Thursday, January 28, 2016

Admonishing the Sinner is Mercy

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

This week’s gospel takes off where last week’s ended. If last week’s passage had a certain emphasis on corporal works of mercy; this week’s text focuses on one of the spiritual works of mercy, admonishing the sinner. Between the corporal works and the spiritual works of mercy, the latter would prove to be the harder because as today’s gospel demonstrates, it would be the less popular. The conclusion to last week’s passage was favourable because he spoke with authority and his message was pleasing to the ears. However, when he began to challenge their set ways and manner of thinking in this week’s text, he earned their displeasure.

When Jesus made the comment that no prophet is ever accepted in his own country he was clearly identifying himself with the long line of prophets who suffered a similar fate.  He was not in the popularity game. He had not come to preach a gospel of nice but the liberating truth of the Kingdom of God regardless of how well it would be received. What happened that day in Nazareth was to be repeated over and over again during his ministry, with the crucifixion as the inevitable final outcome. This mission of Christ points to our mission which we received at baptism, to witness to the values which he represents. It will certainly be a work that does not promise popularity or easy success. The task will always be difficult because people are often too comfortable in their sin and they resent interference. 

Many people confuse being prophetic with being a rebel or a critic. But the premise of prophetic ministry is not just being a ‘rebel’ for the sake of rebellion, neither is it to be merely a critic for critique sake. We live in a world of social critics who hide behind the anonymity of social media, which is far from being prophetic. We must remember that the goal is not to tell others how terrible they are, or heap insults upon the other. Neither is the goal to win an argument or to feel superior. Rather, the goal is to win the sinner back from a destructive path, to announce the forgiveness of sins available to all who repent. The premise of prophetic ministry is always about the exposure of sin. It is always a work of mercy. The goal is salvation. As such, to admonish sinners is to call lovingly to those in danger and draw them back from the edge of the abyss. Being prophetic is speaking the Truth in love. Never merely stating an opinion, no matter how convinced we are of its veracity, and never letting vent our anger and frustration in revenge. It is essentially a work of grace and love.

To admonish others effectively, there are two other points we must keep in mind. First, we must practice what we preach. In other words, we have to be working at striving for holiness and avoiding sin in our own lives if we expect others to do the same. The argument, “Do what I say and not what I do,” will never work. The second point is to avoid the terrible attitude of self righteousness with its judgmental view of others. In order to avoid descending into a blind self-righteousness that only sees faults in others but never with ourselves, the task of admonishing or correcting the sinner must begin with ourselves. To carry out this work of admonishing the sinner, a person must have a sense of compassion for human weakness, and we can only learn that by recognising our own weaknesses. If we fail to do so, we will be casting stones at others, and it is never advisable to throw stones when you live in a glass house.

Jesus demonstrates the true reason behind this spiritual work of mercy. The basic reason that we admonish sinners is because their salvation may well be in jeopardy. As mentioned already, their salvation is the greatest good and need in their lives. If a person were drowning, and we were standing near a life preserver, and we did nothing to throw that life preserver out to that person so that person could be saved, this would be a terrible act of lack of love. It is even worse if souls are in jeopardy of their eternal loss from God, and we say nothing to make them realise the moral danger they are in. So even greater than all our bodily needs is the spiritual need to be set free from sin and receive the life of God. This is why admonishing the sinner is so important. Nothing should take precedence over the work of the salvation of souls. We can never remain indifferent to their predicament.

Despite its great importance, this is a difficult and dangerous work of mercy because people do not like to be reminded of their sins and faults. None of us likes to be corrected. This is even more so today if people have entered into denial of sin in their lives. The great American TV evangeliser, Archbishop Sheen would say that 150 years ago, when the Catholic Church declared the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, there were people who were up in arms that the Church would dare say that there was even one person without sin! Now, he said, everybody would be up in arms if you claim they had sin!

What does it mean to admonish the sinner? First of all, it means calling someone to conversion. Jesus Himself did this from the very outset of His public ministry when. Another way to admonish is to inform or remind someone by way of a warning of the moral danger they are in. In this manner, admonishing the sinner is connected to another spiritual work of mercy, instructing the ignorant.  Another expression of this admonishing is by fraternal correction. This is considered an expression of charity. Out of love and concern for a brother or sister in Christ, one brings to their attention faults or shortcomings that may be harming the individual or affecting others negatively, such as in a family or community. True friends would want to do this for one another. A caution here is to avoid pettiness in matters that one corrects. We have to learn to put up with the annoying behaviour of others. Many shortcomings which do not affect others negatively should be borne patiently. But such tolerance should never be extended to sin. A final form of admonishing sinners is to encourage or even urge them on to greater efforts or to persevere in their struggle to break from a life of sin.

Silence can never be confused as an act of mercy. Unfortunately, this seems to be an unwritten doctrine of the modern ideology of political correctness. There is an old saying attributed to Edmund Burke, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”  Silence in the face of evil allows that evil to continue and even to spread. Such a terrible silence must be broken. To paraphrase one of Archbishop Sheen's famous quotes, “We don't need a voice that speaks when everybody else is speaking; we need a voice that speaks when everybody else is silent!”

In this Jubilee Year of Mercy, let us return to the true mercy of Christ who wishes to set us free from our sinfulness. In a recent book, a series of conversations with the Vatican journalist Andrea Tornielli, Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, identifies himself as “a sinner in need of God’s mercy,” and explains his motivation for calling the Jubilee Year of Mercy. “The Church condemns sin, because it has to tell the truth: this is a sin,” he says. “But at the same time, it embraces the sinner who acknowledges what he is.” The mercy of God can never be separated from the condemnation of sin. Rather, it is in teaching properly the gravity of sin that the Church has always opened hearts to the true mercy of God. May our daily prayer to the Lord be that He grants us the courage and humility to admonish sinners and the grace to do it in love. Let us never forget to ask the Lord for the courage and humility to accept correction ourselves, and to grant us the grace to see it as an act of love, even if it is not always artfully done.

Friday, January 22, 2016







Monday, January 18, 2016

A Jubilee of Mercy

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

It is not just mere coincidence that the Holy Father decided to proclaim an Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy to coincide with the new liturgical year that features the gospel of St Luke in our Sunday readings. The reason for this choice would soon be made clear as we journey through the pages of this gospel which is rich in the theme of mercy. Today, we begin our marathon reading of the first volume of St Luke’s work, which is a composition of the preface (1:1-4) and Jesus’ inaugural programmatic speech (4:14-21). The lectionary skips four whole chapters which is comprised of the infancy narrative, the Baptism and Temptations of the Lord, to string together these two sections in order to present to us St Luke’s catechetical purpose and Jesus’ ministerial goal.

The account of Jesus preaching in the synagogue of his adopted hometown, Nazareth, is only found here in the Gospel of St Luke. The little details given by St Luke are significant who records not only his preaching but his every action tiny action. Very significantly the last line of Isaiah read by Jesus says: “to proclaim the Lord's year of favour”, and immediately afterwards, Jesus' message was a declaration that precisely "this text" was being fulfilled on that day. The expression taken from the Book of the prophet Isaiah, “year of the Lord's favour” clearly refers to the prescriptions in the Book of Leviticus on the Jubilee Year (Lev 25,10-13). At Nazareth, the Lord was proclaiming a Jubilee Year. The whole of Jesus' ministry therefore must be understood in this prospective.

The Jubilee Year was the end of a cycle of seven sabbatical (every seventh year) years. There is dispute of whether it fell on the 49th year or the following year, the 50th year. The biblical requirement is that the Jubilee year was to be treated like a Sabbatical year, with the land lying fallow, but also required additional activities that needed to be undertaken to ensure a redistribution of wealth, the restoration of justice by narrowing the economic gap and the freeing of slaves. According to the Code of Holiness it required the compulsory return of all property to its original owners or their heirs, in addition to the manumission of all Israelite indentured servants

The stirring passage lifted from Isaiah 61:1-2 was originally a promise made to God’s beleaguered people in ancient Judah. They had recently returned to their homeland after decades of exile in Babylon. In fact, most of them would have been born in exile and returned to a homeland they had only heard about from their elders, parents and grandparents. Having heard of a land flowing with milk and honey, of Solomon’s glorious temple, of the magnificence of the king’s palace, what could have prepared them for a dry, parched land, the charred ruins of a temple, or the strewn rubble of the king’s palace? The words of the prophet were meant to instil hope in them. Good news for those suffering in poverty: people in bondage were to be unshackled! The blind would see again and wherever there was oppression there would be glorious freedom instead!

The year of favour Isaiah proclaimed must have seemed very far away. They continued to wait for the Day when God’s mercy would be fully revealed. In telling his fellow Nazarenes that, “this text is being fulfilled today even as you listen,” Jesus was announcing that he was there to fulfil the prophetic promise, that he was the one anointed to bring glad tidings to the poor, to free the captives, to give sight to the blind. The time of mercy had arrived!

The effect of Jesus’ declaration was stunning as the locals tried to come to terms with the fact that the Holy One of God had turned out to be one of their own, a home grown boy. The hope of ages had been born in their midst. As it was for them, the challenge for us is to believe in the messenger in such a way that we also become agents of God’s mercy, announcing the good news of God’s kingdom, bringing God’s mercy to the poor, the blind and those held captive to the materialism of the world.

But there is more here than the pronouncement that Jesus is fulfilling the text of prophecy. Jesus, did more than  read verbatim from the prescribed text of Isaiah 61:1-2. The way in which St Luke quotes Isaiah presents also details which reveal a certain manner of interpreting the jubilee year. He does this by way of an addition as well as an omission. After speaking of proclaiming to the blind new sight Luke adds: “to set the downtrodden free.” This is an allusion to another passage taken from Isaiah 58:6, “to break unjust fetters and undo the throngs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke.” The effect of this addition in the gospel is therefore greater insistence on the fact that the jubilee year must be a year of liberation. It underlines this important point by inserting another action of setting the downtrodden free. Furthermore the theme is amplified, because the second time it says not only to “proclaim” but actually “to set free”.

One more particularity of Luke’s quotation of Isaiah is an obvious omission. He does not quote the whole phrase of Isaiah but only the first, which is “the Lord's year of favour,” neglecting the second which is “a day of vengeance for our God”. The original oracle of Isaiah foresees two aspects of divine intervention, the first the liberation of the Jewish people, the other punishment of her enemies. The Gospel has not retained this opposition. This omission has two consequences: it highlights the mercy of God who wishes to liberate and free His People, but it is also implicitly universal. There is no longer any suggestion of distinction between Jews and non-Jews. This would be made explicit in the verses that follow thereafter where Jesus uses the example of two non-Jewish figures as examples of recipients of God’s providential favour. In preparation and celebration of the Jubilee of Mercy, universal openness is an essential character. Our prayer must be that mercy must be poured out on both our friends as well as our foes, on those who are deserving as well as the undeserving.

The message of the gospel, first preached in Nazareth, Galilee, is to be spread today through us. We are no longer passive recipients of the good news. We too have received anointing from the Spirit of the Lord. The word of God which first came to birth in our souls at baptism is anxiously waiting to burst forth and take root in the lives of others. Every year is a year of favour from the Lord. But this is especially true this year during the Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. There are many ways we can make these words of Christ, about bringing glad tidings to the poor, liberty to captives and sight to the blind, our very own and have them fulfilled in our hearing. When we help those whose hearts have grown cold and are heavily weighed down, those whose lives have been injured by the injustices and humiliation they had to endure, when we offer forgiveness instead of judgment, the love and mercy of God shines through us and we make them realise that Jesus Christ, the true face of the mercy of God, is not a memory but is living among us today. No more waiting. This text is being fulfilled today even as you listen!