A REFLECTION ON THE GOSPEL FOR THE FOURTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
We have just come through an “Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy” with Pope Francis. Pope Francis has invited us into a deeper understanding and experience of mercy. So how are we doing? Are we more merciful than we were a year ago? Pope Francis is making some changes which demonstrate that the Church herself is becoming more merciful. It’s now becoming easier for couples to get their marriage annulled; there will be less canonical hoops to jump through. Also, if someone confesses to an abortion the case doesn’t have to go to the local bishop. The priest hearing the confession is allowed to provide absolution. I, for one, applaud these changes. These events are shameful and humiliating enough for those involved. I don’t think it benefits anyone to have that extra level of investigation. In his book “CHURCH OF MERCY” Pope Francis reminds us that the prodigal son returned home “without a word of reproach.” There was no big interrogation about where he had been, what he had done or whom he had been with and how many times. It’s interesting to me how, when so many in the church seem to be looking for more justice in these circumstances, Pope Francis is talking about MERCY. He has dared to suggest that, in some cases, maybe the church has been too strict. Wow! That’s a new and novel approach; especially when the official dialogue from many Catholics often seems to be about the letter of the law and how to tighten the reins in these areas.
Don’t get me wrong, I do believe we need more and better education and more accountability in the areas of marriage and family. These are life and death issues, not to be taken lightly. However, I wonder if we really know how to be “pro LIFE.” I think for too long our “go to” strategy has been to try and warn people of the dangers of pre/extra marital sex and the potential eternal consequences of an abortion. We often use the same approach to alternative lifestyles. We tend to lead with guilt and fear. I think part of the problem is that many Christians are more ANTI abortion/divorce/gay than they are PRO life and love. I encounter many Catholics/Christians who are simply anti everything. Often we are in a state of shock because we perceive the world around us as anti Christ and we get all defensive because no one seems to care or want to change. We stand in judgement of most everyone and everything and the beauty of mercy is completely lost in this dark and stormy climate. We have focused on darkness rather than light and sometimes unknowingly, in our attempts to set things straight, we become the monster that we’re trying to kill.
As I read the dialogue on Face Book and other social media regarding these issues, it most often seems that we just want well behaved Christians more than we want Christians who are fully alive. I think St. Iraneus gave us the ultimate pro life statement when he said “the glory of God is man fully alive.” Do we know how to show and tell people what it means to be fully alive and how to be a sign to them of the joy, freedom, peace and happiness that comes from knowing the giver of life? Perhaps if we focused more on this kind of education then people might be more motivated to resist those choices which often lead to so much sadness and regret. The THEOLOGY OF THE BODY by Pope Saint John Paul II, for example, provides a beautiful life giving treatment of marriage and family matters. I remember being stunned by the depth and beauty of the theology of the body when I studied it in university. People may not understand the letter of the law but I think most of us intuitively recognize life in all its majesty, wonder and glory when it presents itself in so many different ways. They will likely follow this “life” wherever it goes. Conversely, we may know the rules and all the fine points of the law but if we don’t have a Holy Spirit of joy and freedom within us our words will likely fall on deaf ears. I choose to follow Christ not because of clever philosophy or dogma or fear of hell. I choose this way because some of the most loving, generous, free, brave and happy people I know are Christians. I want to be more like them. Ultimately we need to know how to be kind and respectful to those who are different from us without necessarily condoning their lifestyle choices.
Is this maybe what Pope Francis is trying to accomplish with a year of mercy and his encyclicals THE JOY OF THE GOSPEL and ON LOVE IN THE FAMILY? I don’t think he’s trying to change the rules as some suspect. He may however be trying to shift our focus to the light rather than the darkness. The sins of the flesh are easy to spot and name but sometimes the darkness in our hearts is harder to recognize and easier to justify. He reminds us of the story of the Pharisee and the publican (Luke 18: 9-14) and highlights the fact that it’s not necessarily the well behaved who inherit the kingdom. It’s clear that keeping our nose clean doesn’t amount to much if Mercy doesn’t transform our attitude toward others. It’s also abundantly clear to me, as I read the scriptures, that the people in the church of Jesus day (Pharisees, Sadducees etc) gave Jesus just as much stress as the tax collectors and prostitutes. Jesus had to constantly confront those in the church who were all about power, control and status. They had nothing but disdain for those outside of their circle. Does this sound familiar? If you’ve been a part of any church for any length of time you’re likely aware that this wasn’t just a first century problem. It is a trap we all have to be careful to avoid. In his book MERE CHRISTIANITY, C.S. Lewis described the problem like this:
“The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronising and spoiling sport and back-biting, the pleasures of power, of hatred. There are two things inside me, competing with the human self which I must try to become. They are the Animal self, and the diabolical self. The diabolical self is the worse of the two. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it is better to be neither.”
It also may be no accident that pride is numero uno on the list of seven deadly sins. Were our church fathers sending a message when they established this order? The sins of the flesh like lust and gluttony come further down the list.
The remedy, of course, is MERCY. In CHURCH OF MERCY Pope Francis continues on about the prodigal son
“…and the father, had he forgotten the son? No, never! He sees the son from afar. He was waiting for him every hour of every day. The son was always in the father’s heart even though he had left him, even though he had squandered his whole inheritance, his freedom. The father with patience, love, hope and mercy had never for a second stopped thinking about him, and as soon as he sees him still far off he runs out to meet him and embraces him with tenderness, without a word of reproach.”
Mercy, it seems, will always far exceed our expectations of how deep and far it will go. Perhaps the only limits on mercy are our hardened hearts and small-mindedness. Pope Francis tells us that no life is ever hopeless and the father is always waiting, arms wide open, for the prodigal sons and daughters to return. When they come home, this is the kind of great mercy he is asking that we lavish upon those who have fallen down and fallen away. This is the great mercy which he is asking us to understand and live more deeply in our daily lives. In the beatitudes, highlighted in this Sunday’s gospel, Jesus proclaims the great reward for our willingness to hear and live Pope Francis’ words: “Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy.”