The Dominican friar, Blessed Humbert of Romans O.P. once said "First the bow is bent in study, then the arrow is released in preaching..." These are the sermons and reflections of fr. Lawrence Lew O.P., a Friar Preacher (Dominican), illustrated with some of his photographs.
Passiontide, the time when we turn our minds to Christ’s final weeks, begins on Sunday, and so the mood in the Gospels has been changing; they are menacing. For we heard earlier this week that the Jews wanted to kill Jesus, and this is heightened today: “Is not this the man whom they seek to kill?” (Jn 7:25). Today’s first reading gives us an insight into the real motivations behind this murderous hatred for Christ. It is because he is the Truth, and he shines the light of truth on Man’s sinful hearts.
Often people kill off God in their lives, and they can use the state of the Church, or the behaviour of the clergy, or the popular claim of some scientist or writer or even an entertainer as the purported reason to do this. And perhaps they believe at the time that this is the reason. But in fact, the true reason is a moral reason. For God; Jesus; his Gospel; Christ’s Church “is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us for sins against the law, and accuses us of sins against our training. He professes to have knowledge of God… He became to us a reproof of our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us” (Wis 2:12-15).
And so, just as Adam and Eve after their sin hide their faces from God, for “the very sight of him is a burden”, so when we sin we too hide our faces from God. Or rather, we hide God’s face from ourselves because we cannot bear the look of Truth. For our sins reveal the truth about who we are and what we really desire; it’s an inconvenient truth for us sinners. For as Rowan Williams says, sin is “the state of revolt against truth”.
So, we find that many would kill God off: saying God does not exist, or that his Church has no authority to teach in this or that arena, or that there is no such thing as absolute Truth and certainly not in matters of spirituality and religion. Because Truth, if we admit it exists, is such that he would possess us, convert us, change us. And this requires humility. As Pope Francis said, “truth leads to humility, since believers know that, rather than ourselves possessing truth, it is truth which embraces and possesses us” (Lumen Fidei, 34).
The journey of Lent is a journey from falsehood to the Truth. Hence, it is a journey towards the Cross. Those who sought to kill Jesus do so because, as Wisdom says, “Let us see if his words are true and let us test what will happen at the end of his life” (2:17). And these words are ironic. Because Truth is being put to the test to see if it is true. So, they crucify Jesus, and thus, on the Cross, he shows that his words are true. As Rowan Williams says: “Jesus, hanging on the cross, says to us, ‘This is what your untruth means”; we would kill Truth.
But what else happens on the Cross? Scruton says: “In the moment of sacrifice people come face to face with God”. So, at the end of his life, Jesus the innocent Victim of our sins shows that God is Love. And the one from whom we had hidden our faces is revealed to us. We see the truth. But not just the truth of Man’s sinfulness but the truth of God’s nature. God is mercy and love, long-suffering in patience and compassion, ever-ready to forgive. God is with us, sinful humanity.
And this truth, if we dare to see it, if we dare to allow it to embrace and possess us, will redeem us and save us from all our untruth, from our sinful revolt against Truth. Thus we enter into Passiontide and prepare for the new life that Easter promises.
In medieval English parish churches, two great images faced you as you looked from the nave towards the sanctuary and altar: a Rood Screen with the Crucifixion, and painted on the archway above that, the Last Judgement, or the Doom. So, the medieval parishioner would have had the Cross and the Final Judgement in sight whenever they came to church to worship. And so should we today.
What does it mean to have these images, these eternal realities, in mind? In looking at the Cross, we contemplate God’s mercy and the depths of his saving love. But the Cross is also our judgement. For as Jesus’ enters his Passion and takes up his Cross, he says: “Now is the judgement of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out” (Jn 12:31). For the Cross reveals the cruelty and violence that sinful humanity inflicts on Man; it also shows the suffering and torment borne by all those who are victims of this sinful world. Hence, the world is judged, that is, to say that our world is faced with the stark truth of its sinful choices. For we are judged by the truth of what we do. Hence, Christ who is Truth itself, hangs on the Cross. Very often, people cannot bear to look at the Crucified One and contemplate the Cross, because we just cannot face up to the Truth. This, too, is why so many fear the thought of judgement, fear even confession, because they cannot face up to the truth of who they are and what they have freely chosen to do.
But to be only filled with fear or shame would be to forget that the Cross is also proof of God’s undying love and mercy for sinners; a Love who seeks us in order to raise us up to new life. I was in the Sistine Chapel last summer, and I was able to stand at the High Altar, looking up at Michelangelo’s great depiction of the Last Judgement. But as I stood there I noticed that the huge Crucifix on the Altar stands right in front of the painting of the Gates of Hell. So, the Cross of Christ literally blocked the way to Hell. But for it to do this I had to look and see the Crucified One. This is to say, I have to own up to the truth of my sins, to be judged by the reality of my sinful acts. But at the same time, as I acknowledge my sins, then I experience, too, God’s mercy and his saving love on the Cross. But we can’t just have love and mercy without the truth of our sinfulness. This is what judgement means.
Thus, in a poem on the Last Judgement, Pope Bl John Paul II (whose 9th anniversary of death is today) wrote: “It is granted man once to die, and thereafter, the judgement! Final transparency and light. The clarity of the events – The clarity of consciences –”. Judgement brings clarity; the light and transparency of truth to shine on what we have done but that light which shines on our deeds is also the light of love. The Doom, or Last Judgment painted on the walls of our churches were a reminder, then, of this final judgement, and St John speaks of it in today’s Gospel: “the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice” (5:28). It is the voice of Truth.
However, St John’s Gospel, unlike the other Gospels, also has a more imminent view of judgement. We hear today: “The hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” (Jn 5:25). So, the Doom painted in the medieval church, or in the Sistine Chapel, is a perpetual reminder of our daily judgement. For every day, in the deliberate acts and moral choices we make, we are making judgements which reveal the truth of who we are; what we truly love in life, and where we’re headed.
Do we listen to Christ’s Word? Do we honour him by obeying his teachings? Ultimately, do we act with love? If we do, then we rise from the deadliness of sin and move towards Jesus. If not, then as the Catechism put it: “By rejecting grace in this life, one already judges oneself [and] receives according to one’s works” (CCC 679). Thus the Crucifixion scene, too, was a daily judgement because it reminded us of Christ’s sacrificial love, and called us as disciples to do likewise every day until, as St John of the Cross says, “in the evening of life we will be judged on love alone”.
At the start of Lent we were told to remember that we would return to dust and ashes, that is, that we will die and be judged. So, today, in mid-Lent, we’re reminded again of judgement; of Christ’s Truth but also of God’s eternal mercy and love. So, if you have sinned, don’t let fear or shame keep you from going to him in Confession. For God’s judgement is always also one of mercy and forgiveness, and his Love raises us from sin’s death to grace’s new life.
Jesus reveals Satan’s tactics to us today. The strategy of demons, that is, of those fallen angels who have permanently rebelled against God, is to divide and conquer. For they know, as Jesus affirms, that “every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste” (Lk 11:17). Hence, the Devil is called in Greek diabolos, which comes from the verb diaballo, meaning to divide, to cause confusion, and so, to lie. So, the demons divide and conquer us by lying, as we saw the Serpent do to Eve and Adam. And by sowing confusion and doubt concerning God’s authority and goodness and wisdom, again, as the Serpent did in Eden.
Only yesterday, we heard how Moses extolled the wisdom and goodness of God revealed in his Law. As such, the Law was a mark of God’s closeness and intimacy to his people, of his loving care for Israel. And yet, as Jeremiah says today, Israel repeatedly doubted the wisdom and goodness of God’s Law, and instead, they “walked in their own counsels… and went backward and not forward” (Jer 7:24). The temptation, then, for each of us to turn from God and distrust him is ever present because the demons are ever watchful to do this, to deceive, to divide us, and so to conquer.
Hence, so many things – a myriad temptations – distract and divide us; our attention is scattered and unfocussed, and our desires are jumbled and confused. As Pope Francis said in Lumen Fidei, “Those who choose not to put their trust in God must hear the din of countless idols crying out: ‘Put your trust in me!’” (§13). Any good thing, any pleasure, any person becomes an idol if it is preferred over God; if we believe that they promise a happiness, a satisfaction, a peace that can, ultimately, only be found in God. As Pope Benedict said to young Catholics in Scotland in 2010: “There are many temptations placed before you every day - drugs, money, sex, pornography, alcohol - which the world tells you will bring you happiness, yet these things are destructive and divisive”. Hence, these temptations divide us, and conquers us, so that the heart is turned away from God, and becomes stubborn and evil, as Jeremiah says (cf. 7:24).
Which is why we need this season of grace, this time of Lent, to recollect ourselves. Or rather, we need Jesus to gather that which is scattered (cf Lk 11:23). So, Pope Benedict said: “There is only one thing which lasts: the love of Jesus Christ personally for each one of you. Search for him, know him and love him, and he will set you free from slavery to the glittering but superficial existence frequently proposed by today’s society”.
During Lent, then, we search for Christ. We want to know him better and love him more, so as to be gathered with him in a pure and undivided, un-scattered, heart. How? The Catechism, citing St Augustine, says: “‘Pure in heart’ refers to those who have attuned their intellects and wills to the demands of God’s holiness, chiefly in three areas: charity; chastity or sexual rectitude; love of truth and orthodoxy of faith. There is a connection between purity of heart, of body, and of faith: The faithful must believe the articles of the Creed “so that by believing they may obey God, by obeying may live well, by living well may purify their hearts, and with pure hearts may understand what they believe.” (CCC 2518).
As those who are preparing for baptism at Easter typically receive the Creed in this week of Lent it is fitting that we, the Baptised, are reminded of this too so that we may be gathered into the unity of Christ and his Mystical Body the Church.
At last night’s Student Mass, we celebrated the first of three Scrutinies for the two women, called the Elect, who will be baptized during this year’s Easter Vigil. On that night, through the simple act of washing with water, they shall receive what Naaman’s healing anticipates: they will be healed from the leprosy of sin, and become newborn children of God.
In preparation for this, the Church calls them to undergo these solemn rites of Scrutiny. But it is not the Church that scrutinizes them, but rather, the Elect themselves search their hearts with the help of the Holy Spirit. As the liturgical books explain, these rites of “self-searching… are meant to uncover, then heal all that is weak, defective, or sinful in the hearts of the elect; to bring out, then strengthen all that is upright, strong and good”. In this way, the Elect bring to light – Christ’s light – the truth of who they are so that God’s grace can heal what is broken, and perfect what is good.
All of us, in fact, can benefit during Lent from this kind of self-searching. Hence, the Church invites us every Lent to scrutinize our lives and examine our consciences; to bring ourselves to stand in Christ’s light. With his help, we scrutinize our lives and and examine “the areas of our lives where we are tempted, or seriously sin”; how we may have rejected God’s grace. For our sins reveal to us what we truly desire, what is wounded in our lives, and thus, what needs healing. Our sins, as such, have a ‘prophetic’ role, we might say, because they speak the truth about who we really are, and what we really want and love as sinners. And this truth, hard though it is to hear, is necessary to uncover and face up to if we’re to be healed by God’s grace.
So, in the Gospel, Jesus speaks the truth, the plain facts, about the people of Israel, and how they had behaved in the past. He uncovers the sins of Israel to the people of Nazareth. But they react so badly to the facts! They just cannot deal with the truth, and so, they refuse to hear it but seek to drive Jesus out and even kill him; they want to kill Truth. Let it not be so with us.
The rites of Scrutiny and the season of Lent thus invite all of us to prepare for Easter by examining our consciences, looking honestly at our sins and our choices in life, and then seeking the courage and grace to change and to grow in virtue. Therefore, let us pray again, as we did last night, “that the Holy Spirit, who searches every heart, may help [us] to overcome [our] weakness through his power”.
I can never listen to this Gospel without squirming in my seat because it is possible for a priest, with his vestments and a friar, with his distinctive and striking habit, to keep company with the vainglorious scribes and Pharisees. Moreover, as Dominican preachers and teachers, it is all too easy for us to fail to practice what we preach! So, today’s Gospel always has a chastening effect for me, and it calls me to integrity of life, to a more authentic conversion to Christ and a purifying of my motives – and I am grateful for this, especially during Lent.
But, just as those with religious authority are warned not to draw attention to themselves but to God, so there is also a challenge for the rest of God’s people to heed God’s teaching. Jesus explicitly says in today’s Gospel that we are to “practice and observe whatever” is taught by those who “sit on Moses’ seat” (cf Mt 23:1-2) because their teaching comes, ultimately, from God who is the one Teacher. God alone is Rabbi and Christ alone is Master, but his teaching comes to us not in abstraction but is given to us concretely through certain people to whom a teaching office is entrusted. In the Church this teaching office is known by its Latin name, Magisterium. Hence, today’s Gospel has a chastening effect on us all, challenging all Catholics to heed the teaching of Christ that is given by the Magisterium. For as Pope Francis said in Lumen Fidei: “the magisterium ensures our contact with the primordial source and thus provides the certainty of attaining to the word of Christ in all its integrity” (§36).
Yet, a couple of months ago The Tablet said in its Editorial that “the willingness of ordinary Catholics to heed the teachings of the Magisterium has been gravely compromised by various scandals”. But why should the sinfulness of men affect the truth of Christ’s teaching in the Magisterium? Surely, it’s precisely because Christ’s teachings are true and binding that people can be said to sin and fail, and some of those sinners, scandalously, happen to be clergy too. Now, none of this excuses them, but neither does the scandal they cause excuse the rest of us from following Christ’s teachings and heeding the Magisterium. Thus Jesus says today: “practice and observe whatever they tell you, but not what they do; for they preach” – and the implication is that they do indeed preach God’s truth and teachings – “but [they] do not practice” (Mt 23:3).
Moreover, while it is true that sinful clergy and hypocritical Christians have long been the largest stumbling block for faith, it is also true that the Church’s authority to teach infallibly in matters of faith and morals is not due to man’s worthiness or the fidelity and integrity of the clergy. Rather, the fact that the Church has a teaching authority and that the sacraments objectively confer grace is fundamentally due to God’s faithfulness to Man. For it is because humankind needs God’s grace and truth; because we need to know Christ’s Word and to be saved by it that he promises to teach us through his Church’s Magisterium. And all of us – clergy and laity – are thus united in discipleship as students of the one Teacher, as servants of Christ our Master; all called to be humble hearers and do-ers of his Word.
Hence, today’s Lenten Gospel calls one and all to a more authentic conversion to Christ. Is he truly our Teacher? If so, let us humble ourselves (cf Mt 23:12) and heed his Church’s infallible Magisterium. But if we prefer to listen instead to other teachers in matters of faith and morals; other authorities like academic theologians, journalists, scientists, the Media, or, our own fallible consciences, then let us recall what Jesus also said. Concerning those to whom he had given his authority, that is, those who exercised his Magisterium, Christ says: “He who hears you hears me, and he who rejects you rejects me” (Lk 10:16).
In medieval images of the Temptation of Christ, the Tempter is often depicted as a monk. But if we look closely, beneath his habit are the clawed feet of the Devil. What is the meaning of this? The artist, I think, wants to express the fact that every temptation appears good and wise, reasonable and just, and therefore, desireable to Mankind. Hence George Bernard Shaw once said: “I never resist temptation, because I have found that things that are bad for me do not tempt me”. This is precisely the point. Only those things that seem good and right and justifiable to us can tempt us. If they did not appear good and attractive we would not even begin to think of choosing them. Hence, the Genesis account we’ve just heard, which has such insight into the psychology of sin and temptation, makes this observation: Eve “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired" (Gen 3:6).
However, as St Thomas says: “the good in view of which one acts is not always a true good [but] sometimes an apparent good”. For we can become so focussed on a particular good, so obsessed with getting what we desire that we lack perspective about the true good. It is as though we have had blinkers put on us so that we do not see the bigger picture. Every sin, therefore, involves a certain myopia because we can only see the transient good immediately in front of us but not the broader vision of the good as God knows it.
Thus every sin also involves a certain forgetfulness of God’s goodness and love. In the Genesis account, it is as though Eve forgets that God has loved her into being from nothing and has given her all that is. Instead, when prompted by the Tempter, she doubts God’s goodness and questions his Word, seeing God as a kind of restriction on her human freedom. But God is the source of all our being including our freedom; he could never be a threat to Man’s good but is, in fact, our highest Good and the Giver of every good gift.
But the tragedy of sin is that we forget this, and so we choose lesser, transient, material goods. Hence, Eve is so overcome by her desire for the good she sees in the fruit of the tree that she reaches out for it in spite of what God had said. In doing so, we’re shown by the Genesis account that every sin, at some level, involves a preference for my own vision of the good over and above God’s vision. Every sinful act, effectively says that we know better than God what is good for us and what makes us truly happy; we’d rather trust ourselves and put our faith in Man’s reasoning, Man’s knowledge than in God and his Word.
And, so, temptation leads us to choose some good, but only a partial good. We’re led to some truth, but only a half-truth. For this is the Tempter’s tactic – temptations come to us under the guise of a monk, and so, they appear wise or good. Hence Soloviev said: “Such temptations are not produced by a simple or direct denial of truth: a naked lie can be attractive, yet is tempting only in hell and not in the world of humanity. Here it is required to cover it with something attractive, to connect it to something true in order to captivate” us.
Therefore, when the Devil appears to Christ, he tempts him by appealing to something attractive, namely, bread to sate his physical hunger. Then, he appeals to something true: Jesus is the Son of God, so why not reveal his true glory to all people, lifted up by God’s angels before all in the Temple? And finally, he appeals to some apparent good, which is that Jesus should be given the whole world. Would it not be good for all peoples to be subject to Christ?
But as we can see, each of these goods are superficial. For as Jesus himself says: “What will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?” (Mt 16:26). Moreover, the Devil tempts Jesus with a way to carry out his mission which would have avoided the Cross. In a similar way, Adam and Eve are tempted to attain divinity, to snatch at it, without the Cross, without having to learn to Love sacrificially. But whereas our first parents were deceived by the Devil, Jesus is not. For despite the attractiveness of the Devil’s temptations, Jesus rejects them because, ultimately, he chooses the true good which comes from God alone. He places his trust in God’s Word, and he remembers God’s unfailing goodness and love. Hence in his reply to the Devil we see Jesus’ faith in God’s goodness, his embrace of God’s wise plan, and his placing of himself at God’s service. Thus, Jesus chooses the Cross because, as St Paul says, it reveals the “power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24).
Therefore, like Eve, Jesus sees that “the tree was to be desired”, but not the tree in the centre of Eden, but the Tree of the Cross on the summit of Calvary; the centre of the world. This is the Tree of Life that Jesus desired: it delighted his eyes and he saw that it was good because from it came salvation for the whole world. From the Cross, God the Father revealed the depths of his love for all humanity in the person of his Son. And from the Cross, humanity is taught to “be like God, knowing good and evil”.
Every Lent sets this lesson before us as we are invited to follow Jesus to Calvary and beyond to the risen life of Easter. But every Lent, and perhaps each day of our lives too, the Tempter also stands before us with half-truths and truncated versions of the good. With God’s grace, may we respond as Jesus does, saying, “Begone, Satan!” (Mt 4:10).
St Peter says: “Now for a little while you may have to suffer many trials” (1 Pt 1:6). Perhaps this is true, but one thing can help us alleviate the suffering, and even avoid life’s trials: money. How often have we said to ourselves: if we had more money we could do this, enjoy that, and avoid such and such a hardship? And this is true: money does provide opportunities and does save us from certain pains, or at least, I’ve lived with the destitute and seen the terrible impact of a lack of money. So, we do need money in this world, and it does buy for us good things. The problem arises when we forget who is the Giver of all good things and our priorities go askew. Hence, we heard in yesterday’s Gospel: “Seek first [God’s] kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be yours as well” (Mt 6:33).
If we look at a US dollar bill or coin, we’ll see these words: “In God we trust”. So, it can remind one that the good things that money buys ultimately come from God; we should trust him even above those good things. But, very often, the God in whom people really trust is the very thing on which this slogan is imprinted: Money itself, or at least, what it buys. Thus the slogan becomes a taunt. Hence Pope Francis has spoken of a “new idolatry of money” in which we “calmly accept its dominion over ourselves and our societies” (Evangelii Gaudium, §55). And the thing about idols is that they are very well-disguised.
The rich young man who comes to Jesus in today’s Gospel did not even recognize the dominion of wealth over him until Jesus exposed it. And Jesus does this because he looked at him and loved him. Thus, by asking him to sell all he had, Christ unmasked the idol that took the place of God in the young man’s life.
We might wonder today, especially as Lent approaches: What are the idols in my life? What are the things that I cannot, indeed, will not, give up for Christ’s sake; for the sake of the Faith; for the living out of the Sermon on the Mount which we’ve been hearing these past Sundays? This coming Ash Wednesday, the Blessed Sacrament will be exposed for several hours in this chapel. I encourage you to come to Our Lord and adore him; look at him. Or rather, let him look at you and love you as he loved the young man in today’s Gospel, so that Jesus will reveal to you what are the hidden idols in your life. What are the gods, truly, in which we trust?
The point isn’t that money or worldly things are bad. Rather, when an earthly good – even another human person – or spending time with friends, or our work, or a desire for money and its security and consolations has displaced God who is the highest Good, then we have begun to trust in idols. Hence, because Jesus looked at the young man and loved him, he invited him to “Come, follow me” (Mk 10:21). This Lent is an opportunity to do this. But do we dare let Jesus look at us, love us, and so, expose our idols that we cling to and trust in so implicitly? Will we, as St Peter suggests, allow ourselves to be tested by the purifying fire of God’s love so that our faith becomes “more precious than gold” (1 Pt 1:7). If we do, then, as Jesus promises the young man, we will have “treasure in heaven”, namely, God himself.
For God alone is our treasure, our worth, our security and Giver of all good things. “In God we trust”: let this slogan become no longer a taunt but true.
Perhaps we can begin by considering what Jesus did not say in today’s Gospel. He does not say: “He who is not against us is with us”. So, there is still a distinction between those who are explicitly following Christ such as the Twelve, and those who are not.
Rather what Jesus says is: “He that is not against us is for us” (Mk 9:40), and that the lone exorcist has been doing “a mighty work in my name” (Mk 9:39). This suggests that God’s grace is not limited to the Twelve, who stand for the Church. Rather God is free to grant his good gifts to all people, whether or not they are explicitly following Christ; whether or not they are Christians, therefore. As we were reminded in last Sunday’s Gospel, our Father in heaven “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Mt 5:45). Hence, the Second Vatican Council could teach that “Divine Providence [does not] deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life” (Lumen Gentium, §16).
So, Jesus says in today’s Gospel that the apostles should not forbid the good that the man is doing in his name. For any goodness and truth comes from God. As we heard in St James’ letter last week: “Every good endowment and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (1:17).
But because there is still a distinction between those who do explicitly follow Christ and those who don’t, it doesn’t follow that the man who does mighty works in Christ’s name should not subsequently become a follower of Jesus Christ. Indeed, if the Church is to encourage all good and truth, and bring forth still more graces, then it needs to lead all men and women of good will to an explicit faith in Christ. Hence Vatican II goes on to say: “Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel” (ibid.).
It is in this light that the Holy Father said in Evangelii Gaudium, that “frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators” (§47). For this was what the apostles wanted to do: forbid the good being done, and thus control God’s grace. We’re not to do this. Rather, Christ’s Church has to facilitate God’s grace, that is to say, make it easier for people to grow in grace and virtue, to find the truth and good that every human heart naturally desires and seeks after. As such, the Church must evangelize, must bring all from merely being “for us” to being “with us” as explicit followers of Jesus Christ, visible members of his Body, the Church. Why? Because united with Christ in the Church we have easier ‘access’, so to speak, to God’s grace; more ready and sure means of growing in knowledge and love of God, and so, of being intimately united to One who alone satisfies the deepest desires of the human heart.
Thus, Pope Francis also said: “It is not the same thing to try to build the world with his Gospel as to try to do so by our own lights. We know well that with Jesus life becomes richer and that with him it is easier to find meaning in everything. This is why we evangelize” (EG, §266).
If we find “an eye for an eye” a rather barbarous approach to personal justice, it shows how influenced we are by Christian ethics both individually and as a society. Because this Levitical injunction (cf Lev 24:20), which is also found in the Code of Hammurabi and in Roman Law, was originally a genuine advance in morality and public justice. It was meant to limit the penalty exacted for wrongs done to the person so that revenge was not limitless. One could not, as certain ancient Chinese codes sometimes allowed, eliminate an entire clan because of a wrong done to one person!
But as Gandhi observed wryly: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”. So, Christ’s teaching goes beyond this reciprocal version of justice with its idea of giving to each person what is his or her due. Once more, Christ’s Sermon on the Mount challenges the wisdom of the world with God’s wisdom, which is characterized by love. For God loves all alike, both the just and the unjust (cf Mt 5:45). This is his Way.
However, it would be a mistake to think that Jesus is therefore telling us in today’s Gospel to be pushovers; that we’re neither to fight nor even to flee but are to passively give in to evil done to us, and even invite it. This appears to be what Jesus is saying: “Do not resist one who is evil”; “let him have your cloak as well” (Mt 5:39f) but, in fact, the examples of evil which Jesus uses are not life-threatening as such. So, Jesus doesn’t seem to me to be saying that we should not defend our life when it is being directly threatened, or that we should not protect the innocent from direct harm.
Nonetheless, Jesus does give us examples of evils which do injure us in some way. More specifically, they injure our very humanity and the dignity that belongs to each human being as a “God’s temple”, as St Paul put it. Because Jesus uses examples of acts which are designed to humiliate one, which treat one as a lesser being, such as when a Roman soldier would force someone to carry something thus making him a beast of burden. But should we then respond to these acts of aggression on our humanity with inhumanity, with violence and hatred? Such, I suppose is the “wisdom of this world”, and the state of our wounded and broken world exemplifies this. But, as St Paul says, such worldly ‘wisdom’ is “folly with God” (1 Cor 3:19). So, what is one to do?
Jesus teaches us a different way: his way, which is thus, God’s way. And, as the Dominican Geoffrey Preston put it so memorably, Jesus Christ is God’s way to be Man. Hence, Jesus teaches us to respond to inhuman actions not with yet more inhumanity but with true humanity; with a humanity that comes from him who is “true Man”.
In the first place, then, Christ teaches that evil is not to be met with evil; violence with still more violence. For to respond to an aggressive action with an identically mirrored reaction is to lock the human situation of animosity into a hopeless impasse. But this is not mere passivity. Rather, evil is to be met with an active freedom: with courage and virtue and the good. So, Christ urges us to stand our ground so that we are not made into victims or inferiors. On the contrary, we rise above the bullies and show them the deep injustice and inhumanity of what they’re doing. We surprise our aggressors with compassion, forgiveness, selflessness, and ultimately, love. In this way, the Christian action aims to reveal the truth of the injustice being done, and to shame the aggressor into a change of heart so that he can also find his true humanity.
This, of course, is what Jesus does on the Cross. For the Cross reveals who we are as sinners. There, the Innocent One is condemned and violently executed – an icon of Man’s inhumanity to Man. Indeed, as Rowan Williams says: “The only fully human person is seen as the enemy of humanity… [Jesus carries] the cost of our ingrained revolt against who we really are” – the cost of sin which always dehumanizes us. For when we sin, when we retaliate and react with evil and aggression, we are being less-than-human. Hence, God’s response is to call us back to our true self; to call us from sin and its inhumanity to the true humanity shown in Jesus Christ. Here, then, is the wisdom of God, and Jesus wants to restore his Spirit of divine love to our hearts so that we can be as fully human and free to love as he is; to love even in the face of evil done to us.
But how is this possible? Perhaps a few striking examples may help.
Today we hear that Jesus appointed his apostles, and they are “to be with him, and to be sent out to preach and have authority to cast out demons” (Mk 3:14). These words are so apt on the feast day of today’s saint, who was a successor of the apostles as Bishop of Geneva from 1602-22. Like the first apostles, St Francis de Sales did these three things mentioned by St Mark.
Firstly, the apostle is called to be with Christ. That is, he is called to be close to Jesus Christ, to know him and love him. St Francis called this being with Christ the ‘devout life’, and he was adamant that it was not just apostles, bishops and priests, monks, friars and nuns who were called to this, but every Christian. For, he says: “truly it is a blessed thing to love on earth as we hope to love in Heaven, and to begin that friendship here which is to endure for ever there”.
His most famous work, The Introduction to the Devout Life was thus a well-loved guide for all people in whatever walk of life who wanted to grow in friendship with God. If there is only one spiritual book you would read, I will recommend this, and it is freely available online. Through his attractive and sensible writing, St Francis helped countless Christians to live a devout life that is “adapted to the strength, life-situation and duties of each individual”. Truly, this Doctor of the Church has helped so many Christians to “be with Jesus”.
What happens in the devout life, as we spend time with Christ in prayer, by treasuring the word of God, and through receiving the sacraments, is that we know we’re loved by God. This is what being with Christ does: it roots us in his love for you and me. So, St Francis said: “Prayer is opening our understanding to God’s brightness and light, and exposing our will to the warmth of his love”. At the heart of all prayer and devotion is the Mass. As St Francis says: “Prayer united to this divine Sacrifice has a power beyond words… therefore, do your best to attend Holy Mass every day”. But, at the same time, he adds with great understanding that if we really cannot go to Mass because of “some unavoidable reason [then] at least take your heart there so that you attend by a spiritual presence”.
Having been rooted in Christ’s love, the apostle is then sent out as a witness to preach this love which he has experienced and known. So, St Francis was a great writer and preacher of the Gospel, and his words were renown for being so gentle, humble, and kind that he was called ‘The Gentleman Saint’ even by the Calvinist Protestants of Geneva who opposed him. Thus St Francis said: “we gain nothing by being rough in our dealings”… so, “I am firmly determined to change, by my gentleness, the attitude of those who insult me. I shall try to meet them that very day in order to greet them in a friendly way. In case I do not come across them, I will at least speak well of them and pray to God for them”. In this gentlemanly way, St Francis de Sales won over many people, and successfully preached Christ’s Gospel with love and courtesy.
Which bring us to the third task of the apostle. The work of the demons are to bring about division, anger, dissension, and error. St Francis, then, strived to expel the demons by counteracting their work with truth and love. Hence, St Francis said: “In your speech be gentle, free, sincere, straight forward, simple and truthful”. Moreover, he said that “Humility makes us perfect towards God and gentleness towards our neighbour”, for “humility drives away Satan”, while gentleness attracts others to God. And these twin virtues, I think, sum up the life and example of St Francis de Sales, who is one of my favourite saints.
May he pray for us all, that we, too, may live the devout life, and be faithful witnesses to the world of Christ’s love and truth.