Thursday, February 20, 2020

7th Sunday Year A (Mt 5:38-48) Love your enemies?

British soldiers, Northern Ireland
During what was known as ‘The Troubles’ in northern Ireland, that time of guerilla warfare when the north was riddled with tit-for-tat killings—British soldiers being shot, Catholics and Protestants being shot—I was amazed every so often at the bravery of parents who were interviewed after one of their children had been shot. Sometimes in those very interviews the parents would say ‘We want no revenge, no retaliation. We forgive the people who murdered our son/daughter.’ I think those statements shocked people more than the murders themselves. Much of the time people were ambushed and shot dead simply because they were Catholic or Protestant, which gives you an idea of the kind of evil at work behind such actions. I think anyone would understand if these parents sought revenge, and yet quite a number did the opposite. It was a very inspiring and hope-filling thing to hear.

We have heard it several times here in the States too. Remember the young man who entered a prayer gathering in Charleston North Carolina in 2015 and shot almost everyone there. The following day their families came out and publicly said they forgave that young man. Extraordinary courage and strength. There is great goodness in most people.

When Catholic churches were burnt to the ground, often Protestants would donate money to help rebuild them, but you don’t hear those things on the news. There is great goodness in most people.

Today we are presented with what is probably the most difficult commandment that Jesus gave: ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ So far, I have never met anyone who wants to do this! Did Jesus really expect us to take that literally? Maybe it was just a figurative way of speaking? Jesus meant exactly what he said. Remember his own words when he was dying on the cross, a death that was considered so brutal that the Emperor Constantine eventually had it banned: ‘Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.’ The Lord does expect us to try and live this commandment, but how we are to do it is the key thing. Essentially it comes down to God’s power and strength at work within us, but that will only happen if we remain close to God. Our relationship with God is what gives us super-human strength, the kind of strength you need to love your enemies. That is also why Jesus gave us the Eucharist, so that we can be intimately united to him every day if we wish. That is where we get our strength from. We continually read the Scriptures so that we are being formed in God’s way of thinking and not just a worldly way of thinking. 

Another aspect of this is to try and see people as people, rather than Mexicans, or Irish, Christians, or Muslims. If we see them as human beings before anything else, that changes things.

A few years ago I was watching a documentary about a Kurdish women’s group of fighters in Northern Syria. At this stage there are over 20,000 of them. They have been fighting largely against Islamic State. The journalist interviewing them asked one woman who had been fighting for two years, what it was like to fight these people who were trying to kill them and their families and I was astonished at one thing she said: ‘We have to remember that they are people too.’ She was big enough, mature enough, to be able to see beyond Muslim Extremists. She could see human beings, even if those human beings had a very evil twist on reality.

Think of all the commercials, radio and TV programs and newspapers, that we read and hear each day. We spend a lot of time feeding our mind with the values and thinking of the world around us. But the ways of God are not the ways of the world. They are quite different. Our culture tells us that we should sue people and seek revenge if we feel we have been slighted. There are so many commercials on TV encouraging us to sue people. That’s not what God tells us to do. Jesus says, ‘If you only love those who love you, then what reward can you expect. Everyone does that?’ But our faith calls us to go farther, to see the enemy as people before anything else. That can help us to be tolerant. It doesn’t mean that we can’t protect ourselves, or defend ourselves, but it helps us not to succumb to evil ourselves. Otherwise we are no different to our enemies. That’s exactly what Jesus puts to us in this Gospel. We are called to be different by the way we live and think. When we try and live this way, then we stand out because we are different. Then we are the salt of the earth and the yeast that makes the dough rise. We are small but we can have a big difference on the world around us, just like those parents who publicly said they forgave the people who killed their children. I am sure it was their faith that enabled them to do that, because that takes more than human strength. But our ability to do that, comes from our relationship with God. The more it grows, the more we immerse ourselves in God, the more we see the world differently.

A priest friend of mine from Iraq, was shot dead by Islamic extremists. I have to remind myself that they are not monsters, even if what they did was monstrous. They are human beings, whose minds have been corrupted. If I can see them that way first, then it prevents me from being filled with hatred myself, which only destroys me.

I want to finish with a short part of a very famous speech given by Martin Luther King Jr which reflects this:

To our bitterest opponents we say: We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. We shall meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will, we shall continue to love you… Throw us in jail, we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half-dead and we shall still love you. One day we will win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process. (Martin Luther King, Strength to Love)

‘Love your enemies.  Pray for those who persecute you.’

Friday, February 14, 2020

6th Sunday Year A (Mt 5:17-37) If your virtue goes no deeper than that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven

Several years ago I heard a woman giving her testimony of how God had healed her from terrible abuse she had suffered from her father, from an early age. She said that her family knew nothing but abuse, incest, pornography. She was even sold to other men by her father and yet they went to mass every Sunday as a family. To outsiders, they looked like a perfectly normal family. Obviously the practicing of their faith didn’t mean an awful lot.

 Here’s another example: A man I met in a hospital in Ireland told me angrily that it was alright for the Archbishop of Armagh (the head of the Church in Ireland), to pray for priests who had done wrong and to spend the whole day praying for them if he wanted, but that he shouldn’t expect him or anyone else to have to pray for them. In fact how dare he even suggest that anyone else should have to pray for such people.

If your virtue goes no deeper than that of the Scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.’  In modern English we would say, ‘If your faith is only outward signs, like going to mass, and saying religious things, you will never go to heaven.’ You will never get to heaven! That seems pretty strong coming from a God whom we say loves us so much. God takes us seriously, but He expects us to take him seriously as well. In fact He insists that we do.

This man I mentioned was obviously very angry and felt let down by priests who had done wrong. I don’t blame him for feeling angry, but the point is that he seemed to think that he could quite happily go on practicing his faith, on the outside, so long as he didn’t have to do anything like forgiving, or praying for others who have done wrong, the very things that our faith is all about. This is exactly what Jesus is talking about and it applies to every one of us, priests, Religious, all of us. The Lord is saying, ‘Go deeper than what you can just see. Live from your heart. Pray from the heart. Let your outward practice of faith, like praying at mass and doing novenas etc., be an outward sign of what is already happening on the inside.’ 

Jesus also says something quite shocking. ‘If your hand, or your eye, causes you to sin, cut it off... pluck it out! It is better to enter heaven missing one of your limbs, than to go to hell with all your limbs. What is He talking about? He is talking about the seriousness of sin. Today we have lost a sense of the seriousness of sin. Sin is the one thing that can prevent us from going to heaven when we die. If we do not repent of what we have done wrong, we may not enter heaven. If sin is not serious, then Jesus dying on the cross was meaningless. If sin is not serious, then the mass means nothing, because the mass, which is a re-presentation of the sacrifice of Jesus, is all about the forgiveness of sins. That means that sin is very serious.

Many of us have even lost an understanding of what sin is. You would be amazed at how many people come to confession and tell me they have no sins, or hardly any sins, even after several years. If you were to come before God for judgement right now, you would see something different. Does that mean we should be afraid? No, but we should be careful, because our actions have eternal consequences. The first words of the first reading say, ‘If you choose, you can keep the Commandments; they will save you.’ If you choose. All day every day, we are being given choices for good or for evil and we must choose. ‘Before man are life and death, good and evil. Whichever he chooses, he will have.’

Anything that offends God, is sin and we sin all the time. Sin is not just the big things, committing adultery, abortion, murder, stealing; it is also the everyday things that we do without even thinking about. We judge people: I mean we judge their heart. We see someone do something wrong, even minor things and we condemn them in our mind. That offends God. We speak badly of people—gossip—and that offends God. We lie and think it doesn’t matter and yet that is one of the commandments: ‘You shall not bear false witness.’ We get jealous, we lust, we refuse to forgive, we harbor bitterness and resentment, we use sharp words with people we have never even met. We neglect the people around us who need our help. We think that we are only obliged to look after our families. If God gave you enough money to be comfortable, be thankful, but don’t forget you have an obligation to use it properly, not just for yourself and the same goes for me.

Recently I read of several cases where people were given an illumination of conscience, that is, they were shown how they would be judged at that moment if they had died. More and more people seem to be experiencing it. The testimonies of those who have experienced it are quite shocking. Many of them are well educated professionals, doctors, lawyers and many others. They were shown everything they did in their whole life that offends God. Many of them were shown that if they had died at that time, they would have gone to hell, because they had pushed God so far away by the way they lived and in our world many of them would not be considered particularly sinful. Why did God grant them this shocking illumination of conscience? to help them to change, because He loves us and doesn’t want any of us to be lost. Their lives changed drastically after this experience. They are written about in a book called The Warning, by Christine Watkins. I would highly recommend it.

Maybe the language of being ‘lost’ and being ‘saved’ seems archaic, but it is what Jesus taught. It is real and the Lord constantly warns us to be careful of how we live. Our actions have eternal consequences.

To help us even more, God has given us the beautiful gift of confession, so that our souls can be made like new and we can be healed. This is an amazing gift, but so few people take advantage of it. ‘I don’t need to go. I can tell God I’m sorry myself.’ Who told you that? It wasn’t God and that is pride, because you are saying that you know better than the teachings of Jesus, who gave us this gift. ‘You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church. Whoever’s sins you forgive, they are forgiven. Whoever’s sins you retain are retained’ (Matt 16:18-19). We need to repent of what we have done wrong and the Lord warns us of this, many times.

Before man are life and death, good and evil. Whichever he chooses, he will have.’ (Sir 15:18)

Thursday, February 6, 2020

5th Sunday Year A (Gospel: Matthew 5:13-16) Let your light shine

Every so often the Lord raises up men and women who live their faith in an exceptional way. It usually seems to be at a time when people really need to be inspired and often when the Church is in crisis. At the end of the 13th century God called a man called Francesco, or Francis, to live in a radically different way. He was from a town called Assisi in Italy. Francis was from a wealthy family, but he felt that God was calling him to leave everything and follow him and so he did. To the horror of his father who strongly objected, Francis renounced everything and in front of everyone he stripped off all his clothes and any belongings he had and went off to live on his own as a poor man, living only for God. Soon afterwards while he was praying alone in a broken down church he felt God speaking to him from the cross and saying, ‘Francis, rebuild my Church, which as you can see is falling down.’ So Francis started to collect stones and reconstruct that building.  However, God had a much bigger project in mind. God was talking about the whole Church. Around the same time pope Innocent III had a dream of a poor man holding up the Church which was collapsing. It was a sign of the role that Francis was going to play. 

Not long after Francis began to live in radical poverty others began to see the kind of simple way of life that he was living and one by one they began to join him. They spent their time looking after the sick, the lepers, praying together, preaching the Gospel and most importantly… inspiring people by the way they lived. Eventually when they had been living this way for a while Francis went to Rome to get permission for this new group to officially become a Religious Order. When some of the bishops were discussing this with the pope, one of them said, ‘It is not possible to live in this kind of extreme way,’ but one of the others pointed out that if it wasn’t possible to live that way, then it wasn’t possible to live the Gospel, since all he was doing was literally living the Gospel.

Today, over 800 years later, people are still inspired by St. Francis of Assisi, because we still need to be inspired. There have been others like him too, a modern-day example being Mother Teresa of Calcutta, now St. Teresa of Calcutta. What is especially important about these people is not so much the work they do, as the effect that has on others. They usually become renowned all over the world, because they inspire. They preach about God by the way they live more than by anything they could say. St. Francis of Assisi had the lovely saying, ‘Let us go and preach the Gospel and if necessary, use words.’

The Missionaries of Charity in India at least, spend a lot of their time bringing people in off the street who are dying. They clean them up as best they can and allow them to die with dignity. Most of these people would be Hindu or Muslim, but they don’t try to convert them. That is not what they are called to. They are called to bring the love of God wherever they find themselves, among the poorest of the poor. In fact they really say more about their faith in God by what they do than by anything they could say. There is a story of one man they found who was in a particularly bad way. It took them several hours to clean him up and then he said to them:
All my life I have lived like an animal in the street, but I am going to die like an angel, loved and cared for.’ Mother Teresa went on to say: ‘It was so wonderful to see the greatness of a man who could speak like that, who could die like that, without blaming anybody, without cursing anybody, without comparing anything. Like an angel - that is the greatness of our people.’

In the first reading today we are called to look out for those around us who are in need and there are always plenty around us in need, often hidden. Some time back I was talking to a man in Sarasota who is homeless. He told me that he had served in the military, he had also done time in prison and now he was homeless. He also said: ‘You know, doing time in prison is one thing, but trying to survive on the streets of Sarasota is quite another.’ It’s not what you would expect. While helping the poor materially is really important, respecting the dignity of each person is just as important. The way we look after people and treat people is how we tell the world what we believe in. It is not even about giving great amounts; it is about giving what we can with great love and treating those around us with great respect, whether we like them or not and regardless of what they believe in.  That is how we tell others about God.

In this Gospel Jesus says, ‘You are the light of the world… the salt of the earth.’ When we live by the teachings of Jesus, we give hope to the people around us, because we show them that they are not forgotten. We become a light in the middle of a world of selfishness, which tells us only to take care of ourselves. Think of how tiny grains of salt are and yet they can bring out the flavor of a meal. They affect their surroundings. We affect our surroundings, for better or worse. Is your focus only for yourself and your family? If it is, you are not living the Gospel. That doesn’t mean we have to give away everything we have, but the Lord is telling us that we must also remember those around us who are in need. When we have enough, God is giving us the opportunity to share with others and if we don’t, we will be asked why we ignored them, because we are accountable for our actions and for using all that God has given us.
You may argue, ‘I worked hard for my money.’ I’m sure you did, but who gave you the intelligence, the opportunities, the health, the success?

Last week I was talking to a good friend of mine, who is quite wealthy. He was telling me that he had given away a large amount of money to a particular university. He said he couldn’t get over how much joy it gave him to do that. Not many people are in a position to do that, but that’s not the point. The point is that all of us can do a certain amount and we have an obligation to do so.

I’d like to finish with this prayer which you have probably heard before.


From a sign on the wall of Shishu Bhavan, the children’s home in Calcutta.

People are unreasonable, illogical and self-centered.
Love them anyway.
If you do good people will accuse you of selfish ulterior motives.
Do good anyway.
If you are successful you win false friends and true enemies.
Succeed anyway.
The good you do will be forgotten tomorrow.
Do good anyway.
Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable.
Be honest and frank anyway.
What you spent years building, may be destroyed overnight.
Build anyway.
People really need help, but may attack you if you help them.
Help people anyway.
Give the world the best you have and you’ll get kicked in the teeth.
Give the world the best you've got anyway.
You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God;
It was never between you and them anyway.

(from the book, ‘A Simple Path’)

Your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds
and glorify your heavenly Father.