Sunday, September 09, 2012

The Sin of Partiality and How to Deal with It

Dick and Tom Smothers

(Twenty-third Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on September 9, 2012 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read James 2: 1-5.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-third Sunday 2012]


“Mom always liked you best!”

If you watched television in the late 1960s, you probably remember that line from the old Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.  At some point in almost every show, Tom Smothers would say those words to his younger brother, Dick.

“Mom always liked you best!”

And it almost always got a laugh.

But real-life favoritism—as St. James indicates in our second reading today—is anything but funny!

Just ask some of our Olympic athletes from 30 or 40 years ago.  They know this, unfortunately, by their own experience.  Now it’s true, in every Olympics a few athletes will complain about the scores given to them by the judges in their respective events.  But nothing in the recent past compares with the scoring injustices that took place 3 or 4 decades ago—when communism was alive and well in Eastern Europe!

Remember those days?  You’d have an American athlete, for example, perform a great gymnastics’ routine, and the U.S. judge would give him a 9.8 out of 10; the French judge would give a 9.7; the Canadian judge a 9.5; but the judges from the Soviet Union and the other Soviet bloc countries would give scores in the 7s!

Now, to be fair, it sometimes worked the other way around as well: great performances by Soviet athletes were sometimes purposely under-scored by U.S. judges (and judges from other free, western nations).

Which only serves to illustrate how difficult it is for human beings to be impartial!  Unfortunately, the problem of showing partiality was not unique to the mother of Tom and Dick Smothers and to judges at the Olympic Games during the Cold War years.  The temptation to show partiality is a temptation that every human being faces—constantly!

The words of St. James in today’s second reading are a challenge to us in this regard: they challenge us to acknowledge this temptation and deal with it!  Listen again to his words:  “My brothers and sisters, show no partiality as you adhere to the faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. For if a man with gold rings and fine clothes comes into your assembly, and a poor person in shabby clothes also comes in, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Sit here, please,’ while you say to the poor one, ‘Stand there,’ or ‘Sit at my feet,’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil designs?”

Now speaking of distinctions, I think we need to make an important one at this point between partiality and preference.  Every human being has certain preferences in life with respect to other people—and there’s nothing wrong with that.  We all have certain people in our lives whom we like more than others; people we are closer to; people with whom we have special relationships.  There’s nothing wrong with having such preferences; it’s a normal part of life on planet earth.  The problem comes, however, when others suffer specifically because of these preferences!

That’s partiality!  For example, in the situation that St. James describes in this text, the problem was NOT that the rich man was treated so nicely; the problem was that the poor man was treated badly precisely because the rich man was treated so nicely!

Because we are weak human beings who are tainted by the effects of original sin, it’s very hard for us to be impartial at every moment of every day, in every circumstance of life.  In fact, I would say that only God is perfectly impartial; we, on the other hand, can be very easily influenced (whether we choose to admit it or not) by things like money and power and fame and social status, etc.

St. Peter came to understand God’s perfect impartiality during the controversy in the early Church over whether or not Gentile men could become Christians without first being circumcised.  And so he said in Acts 10: “I begin to see how true it is that God shows no partiality.  Rather, the man of any nation who fears God and acts uprightly is acceptable to him.”

St. Paul came to the same conclusion, and so he wrote in Romans 2:11: “With God there is no favoritism.”

For the Lord, impartiality is the norm; for us, sad to say, it’s often the exception, not the rule.

Which means that for us it always needs to be a goal!  It needs to be a goal that we strive to attain each and every day—if we’re really serious about living our Catholic Christian faith.

And one of the keys to reaching the goal of impartiality (or at least coming close to it) is to try to see other people as God sees them.

Why is God totally impartial?

It’s because he sees each of us—all of us—from the same perspective and through the very same “lens.”   It doesn’t matter if we’re rich or poor, powerful or weak, famous or infamous: when the Lord looks at a human being—any human being, beginning at the moment of conception—he sees someone created in his image and likeness; he sees someone that his Son, Jesus Christ suffered and died for; he sees someone that he loves with a perfect and eternal love.

Our tendency is to have a much less positive perspective on people—and especially on those who aggravate us, or cheat us, or mistreat us; or who aren’t very important in the eyes of the world, or who aren’t very smart or well-dressed or clean; or who lack some other personal quality that we place a high value on.

We tend to see these people in a negative light, which, of course, leads us to show partiality to others whom we find more appealing.

Obviously, therefore, overcoming the sin of partiality is not easy!  It takes prayer, and practice—and a lot of effort.  It involves training ourselves to look at every person we meet and think, “This is a person created in the image and likeness of Almighty God; this is a person Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior suffered and died for; this is someone whom the Creator of the universe loves with a perfect and eternal love.”

If Mrs. Smothers had had those thoughts when she looked at her two sons, Tom and Dick, she certainly wouldn’t have liked her son, Dick, best (presuming that she really did favor Dick over Tom).  If Olympic judges 30 or 40 years ago had had those thoughts when they evaluated athletes from other countries, they certainly would have been fairer in their scoring.  And if the Christian mentioned in this passage from St. James’ letter had had those thoughts when he looked at the poor man who came into his church that day, I’m sure he would have treated that poor man with a lot more dignity and respect.

“Dear Lord, help each and every one us to succeed where these others failed.  Help us to see everyone—even our worst enemy—as you see them, and thereby avoid the sin of partiality.”