There is the true story of Tony whom I know very well. He shared his story with me in front of his wife who confirmed that it is true, he said, “Father, I used to smoke like a chimney and drink like a fish. My wife would testify that I smoked two packets of cigarettes every day, and almost every night when I went out with my friends, I could finish a big bottle of brandy on my own; and when I drank beer, I would easily drink a dozen or so of them. I continued to live this way for many years . . . I was so taken up by this lifestyle that I was even not afraid to die. Nobody could stop me and I was sure I wanted to live in this way.
One day, my ten year old son came up to me while I was in my sitting room and asked me, ‘Daddy, do you love me?” I hugged him and said, “Of course I love you my son”; there was a pause. “Do you want to see me graduate? I hugged him more tightly and said, “Of course I would want to see you graduate. Why do you ask?” There was a pause, and then he said, “Daddy, if you go on smoking and drinking like this, you will not see me graduate.” Tony said, “Those words of my young son shocked me . . . they pierced my heart so deeply that from that very day I give up smoking and drinking . . . and up till today, about 25 years later, I have not touched a single cigarette or sipped a taste of brandy. God saved my life through my son, who spoke the truth to me.”
My brothers and sisters in Christ, God too wants you and I to speak the truth to each other so that God can save our lives through each of us. Jesus in today’s Gospel says, “If your brother does something wrong, go and have it out with him alone . . . and if he does not listen take one or two others with you . . . and if he still does not listen, then report to the community . . .” Tony’s son did precisely that and it brought conversion to his addiction to smoking and drinking. But, all of this could happen only because Tony loved his son; his son also loved him, and as such God was able to work through his son.
The formula for conversion that we can reflect on today is that if we want to be used by God to convert someone, then like Tony’s son, we must love the person we want to convert. And, like Tony, if we want God to convert our hearts, then we ourselves must be open to God’s Love for us.
While these Gospel values and principle seem clear, it is not always easy to put them into practice. This is because as all of us are sinners, and it is never easy to know very clearly whether our motives of correcting someone are pure or are out of our own “self-righteous” views of others!
However, on the other extreme, if we become over careful with not wanting to be “self-righteous” in correcting others, we may end up being cowards. We all know that it is certainly easier to sweep under the carpet the wrongdoings of someone than to point out the wrongs of the person.
It is so easy to tell ourselves that so and so, is old enough and knows what he is doing . . . it is “none of my business,” and if he gets caught cheating his wife or if he can live with being a hypocrite then let God judge Him; “Who am I to judge him? . . . after all I am a sinner myself.
Likewise, it is also easier for us to preach homilies that simply affirm how good everyone is for coming for Masses Sundays after Sundays . . . and for the donations you give during the offertory collection, or for sending your children to catechism and the like. All these affirmation are important and also because they are true; However, if we as preachers do not challenge and do not point out how we are sinners and how we can so easily fall into the temptations of the secular world of self-centredness, glory and pride, and the like, then we are not truly proclaiming in Persona Christi; we are not truly fulfilling our vocation of being God’s prophetic voice to a community of believers who realistically, can easily forget God as soon as we step out of this sacred place of worship.
If we are to think and live along these lines, we are actually living a spirituality that is not only individualistic, but also superficial. If we find ourselves living our faith in such a very narrow manner as though what matters is solely between God and me, then we are not talking about and living the Gospel that Jesus proclaimed in today’s Gospel.
We all remember well the story of Cain, the son of Adam and Eve. When God asked him where is Able your brother, Cain answered, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” (Gen.4:9). Prophet Ezekiel in today’s first reading asserts, “If you do not speak to warn the wicked man to renounce his ways, then he shall die for his sin, but I will hold you responsible for his death . . . But, if you do warn a wicked man to renounce his ways and repent, . . . then you would have saved your life.” (Eze. 33:8-9).
Unfortunately, there is another reality that is more common than we think. It is relevant that we mention it here even though briefly. Instead of reaching out to someone who is doing wrong, and be God’s instrument of conversion, like Tony’s son, it is very common for us to end up talking about the wrongdoings of others behind the backs – we call this the sin of gossip, backbiting or slander.
Fr Neil Guillemette, one Jesuit writer says, “gossip and slander is easier than frank confrontation. Yet, to make known someone’s sin is itself a sin. Even if what we report is in strict conformity with the truth, it is still sinful to make it known, even to a single other individual – unless very special circumstances would warrant it. That is why Jesus, in today’s Gospel, is challenging us to persuade wrongdoers to turn from their ways, as this will bring more unity and peace in a community than through gossips, backbiting and slanders.
As I draw our reflection to a conclusion, let us return to the basic difficult and discerning question of “How do we know when to challenge someone who is doing wrong, and not be self-righteous in our challenge?” Or, “How do we avoid sweeping every wrong doings we see under the carpet, through all kinds of false reasoning like, ‘it is not our business’, when actually we are living a superficial and narrow spirituality of focusing on my own salvation” .
One of our Jesuit spirituality gurus, Fr Michael Ivens, S.J. once said, “Before we challenge somebody who is doing wrong, we first need to search our hearts and ask ourselves, ‘Do I sincerely and truly love the person I am about to challenge? If my answer is “yes,” then go ahead and challenge, and take the risk of being rejected – that is the price we may have to accept for living the Gospel. But, if we cannot be totally sincere, that we truly love the person, then it is better not to challenge.” This is because in all probability, we may be prejudiced or self-righteous.
Let me conclude by reminding ourselves that while the Good News of Christ offers Salvation, do we really want to face the ugly truth of our wrong doings, the sins that we harbour in our hearts and the good we fail to do? Do we also have the humility to hear the Good News that challenges us to conversion as it did to Tony through his ten year old son?
If we want to face our true self and have such a humility, then we will surely experience God to be very personal in our daily living. We will experience our life to be more discerning and less superficial; we will also find a joy in our hearts that comes from having God as our true strength, hope and security in life. Do we want these graces that God wants to give to you and to me? If we do, then we will each become God’s instrument to convert each other and grow in holiness as individuals and as a parish family.
Msgr Philip Heng,S.J.
visitors since 8 September 2014