Church Teaching, Social Justice and Labor Day

This weekend I spoke from the readings about Church Teaching, particularly Catholic Social Teaching and Labor Day.  Here is my homily.  I hope it leads you to reflect on the Labor Day Holiday and how God is calling you to live.

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-8
James 1:17-18, 21b-22, 27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23
September 2, 2012

Some of the Pharisees and the scribes gather around Jesus.  As they do they note that his disciples do not following the proper rituals for the washing of the hands and purification of things.  So, they ask Jesus about it.

Jesus, in effect, criticizes them for their criticism.  He does not say that these rituals are not good practices.  Washing our hands before we eat is a good thing.  However, that they have put the focus in the wrong place.  They focus on these external actions when what we really need to focus on is what is going on inside us, what is going on in our hearts.

This reminds me of the saying ‘you can’t see the forest through the trees.’  These Pharisees and Scribes keep the ritual details but miss the fact that Jesus is the Messiah.  

Even with the details, we need to remember that the purpose of the details is what we are really concerned about – living our faith in God.

The problem of details is not new to Jesus’ time.  In Deuteronomy Moses says “In your observance of the commandments of the Lord, your God, which I enjoin upon you, you shall not add to what I command you or subtract from it.”

This is a place where some criticize the Catholic Church.  Some think that the Catholic Church has added a lot of teaching to what Jesus has instructed.  

The Catholic Church does have a lot of teaching.  In addition to the Bible (which we do believe is important – that’s why we read three readings and a psalm each Sunday), we have the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, and all kinds of Church Documents written over the 2,000 years that the Church has existed.

I spent four years in major seminary and two years preparing before that preparing and feel I just know the tip of the iceberg.  It is without a doubt that the Church has a lot to offer in its teaching.

But it is not the Church’s intention to add to the teaching of Jesus.  Jesus is the Son of God and taught what it means to be a disciple.

What the Church seeks to do is not add to Jesus’ teaching but rather to help us discern how to apply them to our world today.  Good, bad, or indifferent, the world is not the same as it was when Jesus walked among the people as a human being.

Jesus taught according to where the people were at that time.  Things like science and medicine have undergone tremendous change since then and so the Holy Spirit works through the Church to guide us.

One of the areas that some people see as new in the Church is the Social Teaching of the Church.  In the last 120 years, around a dozen Church documents have been issued on social teaching.

Before 1891, the church had never written an official document on social teaching.  The first document was Rerum Novarum.  So people say it is new.  But if you read your Bible, in Matthew 25 verses 31-46, Jesus tells us to feed the hungry and to care for the sick.  It is not new.

Then why didn’t the Church write on social issues before?  In the 19th century the world went through the Industrial Revolution which drastically changed the way business ownership and the workforce worked.  Tied to the Industrial Revolution was also urbanization which changed the way people lived and related to one another.

This created a need for the Church to speak out on the social issues.  One of the major areas covered in some of these social writings is the relation between labor and management/ownership.  

In 1931, Pope Pius XI’s encyclical “On Reconstructing the Social Order” spoke of the need for a just wage.  More recently, in 1981, Pope John Paul II, wrote “On Human Work” addressing the dignity of work, the worker, and the rights of labor.

On Monday we celebrate Labor Day.  We shouldn’t just see it as a day to take off from work but to reflect on what it means to work.  

There is a tendency by some to see work as something we do just to make money and then use that money to do what we really want.

But it is work that we can use the gifts we have been given and contribute to making the world a better place.  Then, we can truly see the value of work and appreciate what workers do for us.

Jesus calls us to love another and treat all with dignity.  That’s what church teaching helps us to understand.

For Further Reading

A List of Catholic Social Teaching Documents

Articles from my website on Catholic Social Teaching


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