Sunday, February 24, 2019

Choosing Your Tree

7th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Picture: cc Muhammad Ali

My dear friends, are you familiar with the saying, the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree? You know what it means, right? It’s typically used when someone’s behaviour is seen to be similar to that of his or her parents. So, for example, I may have a friend who talks very loudly. And, one day, I happen to meet her mother, and discover that she talks very loudly too. Then I may say, the apple hasn’t fallen too far from the tree. Of course, I could also say, like father like son, or, like mother like daughter. But the apple falling from the tree paints a more vivid image, right? Although, of course, in this part of the world, we should be imagining durians instead of apples.

I mention this, because it may help us to deepen our reflection on what Jesus says in the gospel today. The Lord begins by telling us to adopt certain specific behaviours: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you… be compassionate… do not judge… These behaviours are by no means easy to perform. Which is probably why, the Lord goes on to give us a reason, a motivation, to obey: You will have a great reward, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked… In other words, by being kind and compassionate even to our enemies, we prove that we are truly sons and daughters of God. We show to the world that the apple has indeed not fallen too far from the tree.

But what does the tree look like? What does it mean to be kind and compassionate in this way? Does it mean that I simply give in to everyone who abuses me? If a husband continually beats up his wife. Or if an employer mistreats her domestic helper. Or if a teacher acts inappropriately towards her student, or a priest towards his parishioner. Is Jesus saying that the wife and the maid, the student and the parishioner should all just keep quiet and endure it? No.

Consider, for example, what we find in the first reading. Out of jealousy and insecurity, King Saul sets out with a small army to capture and to kill young David. Notice how David responds. On the one hand, he evades capture. And, after snatching the king’s spear, he carefully maintains a safe distance from his pursuers. Yet, on the other hand, he also resolutely refuses to kill the king, even when given the opportunity to do so. In this way, David shows that he is indeed a son of the God described in the psalm. The Lord who is compassion and love, slow to anger and rich in mercy.

And that’s not all. For us Christians, our primary example of gospel kindness and compassion is found not so so much in David, as in the life of Christ himself. Jesus is the one who shows us what it means to love our enemies. For he died for us while we were still sinners, while we were God’s enemies (cf. Rom 5:8). And yet, even though Jesus humbly submitted himself to a cruel death on the Cross, even though he became like a meek and silent lamb that is led to the slaughter, what we also find in the gospels is that the Lord was put to death precisely because he resisted and spoke out courageously against injustice and hypocrisy.

It is by resisting injustice, and accepting the consequences, it is by loving sinners, and dying for them, that Jesus becomes the last Adam mentioned in the second reading. In contrast to the first Adam, who received life from God, and so became a living soul, Jesus, by his Death and Resurrection, becomes a life-giving spirit. A tree that bears much fruit. Able not just to live, but also to give life to others. To help us, you and me, to become adopted sons and daughters of God.

All of which may help us to answer another crucial question that our readings present to us today. Not just what compassion looks like, but how to be compassionate. For even if I know what I need to do to love my enemies in a given situation, isn’t it true that I still often find it very difficult to put that knowledge into practice? Much as I may want to be kind and compassionate, I may find myself paralysed by hurt and anger and resentment. How then to follow the Lord’s instructions, so as to become a child of God? How to cultivate the tree of compassion, in order to bear the fruit of adoption?

Well, if it is true that Jesus has become a life-giving spirit, then isn’t it by continually pondering his life, by consistently allowing his attitudes and actions to influence and to shape my own, that I am eventually able to receive the life that he offers me? Isn’t this why I join the rest of the community here at Mass, to recall and to celebrate Christ’s loving sacrifice for us on the Cross? Isn’t this also why, at the start of Mass, we asked almighty God, that, always pondering spiritual things, we may carry out in both word and deed that which is pleasing to you? And what could be more spiritual, more worth pondering, than the Life, Death, & Resurrection of the Lord?

My dear friends, it is actually quite natural to expect fruit to fall close by the tree that bears it. The crucially important question to ask is what kind of tree are we cultivating, what kind of fruit are we bearing in our lives today?

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