11th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Picture: cc Thomas Autumn
My dear friends, here’s an old riddle that some of you may have heard before. A father and his son meet with a tragic car accident, in which the father is killed instantly. And the son is rushed to hospital for emergency surgery. But, on seeing the boy, the surgeon immediately exclaims, I can’t operate on this patient, he’s my son! How could this be, my dear friends? Can you explain?
I have to confess that when I first heard the riddle, many years ago, I had some difficulty providing an answer. How could the boy be the surgeon’s son, if the boy’s father had already been killed in the accident? This was, of course, back in the days before gay marriage. So it never entered my mind that the boy could have two adoptive fathers. But that’s not the intended answer. I’m sure some of you have already guessed what it is. It’s really quite simple. The surgeon is not the boy’s father. But his mother!
My difficulty in answering this simple riddle helped to uncover something that had previously been hidden from me. My own gender bias. My unspoken assumption that a surgeon can only be a man. Not a woman. I say the assumption was hidden from me because, if you had asked me back then, whether or not I believed that a woman could be a surgeon, I would probably have told you, without the slightest hesitation, Yes, of course! Why not?! Which just goes to show that there can be quite a gap between what I say I believe, and what I actually believe. A gap that’s filled by hidden assumptions.
And these assumptions can be all the more dangerous precisely because they are hidden. Especially from me. Imagine, for example, that I am a surgeon who secretly believes that my job can only be done by a man. How do you think this will affect the way I relate with my female colleagues? Isn’t it likely that I would treat them with condescension? Or even with contempt? And without me even realising it?
The uncovering of hidden assumptions. This is also what we see happening in our Mass readings today. We all know the story of King David, told in the first reading. We know how he lusts after Bathsheba, his general Uriah’s wife. How he commits adultery with her. And then how, to cover up his sin, the King arranges to have her husband murdered in battle. Lust, and adultery, and murder. These are serious sins. And yet, the King seems blissfully unaware of his own wrongdoing. Until he is confronted by the prophet Nathan.
We see something similar in the gospel. Here what is uncovered is the Pharisee’s lack of hospitality. His failure to do for Jesus what was expected of any good host at that time. His forgetting to provide water to wash the Lord’s feet. Oil to anoint his head. And a kiss to welcome him. Although surely not as serious as David’s sins, the Pharisee too seems totally unaware of his own failings. Until Jesus uncovers them.
But sins are not the only things that are being uncovered. There is something deeper. We discover what this is by asking ourselves the question why. Why does David feel no guilt for his sins? And why does the Pharisee not realise his failures of hospitality?
The Scriptures do not tell us exactly. But it’s likely that both the king and the Pharisee are unaware of their faults because they have a hidden assumption of what sin looks like. Of what it means to sin. Very likely, for both of them, to sin is to break the rules. And, since David is the King, the one who makes the rules, then he is free to do what he likes. The rules don’t really apply to him. Or so he thinks. So, not having broken any rules, he can’t have sinned. And the Pharisee hasn’t actually broken any commandments of the Law either. He has only failed to show hospitality to a controversial wandering rabbi. No broken rules. So no sin.
And yet, in both the first reading and the gospel, this hidden assumption that sin has to do only with the breaking of rules is uncovered and shown to be terribly wrong. Notice how God uncovers David’s sins to him in the first reading. God begins, not by listing the rules that have been broken. But by reminding David of all that God has done for him. I anointed you king over Israel… delivered you from the hands of Saul… gave you the House of Israel and of Judah… and if this were not enough, I would add as much again for you. God reminds David how incredibly generous God has been to him. Why then has David returned God’s kindness not with gratitude but with contempt?
What does all this tell us, sisters and brothers, if not that sin is less about the breaking of rules than it is about the rupture of relationship? The betrayal of a friend. The disappointment of Someone who has given us everything that we have and are. Someone who wants nothing more than to see us eternally happy. By helping us to gratefully return friendship for friendship. Love for love.
We see something similar in the gospel. Here, the Pharisee is clearly thinking of sin as a breaking of the rules. Isn’t this why he frowns upon Jesus for allowing the woman with a bad reputation to touch him? It was a breach of the rules. But Jesus responds by talking to the Pharisee not about broken rules, but about healed relationship. Why does the woman show great love? It must be because she realises how kind and merciful God has been to her. How much she has been forgiven. How closely she has been drawn back to God.
The Pharisee, on the other hand, does not love as much, because he thinks he has no sin. Since he has broken no commandments. So he needs no forgiveness. What he fails to realise is that his very ability to keep the commandments is itself a gift from God. For, as Jesus points out in his parable, both servants owed their master debts that neither of them could pay. The Pharisee shows little love, because he forgets how much he has received from God. He forgets what we ourselves said in our opening prayer earlier: that without God our mortal frailty can do nothing. We cannot keep the Law.
So that although he may not have broken the rules, the Pharisee doesn’t really know God. Is it any wonder that he is unwilling to make space in his heart for others? That he refuses to show mercy to the woman? That he neglects to extend hospitality to the Lord?
The hidden assumption that sin has to do only with the breaking of rules. And that righteousness has to do only with their keeping. This is what our readings help us to uncover. And not only to uncover it, but also to see how wrong it is. For, as the second reading tells us, our belief is that faith in Christ rather than fidelity to the Law is what justifies us. We are saved not so much by how well we keep the rules, but by how close we draw to Jesus. How well we remember all that God has done for us through him, and with him, and in him. All the things that we are invited to call to mind, whenever we gather to celebrate Mass.
And what a precious blessing it is for God to uncover this terrible hidden assumption of mine. For unless it is uncovered, I too will keep living the life a Pharisee. Thinking that I am righteous simply because I think I’m able to keep the rules. And looking down on others, because they may not. Complaining, for example, about how people act at Mass. Rather than doing whatever I can to make them feel more welcome.
My dear sisters and brothers, as individuals and as a parish, what hidden assumptions might God be helping to uncover for us? So as to set us free from our sinfulness today?