One body, many gifts, all mercy

Today’s second reading is from the first letter to the Corinthians, in which Paul is writing to a divided community in need of reconciliation. Paul makes an analogy between the community of believers and a human body. Although there are differences in the parts of a body and their functions and capabilities, every part of the body is necessary for the whole to function. He also finds a way to reconcile difference with unity, an ever present challenge for church communities.

On the one hand, we want to value unity, a togetherness in which no person is separated from anyone else in the community. On the other hand, the danger of a monistic approach is that it eliminates pluralism, difference, and individuality. Our personalities are different; our gifts and talents are diverse; and our vocational paths and ways of living out those vocations are multiple. A danger in aiming for unity without difference is that it turns into a power struggle to make others identical to oneself, for the sake of unity. Here one group or individual may elevate himself above others and pass judgment on those who do not conform. Pluralism without some shared sense of unity, however, fragments us, if, for example, we divide up into different parishes (the liberal parish, the conservative one) and go and be with others who think exactly as we do, or practice liturgy exactly as we do.

Paul’s image of the body gives us a familiar instance of how pluralism and unity can simultaneously co-exist. Each part of the body belongs to the whole, and yet finger, hand, head, and limb all maintain distinctive roles and characteristics. (We are not asked to be amoebas, with one cell and no differences!)

“But God has so constructed the body
as to give greater honor to a part that is without it,
so that there may be no division in the body,
but that the parts may have the same concern for one another.
If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it;
if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy.” (1 Corinthians 12:24-26)

Paul borrows from our first hand experiences of our own bodies. If my finger hurts, I hurt. I don’t simply notice that my finger is in pain. I am in pain. Similarly, Paul asks that we understand ourselves as closely united with others in such a way that others’ sorrows become capable of touching our hearts, and others’ joys are our own. We celebrate with one another, and mourn with one another faithfully. He calls the church to practice the same kind of fidelity to other members that we would practice with respect to our own bodies.

Paul’s imagery of the body is not simply an analogy, however. The letter goes on to tie together this bodily image to the Eucharist, that is, to the community’s sharing in the Body of Christ. That is, Paul is saying that it is not only that we are like a single body, but that, in reality, we are a single body. Unity is the underlying truth about humanity, and the Eucharist expresses that underlying unity. The source of all unity is in Christ, in whom we abide together.

For me, this notion of an underlying unity is closely tied to the message that Jesus reads in the Gospel reading today, when he reads from Isaiah. His message is all about mercy:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.” (Luke 4: 18-19)

Jesus says that he is the fulfillment of this reading. Luke presents Jesus as the one for whom the prophets have been waiting to fulfill Messianic expectations. But Luke also goes on to show that the work that Jesus begins also ends up being fulfilled in us. We are the ones to care for the poor, visit those in prison, and set others free from whatever weighs them down and burdens them, to the extent that it is possible for us to do so. And we do that work in community, not alone, because we have different kinds of gifts and talents to offer. This is the sort of mission to which Pope Francis is calling us in this Jubilee Year of Mercy, which is also a “year acceptable to the Lord.”

What are my gifts and talents, and how can I give of them? What gifts and talents that are not my own can I admire, praise, or encourage in others? Are there any debts or burdens that I have placed on others from which I can free them? Where do others seek mercy that I can offer, and where am I in need of mercy myself?