Sunday, January 22, 2012

Third Sunday after Epiphany

Romans 12:16-21 / Matthew 8:1-13

We are rightly suspicious of those who perform conspicuous acts of charity. It's not that we think doing good to other people is a bad thing. In fact, some goods, like endowing a major housing project or caring for countless orphans, are so public by their nature that being conspicuous is perhaps an unavoidable consequence. Even so, we have more than our own discomfort to contend with here. After all, the Lord Jesus Christ himself warned us against doing good that it may be seen.

Given all of this, why should St Paul give us the counsel that we ought to be providing good things, not only in the sight of God, but also in the sight of all men? Ought we not rather to seek to provide good things only in the sight of God? Moreover, if our good might need to be done in the sight of men, why would Paul go the extra step in telling us to provide good things in the sight of all men?

We ought to note here that Paul is not speaking about doing public and conspicuous acts of goodness merely for the attention they bring. Indeed, Paul is not interested in promoting any kind of attention-seeking behavior. Rather, Paul reminds us here that human good, human flourishing depends on far more than receiving good things. Literature, anecdotes, and I imagine even systematic evidence tells us that spoiled children, those who get every good they might imagine, are not better off as persons than those who have little in this world. What everyone needs without qualification is real, tender, loving human contact. The good that I receive may meet a deeply-felt need, but to receive not just something, but also at the hands of someone makes all the difference in the world.

This is so because human persons are made to be in communion with one another, to flourish precisely because the goods in their life come at the hands of others, and the good that they do is delivered to others by their own hands. Parents know this, placing the objectively inferior pieces of art made by their children in places of prominence in the home, not simply out of sentiment, but because it came from the hands of someone, and precisely someone to whom they were united in love. It is likewise what the leper healed by Jesus knew and desired. He knew already that if Jesus wanted, he could make him clean. Yet, even more than that, he wanted to receive that healing at Jesus own hands, to be touched by him, and so made whole. Jesus likewise directed the man not merely to rejoice in his healing, but again to reinforce the bonds of human love and commitment, to show himself to the priest and offer the gift which Moses commanded. That is, his restoration was not meant to deliver him from his ties in this world, but to bind him again to them in wholeness and freedom.

We, too, have been made whole in Christ through baptism, and we, too, receive the best goods we desire at the ministering hands of other men. When we dispense to others in need the goods we have been given to share, will anyone but God know about it? Will our charity be so hidden as to erase all of its human character, or will we risk the contact with those, even our enemies, whom we are called to serve?

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