"Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it." Lk 11:28
There are some who might get upset with this passage from Luke. When a woman in the crowd seems to praise Jesus’ mother saying, "Blessed is the womb that carried you and the breasts at which you nursed," Jesus reacts. A person’s life is not of value, he says, because of her parents or relatives, but by her willingness to listen and live the good news. The Jesus of the gospels would never disparage his own mother’s goodness, but he would and does use the words of an anonymous woman in the crowd to remind his listeners that being born a Jew guarantees nothing. Were he alive today, he might well say that being born a Catholic means little unless one lives one’s religious faith and tradition.
In cultural diversity workshops, which are common these days in large and multinational companies, the concept of “unearned privilege” is often introduced. Initially, those hearing the concept for the first time might have a visceral reaction and reject the notion all together. But suggesting someone has “unearned privilege” is not an accusation, nor it is intended to make people guilty. Rather, it is a concept that helps those born in this country as white, middle class people understand that they have unearned advantages over those who are born black and poor, Asian or Latin American. Exercises that help us understand this notion are designed for insight and change. It is not so much that we want to denigrate who we are, where we live or the color of our skin, but that we want to help those without the unearned privilege access the same social options we have.
I had an interesting experience of unearned privilege when I first joined the Capuchins. 18 years old and full of dreams, I was walking around the grounds of the novitiate in my new brown Capuchin robe when a car entered our driveway. As it approached me, it slowed and through an open window a middle aged woman asked me I had a moment to talk with her. Tempted to say yes, I thought better of it and told her I was only a novice and directed her to front door where she could ask for a priest. My Capuchin robe was my path to unearned privilege. The woman assumed I was trained and ready to respond to her concerns simply because I was wearing religious garb.
Jesus, I suggest, was trying to remind his Jewish brothers and sisters that they were not better than others simply because of their religious clothing, roots or heritage. Rather, he wanted them to live their faith with integrity and a deep sense of justice not by lording it over others but by always remembering their own slavery in Egypt and their times of exile from the Promised Land.
Rather than argue about the validity of a concept like unearned privilege, let’s pray for the insight to see ourselves as others see us and find ways to share the wonderful opportunities given us as Americans and Catholics. When we work to build strong relationships between and among religious traditions, and have the courage to confront anything and anyone that exclude others for no reason other than their religion, race, culture or ethnicity, we build the Reign of God.
Today ask God for the grace to go beyond the essentials of religious practice. Ask for the courage to make your faith the foundation of your life. What could Jesus' challenge to the rich young man to go sell everything and follow him mean in your life?