Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading: Sirach 35:12-14, 16-18
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 34:2-3, 17-19, 23
Second Reading: St. Paul’s 2nd Letter to Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18
Gospel: According to St. Luke 18:9-14
"Die Religion ... ist das Opium des Volkes." This is probably the most well-known statement of Karl Marx, even though it did not appear in the only work of his that everyone seems to recognize, Das Kapital.
“Religion is the opiate of the masses.” In a godless world, that is exactly what religion is. If God does not exist, then it is cruel to convince people of His existence in order to keep them passive in the face of unjust oppression. St. Thomas Aquinas would not disagree with this assessment – the Angelic Doctor said that the only meaningful argument against God’s existence is human suffering. But what if Marx and the “Four Horsemen of the Non-Apocalypse” (Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris) are wrong and there is a God?
If there is a God, then the argument concerning human suffering must have an explanation, and Jesus provides it. The Incarnation, God becoming human in Jesus Christ, coupled with the Paschal Mystery – Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection –is the Catholic answer to those who cannot reconcile a loving God with a suffering world.
Our God has the unique quality of immanence as well as transcendence. Our God is with us in our suffering and shares in our pain through the Cross. Our God does not inflict suffering, but He submits to it Himself. Our God knows pain from the inside – He is not just sympathetic, He is empathetic. Empathy involves an inwardness of feeling toward the one who suffers and a sense of oneness with the victim. Sympathy views the other as other, whereas empathy views the other as self – it is walking in someone else’s shoes.
The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector brings this point to light, especially when coupled with the First Reading from the Book of Sirach and the Responsorial Psalm. When the Lord hears the cry of the poor, the oppressed, the weak, the orphan, and the widow He is united with them in their suffering. He is not just a transcendent deity looking down on suffering humanity – He is united with each person in their suffering.
The greatest of all virtues, St. Paul tells us, is love, and Jesus teaches us that we are to love God above all things and our neighbor as ourselves. As disciples of Jesus we are called to be the Body of Christ in all of its manifestations – to be the heart of Christ, the feet of Christ, the hands of Christ. Anyone who wants to be united with Christ must be willing to be united with Him in the suffering of others, because Christ is with them in their suffering.
At the crucifixion there were those who taunted Jesus and told Him that they would believe in Him if He came down from the cross. In that moment Christ acted in total humility and obedience to the Father and thus on the third day the Father exalted Him as no other before or since has been exalted.
There are arguments in favor of and against the existence of God. Few are moved in one direction or another by these arguments, for they are mere words and not actions. The actions of Christ and His followers are what have brought people, often people who are atheists, to belief in God. And not just belief “in God”, but belief in a God who is loving and not aloof, merciful and not condescending, humble and not exalted – a God who hears the cry of those in need.
The journey away from atheism and alienation can only happen when we who are His disciples follow the example of St. Paul – we must compete well, we must finish the race, we must keep the faith. Only then can true salvation come to a world so bereft of love that it is willing to consume any opiate rather than live in the joy of Christ-centered humility.