Sunday, October 7, 2012

Homily for the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Homily for the
27th Sunday
in Ordinary Time

Gen 2: 18-24
Don Bosco Tech, Paterson, N.J.
Oct. 8, 2000                   

I had no Mass assignment this weekend, thus no new homily to prepare.  He’s an old one that remains timely, I think.

“It is not good for man to be alone.  I will make a suitable partner for him” (Gen 2: 18).

The 2d chapter of Genesis offers us a variant in the story of how God created the earth.  Variation 1 is the 6 days of creation that we’re all familiar with from ch. 1.  In the 2d variation there is no breakdown day by day, man is the 1st of God’s creatures, rather than the last, and male and female are created separately rather than simultaneously.  But the truths of the 2 different tales are the same.

Most people are animal lovers in some fashion or other.  Many like to watch nature shows on TV.  We’re fond of dogs, cats, birds, and other pets, talking to them (you should hear Bro. Henry with his fish), taking them with us when we travel, spending large amounts of money on them for food and health care, even treating them like members of the family.  (Bro. Henry only talks to them and feeds them.)
Creation of the Animals, by Tintoretto

According to Gen 2, the animals are, in a limited sense, our brothers.  Man was created out of the clay of the earth (v. 7), and as we just heard, so were the animals as God was trying to figure out “a suitable partner” for the male human being (v. 18).  But there was a significant omission in the creation of the animals.  When God made the man, he “blew into his nostrils the breath of life” (v. 7),  a share of the divine life.  God didn’t do that for the animals, and so “none proved to be the suitable partner for the man” (v. 20).

But the animals are brought to the man, and he names them.  Brought to him as potential companions, they’re found worthy only to be subjects.  The man rules them.  They are part of God’s creation, all of which merits our respect.  But it is patently absurd to equate animals with human beings —possessing rights, capable of being treated “inhumanely.”  The treatment of animals can be called “humane” only in the sense that it reflects who we humans are, God’s viceroys on the earth.  Mistreatment of animals demeans us, makes us less than God wants us to be.  But to say, as you often hear, that it’s “inhumane” or unethical to eat meat or to hunt or to wear fur or to conduct medical experiments on animals makes them our equals or partners in creation.  They’re not.  Note, however, that anything done to excess or for the wrong reasons—concerning the animals or anything else—is wrong.

Having given the animal kingdom a thumbs down as “the suitable partner for the man,” God experiments some more.  The portrait of God in Gen 2 is interesting.  He’s not at all like the grand designer, the systematic and universal planner, of ch. 1.  Here God gets down in the dirt, so to speak; maybe in 9th grade you read James Weldon Johnson’s poem “Creation,” in which he compares God to a Negro mammy on her knees by the river bank, digging her fingers into the clay and rolling it around and forming and shaping it into the man.  Then he blows a deep divine breath into the clay to bring it to life.  In ch. 2 God creates by trial and error, as we hear in today’s reading.

So, turning away from the animals, “The Lord God cast a deep sleep on the man, and while he was asleep, he took out one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh.  The Lord God then built up into a woman the rib that he had taken from the man.  When he brought her to the man, the man said:  ‘This one, at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called “woman,” for out of “her man” this one has been taken’” (vv. 21-23).

Now I understand why some of my confreres fall into deep sleep sometimes in front of the TV or at spiritual reading.  They’re hoping to wake up and find a wonderful new gift from God, a nice partner, next to them.

Joking aside, God’s word is making a serious point here.  1st, there’s a play on words in Hebrew.  I don’t read Hebrew, but I do read commentaries.  From the male ish comes the female ishshah; the wordplay goes well also in English:  from man comes woman.  There is a deep and personal relationship here, far deeper than the verbal one.  And that’s the 2d point.  The man enthusiastically recognizes his partner, his equal, his own reflection as a human being:  “This other person is bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh.”
Creation of Eve, by George Frederic Watts (1873)

So Genesis 2—like ch. 1, where we read, “God created humanity in his own image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them” (1:27)—teaches us the equal dignity of men and women.  God made them both, made them for each other as “suitable partners.”  They’re made of the same stuff, formed and shaped by God, inspirited by God.

Yesterday The New York Times carried a front-page story that began this way:  “The House overwhelmingly approved a wide-ranging measure … that toughens laws against the trafficking of women and children for prostitution and sweatshop labor and helps states and localities fight domestic violence.”  This bill, which the Senate, too, is expected to pass and the President to sign into law, attacks a couple of practices that take advantage of women, and children too, treating them as less than full and equal human beings.  It is, of course, nothing new that women are treated as unequal; not as partners but as property; not as persons but as playthings.

Biblical truth has not penetrated our sinful human nature.  Some men abuse their wives and girl friends.  Some husbands expect their wives to wait on them; they’re not their wives’ partners but their lords.  A lot of men look at women as objects of physical desire rather than as persons; as objects to be used for selfish pleasure and then discarded like soiled laundry.  In a talk on marriage some years ago, Pope John Paul raised a lot of eyebrows when he observed that even husbands could sin by lusting for their wives—if they selfishly forced themselves, forgetting that “the two become one flesh” (v. 24) in love, equality, and partnership, not in a relationship of power, control, or self-gratification.  These are some areas in which society still needs to learn from Genesis as well as from our Lord Jesus.

The question of human dignity, of the inherent value of every person, male or female, is a constant challenge to modern man.  Science and technology can make it so easy for us to ignore our standing as God’s creatures, his self-image, the viceroys of his creation.  We can, for instance, separate human reproduction from human love, either by “making love” while blocking our God-given fertility, or by “making fertility” in a lab without personal intimacy.

On Wednesday both The New York Times and the Bergen Record carried articles about a child “conceived to provide blood cells” for his sister.[1]  This, by the way, was not the 1st time this sort of thing has happened.  But it must have been the 1st time it was done by in vitro fertilization.

The girl, Molly Nash, who is 6 and lives in Colorado, has a rare blood disease for which a difficult cell transplant offers hope for treatment.  Ordinary bone marrow transplants offer very modest hope of success.  So the doctors got Molly’s parents to contribute sperm and ova for union in a lab—in vitro fertilization—and from several embryos that resulted, selected the one that tested genetically free from Molly’s disease and most compatible for potential blood transplant.  They successfully implanted that embryo in Mrs. Nash’s womb, and a healthy baby boy resulted.

The story did not say what happened to the other embryos, the ones that weren’t used.  Presumably, they were destroyed, as is usually the case.  In laboratory experimentation and in fertility clinics, the human dignity of these smallest and most vulnerable of human beings is usually disregarded.

As for Molly, stem cells from her newborn brother’s placenta and umbilical cord were transfused to her, and now everyone’s waiting to see whether her blood condition improves.  It’s a dramatic and touching story.  But, even without the question of the unused embryos, we have a moral difficulty.  As one professor of bioethics put it, “We’ve crossed the line …, selecting [an embryo for implantation] based on characteristics that are not the best for the child being born, but for somebody else.”  The same doctor remarked, “Nobody wants babies to be born strictly for the parts they could create, but….”[2]

Actually, we crossed that line long ago, when we began to decide which unborn babes in the womb would live and which would die, based not on what’s best for the child but for someone else:  one or both of the parents; when we began to use in vitro fertilization routinely for otherwise infertile parents—for that laboratory process involves the selection of some embryos and the indefinite shelving or destruction of others.

What was different in Molly Nash’s case, and in one other I’m aware of that occurred several years ago, was that a human being was procreated in order to be used—to be used for spare parts.  Isn’t this treating people as commodities?  Is it, morally, any different from selling an unwanted baby to someone who desperately wants one?  Or from using a prostitute?  from using sweatshop labor to get rich?  The only difference, it seems to me, is that the goal of Molly’s parents and doctors—to try to cure her—is unquestionably a noble one.

But not every means to a noble end is good or moral, as instanced graphically in another news story earlier in the week, the one about the woman who wanted a baby so badly that she and her husband killed a pregnant, near-term woman, delivered the child by C-section, buried the mother, and passed off the baby as their own.  Wanting a child is a noble end.  Obviously, the means used in this case were grossly immoral.

As believers in the revealed word of God, as disciples of Jesus Christ, we must respect the equal dignity of every person:  male or female, born or unborn, young or old, without regard to race, nationality, or creed.  We have a very serious moral obligation to remember that on Nov. 7 when we vote.  Elections are not about the economy, per se, but about people:  who will best serve them with justice, respect, dignity—especially the inalienable right to life.  For we are all of the same flesh and bone, all shaped by the hand of God for his purposes and not our own.

        [1] Denise Grady, “Son Conceived to Provide Blood Cells for Daughter,” NYT, Oct. 4, 2000, p. A24.
        [2] Ibid.

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