When Harry Chapin’s song ‘Cats in the Cradle’ came out it gave many a father a guilt trip. The song is about a father who was so busy he never had time for his son. But when he got older and the roles were reversed, he discovered that his son grew up to be like him, for now the son never had time to visit him.
One day a certain man hurriedly headed out of the door for work. In his path was a three-year-old son playing with blocks. The man patted the boy on the head, stepped over him, opened the door, and went outside and halfway down the walk a guilt bomb exploded within him.
“What am I doing?” he thought to himself. “I am ignoring my son. I never play with him. He’ll be old before I know it.” In the background of his thoughts, he heard the pounding rhythms of “Cats in the Cradle” ballad. He returned to the house and sat down with his son and began to build blocks. After two minutes, the boy said, “Daddy, why are you mad with me?”
It’s not only what we do that counts but from where we do it. Our actions come from different places inside us. These different places affect the quality and effectiveness of what we do. We may think the inside is of little consequence as we push into the outer world, but it can change the impact of our actions. “Steeling ourselves with a steel heart” and doing something is not the same as “opening ourselves” and doing the same thing. Playing blocks out of guilt is not the same as playing blocks out of love, and the difference is quickly spotted, even by three-year-olds – especially by three-year-olds. Doing something because it is expected and doing something from the heart are two different experiences. Perhaps that is why Jesus, in Matthew is Gospel, insist that we forgive our brothers and sisters from our heart.
As the Gospel puts it, the greatest commandment is love of God and neighbour. But it’s never meant to be a commandment out of a sense of duty, or guilt or even baser motives. Love can only come from a spontaneous and generous heart with no conditions attached. Today’s reading from Exodus sets the bar very high with Moses’ insistence to treat the stranger, orphan and widow with the highest respect. But how can this be done? The first principle was to remember from where they had come. They must remember that they were once strangers in a foreign land. When they were the least of all nations God said to Moses, “I have witnessed the affliction of my people, I know what they are suffering, therefore I have come to rescue them.” The point of remembering the suffering of the past, was not to take revenge or get even, but to practice with others the same compassion that God had shown them in the first place. Reflecting on how they were blessed was the best medicine to open their hearts to others in a similar plight.
In the Gospel a lawyer asks the most basic question of all. “Which commandment is the greatest?” Whether sincere or conniving, he was asking the core question of every human life: “what’s it all about?” or “what does God expect from humanity?” We all know the answer but the striking thing about Jesus’ response is that he links directly love of God with love of neighbour. You cannot love one without the other. As 1 John 4:20 says, “Anyone who says ‘I love God’ and hates his brother, is a liar, since whoever does not love the brother whom he can see cannot love God whom he has not seen.”
Altogether, Jesus calls for a four-directional love: love of God, self, those who are close to us, and those whose purpose and way of life seems entirely different or even antagonistic to ours. In reality this boils down to two directions: love of the familiar and love of what is not like us. Love of the familiar comes naturally. This love affirms us and makes us comfortable — mostly! But Jesus calls us to go further, and learn to love those who think and act differently. This is far more uncomfortable — and risky. You only have to think of the parable of the Good Samaritan. And yet, it is neglect of this kind of love, both down through the centuries and today — especially today — that has led this world to the crisis it is now facing.
Pope Francis leans heavily on this kind of love in his recent encyclical ‘Fratelli Tutti” (Brothers and Sisters All). The only antidote to all the hate, fragmentation, division, racial segregation, selfishness, factionalism, fake news etc. is an open heart that reaches out to all and sundry, no matter who they are or where they come from. Unless we do this we will continue to live in a world lurching from one crisis to another. (FT 31).
Faced with our current predicament the Pope says, ‘Some people attempt to flee from reality, taking refuge in their own little world; others react to it with destructive violence’ (FT 199). Instead the Pope offers another option, namely, dialogue. “Dialogue between generations; dialogue among our people, for we are that people; readiness to give and receive, while remaining open to the truth. A country flourishes when constructive dialogue occurs between its many rich cultural components: popular culture, university culture, youth culture, artistic culture, technological culture, economic culture, family culture and media culture”.
In paragraph 70 he makes clear that going forward there are ‘only two kinds of people: those who care for someone who is hurting and those who pass by; those who bend down to help and those who look the other way and hurry off. Here, all our distinctions, labels and masks fall away: it is the moment of truth. Will we bend down to touch and heal the wounds of others? Will we bend down and help another to get up? This is today’s challenge, and we should not be afraid to face it. In moments of crisis, decisions become urgent.”
Sunday, 25th October 2020