“Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate…Give, and there will be gifts for you…because the amount you measure is the amount you will be given back.” Luke 6, 27-38
The parents and teachers among us will all know the experience of teaching children to share. They will remember times when there was only one apple pie or one cream bun for two children to share. Their technique was to ask one child use a knife to divide the pie or bun into two and to invite the other child to have first pick. On rare occasions, one child might have said to the other: “You can have it all!” When we teach children about sharing, we are really giving them lessons about equity and unselfishness. Yet, a close look at today’s gospel reveals that Jesus is teaching everyone who would be his disciples to be prepared to say to others, even enemies: “You can have it all!”
To find an entry point into this gospel reading, I invite you to do your best to put to one side all the things you’ve ever learned about Jesus and all the images you have of him and your beliefs about him. Then, see if you can imagine yourself in the group gathered around him. Luke calls them “disciples”. Jesus would be dressed like all the other men in the group sitting down in front of him. And he would have the swarthy, bearded look of the Arab or Palestinian males we see these days on the streets of Jordan or Jerusalem and in airport terminals in the Middle East. If you are a woman in the group, you would be wearing a long, loose-fitting gown and have a head-scarf or khimar to protect you from the sun. And each of the men among you would have a keffiyeh on his head and be wearing a long flowing garment like a kaftan, maybe with a rope belt around the waist. And then you hear Jesus say something that leaves you totally stunned. And when you dare to look around, you see others shaking their heads in disbelief. Perhaps you’re thinking to yourself something like: “He’s got to be joking!” And you hear a murmur of incomprehension spread through the gathering. Maybe someone voices an objection or a protest. Some people in the group drift away, shaking their heads. Jesus has just said something that seemingly shocks to the core everyone who heard it. And you, too, are wondering if he has lost the plot. “After all, he’s asking us to do the impossible. I can cope with reaching out to family, friends and neighbours. But, who does he think he is, asking us to love Samaritans, and that crook at the market who sold me a donkey that turned out to be lame in the fetlock?” When the restlessness dissipated and Jesus finished talking, a deathly silence fell over the group. They were stunned into silence.
Now, let’s fast forward to today. Have you ever been courageous enough, after reading something in the Gospels, to say to yourself or to your local priest: “I can’t accept that. It’s codswallop!” Yet that would probably be more honest than giving notional assent and then sanitizing Jesus’ demands to stop them from unsettling you. If we were asked to give ourselves a mark for our Christianity, we might give ourselves a distinction on all the “I believes” listed in the Creed we recite at Mass. But I wonder what grade we would give ourselves for the way in which we live the Gospel with meaning and purpose? Many of us, I suspect, would fare much better on right belief than we would on right living. We could not even imagine ourselves ever denying the theological concept of the Trinity, but please don’t ask us when was the last time we prayed for the tradesman who swindled us or the neighbour who screamed obscenities at us.
Now, please don’t get me wrong. Right belief is something to be pursued, but lots of rules and regulations in the Catholic Church have been promoted as truth whereas they have been little more than directions to ensure that we all conformed to what some authorities dictated. As a consequence, the measure of authentic discipleship sometimes slipped into belief in and adherence to promulgated Church doctrines. Comforted by our conviction that we were holding onto right belief, we continued to name those who were clearly enemies of our Church and, rather than pray for them or seek to be reconciled with them, we even prayed that they would be obliterated in one fell swoop. We found comfort in our own little enclaves, supported those who belonged to our Church, harboured prejudices about refugees and foreigners, gave atheists and agnostics a wide berth and labelled those we feared as fundamentalists, extremists and terrorists. Engaging with them as fellow human beings, forgiving them, and praying for them did not fit into our agenda. We can look back in horror at the period we now call the Inquisition when those identified by Church authorities as witches or heretics were hunted down and executed by burning or hanging. Right belief was the measure of belonging. Tolerance and forgiveness of unbelievers were non-existent, so why waste time praying for them? This kind of persecution of those who “did not belong” led Oscar Wilde to reflect:
"He who would be free," says a fine thinker, "must not conform." And authority, by bribing people to conform, produces a very gross kind of overfed barbarism amongst us. With authority, punishment will pass away. This will be a great gain - a gain, in fact, of incalculable value. As one reads history, not in the expurgated editions written for schoolboys and passmen, but in the original authorities of each time, one is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted; and a community is infinitely more brutalised by the habitual employment of punishment than it is by the occasional occurrence of crime. (Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, 1891)
If we are really serious about calling ourselves disciples of Jesus, then we might have to begin by measuring the way we live by what Jesus proclaimed rather than by what we recite in the Creed at Mass each weekend. Would I have the courage to proclaim:
I commit to:
Really loving those I know are my enemies and doing good to those who hate me;
Blessing those who curse me and praying for those who treat me badly;
Turning the other cheek to anyone who slaps me;
Offering my shirt, as well, to anyone who steals my coat;
Lending to those in need without expecting repayment;
Giving to every beggar who asks me for something;
Refusing to judge anyone, no matter what others say about him or her;
Being merciful and compassionate in imitation of the God who loves me unconditionally?
A well-regarded American writer and educationist, Kent Keith, put all this another way when he wrote:
People are illogical, unreasonable, and self-centred. Love them anyway.
If you do good, people will accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Do good anyway.
If you are successful, you will win false friends and true enemies. Succeed anyway.
The good you do today will be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.
Honesty and frankness make you vulnerable. Be honest and frank anyway.
The biggest men and women with the biggest ideas can be shot down by the smallest men and women with the smallest minds. Think big anyway.
People favour underdogs but follow only top dogs. Fight for underdogs anyway.
What you spend years building may be destroyed overnight. Build anyway.
People really need help but may attack you if you do help them. Help people anyway.