World, National and local news reports are filled with stories of injustice and pleas for justice. While this is always true, it seems recently that there are an unusually large number of justice issues unfolding around us. There are on-going protests in Hong Kong and the Ukraine. There are several locations in the United States experiencing civil unrest over justice issues. There are always the ongoing justice issues of poverty and hunger.
The Catholic Church has a one hundred and twenty five year history of social justice teaching, dating to Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum novarum which addressed the rights of laborers. In this Sunday’s Liturgy of the Word we see the Scriptural foundation of Catholic Social Teaching. The author of the third section of the book of the prophet Isaiah wrote, “As the earth brings forth its plants, and a garden makes its growth spring up, so will the Lord God make justice and praise spring up before all the nations.” (Isaiah 61:11)
The book of the prophet Isaiah is a compilation of three major works. The first section is, for the most part, the preaching of the ancient prophet Isaiah whose ministry coincided with the events leading up to Assyria’s conquest of Jerusalem. Isaiah warned the people and King of Judah that they would be conquered by a pagan empire if they did not turn to the Lord with their whole hearts. Isaiah’s warnings went unheeded, and Judah fell to the Kingdom of Assyria.
The second section of the book is often called Deutero-Isaiah, and contains prophetic material from the period of the Babylonian Exile (about 150 years after the ministry of Isaiah). This second section contains a great many prophetic messages of comfort, consolation and encouragement. The author of the second section of Isaiah tried to strengthen the faith of the exiles, and to offer them the hope of a return to Jerusalem and the reestablishment of Temple worship.
The third section of Isaiah was composed after the Hebrew exiles had returned to Judah. They were living in their own country, and had begun to rebuild the Temple. Unfortunately, they found themselves no better off than they were as exiles. Their new leaders were as faithless and self-serving as their old leaders had been before the Exile. In the face of deep disappointment over their on-going religious and social troubles, the people’s religious sensibilities were transformed. This third section of Isaiah speaks about Israel becoming an example of justice and righteousness to all the nations of the earth. Today’s first reading contains an excerpt from that message.
I mention all of these dreary details to you because of the significance that this third section of Isaiah had for Jesus. There is ample evidence that this part of the book of Isaiah played a central role in Jesus’ self-understanding and ministry. (Luke 4:16-22) The book of Isaiah charts a trajectory of sin and faithlessness that led to dire consequences; the burden of these consequences was lightened by the promise of deliverance and restoration. However, the promised deliverance did not occur, and the people fell into despair over their sins. In the midst of that despair they realized that, by virtue of their suffering, they had become examples of faith for the whole world.
Jesus saw himself as the one sent by God to rally together those few remaining faithful Israelites. He was the Good Shepherd who would gather God’s flock, and declare their faithfulness to all the world. He understood himself to be the one whom God would use to “make justice and praise spring up before all the nations.” (Isaiah 61:11) The Catholic Church’s social justice teaching is rooted in the book of the prophet Isaiah’s teaching about justice and in Jesus’ own self-understanding.
With an understanding of the message of the book of Isaiah, and of Jesus’ preaching, about living a righteous and just life it’s possible to make sense of both the Church’s social justice teaching and the social justice issues that surround us in society and the world. We can see our world, and our individual lives, reflected in the events in Isaiah’s life and the prophecies of Deutero-Isaiah and Trito-Isaiah.
Human nature produces a perennial trajectory of sin, suffering, hope, disappointment and transformation. Jesus saw God’s hand at work in this recurring process. God continually calls us to repentance, offers us hope and comfort, and ultimately, offers us redemption from our limitations and failings. Jesus preached a renewal of justice and righteousness that would be brought about by God’s action. The kingdom of justice, love and peace that he announced was inaugurated in his death, and is the content of the Church’s preaching and ministry.
There are many reasons for doing good works and living good lives. One can pursue good for the sake of the rewards that can come from a cultivating a good reputation. One can do good as an expression of a commitment to altruism. Much good is done by those who find personal satisfaction in it. Catholicism’s approach to works of mercy and social justice advocacy does not derive from these sources. Our commitment to living just and righteous lives is the result of Jesus’ teaching about justice and righteousness, namely, that these are signs that point to the coming of God’s Kingdom.
The life of faith, in this regard, imitates the example of John the Baptist. The Gospel says about him, “He was not the light, but came to testify to the light.” (John 1:8) We are nothing special, on our own. We are often not as righteous and just as we would wish to be. Moreover, despite our best efforts, the world will always stand in need of the redemption that only God can bring. We are, however, the ones who “testify to the light.” (John 1:8) We make our best efforts to live just and righteous lives as a way of expressing our gratitude to God, and as an example for others to follow.
The Advent and Christmas seasons bring about an annual interest in, and attention to, the religious and social outreach organizations that serve the poor and marginalized here at home and abroad. As Catholics, our commitment to serving the needs of the poor and disenfranchised is not merely a seasonal activity; it is our way of life.
At All Saints we support FEAST Food Pantry, Pinellas Hope homeless shelter, the Kimberley Home, the St. Vincent de Paul Society and other missionary outreach activities. We support these ministries year-round because to do so is to give the whole world an example of justice and righteousness, that is, to announce to the whole world the nearness of the Kingdom of God.
“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the Lord and a day of vindication by our God.” (Isaiah 61:1-2) Jesus saw himself in these words. We who keep watch for his return ought to be able to see ourselves in those words, as well. As another Advent draws to a close, and another calendar year approaches, it is appropriate to commit ourselves “to announce a year of favor from the Lord.” (Isaiah 61:2) I can’t think of a better and more appropriate way to celebrate Christmas than to make a renewed effort to testify, by our just and righteous actions, to the coming of Christ our Light.