Sunday, February 24, 2019

Non-judgmental Judging

Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

Two Sundays ago, I mentioned that we were in for a rare treat. For the first time after a number of years, we would have the chance to listen to and consider, a set of readings which would otherwise be very rare. Today’s set is by far the rarest. The last time a priest would have preached on this text would have been in the year 2001, and I wasn’t even a priest then.

And what a treasure trove we have today –everyone’s favourite topic – Is it Christian to judge? And I believe the congregation would be divided in giving an answer. I guess almost everyone agrees that being ‘judgmental’ is always necessarily a negative trait, but does that mean precluding all types of judgments? If it does, then would any discussion of morality in today’s context be considered judgmental? And since religion, including the Catholic faith, is pretty much about morality, would that mean that we are a judgmental lot? It was the Protestant best-selling author and mega-Church pastor, Rick Warren, who beautifully summarises the Catch 22 situation we face, when talking about morality today, “Our culture has accepted two huge lies. The first is that if you disagree with someone’s lifestyle, you must fear or hate them. The second is that to love someone means you agree with everything they believe or do. Both are nonsense. You don’t have to compromise conviction to be compassionate.”

Just a few weeks ago, someone at one of my RCIA sessions asked me why topics like abortion are almost never preached from the pulpit. He had made a valid point and I confessed that I had failed miserably in this area. My excuse was that the congregation may take things the wrong way, especially when a homily is a one-way communication, with no room for clarification. Here’s the Catch 22: Say nothing and people would plead ignorance. But say something and they accuse you of being mean, hateful and judgmental. There is really a deep-seated irony here. Never mind that the very ones who are telling us not to judge are enacting a moral law in their very act of banishing moral law; they are making a judgment in the very act of forbidding judgment. Logic and rational consistency do not seem to be necessary in times like these.

So, this begs the question, “Can we judge without being judgmental?” And the answer is “we most certainly can and we should”. Firstly, we make judgments all the time. It’s part of being human. If I see water falling from the sky, I make a judgment, “It’s raining.” If I see an attractive girl, I make a judgment, “Wow! She’s really beautiful!” All this is stating the obvious, of course. But we also make judgments with regards to what we consider “good” or “bad” for us or even others. I don’t smoke because I know it’s bad for my health. That’s a judgment. When you see your young child run into the street, you will stop her for fear that she may get hit by a car. That’s making a judgment. But let’s take this a step further. If I see my friend’s husband sleeping around with other women (provided that I have clear proof and not just making a conjecture or based my conclusions on hear-say), can I make a judgment that this is not good for his marriage and family and that it is not morally good for him too. Can adultery ever be a good thing or is it neutral? And if it is always a bad thing, wouldn’t that be making a judgment?

It is clear from these few examples, that making judgment is something necessary and is essentially what makes us human. However, though we may make judgments about things, situations and a person’s actions and words, we are in no position to judge their motive or the interior of a person, the heart. Only God can make that judgment. Our Holy Father, Pope Francis gives us an important reminder, “Each person’s situation before God and their life in grace are mysteries which no one can fully know from without.”

Today, we live in a culture that preaches non-judgmentalism, by which they mean one can never impose one’s own set of morality on another. We would agree that we should not be judgmental to the extent that we should not be judging someone’s intention or soul as we were privy to this. But to choose to suspend all judgment is simply wrong. Judgment is necessary especially when love demands it. And this is love: to will the good of another. Being free of sin and on the road to salvation is the ultimate “good” for the other. Sitting back and saying nothing, however, is not the loving thing to do. Indifference does not equal love. We can be nice and polite to people who make bad choices. We may even tolerate their decisions. But do we really “love” them? In the end, such a mentality of “tolerance” encourages us to be unconcerned about the people around us and neglect our responsibilities toward them.

But that’s not how our Lord lived. Jesus was anything but indifferent to others. He didn’t say, “well, it’s not my life … whatever works for them … different strokes for different folks!” No, our Lord shows us the two essential sides of love, a soft side of mercy, compassion, and acceptance, and a firm side that constantly calls us to conversion. Truth is not the antithesis of Love or vice versa. Charity seeks truth and truth serves charity. On the one hand, our Lord loved everyone, even in their weaknesses – He came for sinners. On the other hand, our Lord persistently challenged people to repent from their evil doings. And He did this because He loved them and knew they would be happiest when they live according to God’s plan.

At the end of last week’s gospel, our Lord challenged us: “Be compassionate as your Father in Heaven is compassionate!” True compassion must always be at the heart of judging. That is why it is so important that we recognise and address the plank in our own eye before taking issue with the splinter in our brother’s eye. “Can one blind man guide another?”  Our Lord was not asking us to disqualify ourselves from making any judgment since no one is perfect. Our Lord is setting out a vision of the integrity between what we are and what we say, which is not merely for the good of others, but also for our own good. Being judgmental is actually being inconsistent. We claim the right to judge others but we refuse to be judged. If we face the truth about ourselves (the so-called “plank” in the eye) and acknowledge our own daily struggles with sin, we are less likely to set ourselves up in judgment over others in a “judgmental” sort of a way. If we recognise how much we need God’s mercy then our hearts will be much more compassionate when we encounter other people’s faults. St Bernard tells us that, “if you have eyes for the shortcomings of your neighbour and not for your own, no feeling of mercy will arise in you but rather indignation. You will be more ready to judge than to help, to crush in the spirit of anger than to instruct in the spirit of gentleness.”

We are called to be judges, but all too often we are unfit to judge. But nevertheless, we must judge between good and evil; we cannot shirk our duties to correct error and to rebuke sin in others. In fact, our Lord gave us an important cue with regards to making judgments – “every tree can be told by its own fruit” which repeats a theme found in the first reading. We can and we should judge, but if we are to judge, we do so based on the actions and words of the other rather than presume that we can read minds and hearts. If we are to judge, let us first judge ourselves. And just as we are called to correct, we must also be open to correction ourselves. Above all, if we are to judge, let us do so with compassion and love, knowing that all of us would have to meet our Lord on the Last Day, who sits in judgment over both the living and the dead, and He judges justly and mercifully.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Hostility into Love

Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly.” Seriously? Well, let me just share a little paradox that I’ve discovered. To love our enemies does not mean that we suddenly become their friends. If it is our enemies we are to love, they must remain enemies. Unless you have enemies, you cannot love them. And if you have no enemies, I wonder if you have any friends. Make sense? Perhaps, it’s much easier to stick to our Lord’s raw teaching – “love your enemies.”

To understand what our Lord is saying, we need to clarify two words, ‘love’ and ‘enemies’. Who are our enemies? Now, the question may seem ludicrous but it is important to state the obvious. Most people live in denial and because they do so, they end up either never resolving their issues with their enemies or never attempting even to love them. So, yes, we do need to know and recognise our enemies in order to love them. Our enemies can either be the people that we are hostile towards or the people who are hostile to us. They are persons whom we dislike, whom we even hate or despise. Or they may be the ones who dislike us, hate us or despise us. These are our enemies. Our first reaction would be to repay them in kind – if they are hostile to us, then we are entitled to be hostile to them too. But these are the ones whom we are called to love.

What does ‘love’ mean here? The word that the gospel uses is a verb from the noun agape.  Agape is a unilateral way of loving by which, irrespective of the actions or attitudes of another person, I desire their well-being. It is the love which God extends to every one of His creatures, irrespective of how they respond to Him. According to Caritas in Veritate, “To love someone is to desire that person’s good and to take effective steps to secure it.” Therefore, it is crucial to understand that love is not simply a feeling but is preeminently an act of the will. No wonder, our Lord provides several concrete examples of how one can love one’s enemies, “do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly.” There should be no retaliation at all against those who cause us injury. Rather, the Christian choice is to take a different path of forsaking vengeance and embracing holiness and compassion. The heart of the message is summarised at the end of today’s gospel, “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.” Our Lord invites us to ascend from the limited human generosity of man (which returns love to someone who has given love) to the absolute generosity of God, which showers love on those who currently hate Him and despise Him.

What sounds preposterous to man actually points to the audacity of God. Jesus Himself is God’s gift to all His enemies, a gift of incalculable love that indeed now causes everyone endowed with it to be “consecrated to God.” This helps us make sense of various illustrations which He uses, turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, giving up what little we have even when it is not required of us. Yes, it was the Lord who turned the other cheek when He was slapped by His interrogators. He allowed Himself to be stripped naked, so that by His death and resurrection, He could now clothe us in Himself, in the glory of being children of God. Rather than paying back with evil, He offered the greatest blessings upon all of us, including His persecutors and executioners. The Lord went the extra mile. He went the first mile. In obedience to the Father, He clothed Himself in human flesh and walked among us. But He did not stop there, He went the second mile, all the way to the cross to bear our sins and by the power of His death and resurrection, He gave us the opportunity and the grace to walk the extra mile for His glory.

Yes, our Lord not only preached but showed us, in His life, death and resurrection, the meaning of loving one’s enemies. The point is that Christ does not command us to have an emotion or a feeling towards a person. We are not being asked to love our enemies with the love of affection, to be in love with them or to be fond of them. He did not command us to LIKE our enemies. He cannot. Love of this sort cannot be commanded. But He does command us to exercise our freedom, our will to intend the good of others, even though we have little affection for them. In many ways, the enemies whom we are called to love would remain our enemies as long as we have no control over their feelings toward us or our feelings toward them. In a way, our enemies actually do us a favour. They provide us an opportunity, a real challenge to truly love, a love that goes beyond human affections and feelings. Frequently, real love wounds us more than soothes our hurts and injuries. The epitome of this kind of love is found on the Cross, when Jesus asked the Father to forgive His enemies for their unwitting crime of deicide.

There is no denying, that for many of us, of all the teachings of Jesus, the mandate to love our enemies is the one most far reaching and difficult to live.  Jesus gives us a commandment, not a suggestion. Love for our enemies is not an ideal but rather, a way of life.  We cannot consider ourselves authentic disciples of Jesus unless we truly love our enemies. The commandment to love our enemies goes deep into our hearts. But loving our enemies would always be hard. Even humanly impossible. In fact, the second reading reminds us that the true standard for Christian living lies not with the first man, Adam. Human standards, no matter how high they may reach, will always be limited and fall short of perfection. No, the standard presented to us is the one given by Christ Himself, the “man from heaven”, who possesses the “life giving spirit.” St Paul, therefore, tells us, “we, who have been modelled on the earthly man will be modelled on the heavenly man.” And this is what the heavenly man, the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ says to us, “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.” For man, it may be impossible but for God, nothing is impossible. The grace of God makes possible even this most impossible of human acts. That is why prayer must always be at the heart of this very act of loving our enemies.

A Christian who faithfully lives up to the high calling of perfection, must submit to the fate of being called a fool, an idealist, and a fanatic; to have his words perverted and his actions misrepresented. But this is his edge – this is what makes the Christian, salt of the earth and light of the world. This is also what makes his life witness so paradoxically attractive to every soul thirsting for greater spiritual depth in a world that can only offer shallow lies. In all this we remember the world does not set the standards for us. In matters of spirituality, mediocrity is never an option. Only the highest standards of excellence is demanded. We follow only one standard – “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.” Thus the “acid test” for Christians would not be found in how well we treat our friends or how well we repay those who have been good to us, but is to be found in this simple and yet tremendously challenging act. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly.”

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Happy are you who are poor

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

We are in for a treat this weekend. I’m not sure about you but I’m personally excited. It’s not always that you get to celebrate the liturgy of the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time in the Year C cycle. The last occasion was in 2010! It’s like a liturgical leap year of sorts. We have a late occurrence of Ash Wednesday and Lent this year to thank for this. An added treat would be that the gospel passage features the beatitudes as found in the Gospel of St Luke, and not the familiar eight that we hear more frequently (well, at least once a year on the Solemnity of All Saints and it comes at the top of a list of options for funerals).

The beatitudes in the famous Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of St Matthew and the Sermon of the Plains in St Luke contain some similarities and differences, despite the great likelihood that these are a narration of the same sermon. The striking difference between the two is to be found in the number of beatitudes: in Luke, who gives us four, compared to Matthew’s eight more developed beatitudes. But Luke balances his four blessings with four corresponding curses or ‘woes’ (or in our text “alas for you”). The Matthean beatitudes sees the world with a Jewish lens, where groups of people are identified as the righteous and the unrighteous. The Lukan beatitudes, on the other hand identify and categorise humanity as simply the poor and the rich. The Law, rightousness and piety found in the Matthean text is all but absent from the gospel of St Luke. St Luke is more concerned with the universality of the mission and message of our Lord Jesus Christ. We will not have sufficient time for a complete comparison of the two versions, but suffice to say that they are not just redundant repetitions.

After having provided the context of the sermon on the Plain (topographical location, demography of the audience), St Luke makes this poignant statement, “then fixing his eyes on his disciples, (Jesus), said …” In some translations, we have “And he, lifting up his eyes on his disciples.” This simple action of the Lord provides us with a clue of what is going to follow. St Ambrose asks, “What is lifting up the eyes, but to disclose a more hidden light?”  Christ is calling His hearers to a deeper understanding of God and His plan for mankind.  The Lord is not simply calling us to pay attention, but rather, He is calling us to see with the eyes of faith. 

Then we begin with the set of four beatitudes. Thirty years ago, the Jerusalem Bible created a stir by rendering the traditional “blessed” of the Beatitudes as “happy”: “How happy are you who are poor . . .” Happy? What a choice of word! Happy sounds frivolous and superficial. But the Greek word “makarioi” can be translated as both “blessing” as well as “happiness”. The problem is that many today often associate happiness with "having a good time"–with pleasure and comfort, the absence of suffering and want. But contemporary usage is flawed. True happiness is spiritual and moral, not merely emotional or pleasurable. The saints in heaven are supremely happy, because they're with God, the source of all happiness.

Just as the beatitudes in the Matthean gospel is hinged on the first beatitude, the four beatitudes of St Luke are likewise summarised in the first. That makes my preaching so much easier and your listening so less demanding. What is it about poverty that is so “blessed” or “happy” or even authentically “human”?  We must first make a critical distinction between poverty and destitution.  All human beings are entitled to have their basic needs met.  The fact that millions are living in our world in the state of destitution, where hunger and disease ravage entire nations, is a great sin against humanity. There is certainly no blessing in this, neither should it ever be a cause of happiness. Every time we withhold our cloak from the naked or our food from the hungry, we sin, not only against the human person, but also against the Lord Himself.  But poverty, or at least evangelical poverty, is not identical with destitution.  The destitute may think of themselves as forsaken, but the poor are definitely not forsaken by God. Poverty is the state of simplicity, that is the state of having only what one needs.  Poverty brings with it the simplicity to give oneself to God, who is the final cause of all of humanity. God is their wealth.

As the spiritual writers unanimously observed, to advance in the life of virtue, poverty must come first.  This is due to the chasm that lies between God and the world, the Creator and His creatures.  This world and all its riches is God’s gift to us to be used as a means for our return to Him.  Simply put: God is the end; things are means to this end.  On the other hand, the possession of material goods beyond that of basic necessity brings with it the risk of using goods as ends in themselves. Things therefore become our ‘idols.’ The outcome would be the proliferation of vices like greed, envy and possessiveness. It is interesting that, while Christ cured the sick, made the blind see, made the deaf hear, but to my recollection, He never once made a poor man rich.  Illness, blindness, and deafness are deprivations; poverty is not. Likewise, when one is deprived of the basic needs of life, this physical state of destitution necessarily brings with it the challenge of spiritual destitution.  This is precisely why we must work to eliminate destitution in the world, not primarily because of the physical sufferings, but first and foremost to allow God’s people the freedom to worship Him in health of body, mind, and soul. 

Christ, in this first beatitude, does not say, “To those who are impoverished, I say to you, the day will come when I will relieve you of this poverty and make you rich.” That’s the gospel of prosperity often preached by successful and popular pastors. No wonder, thousands throng to their churches. Instead, our Lord says, “happy are you who are poor.”  Poverty itself brings with it blessing, or rather, sanctity. The poor understand their need for God. The poor’s security and wealth lies with God. If the possession of goods beyond that of basic needs bring with it the risk of treating this excess as an end in itself, then it follows that the more we possess, the further we find ourselves from pursuing our proper end: God. We cannot serve both God and mammon. The further we are from our proper end, the less human we find ourselves.  This explains the unique theme of reversal present in St Luke’s beatitudes, the so-called four ‘woes’ as opposed to the four ‘blessings. Wealth, full stomachs, contentment and human respect, though good in themselves, can also risk becoming dangerous. They can lead us to believe only in ourselves and our resources and forget our true end which is God and His Kingdom. 

I hope that I have not given the impression that the Church has canonised material poverty as the ladder to heaven. The state of poverty cannot just be purely material; material poverty alone does not bring salvation.  St Basil warns us, “for many are poor in their possessions, yet most covetous in their disposition; these poverty does not save, but their affections condemn.” Material poverty in order to be humanising and divinising must be accompanied by spiritual poverty – being “poor in spirit.” On the other hand, neither is the state of poverty purely spiritual.  There are those who want to reduce Christ’s call to poverty to the mere spiritual detachment from goods and continue to live scandalously lavish lives at the expense of the poor.  This too is a distortion of the Gospel message.  Finally, this beatitude should certainly not excuse us from our responsibility to assist those who are in a state of destitution. Evangelical poverty can never mean a rejection of all material goods which are good in themselves. But it is an invitation to see that these things are better when they are shared with those who have-not.  As we continue our celebration of this Year of Mission, let us not forget the last point of the star. That our encounter with Christ, our learning from missionary testimonies and catecheses, should lead us to missionary charity, and in doing so, may we give true glory and worship to God, who became poor so that we may become rich in His graces.