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Posted by on Oct 23, 2022

Hearing the Cry of the Oppressed

Hearing the Cry of the Oppressed

There is an old apocryphal story about a man who went to work one day and was treated harshly by his employer. The mistreatment was totally unwarranted and he rightly felt upset, angry, and short-tempered. When he returned home, he was still feeling very upset.

Something his wife said upset him further. It wasn’t anything aimed at him. He actually misunderstood what she was trying to tell him, because he was feeling so angry and hurt by what had happened earlier. So he yelled at his wife and accused her of incompetence in her homemaking and love for him because dinner was not ready when he arrived. The poor woman was justifiably upset by all of this. It was totally unexpected and unwarranted.

As she tried to refocus and get back to dinner preparations for the family, their child burst through the door, knocking over the water jug that was ready to be carried outside to water the plants. (Shall we say this was all taking place during a drought in California?) The water spilled over the floor and carpet. She was now going to have to pause the dinner preparations to get the mess cleaned up. This on top of her husband’s anger that dinner was going to be a few minutes late… She shouted angrily at the child for knocking over the water.

The child was stunned. The rapid entrance had been prompted by the excitement of seeing a beautiful bird in the yard and hurry to share this delight with Mom! Now it was all spoiled. The child felt stupid for knocking over the jug and unloved because of having done something clumsy.

The child retreated back outside where the dog was happily waiting to play. Instead of picking up the ball dropped at his feet by the dog, the child kicked the dog out of his way as he raced to his special calm-down hideaway.

All this upset resulted from the harsh treatment received at work from the hands of one person. The boss yelled at Dad and the dog got kicked, with lots of relationships harmed along the way.

Now, I hope nothing like this has ever happened to you. But I know that there have been times in my life when I was upset about something and passed that upset on to innocent people around me. What can be done to heal the harm done? Sometimes it’s possible to apologize or to catch and hold the child close letting them know how loved they are and how unfairly they have just been treated. But other times, the opportunity to apologize never comes. The person who was hurt never comes around again, to avoid the chance it will happen another time. Or the person moves or dies and the opportunity is lost.

I thought of this story as I read a commentary on Jesus’ story of the two men who went up to the temple to pray. (Lk 18:9-14) The first of the men was a religious leader and was proud of all his efforts and success in following the laws and traditions of his community. “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity …” Luke includes a brief statement just before this quotation, telling us that the man “spoke this prayer to himself.” That little phrase, “to himself,” offers two possible meanings: 1) He spoke in a quiet voice, without the intention that anyone else would hear his words, or 2) he spoke these words in essence as a prayer to himself, rather than to God. Neither option is exactly praiseworthy, though the first is better than the second.

The other man was a tax collector. Tax collectors were not honest, respectable people who only insisted that people pay what they rightly owed to support their local community and the services they received as taxpayers – police, fire protection, schools, etc. In those times, tax collectors had a quota of money they had to collect from their fellow citizens to send to those at higher levels of government. Anything they collected above and beyond that base, they got to keep for themselves. The same was true at each level up the hierarchy, all the way to the Roman Emperor’s court! Everyday ordinary folks paid far higher taxes than what the Emperor demanded of them in tribute.

The tax collector stood off to the side, beating his breast and praying, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.” The term he used for merciful was not the one that we usually see translated as merciful. There is another word in Greek that means, to expiate or make atonement for what has been done by someone. This man recognized that he had done great harm in his life, harm which he would never be able to repair. Lives and hopes of ordinary people had been damaged or destroyed by his actions in ways he could never, ever undo. Only God can begin to repair the harm, and this is what he requested.

Jesus concluded, only the tax collector went home justified, on good terms with God. The tax collector recognized the cries of the oppressed that had arisen due to his actions. He begged and received forgiveness and he “went home justified.”

Sirach, a teacher of wisdom who wrote between 200 and 175 BCE, lived in Jerusalem. His actual name was Jesus, Son of Eleazar, son of Sirach, but the text’s original title appears to have been, Wisdom of the Son of Sirach. This title was later shortened to The Book of Sirach. Sirach includes many insights into how people should live with each other and with God, as well as praise of many of the great ancestors of Israel.

This wise teacher speaks of God’s justice and attentiveness to the cries of the oppressed (Sir 35:12-14, 16-18). He notes that the Lord does not play favorites. It doesn’t matter whether the person asking for help is rich or poor, well-born or from the lowest social class. The Lord hears all people’s voices and does not unduly favor anyone. Nevertheless, the Lord is neither deaf nor charmed by the social prestige of the petitioner. The one whose prayers are heard is the one who serves God willingly. The widow, the orphan, the oppressed are all heard. Their cries travel like arrows piercing the clouds and reaching to the ears of the Most High. The Lord “judges justly and affirms the right.”

The Lord hears the just when they cry out “and from all their distress he rescues them,” says the Psalmist (Ps 34)

As St. Paul neared his execution, he reflected on the life he had led since that fateful day when he met the Risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. (2 Tim 4:6-8, 16-18) He speaks of his life as if it were a drink from a sacrificial ritual that would be poured out as part of the prayer at the end of the ritual. The sacrifice he has offered has been his life of faithful witness to what he learned. He has kept the faith that was entrusted to him and passed it on to all who were open to receive it. He does not blame those who didn’t turn up to serve as witnesses on his behalf during his trial. Rather, he asks the Lord to forgive them and gives thanks that he had a chance once again to witness to the resurrection before one more group of people who might not ever have heard the good news otherwise. His shepherd, Jesus, rescued him from “the lion’s mouth” of fear that might have held him back from testifying to what he had experienced. The Lord has been faithful in the past and Paul believes and trusts that His faithfulness will never fail.

Our daily lives bring many surprises. Some are wonderful. Some are awful. Sometimes we start the chain of events that lead to the poor dog getting kicked. Sometimes we are a part of the chain along the way to the poor dog. Sometimes we might even be in the position of that unfortunate animal. But like the tax collector, we can count on the Lord to help make things right again. The Lord hears the cries of all, without favoring any because of social status or ability to make contributions for beautiful monuments or other displays. He is present with those who are least able to protect themselves. He chases after the “lion” to snatch the “lamb” from its jaws, as King David boasted he had literally done as a shepherd boy.

Let us pray today that we too will have the courage to ask for the Lord’s help in difficult times, as well as when things seem to be going well. We need help in either situation, so that when ultimately we approach the Lord, we can have the courage to recognize our failings and ask his help to straighten up the messes we’ve made and heal the hurts we’ve inflicted on others. And if we are the one who has been hurt, we also pray for healing rather than vengeance or passing on injury to others. The poor dog in the story needs a break!

Readings for the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C

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