St Eugene’s Cathedral
Francis Street, Derry
BT48 9AP | Tel: 028 7126 2302
We have finished the rich chapter from St John's Gospel dealing with Jesus as the Bread of Life. There he began with the feeding of the 5,000 and took the meaning of Bread to a new level that shocked his listeners. Now he responds to a question from the Pharisees. But rather than limiting himself to their complaint about hand washing, he broadens the issue to deal with a much bigger and more uncomfortable picture of right and wrong and personal integrity. What might we learn?
Firstly, we all like to define problems in ways that make us feel comfortable. It is easy to name the fault in somebody else. There is a temptation to get satisfaction at being angry at a situation – whether or not you know the facts. Gossip about other people is always attractive and loses nothing in the telling. The Pharisees and scribes were happy that they could find fault with the disciples of Jesus on the basis of ritual washing of hands. Jesus is less concerned about external observance and more with inner integrity. He uses the word hypocrite to describe the attitude of the Pharisees. Our word hypocrite comes from the Greek word for an actor, someone who wears a mask and pretends to be somebody else. Jesus refers to the prophet Isaiah who talked of lip service with hearts that were far from God.
But Jesus is not merely concerned with criticising. He wants to teach and to build up. In our very angry society, we have many in church who claim the moral high ground in condemning others for how things have gone wrong or who was to blame. But disciples of Jesus seek to build up, not to wreck. Faith involves listening to the words that people use in order to hear what their heart is saying. There is no discernment without listening both to people and to the Lord. There is no grace at work when we want to hear only our own voices and want others to hear only our voices. Jesus always asks questions that are the bigger than the ones we feel comfortable with.
Secondly, our culture both loves to criticise and loves to condemn others for daring to criticise. We live in a time that is very sensitive to the language we are allowed to use and the practices we must condemn or dare not speak about. Social media are awash with angry criticisms. That is a very unhealthy space and does nothing to help young people mature. Indeed, it encourages adults to remain stuck in adolescent certainties and in closed circles of like-minded people. Jesus has much to teach us. Despite an assumption that no-one should comment negatively on the moral choices of another person, Jesus is clear that some things are wrong. My heart does not decide everything, for it can be very deceptive. He specifically mentions fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, malice, deceit, indecency, envy, slander, pride, folly. He wants us to take responsibility for our own actions and not merely to rejoice in finding fault with the actions of others. Christ's teaching wants to liberate by helping them recognise the truth. It never seeks to imprison them in guilt that makes us feel good. Divine mercy does not overlook the wrong that we do but enables us neither to ignore sin nor to be trapped in it. Jesus wants us to be resurrected, not buried. He wants us to witness to his rich mercy rather than to our showy merits
Thirdly, that sort of maturity, a world that praises only individualism refuses to learn from others. St James in our second reading tells his readers 'To accept and submit to the word which has been planted in you and can save your souls'. does not come easily in a me-centred culture. Jesus asks us to be accountable for our actions. As we heard in last week's readings, we are asked whether we are prepared to obey God. Salvation comes when we recognise that there is one who gives eternal meaning to my life and who knows me better than I do. That sort of faith is difficult. It is easier to have a childish picture of God whom we can control by external religious practices – and then blame when things don't work out my way. But there is no simple answer to questions about sudden deaths or terrible tragedies. Very often the only answer is not trite comments about singing with the angels. The adult faith response is often to stand at the foot of the cross, heartbroken but trusting that there is one who has suffered and who will make sense of the awful dark pain that so many people have to bear. That sort of adult faith acknowledges that life is difficult, but that death and disaster do not have the last word. Jesus is always calling us to maturity. Thus, our prayer comes from the heart and deals with our real lives. As the Gospel says, we have to get beyond honouring God only with lip service. Maturing faith develops integrity between what we say with our lips and what we live in our lives. That is what Jesus challenges us to do today. When we live as hypocrites we damage the credibility of Jesus' message.
Our weekly Mass is not a merely religious themed Thought for the Day. It is the time when Jesus calls us aside to instruct us about who he is and the salvation that he offers. He deals with serious issues and expects us to take him seriously. Then he invites us to share in the sacrament of his sacrificial death on Calvary. The time is approaching when many people will be more able to decide about coming back to full participation in the sacramental life of our parish communities. On-line participation was ok when there was no other option. But communities of disciples will not be formed by distance learning. We have to take Jesus on his terms, not ours. In a superficially religious society, Jesus called people to deep faith and authentic living. He still wants his church to be a powerhouse of that maturity and integrity. That is why he gathers us each week so that we can be sent out to share his wisdom and grace. The world is as much in need of integrity and healing as it was in Jesus' time. Today he teaches us some more valuable lessons about how we have to act so that we can be agents of his mercy and witnesses to his truth. That integrity is what our hurting world is still crying out for.
+ Donal Mckeown