Neither male nor female

Many of you probably know the big Catholic Church in Oxford. It’s sometimes called The Oratory, because the Oratorians are the priests there, but it is properly named after a saint – St Aloysius Gonzaga, and Friday was his Day. So I was reminded, as I remembered his story then, that for Christians caring about Human Rights always involves sacrifice. It’s not enough to think that everyone is equal in the sight of God. We have to live it. It’s why all good Christians give some of their time and/or money to helping the poor and starving of the world. It’s one of the ways we take up our cross, as Jesus asks us to in the Gospel today. (Luke 9:18-24) St Aloysius was a young man in his 20’s who put this into practice. He was a Jesuit, who might have expected the excitement and challenge of going to some foreign country to spread the Gospel, as St Francis Xavier did in India and the Far East. Instead, St Aloysius ended up looking after plague victims in 16thC Italy, knowing that this might well lead to his death. It did!

I thought of him in the context of Human Rights because our 2nd Reading today (Galatians 3:26-29) is a classic text from which the Christian emphasis on human rights is taken. Paul writes that “There are no more distinctions…. Between slave and free, male and female, but all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”  However, those who know the Bible well, including those who attack the faith, will point out to us that. despite this passage from St Paul, he appears to be strongly opposed to male and female being equal in another place, when he talks about wives obeying their husbands. If you find yourself challenged on this, then make sure the person challenging you reads the full text, because in the two places where St Paul writes this(Colossians 3:18-25 & Ephesians 5:21-33) he goes on immediately to say something, that may seem obvious to us, but was extremely challenging to the Greco-Roman world he was writing to. He says in his letter to the Colossians that husbands must “love their wives” That was not what most men did at the time!

In Ephesians, St Paul goes a lot further by comparing the whole marriage relationship to the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ for all of us. So he says that Husbands must love their wives, Just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” That, of course, means husbands being prepared to die for their wives – not just vague romantic love but solid sacrificial love. And he says that wives obey (or submit) to their husbands as the Church obeys Christ. It sounds terribly submissive to our modern ears, until we remember that Christ does not call us to obey him by submitting to him in some grovelling servant way. No, he makes himself our servant “I have come not to be served but to serve”. (Matthew 10:28) It’s why he washes the feet of the disciples before the Last Supper. So the whole relationship of husband and wife is meant to be one of mutual and sacrificial service – something we Christians take for granted nowadays, but was very radical in the Europe of the 1stC.

Yes, many fail to put it into practice, and many have failed through the past Centuries, where women have often been oppressed and dominated by men, but however much this has been the case, the Church has always put this equal relationship before the world in the familiar but challenging words of the Marriage Service “to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part.” I always point out to couples at the Marriage Preparation that this mutual offering of sacrificial love includes a mutual taking of each other’s hands, not just holding hands. So first the man takes the woman’s hand, and then they loose hands, and then the woman takes the man’s hand. Equality demonstrated

Of course some will argue that because St Paul gives the man and the woman different responsibilities in the relationship he does not think them equal. The point we Christians would make, and I made last week, is that being equal does not mean being the same. A man cannot give birth to a baby as a woman can, but that does not make him inferior but simply different. The physical bodies of a man and a woman are different in ways that actually affect their whole way of thinking and being. This is a big subject that affects all sorts of things that I can’t go into now, but it does mean that trying to insist on an equality that pretends we are all the same will not produce true equality. Human rights for a Christian must always include our human responsibilities so that whatever our differences we know we must serve others sacrificially. St Aloysius came from a rich Spanish family. He died caring for the poor. That is why he is a Saint.

Same rules apply to rich and poor

I  would like to start my Homily by telling you a bit more of the story of King David from our 1st Reading (2 Samuel 12:7-13). This is what actually happened. King David was walking on the roof of his palace looking down at the houses in the town when he saw what he shouldn’t have seen – a woman bathing! Unable to resist the temptation he sent his guards to get her, and then got her pregnant. The woman was married, but her husband, Uriah, was a soldier away fighting; so David got him called home so that he might think that the baby was his. When that didn’t work, he told the army commander to arrange for Uriah to be killed in battle, and it is after this that Nathan gives the King the telling off that we heard in our Reading.

So there we have it. King David, one of the greatest heroes of the Jewish people, is guilty of abduction, adultery, deceit, and the murder of an innocent man. Perhaps worst of all he has abused his position of power to satisfy his own desires. Yes, that is why these Jewish writings that form our Christian Old Testament are so good. They tell the history of these so-called heroes without missing out any of their sins and failures. In fact they make a point of putting them in, to show their belief in how much they deserved some of the bad things that happened to them, and yet how much God loves and forgives them. It’s a message we still need to hear isn’t it? That God, the power of goodness and truth is utterly offended by the dreadful things we humans do, and demands that, whoever we are, there is no excuse for bad behaviour, but also that, despite this, God is also full of love and forgiveness for all his people.

Now Simon the Pharisee in our Gospel story (Luke 7:36-8:3) should have known all this, but perhaps he thought that because David was a great king he could be forgiven, whilst a woman with a bad name – we can guess what for – is condemned. It’s the old story isn’t it – one law for the rich – another for the poor. But this is not the case with Jesus! And that’s surely the point. In God’s eyes all of us are equal. There can be no favourites. No-one can be let off lightly because they are more important or have more money. Here in the Gospels we have a teaching on Human Rights that has come down through 2000 years of history. Again and again people have ignored this teaching and again and again, the best elements in the Church have challenged  society and individuals within it, including the rich and powerful, to really take this teaching seriously.

We had a great discussion on this subject in our Teenage Study Group last week, not least because sometimes people accuse the Catholic Church of being against human rights for all, of being more interested in status and money than in really caring equally for the poor as well as the rich and powerful. Well it is partly true, for the Church as a human institution is made up of sinful men and women who often fail to take in the full teaching of the Gospel. But the Church throughout the ages has two things in its favour. The first is the words and actions of Jesus that we hear Sunday by Sunday, and day by day, battering at our prejudices and weaknesses – as in the Gospel today. The second is the Church’s belief that we are all sinners, and that all of us need to admit our failings to listen and to put into practise fully all that Jesus wants us to do.

In our teenage discussion we looked amongst other things at the question of same-sex marriage, and the question of the role of women in the Church. One of us made the important point, which is central to Christian teaching, that believing that we are all equal does not mean that we should all be the same or do the same.  St Paul (1Cor 12:12-30) makes this point when he talks of the Church, and by extension of society, as being a body in which there are many different parts. If we all wanted to be the eyes or the nose we would be a very unbalanced body. Paul adds the the very Christian idea that the least important parts should be treated with the greatest honour.

It is from passages like these, and many others, in the Jewish-Christian tradition that the modern secular affirmation of Human Rights has its origin. The Church may fail at times to live up to these important truths, just as we all as individuals fail to live up to the full challenge of Jesus to “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt 5:48). But Sunday by Sunday we must be challenged by words like these, and never become like the Pharisee in today’s story. I get so mad with people who say they can meet God better going for a walk in the country. Yes I too meet God there, but I also need to meet the God of Jesus who challenges me and calls me to be a better human being; and that is why being at Mass Sunday by Sunday, and really listening to Jesus is so important.