Sunday, 17 July 2011

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Today should be dedicated as a “Don’t be judgemental” Sunday. This suggestion is premised on the idea of a God who is a merciful judge. We hear it in the first reading where God’s justice is juxtaposed with His leniency. What is more, the Gospel portrays a field where wheat and weed can grow side by side. In the light these two readings, what does it mean that one should not be judgemental?

If you take a moment to reflect on this, judging is not on trial here. We judge all the time. To say, “Do not judge”, is almost like saying, “Do not breathe”. It is inevitable that we adjudicate as long as we are breathing. If you were late, you would need to ascertain whether it was safe or not before you dash across Jalan Gasing in order to catch the first reading. At the petrol station, whilst filling up your tank, you decide if one of your car’s tyres has enough air. In the kitchen you check that your roast in the oven is already brown. And the appraising, evaluating and concluding goes on.

We automatically use our judgement because it is a faculty necessary for life to function. That being the case, then how we judge and the criteria we use to judge are on trial. Hence, “Do not be judgemental” refers to how and by what criteria we have arrived at our judgements.

How are we to use our faculty of judgement? In particular, how do we deal with the reality of sinners and sins?

Firstly, the Gospel provides a useful glimpse of how the early Church was guided by Her Lord in dealing with the reality of imperfection. The Pharisees believed in a kingdom meant for saints. In such a utopian ideal, sinners were supposed to be weeded out. But, in telling the parable of the wheat and weed, it became clear that up and until the time of judgement, the Church—the Kingdom in pilgrimage—would be made up of both saints and sinners. The Church should be big enough to embrace sinners.

Secondly, how we are to judge is helped by how Christ personally dealt with sinners. Remember the scene in John’s Gospel with Christ, the woman caught in adultery and the very “righteous” crowd. The crowd was insistent that the law should be applied because it was a clear-cut case—anyone caught in adultery should be stoned to death. Christ did not prohibit judging when He applied the rule that the sinless be the first to cast the stone. It was not a case of “Don’t be judgemental”. Instead, He proceeded to separate the sinner from the sin. He forgave her whilst commanding her to sin no more. When we say that God’s mercy is just, we mean that His mercy extends to the sinner whilst His judgement is against the sin. [1]

The distinction between the sinner and sin is crucial to how we are to judge. Without separating the two, what follows would be the attempt to weed out the sinner and not just the sin. We would like to think that we have progressed culturally, economically, politically and socially but the fact remains that many of us are unable to make this distinction. An example would be the recent beatification of John Paul II, when the enlightened and civilised world was aghast at the presence of Robert Mugabe, the President of Zimbabwe. How could the Holy See allow this man, considered to be evil, to be present? It would seem that the Church has condoned the evil that Mugabe had committed. [2] Enlightened though we may be, things have not changed since the time of our Lord. The Scribes and the Pharisees were aghast at how Jesus could mingle with tax-collectors, prostitutes and sinners.

In the light of a momentous event to come this Monday; a meeting with implications for the Church in Malaysia, we need to make a distinction between the sinner and his sins because God’s grace works in mysterious ways. By saying that God’s grace is mysterious, it is not absolving the sinner of his responsibilities. Instead, it affirms that God’s mercy cannot be constrained by our limited sense of justice. But, if you think further, our inability or refusal to make this distinction actually points to our systematic despair. [3] We do not believe enough in God’s grace. We dare not trust God. When we fear to trust God, then we would need to forge a better world. In fact, we would need to force the world to conform to our image and likeness. [4] So, in our failure to belief, we begin to demand a world that is “either or”, forgetting that the world of grace is “both and”. Therefore, we want a Church which is made of either saints or not at all, forgetting that the Church is made up of both saints and sinners. The parable of the yeast reveals how good that can come despite evil. Yeast is a corrupting agent and yet it is able to make the dough rise. So, Christ draws the analogy that even evil can be subverted by God to be a catalyst for the good.

So, what will the headlines of our newspaper be on Tuesday? Will we be horrified, scandalised, and disgusted by front-page picture which will juxtapose what we consider to be good and evil? How will we judge in such a situation? The parable of the wheat and weed comes at an opportune Sunday to remind us, not so much as, not to judge but to make a distinction between the sinner and his sins and also to reassure us that what may seem like evil subverting the good for its own advancement may also be in the light of grace, God subverting evil in order to further His kingdom. For God’s mysterious grace to work, we need to trust Him and we need so much more prayers.
[1] Instead of focusing on the issue of sin, often we end up criticising the sinner. Therefore, it is not the fact that one has sinned that is problematic. The “how” is problematic in the sense that one may have point but how that point has been made would determine the “sinner’s” openness to change. A good example is trying to point out the fault of a server but in a moment of anger, the priest might blurt out “You stupid ah”. No lesson is learnt here. Instead, the server might be canonised in his fault to repeat it.
[2] In fact, both the sinner and his sins are fused in a way in which we see no difference between them. Our condemnation of a heinous crime often corresponds to our severe condemnation of the sinner. Thus, the punishment for crime must correspond in exactly an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
[3] It is not helped because our personality-driven world is littered by the failures of our fallen icons. It is close to systematic failure because almost every one of our traditional icons for leadership—religious, political, social and cultural have been found wanting—priests, religious, politicians, industrialists. All have been found to betray our trusts. In a climate where all hopes are dashed, it is no wonder our hearts are hardened and we no longer can see between a sinner and his sins.
[4] A good example of this “force” is found in spousal relationships. When husband and wife dare not trust God, then they will want to force a solution to the problems that they have as a couple. In fact, much of our counselling relates to this lack of trust expressed as both desiring to “make” the relationship better.