Social Justice Sunday homily

What does a halo signify? ‘Holiness or saintliness,’ we might answer. And what does that mean? What is our picture of the holy or saintly person? Probably someone unlike us! Our lives are too messy to be holy.

It was the question which occupied the Pharisees of Jesus’ day too. What is it to be holy as the Lord our God is holy? So it seemed to them that holiness partly meant purity and keeping themselves apart from the unclean – both people, sinners and pagans, things and actions. For some this was part of a life of justice and love. For some this became all that mattered. Keeping oneself apart was the whole of the Law. These Jesus criticises harshly; they have lost sight of what is truly important. They criticised him too. For example in today’s Gospel they ask, ‘Why do your disciples not respect the tradition of the elders but eat their food with unclean hands?’ You may think, ‘Ewww, I wouldn’t eat with dirty hands either’. But that is not what they are saying. They didn’t know about germs. They were concerned with ritual purity; keeping oneself pure and not being defiled by the uncleanness all around.

This idea of holiness and uncleanness divorced from mercy and love, would have kept them from helping the man beaten by robbers in one of Jesus’ parables.

Jesus challenges them, ‘This people honours me only with lip-service, while their hearts are far from me.’ Their way is not the way which God reveals. It is not the way of the commandments. The repentance God wants is not a repentance of ritual purity or outward cleanness: ‘there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile’. The repentance God wants is that which leads us to truly love God and love our neighbour. Love, compassion, mercy, justice is the way of holiness.

We can fall for a similar fake holiness as that of some of the Pharisees. Doing certain actions, ritual purity are holiness. But holiness is the the messy stuff of compassion, love, forgiveness, being with the broken. Parents, couples can testify that love cannot reduced to following rules.

Today is Social Justice Sunday and the bishops’ statement is ‘Cry of the earth, cry of the poor’. The path to holiness in our time is to listen to the cry of the poor, the cry of the earth and to respond. But we begin with listening with our heart to our neighbour in need – to people in the country facing extreme heat and bushfire risks, communities facing change, scientists worried about the increased risk of pathogens jumping from animals to humans, first nations people experiencing the ecological crisis as a wound to the heart, a wound in the sacred, and to Pacific Islanders who know that human health and flourishing is bound up with the health of our oceans and environment. Listening to the cry of the earth, the cry of the poor calls us to a change of mind and heart. The Holy Father teaches us that, ‘we must examine our lives and acknowledge the ways in which we have harmed God’s creation through our actions and our failure to act. We need to experience a conversion, or change of heart’.  The call is for us to act as a community, to form communities which listen and respond.

This is the way to holiness for us which is grounded in the real situation of our world, our one home. The bishops are calling us to a seven-year journey. We are, in Pope Francis’ words, ‘stewards of the network of life’: ‘In this ecological crisis affecting everyone, we should also feel close to all other men and women of good will, called to promote stewardship of the network of life of which we are part.’

You can view and download Social Justice Sunday resources here.