upper room daily devotions

Friday, August 26, 2011

St. Augustine, Justice, and the Kingdom

I have been wondering about what happened to the idea of a "just society." What happened to the goal of a compassionate society? It is alarming that politicians and pundits cry for "justice" on behalf of the rich without impunity. Justice is the righting of tilted scales that lean too far in one direction at the expense of others; justice is for the poor.

Since many of those clamoring and clanging about "justice" for the rich claim to be Christian, I lift up some words from the great Church Father St. Augustine of Hippo, whose feast day will be on Sunday, August 28.

In the Commentary on John, St. Augustine writes:

The Lord Jesus says that he gave his disciples a new commandment: Love one another...This love makes us new people - heirs of the new covenant and singers of a new song...For this reason the members of the Body are solicitous for one another. If one suffers, all suffer together; if one is glorified, all rejoice. For they hear and heed the words: "I give you a new commandment, to love one another" - [as] those do who are gods and children of the Most High, brothers and sisters to the one Son, loving each other as he loves them. He will bring them all to the fulfillment of their desires, for nothing shall be lacking where God is all in all (Treatise 65).

He calls the body of Christ to live as one - in unity. Today pundits might decry him a Socialist, a Communist - much as they have Warren Buffet. But, the saint predates such classification. To ascribe any of these classifications on him would be folly or simple mendacity. Rather, the saint saw the world eschatologically, waiting for God's kingdom to become manifest.

He wrote in the Commentary on the Psalms:

What could be more equitable and just than that those who were unwilling to show mercy before the Judge came should not expect mercy from him? Those who showed mercy will be judged with mercy. What will those on the left be charged with at the judgment? Their refusal to show mercy...If you want mercy, show it now. Forgive wrongs done to you, give of your abundance. Whose abundance do you give away if not his? If it were your own you gave, that would be generosity. But it is his and your giving is only a giving back.

One of the great fallacies of the world is the idea of individual and private ownership. This concept is fundamentally contrary to the Bible. All of the earth belongs to God; we are but mere stewards and tenants. I know how disturbing this challenge is to our way of doing things. I, too, own a house and a car and many other possessions, but the Gospel is nothing if not a challenge to the ways of the world. St. Augustine believed that Christ is both rich in heaven and poor on earth. To give to the poor is to give to Christ. To give to the poor is to return to Christ what is already rightfully his. This is the "giving back" to which St. Augustine refers.

He is most clear about justice and power in his treatise City of God:

Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity.

There seems to always have been striation within society. The prophets railed against injustice. Jesus preached against injustice. He healed the sick, fed the hungry, ate with outcasts, and proclaimed Jubilee. Yet, a gap remained between rich and poor. It remains with us today. St. Augustine said specifically to the rich:

Go on making use of your special, expensive foods, because you have got into the habit of them, because if you change your habits you get sick. Go on making use of your superfluities, but give the poor their necessities. He looks to you, you look to God. He looks to a hand that was made as he was, you look to a hand that made you. But it didn't only make you, it also made the poor man with you. He gave you both this life as a single road to travel along. You have found yourselves companions, walking along the same road; he's carrying nothing, you have an excessive load. He’s carrying nothing with him, you are carrying more than you need. You are overloaded; give him some of what you’ve got (Sermon 389,5-6).

The body of Christ should primarily understand itself and its larger society in sacramental terms. A budget acts as the bones - the structure - upon which society is built. Christians understand ourselves in terms of a body. This should be simple for us. As a body, our bones must be well ordered, strong, and connected together in ways that allow the whole body to move and thrive. Our society - our kingdom - must be a well articulated skeleton, given flesh, full of breath, strong and healthy. And, so I mix the metaphor: It must not be a great robbery.

If, then, you want to know what the body of Christ is, you must listen to what the Apostle tells the faithful: Now you are the body of Christ, and individually you are members of it.

If that is so, it is the sacrament of yourselves that is placed on the Lord's altar, and it is the sacrament of yourselves that you receive. You reply "Amen" to what you are, and thereby agree that such you are. You hear the words "The body of Christ" and you reply "Amen." Be, then, a member of Christ's body, so that your "Amen" may accord with the truth.

Yes, but why all this in bread? ...Because there is one loaf, we though we are many, form one body. Let your mind assimilate that and be glad, for there you will find unity, truth, piety, and love. He says, one loaf. And who is this one loaf? We, though we are many, form one body. Now bear in mind that bread is not made of a single grain, but of many. Be, then what you see, and receive what you are.

As for the cup, what we have to believe is quite clear...They were of one mind and heart in God, should be like the kneading together of many grains into one visible loaf, so with the wine. Think how wine is made. Many grapes hang in a cluster, but their juice flows together into an indivisible liquid.

It was thus that Christ our Lord signified us, and his will that we should belong to him, when he hallowed the sacrament of our peace and unity on his altar (Commentary, Sermon 272, Body and Blood).

Blessed Feast of St. Augustine. May we all learn to love as Christ does, to understand as the saint did, and to build a just and compassionate world.

PS St. Augustine is the patron saint for brewers! Drink a brew in honor of the saint.

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