and more recently, the project “Nuns on the Bus”; another, Sr. Chris Schenk, founder of Future Church, which has focused on parish closings and the priest shortage, and made an enormous contribution to bringing to the parish level the histories of women in the church, especially their leadership roles in the early church; and Sr. Jean Hughes, who works on Chicago’s West Side with men who have been released from prison and helps them start a new life.
It seems clear to me that the Vatican investigation of the women religious was directed at upholding the Law, while the lives of the nuns profiled were living the Gospel in the spirit of the Law with their work with and for people and communities on the margins. At the same time, they had to defend themselves and their options for the poor and marginalized. So while they were working with and for the people on the margins, they were finding themselves on the margins in the Church. They responded with radical grace.
It was striking to several of us in the St. Francis Xavier women’s ministry that very few came to participate in the discussion of whether women’s voices were heard in the recent Synod on the Family….at the highest level of our institutional church. It made us wonder if women were simply not interested, didn’t find it relevant, thought that they already knew the answer was no. Yet there were many women who made a great effort to push the discussion open so that some of the concerns of women could be heard, especially Future Church’s effort to get the book, Catholic Women Speak, Bringing Our Gifts to the Table into the hands of every participating bishop. Our gifts as women will not be acknowledged, honored, or appreciated if we sit on the sidelines. We are called to be among the leaders in the Body of Christ, we are called to bring our gifts fully to enrich the Body of Christ, and we are also called to ensure that those gifts be fully honored.….with the love that Paul talks about, but also with the radical grace that the nuns in the film embody.