Life Is On the Peripheries

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One day Elkanah offered sacrifice. He used to give portions to Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters; to Hannah, however, he would give only one portion, although he loved her more, since Yahweh had made her barren. Her rival would taunt her to annoy her, because Yahweh had made her barren. And this went on year after year; every time they went up to the temple of Yahweh she used to taunt her. And so Hannah wept and would not eat.

1 Samuel 1: 4-7

As Ordinary Time begins, we begin our reading in the Historical Books of the Hebrew Scriptures. As we are thrust into the story of Elkanah, Hannah, and Peninnah, we are reminded that the God of Israel is to be known and worshipped in the heart of human history. Because we know the stories, it can be easy to leap to their conclusion, to God’s blessing of Hannah and how her barrenness becomes the ground of the greatest fruitfulness. But, today we are invited to ponder the humiliation and sorrow that was Hannah’s lot for most of her life. She is an object of shame and ridicule because she is a failure in the greatest duty and responsibility a woman of her time has, to bear a child. Not even Elkanah’s love for and devotion to her can overcome her sense of the meaninglessness of her own life. No other person is capable of giving meaning and purpose to one’s own life.

For her part, her rival Peninnah seems to take every opportunity to taunt and humiliate Hannah. She ratifies and justifies her own superior position by demeaning and diminishing the poverty of Hannah. In Penninah we see the tendency of all of us to see our own possessions, achievements, and wealth as a sign of our superiority, a superiority we buttress by demeaning those who have less. Wherever we stand on the “social scale,” we enhance our own sense of significance by ignoring or demeaning those who, from our perspective, lack what they “should” have.

So, today we are invited to reflect on our conscious and unconscious sense of caste and class. In our common daily experience, do we really believe, as Pope Francis, in the wisdom of the poor?  Do we realize that we are to opt to be with and for the poor, not just for their sake but for ours?  It is Hannah, the object of scorn and of humiliation whose “barrenness” will bear the greatest fruit for the people. Where is the Word to be heard and wisdom to be found for us today?  It well may be, both outside of and within us, in those places that we tend to most disparage and disregard. The last person we think has anything to say to us may be carrying God’s word to us. The task or time I am most dreading may prove to be the moment of God’s visitation.

We have all kinds of preconceived notions of what is valuable and what is not, what is worth our while and what we’d like to avoid. The Scriptures are always reminding us that it is not in what most readily draws us and attracts our notice that God’s wisdom is to be found but in that and in those we often ignore or disdain. May we live without judgment today, receiving all that comes and all who come our way in docility and openness. May we move toward what and whom we would unconsciously move away from, trusting that God is present in their poverty and in ours.

First of all, though, I would like to speak about something which the language of exclusion often disregards or seems to ignore. It is the wisdom found in poor neighbourhoods. A wisdom which is born of the “stubborn resistance” of that which is authentic” (cf. Laudato Si’, 112), from Gospel values which an opulent society, anaesthetized by unbridled consumption, would seem to have forgotten. You are able “to weave bonds of belonging and togetherness which convert overcrowding into an experience of community in which the walls of the ego are torn down and the barriers of selfishness overcome.”

The culture of poor neighbourhoods, steeped in this particular wisdom, “has very positive traits, which can offer something to these times in which we live; it is expressed in values such as solidarity, giving one’s life for others, preferring birth to death, providing Christian burial to one’s dead; finding a place for the sick in one’s home, sharing bread with the hungry (for ‘there is always room for one more seat at the table’), showing patience and strength when faced with great adversity, and so on” Values grounded in the fact each human being is more important than the god of money. Thank you for reminding us that another type of culture is possible.

I want in first place to uphold these values which you practice, values which are not quoted in the stock exchange, are not subject to speculation, and have no market price. I congratulate you, I accompany you and I want you to know that the Lord never forgets you. The path of Jesus began on the peripheries, it goes from the poor and with the poor, towards others.

Pope Francis, Address During Visit to Kangemi Slum, Nairobi Kenya, 27 November, 2015

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