Let me present you with a line of argument that I have heard
repeatedly during the 40+ years of my life as a priest. It goes
“Whatever happened to sin? How come we don’t hear
about it anymore? If you ask me, that’s what’s wrong
with our society today. No one knows the difference between right
and wrong. And you never, never hear about mortal sin. It disappeared
from the face of the earth. We need to know what’s right
and what’s wrong. When I was a kid we knew what was right
and what was wrong. The kids don’t know that today. All
they hear about and all we hear about is love, love, love, and
people go ahead and do anything they want. It’s too vague.
Make it black and white again. I think the reason for all this
confusion is that we are afraid to make demands on people.”
The above gathers in a nutshell all the negativity and frustration
that accompanied the shift in moral teaching over the past forty
years or so. It has some elements of truth. People do seem to
have lost clarity over what is right and what is wrong. We are
certainly doing things we were never supposed to do when I was
growing up. And yes, indeed – the primacy of love has overshadowed
the reliance on fear we were subjected to in the past. But that’s
the way it is with love and fear. They tend to exclude one another.
But like love and hate they can exist simultaneously in the same
person at the same time. We had too much fear in the past. It
tended to make us focus on ourselves to determine what was a sin
and what wasn’t and in the process became very much afraid
of what God would do to us in the event of sinning mortally. We
tended to avoid the communal nature of sin. Love is communal.
Fear makes us withdraw into ourselves, takes away our trust and
confidence and makes us obey. Primarily it controls our behavior,
but it freezes our hearts.
Jesus aimed at the heart?he always aimed at the heart. Sometimes
he ignored obvious poor behavior in order to aim at the heart
(the prostitutes and the tax collectors). This is exactly the
opposite of what the Pharisees taught because they insisted upon
strict observance of the law. Jesus showed them over and over
again the limitations of this approach. One can observe the law
and miss the point. The point is conversion of heart. Now, this
is the exact criticism leveled at the church several generations
ago. Too much obedience, too much fear, too much emphasis upon
personal sin. Love is communal, so sins against love are also
communal. This spreads out the blame and the guilt and it also
spreads out the responsibility. So we emphasize the social sins
– against justice, family values, the role of women, equal
opportunity, the environment, the arms race, world peace, etc.
While we emphasize these we should also insist upon the values
of the older virtues as well, such as self discipline, self control,
religious observance, sexual restraint, etc. But with the loss
of the primacy these things once had, has also come the sense
that they are no longer important. As time goes on we hope these
things will again emerge to help to control our behavior and assist
the primacy of love.
But what has all this to do with today’s gospel? Just
this. A life based on the primacy of love is far more rigorous
and demanding than any way of life based on the strict observance
of law. A man could be faithful to his wife (sexually) and yet
unable or unwilling to love her. A parent could raise her children
to be good and obedient but be unable or unwilling to embrace
them, love them, and show the tender affection they so badly need.
Admittedly, while it is extremely rare in a life that love and
upright living are mutually exclusive it is not so rare that emphasis
on one can be at the cost of the other. This is the way it was
among the Pharisees in the time of Jesus.
So today’s Gospel shows us just how much it can cost us
to lead a life of loving devotion to Jesus, just how much commitment
and suffering it can elicit from us. First, in order to follow
him, Jesus says, you must hate your family. This sounds outrageous
and confusing. How are we to understand it? We must remember that
in Jesus’ time family was everything in the Mediterranean
World. Everything you did reflected on your family and brought
them either honor or shame – everything! Your life was not
your own like it is with us today. To leave your family to join
another group was almost suicidal. So it took a real push to leave
your family and join another group. The actual word might be better
translated as “prefer” rather than “hate”.
But to choose this preference in the days of Jesus was tantamount
to “hate” because of its stigma and dishonor. So following
Jesus involved a big risk and a big loss.
Secondly, following Jesus meant sharing his cross, or the likelihood
of real persecution. We know that many lives were lost this way
as one persecution after another swept through the various regions
of the empire. In our day, try to show the true signs of love
across the lines of color and watch the evil unfold before you.
Persecution and personal sacrifice are second nature to a committed
Christian. Expect it!! This was the point Jesus was trying to
make in the Gospel. There can be no list of legal canons or rules
or sins that embody all the demands of a life of love, but Jesus
insisted on it. And the corresponding resolve to live this way
could very well exact from us today the supreme sacrifices it
did in his day.