Anger When the Poor Are Abused
A man came into a doctor's office and related this problem: everyone around him seemed to be angry all of the time. The doctor recommended that every time this happened, the man should take a big gulp of a green liquid which the doctor supplied and keep swishing it between his teeth until the situation calmed down. A week later, the patient returned and related that this had done the trick, and people around him seemed to be much calmer. What was in the medicine that made it work? The doctor revealed that the liquid was just water with green food coloring. The real value of the liquid was that it forced him to keep his mouth shut.
I don't know about you, but when I go to confession most of my sins fall into two categories: stupid things I do when I'm angry, and stupid things I do when I lose patience. I should always be carrying around a bottle of that green liquid. That is why I've always struggled to appreciate today's Gospel. Christ seems to lose his cool. He is angry – very angry. And while He might not have actually hurt anyone or done any permanent damage to anyone's property, He certainly caused a commotion. If someone came to our church and made a fuss in the gathering space, we would not be happy about it. But of course if they had a legitimate point, if our church was really engaging in sinful behavior and this someone was calling it to our attention in a way that made us uncomfortable, maybe we would see it later – probably not at the time but maybe much later after we had time to truly reflect on it – maybe we would see it then as a good thing, as a Jonah at Nineveh, calling us to repentance.
What was Christ so angry about? The Second Temple in Jerusalem was built to replace the destroyed original Temple of Solomon. The inner temple was the Court of the Priests, which only they could enter. Next was the Court of the Israelites, where Jewish men could observe the priests, and then the Court of the Women where all Jews could enter. Finally, outside this area was the Court of the Gentiles where all people could come. It was there that people who wished to make the sacrifices required by Jewish law would normally buy their animals, since, in addition to the burden of bringing animals with them long distances, if they brought their own from home they risked the priest refusing to use them because they were blemished. To complicate matters further, one could not use Roman money to buy these animals, since these coins would have the image of Caesar on them, who proclaimed himself to be a god and therefore this money could not be used in any part of the sacrifice, so to buy the animals one needed to change their everyday Roman money to another denomination. So there existed a cozy relationship between the money-changers, the animal sellers, and the Temple officials and priests, and in consequence as in most situations where a business has a monopoly on supply, the cost was high and therefore was particularly burdensome on the poor. This was what Christ was upset about, since no doubt He would not have objected to people who would have only been there to provide assistance to obeying the law in a non-profit way.
The first reading is the basis for Jewish law, the Ten Commandments. As Christ will teach, all ten are summed up in the two-fold commandment to love God and love neighbor. I learned something interesting when researching for today: in Hebrew, the commandments can be translated into English as “you shall,” as most of our civil laws are written, meaning “you must” do something or not do something. However, it could also be translated as “you will,” which also can mean “you must” but can alternatively mean “you do so willing.” For instance, we could say that if I give you a gift, you will be happy. Not that the gift forces this state upon you, but that it naturally follows. In other words, if one is a Jew or a Christian, we don't comply with God's law because we must and fear retribution if we don't. We willing accept God's law because it is the right thing to do and we pattern our life after God, so as to be ready after this life to see Him face-to-face. This is a high standard, but one that we should aspire to even if we cannot fully realize it.
There is a practical application of today's lesson. We hear a lot about the church's teaching on some issues, such as abortion and the death penalty, and both issues have been in front of our state legislature. But our diocese takes stance on the Christian ethics and social justice of many laws and potential pieces of legislation, and one of them is the abuse of the poor with payday loans. The commandment in question, as we just read in the first reading, is you will not covet your neighbor's possessions, and the book of Exodus will further stipulate as part of this, two chapters later, that one must not charge interest, especially on the poor [Ex 22:24]. The Church has refined this teaching to the prohibition of usury, which is the charging of excessive interest. Currently the state of South Carolina allows interest rates charged by payday loan businesses to exceed 100%. Legislation currently in our statehouse would, among other things, limit this to 35%, which is still exceedingly high but is an improvement. While many of the people using these services are in trouble that they brought upon themselves due to bad decisions, South Carolina rates as one of the top states in the number of people seeking loans due to hardships brought on by the pandemic. Our bishop has called on the legislature to pass legislation that would reform predatory lending practices. He has written, “We stand firmly with these vulnerable borrowers and request that the legislature work to protect them by instituting practices to protect from unjust practices. We request that legislation is approved that will, (1) cap interest rates; (2) require lenders to determine the borrower’s ability to repay the loan; and (3) ensure financial literacy courses are a required step in the loan process.” [https://charlestondiocese.org/south-carolina-catholic-conference/take-action/] More information is available at the diocesan web site, charlestondiocese.org. It has been often said that the true measure of a just society, let alone a Christian one that proclaims itself to follow Christ, is how well it protects the most vulnerable from abuse by the strong.
As we continue the Mass, let us ask the Lord as we receive Him at communion to give us a heart that willingly follows His law and doesn't just comply from a fear of the eternal or temporal consequences. Let us pray for the poor and those that would take advantage of them: that the poor may be encouraged when they see the righteous anger of Christ at their plight and those who profit from their situation will see the error of their ways. Let us pray for the intention this week, our families, that they may be the domestic church that fulfills the goal of our parish church, one that enthusiastically carries out the will of God, not in a spirit of “thou shalt,” but in the spirit of “we will with all our hearts,” and thus earn the name of a community of joyful disciples.