“In a shaken sieve the rubbish is left behind, so too, the defects of a person appear in his/her talk…Never praise others until you hear them talk; that’s the real test.” Sirach 27, 4-7
“Each of us speaks from our heart’s abundance…” Luke 6, 39-45
My reflection on today’s readings led me to a conclusion which is very obvious and not particularly profound: The best homilies I have ever heard are people! If I want to experience a good homily, the best thing I can do is to go around with my eyes and ears wide open, attentive to the extraordinarily good things that very ordinary people say and do.
So, there’s very little about Jesus’ words in today’s gospel that has a churchy or religious ring about it. Very simply, what he says boils down to a very uncomplicated message: “If you want to be taken seriously, cut out being hypocritical; stop finding fault with others as you go about masking your own, and judging others is not only unfair, it helps you to delude yourself.” This is a very appropriate segue into Lent, which starts with Ash Wednesday later this coming week. We do that with a story from Pastor, Bill Bausch:
A small cruise ship, caught up in a very violent storm, lost power, drifted onto rocks and quickly sank. Only two men survived the disaster. They clung to floating debris and were washed up on a deserted island. By the time they had completed a quick survey of the island, they realized from the barrenness of the place that there was no running water. They sat down, discussed their situation and decided that the worst thing they could do would be to panic. So, they drew up a simple plan of action: First, they agreed that they would pray for God’s help. Then they decided that they would each take responsibility for a much closer survey of the island, and took half the island each. Moreover, they reasoned that such a tactic doubled their chances of seeing a passing ship searching for them. But they would have to live apart on opposite sides of the island. As they separated, they promised one another that they would keep up their prayers.
The first man prayed for food. The very next morning, he came across a tree laden with fruit, and ate to his satisfaction. He did not alert his companion to his good fortune, who stayed on his barren side of the island. Then the first man started to feel lonely, so the next night he prayed for a wife. A few days later there was another storm and an even smaller boat was wrecked. The next morning the sole survivor, a woman, struggled ashore on the first man’s side of the island. Still, the second man had had no luck with anything. He kept waiting patiently for a ship to come into sight. And he kept praying. He had spent his time building a huge pile of dried wood which he intended to burn to attract the attention of any ship that came into view. Meanwhile, the first man and his companion set about praying for more food and for clothes to protect them from the sun. A couple of days later, a crate was washed up on their side of the island, and it contained plenty of food and clothing. The second man still had nothing. Finally, the first man prayed really hard for rescue to arrive. Three days later he awoke to see a ship anchored close by. He woke his companion and they headed out to the ship. As he climbed on board, his thoughts turned to the other man. Then he told himself that there was no point is going back for him. After all, since none of his prayers had been answered, he was clearly not worthy of God’s blessings. But as the ship was about to leave, the first man heard a booming voice from the heavens: “What about your friend on the other side of the island? Why are you abandoning him?”
“My blessings are mine”, replied the first man, “since I’m the one who prayed for them. Besides, all his prayers were clearly unanswered. He doesn’t deserve anything!”
“You are very mistaken”, the voice rebuked, “his prayer was answered. Indeed, he had only one prayer, and it was that all your prayers would be answered.”
That story fits in neatly with the stories collected in today’s gospel. It’s the kind of story Jesus would tell, then look at his audience quizzically and walk away, leaving them to reflect on how they might have judged others, hastily and wrongly.
A few years ago, a prominent English newspaper conducted a survey of its readers on their concerns for the future of the United Kingdom. This was well before Brexit was even on their radar. While there were lots of comments about the faltering economy, shrinking employment opportunities, terrorist threats, race riots and the pressure on the public health system, there were lots of surprising comments on the decline of morality, the disappearance of common decency, the collapse of values and the moral bankruptcy of many in public office. There was lament on the shift of focus from the common good to self-interest, from “us” to “me”, as one respondent expressed it. I suspect that a quick look at many of the so-called “developed” counties of our world would reveal that honesty, integrity, owning responsibility for one’s actions, compassion for refugees, respect for others, and speaking truthfully are becoming casualties very rapidly. Still, there is a ray of hope here and there to catch us by surprise. Those rays of hope are the people who turn out to be the best homilies. They nourish us until the next pleasant surprise appears.
I read recently on a website called, Chicken Soup for the Soul the story of an eleven-year-old, Rosalie Elliot, who was participating in a national spelling-bee in Washington. Rosalie was a softly spoken competitor from Florida and was asked to spell the word “avowal”. The judges were unable to hear whether she had spelt the last vowel as an “a” or an “e”. The judges replayed the tape several times but could still not decide what Rosalie had said. Finally, the chief judge put the question to Rosalie herself: Was the letter an “a” or an “e”? Unhesitatingly, Rosalie answered that she had misspelled the word, as she had used an “e”. She walked from the stage to a standing ovation. Centuries before Sophocles had said: “Rather fail by honour than succeed by fraud.” Jesus echoed that in today’s gospel.
We reveal who we are by what we say and do consistently. We can all say and do the wrong thing occasionally. We don’t need anyone else to tell us that. It’s the consistency of our word and action that truly reveals our integrity or its lack. In today’s first reading, the writer of Book of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) probably described us very accurately when he pointed out that what we say shows us to the world as confused, honest, devious or shallow. As George McCauley wrote in a book entitled The Unfinished Image (Sadlier, N.Y. 1983): “There is a thread that leads from our speech to our secret selves. There are many windings and detours along the way. But one iron law remains in effect: it’s easier to see into a person who has his mouth open. Sirach got it right centuries before Jesus, and so, too, did Jesus in today’s gospel: ‘The mouth speaks what the heart is full of…’” (Luke 6, 45).
We leave the last word to the letter of James (not one of today’s readings) where we are given yet another perspective: “You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue—it has never been done. The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer. With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women made in God’s image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth!” (James 3, 7-10)