24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: Ecclesiasticus 27:33-28:9; Psalm 102:1-4,9-12; Romans 14:7-9; Matthew 18:21-35
Picture: cc czarcats
Sisters and brothers, do you know your own cholesterol levels? To be honest, I don’t know mine. But I do realize that I’ve reached the age when it’s becoming necessary not only to have my cholesterol checked, but also to monitor it regularly. We all know why this is important. If we’re not careful, cholesterol can build up in our arteries. And, over time, if left unchecked, these deposits can clog up the blood vessels, blocking the flow of blood, and causing such dangerous conditions as strokes and heart attacks. Yes, cholesterol can be very dangerous.
Which is why it is important not just to monitor its buildup in our own bodies, but also to pay attention to how much of it is contained in the food we eat. This is, of course, much easier said than done. And not only because it often seems as though all the tastiest dishes are laden with the stuff. I’m thinking of char kway teow, oyster omelette, and laksa... Delicacies like that. What makes it even more difficult to watch our diet is the fact that the food experts often can’t seem to make up their minds over what exactly we should and should not eat. For example, some say we should stay away from eggs. Others say it’s OK. Some advocate a high protein, low (or even zero) carbohydrate diet. Others the reverse. Some argue for vegetarianism. Others go even further, insisting that being vegan is the way to go. In the midst of the resulting confusion, the sensible advice given in the cover article of a recent issue of Time magazine feels like a breath of fresh air: No one pretends that achieving and maintaining an ideal weight is an easy thing to do, but the list of rules to get you there is nonetheless simple: Eat in moderation; choose foods that look like they did when they came out of the ground... be an omnivore... and get some exercise. Notice that the advice is not to cut out all cholesterol. But to eat in moderation. For example, one egg with the yolk per day is considered OK for most people. All things in moderation. Avoid extremes. The key is balance.
Balance and moderation as a way to cope with the buildup of cholesterol in our arteries. That seems to be helpful advice for healthy living. But what does it have to do with our Mass readings today? Well, for one thing, our consideration of the effects of cholesterol accumulating dangerously in our bodies can help us to reconcile what looks like a blatant contradiction in the our readings. On the one hand, our responsorial psalm tells us that the Lord is compassion and love, slow to anger and rich in mercy.... As far as the east is from the west so far does he remove our sins. And yet, on the other hand, both the first reading and the gospel appear to suggest that there is a definite limit to God’s mercy. It seems like God is willing to pardon us only if we are ready to pardon others. In the first reading, we’re told that he who exacts vengeance will experience the vengeance of the Lord who keeps strict account of sin. And, in the gospel parable, although the master initially cancels the wicked servant’s immense debt, he eventually changes his mind. He orders the poor wretch to be handed over to the torturers till he has paid back every last cent. All because the fool refused to show mercy to his fellow servant. God’s mercy appears limited.
But how accurate, we may wonder, is this view of God? Does God really stop forgiving us just because we refuse to forgive others? Doesn’t Jesus tell us, in another part of the gospel (Mt 5:45), that ours is a God who makes his sun to rise and his rain to fall on both good and bad alike? Why then does God appear to restrict the flow of his mercy only to those who are merciful to others? Could it be that the problem doesn’t really lie with the flow of God’s mercy, which we believe is constant and unceasing? Could it be that the difficulty lies rather with those who refuse to forgive? Those unwilling to show mercy are really choosing to feed themselves on a diet of resentment and anger. And resentment and anger operate very much like cholesterol-laden junk food. When allowed to build up, they clog the arteries of our spiritual life, blocking the flow of God’s loving mercy and compassion. Left unchecked, a staple diet of resentment and anger can lead to conditions like a hardening of the arteries and shortness of breath, to strokes and even cardiac arrest.
But what then are we to eat? Should we go to the extreme of repressing our anger at all costs? Many of those who have tried it will tell us that this doesn’t make for a healthy diet either. Simply refusing to acknowledge the anger that naturally arises when a wrong is done to us doesn’t help the difficult emotions to go away. The anger just gets bottled up and buried deeper within us. It accumulates. Bubbling to the surface at unexpected moments, and in often surprising ways. Sometimes it even explodes in the faces of innocent bystanders. At other times, it causes us to oppress those around us in subtle, passive-aggressive, ways that remain hidden even from ourselves. At yet other times, the anger gets turned inwards, and we suffer from depression.
And that’s not all. Another important reason why we shouldn’t just turn away from our anger is because, in itself, anger can also be a very useful emotion. It can move us to address the evils and injustices that continue in our world today. When we hear of naive young village girls being tricked into the flesh trade, for example, should we not get angry? And should we not allow our anger to drive us to do something? Even when we ourselves may not be directly affected? After all, as our second reading reminds us, the life and death of each of us has its influence on others.
It is also clear that showing mercy to others doesn’t mean that we simply close our eyes to the evil that they do. As Pope Benedict XVI reminds us in his second book on Jesus of Nazareth: That which is wrong, the reality of evil, cannot simply be ignored; it cannot just be left to stand. It must be dealt with; it must be overcome. Only this counts as true mercy (p. 133). What we Christians need to bear in mind, however, is that our responses to evil must always be modeled on the response of Christ, who rejected the road of violence and vengeance, choosing instead the Way of the Cross. To address evil and injustice, we may need to tap into our anger. But we should not allow ourselves to feast on it, such that it hardens our arteries and arrests our hearts. The advice of the nutritionists is helpful here in the spiritual life as well. In all situations, balance and moderation are key.
And isn’t this advice something that we need to bear in mind especially on this 10th Anniversary of that terrible day when the Twin Towers fell in New York? It is hardly deniable that terrorism is a vicious evil that needs to be addressed. And yet, isn’t it true that, as an international community, we have still to find a way to deal with it effectively, without allowing our arteries to harden and our hearts to stop beating? And what is true of terrorism is true too of the other things in our world that make us justifiably angry.
Sisters and brothers, how do you plan to check your cholesterol levels today?