2010 Family Liturgy Address: Family Weekend
November 01, 2010
When we talk to students, it soon becomes clear that they go to college for all kinds of reasons. Some already have a passion for knowledge and a vision of where their life is going: college will help them get there. Some want to sample a broad range of educational options to discover their interests and set them on their life path. Others want the experience of living away from home - a rite of passage into adulthood. Almost any college can provide those experiences.
But a Catholic college offers a unique experience. A Catholic college is a place where human reason is guided by religious faith and where faith is informed by reason. Students who come to a Catholic liberal arts and sciences college are not just informed: they are transformed. They become not just decisive and effective leaders: they become decisive, effective, and ethical leaders. In a Catholic college, students become agents of change, not for the sake of change, but for the sake of bettering our neighborhoods, our society, and our world. A Catholic liberal arts and sciences education is successful, not when its graduates get the highest paying jobs (though there is nothing wrong with that) or the most prestigious positions (though there is nothing wrong with that either) but when graduates have been imbued with a passion to use their knowledge and skills to inch our world bit by bit towards a vision preached by the prophets, proclaimed by Jesus, and promoted by the Church. The passion to effect change and improve our world is necessarily tied to one of the key virtues and moral requirements on full display in today's gospel: the need to establish justice for the most vulnerable in society.
In his parable of the persistent widow and the unjust judge, Jesus picks up on one of the most important and pervasive themes in the Old Testament: God's care for the needy. As seen in Israel's history and recorded in her sacred writings, God is a God passionately committed to the care and protection of the orphan, the widow, the poor, the needy, and the resident alien. In the Bible, the phrase "orphan and widow" is used as shorthand for the most vulnerable in society. Care for the needy is so important that the Old Testament prophets regularly and routinely confront Israel's rulers and public officials for their neglect of the orphan and widow. The prophets make it clear that a society's treatment of the most vulnerable is the measure of that society's virtue, its moral integrity, and its fidelity to God.
It is no accident, then, that the plaintiff in Jesus' story is a widow - not a farmer, carpenter, weaver, baker or seamstress, but a widow - the symbol of the most vulnerable who must rely on others for justice. Nor is it a surprise that the judge is corrupt. Israel had a long history of official and governmental corruption. So Jesus' point is this: if even a corrupt judge can be moved to care for the widow, we can be absolutely certain that God, who is just, will care for us. That's what Jesus means when he asks, "Will the Son of Man find faith on the earth?" He is asking: Do you believe, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, that God's justice will prevail? You should believe because God is known for protecting the powerless, the vulnerable, and the needy. God has a reputation as the Liberator of Slaves and Defender of the Oppressed; the Protector of the Poor and the Refuge of the Powerless; the Father of Orphans and Provider for the Needy. In fact, the prophet Isaiah tells us that Israel's God is the "God of Justice" (Isaiah 30:18)! And, by extension, God's divine qualities should be the hallmarks and characteristics of God's people in every age, and ours especially.
In today's society, morality is often replaced by economics; values are determined by the marketplace; and ethical principles are measured by the bottom line. In our market-driven economy, because a plan is good economics it is often assumed that it is a good plan: after all, if it makes money it must be good. So what if children, the elderly, or the poor are neglected. Today it seems to be important and better to increase profits and to have a good economy and to give the rich tax relief but to make the poor pay their way. Such positions may be popular politics or profitable economics or clever social reform but they are not, nor can they be, Bible-based or religiously inspired plans of action. Any plan or program that fails to defend the defenseless or to protect the poor cannot lay claim to a religious name, title, or pedigree. Groups that neglect the poor cannot call themselves the religious right or left. Organizations that ignore the needy and the vulnerable cannot call themselves a Christian group, organization or coalition. The God of the Bible, and the religion the Bible, reveal that true worship must go hand in hand with the protection of the vulnerable. The prophets tell us that what God accepts as fitting worship is not sacrifice but justice (Isaiah 58:6-7).
It would be nice to think social injustice could be remedied by prayer alone. The truth is, Jesus was more realistic when he recognized that only by persistent, ear-numbing, arm-bending, annoying agitation will the case of the widow be heard and the cause of justice triumph. And now, as then, the cause of justice is the plight of the poor and vulnerable. Religions must represent the care and compassion of God by supporting economic plans and political policies that protect the "widows and orphans" of our own day. If people of good will and sound conscience will not raise their voice on behalf of the poor, the needy, the marginalized and the vulnerable, who will?
These may not be the concerns of many institutions of higher education, but at this Catholic liberal arts and sciences College, our mission, vision, and passion put knowledge in the service of justice, develop skills for societal transformation, and cultivate the moral values that will form ethical decision makers for the next generation of leaders. Our God is a God of justice and God's cause must be our own.