Readings for 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Wis. 18: 6-9; Ps. 33: 1, 12, 18-20, 22; Heb. 11: 1-2, 8-19; Lk. 12: 32-48.
Today’s liturgy of the word invites us to consider the hot-button issue of immigration. The issue is contentious because conservatives in our country generally oppose immigration reform. More accurately, they tie changes in the legal status of immigrants to strengthening border security with Mexico and the building of walls along our southern border to keep undocumented immigrants out. Until such measures are foolproof, conservatives generally promise to oppose reform of immigration laws.
That’s ironic because Evangelical Christians make up the strongest component of the U.S. conservative party, the GOP. So the dominant attitude of that party on immigration ends up militating against American Christians’ brothers and sisters in faith. After all, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, an estimated 83 percent, or 9.2 million, of the 11.1 million people living in the United States illegally are Christians from Latin America and the Caribbean.
Our readings this morning call into question such exclusionary attitudes about immigration. They suggest that far from excluding immigrants, insisting on observance of law, and building walls to keep them out, Christian response to immigrants should take the form of welcoming, wealth-sharing and service.
Let me show you what I mean.
To begin with, today’s first passage from the Book of Wisdom underlines the point that the biblical People of God were all immigrants. They were unwanted strangers whose ancestors had come to Egypt to escape famine in Palestine. Remember those Bible stories of Joseph and his brothers? Read them again (Genesis 37-50). Those legends explain how the families of Jacob’s sons came to be enslaved in Egypt in the first place. As you no doubt recall, Joseph’s brothers sold him into Egyptian slavery.
However, in Egypt, Joseph landed on his feet and eventually became the Pharaoh’s Minister of Agriculture. That meant that when famine struck Joseph’s former homeland, his brothers were forced to come hats-in-hand to beg food from the very one they had betrayed. However, when they came into Joseph’s presence, his own brothers didn’t recognize him. In one of the most beautiful stories in all of world literature, the unrecognized Joseph finally discloses his true identity. Instead of punishing them for their betrayal, Joseph feeds his brothers and invites them to join him in Egypt.
In other words, Joseph’s response to immigrants and refugees was to recognize them as members of his own family and to welcome them “home.”
In today’s second reading, Paul digs further into Israel’s past only to find that Abraham himself (the original father of Israel) was himself an immigrant. He entered a land that God decided was to belong to Abraham and his descendants though the ones dwelling there didn’t share that secret understanding. (The Canaanites, of course, thought Canaan belonged to them.)
So Abraham and his sons were forced to live in poor housing – in tents, Paul recalls for us. All the while, however (like most immigrants) they dreamt of better lodging “with foundations.”
Meanwhile Yahweh saw to it that Abraham’s family grew prodigiously. They begat and begat until they seemed to everyone to be “as numerous as the stars of the sky;” they were as plentiful as grains of sand on the beach. Such legendary fertility eventually came to be seen as threatening and led one pharaoh to order the death of all of the Hebrew immigrant boys (Ex. 1:22). By Yahweh’s special intervention, Moses alone was saved from such genocidal population control.
Again, this was Israel’s God protecting immigrants as his chosen people. That’s the point today’s responsorial psalm underlines with its refrain, “Blessed the people the Lord has chosen to be his own.” Ironically those people were persecuted immigrants.
Then in today’s Gospel, Jesus presents a riddle about the identity of his faithful servants. Jesus asks, “Who, then, is the faithful and prudent steward whom the master will put in charge of his servants to distribute the food allowance at the proper time?” His answer has implications for immigration reform measures.
In any case, you can imagine a lengthy interchange between Jesus and his audience about his riddle. No doubt, some identified “faithful and prudent stewards” with those who kept the absolute letter of the law. Others probably cited the Jewish purity code and said fidelity meant keeping the bloodline pure; it meant keeping foreigners out of the Holy Land and preventing inter-marriage with gentiles. Still others may have responded in economic terms. For them the faithful and prudent steward was probably the one who defended Jewish livelihood by keeping foreigners from taking Jewish jobs.
Jesus’ own response is different. He replies in terms of generosity, as well as in terms of service with its “law of abundance.” Jesus also invokes the law of karma. God’s faithful servants are those who sell what they have and give it to the poor. They are not the ones who are served, but those who serve. Meanwhile those who mistreat God’s servants will reap what they sow.
Above all, notice that the emphasis in Jesus’ words today is on service. His riddle brings us entirely from the “upstairs” culture of dominance into the “downstairs” culture of servants. The steward is the head servant. He’s in charge of others, but his service consists in distributing food allowances to his fellow servants. Even the Master ends up serving. When he returns from the wedding, his servants don’t wait on him. Rather as an expression of gratitude, he brings them upstairs, sits them at table and waits on everyone! (How consoling is that?! The “law of abundance” says that what we receive in life is determined by our own generosity.)
Similarly, we can’t mistreat others without harming ourselves. The law of karma decrees that we reap what we sow. Jesus endorsed that law in today’s reading. More specifically Jesus says that those who mistreat God’s servants will find themselves similarly mistreated. Here Jesus gets quite graphic: to the degree that they beat others, they themselves will be beaten. Again, it’s the law of karma; and it’s inescapable.
What does Jesus’ riddle have to do with immigration? First of all, remember it’s told by a former immigrant. According to Matthew’s story, Jesus lived in Egypt when Mary and Joseph sought refuge from Herod’s infanticide. Yes, Matthew’s Jesus must have known first-hand the experience of being an unwanted immigrant. In Egypt he spoke with a Jewish accent. Or maybe his family didn’t even bother to learn Egyptian.
Remember too that the riddle about faithful servants is posed by the Jesus who identifies with “the least of the brethren.” He said that whatever we do to the least, he considers done to him. In terms of today’s considerations, does that mean that what we do to immigrants, we do to Jesus?
As for Jesus’ response to his own riddle, it reminds us to receive immigrants as we would our Master returning home – yes, as our Master, Jesus himself – the one who ends up serving us! Again, Jesus identifies with the least of our brothers and sisters.
Does that mean that Jesus appears to us today in our service industries and in the informal economy where immigrants work as our kids’ nannies, our house cleaners, as construction workers, hotel maids, and gardeners?
At this very moment might Jesus be out there cutting my lawn, roofing my house or cleaning my bathroom?
When our border guards beat “illegals” (and worse!) are they beating Jesus?
And what does that mean for their karma – and for ours?
Those are riddles worth discussing and solving!
The way we answer will determine the side we come down on in the immigration debate.
8 thoughts on “Jesus Is Cutting Your Lawn! (Sunday Homily)”
Berea College is not open to all. There is a specialized process through the Admissions Office that admits some students and rejects others. The decisions to accept are reject do not mean that the rejected applicants were “bad”. Rather, the Admissions Department wanted to meet the stated objectives of the organization, and went through a filtering process for applicants. If everyone who wanted entry to Berea College were allowed into the dorms and classrooms, it would be chaotic, and the college would probably cease to exist in its current form.
Successful organizations have to operate by rules and guidelines. This is true of nations as well. Good fences make good neighbors.
Does the need for fences apply to Wal-Mart, McDonalds, Monsanto, and the U.S. military too?
Working at a community college, I had an opportunity to participate in an Anatomy & Physiology class (a basic prerequisite for nursing majors). Chapters on cell structure make a point of explaining how cell walls protect cells. The protective wall allows cells to differentiate and accomplish different specialized functions. When a cell wall breaks down, the cell will probably die, because the environment inside a cell is chemically different from the environment outside the cell wall. Without the wall, the special composition of the inner environment cannot be maintained.
Nations are much larger than cells. However, nations are also specialized organisms with their own specialized rules. In the U.S. we have a constitution and a set of laws (that are constantly broken… ) Essentially, a structure was put into place to allow pursuit of happiness, and to allow people to thrive under rule of these laws instead of rule by hereditary overlords. (Other countries have different systems: sharia, military dictatorship, warlords, gang rules, dictators, etc.)
To continue to live and thrive, a nation *has* to have borders and protective mechanisms that screen entry. Otherwise, the special environment inside the walls ceases to exist. (The breakdown of the organism may produce potent destructive toxins, also. ) Open Borders profit people at the top by providing cheap labor for exploitation; but for the country overall, Open Borders are not beneficial.
Mary, your words about borders and their function are spot on — except that they should apply to capital as well as labor. As long as capital can range wherever it wants, displacing workers in the process, we can expect labor to respond in kind. Moreover as long as our military thinks it can bomb people’s home wherever it wants, we can expect the refugees caused by those bombs to seek shelter elsewhere including the countries responsible for their homelessness.
How timely: I just finished cutting my lawn! 🙂
It’s no joke, however, that failing to connect with those with less fortunate life paths than us (and it is fortune, not hard work that counts — the folks that pick our crops and mow other people’s lawns work a heck of lot harder than the folks for whom they toil) denies “that of God” in every person. Connect with them as persons and we will feel the hardship in which they live. I’ve been in immigrant trailers in Immokalee (from where we get our tomatoes in January and February), have walked over the 3 rugs that cover the hole in the floor of the rented trailer for which they pay more than my kids now living in a 2 bedroom apartment in Dixie Park, some 18 years later. Connecting with them hurts. It awakens Caritas, that deep concern for the well-being of another.
It’s too easy, I think, to agree these workers are being treated unfairly, they deserve more. If we don’t hurt, it ain’t real. It won’t lead to the passionate action needed to create change. Intellectual treatises protect us from the hurt, put us in the “thinking about” mode where feelings are orthogonal to the state we are in.
It sounds masochistic, why would I want to hurt? Succinctly put, our worldly directive is to love others as ourselves. To me this means doing as we do for our good friends: we connect deeply with their pain, their dilemmas. And their courage, their determination, their efforts to make things better. We share their experience, to awaken Caritas, so that we are led to enduring action. Anything else is just nice-sounding words.
PS: this is very much related. http://nypost.com/2016/07/30/why-white-trash-americans-are-flocking-to-donald-trump/ Everything that could be said about those who cut the lawn could be said about “white trash” like some friends I have here in Berea. And yes, being friends with them is painful, not because of anything they do to me (they are great friends to have), but because of the pain in their lives they have no capacity to make better except in destructive ways.
Your compassion here is so evident, Hank. You’re right: working people are in pain and don’t know what to do about it. That does explain a log of the Trump support — as though a person of his class (and history) has any idea of their problems and lives.
While at Berea College I was allowed the opportunity to work at the farm of a retired Berea professor (summer internship — the crops were mostly tomatoes and beans). The retired Berea professor was the son of a sharecropper decades ago, and had spent a fair amount of his youth picking crops alongside his parents and siblings — just like immigrants do now, for lower wages. Wages for farm work have fallen.
In Cuba it isn’t illegal immigrants who pick the crops — rather it’s the schoolchildren; and it used to be the same way here. When my mother first arrived in East Tennessee in the late 1940s, she told me that the schools let out for several weeks in the spring (“Spring Break”) so that students could go and pick the strawberry crops bound f(rom places like “Strawberry Plains”), crops that were loaded on trains and sent to cities farther north who paid for the agricultural products.
At some point, maybe in the mid-60s when the birthrate fell from an average of 5 children per household to something like 2, when mothers went to work and households suddenly had vast amounts of income at hand, somehow farm labor became a degraded occupation. I know farmers who resent this — there’s no place they’d rather be than on their farms, nothing is more interesting. I remember watching the retired Berea professor going out after dark with his flashlight, checking on the growth of his cherished tomatoes and beans after a day away, someplace else.
Picking fruit, mowing lawns (or hoeing fields or bringing food and water to animals) is not intrinsically degraded, nor should it be a situation where people are exploited like slaves or serfs. We are freemen and freewomen; and our young people would benefit from learning to work (and learning biology, and chemistry, and genetics, and so much more) on the farms. Misguided leaders degrade farming work and also degrade the poorer citizens of our own country. This should change IMHO.
I share your HO, Mary!