by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“Your light must shine before people, so that they will see the good things you do and praise your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5: 13-16
As I reflected on this Sunday’s gospel-reading, I was prompted to ask myself just how often I stop to assess myself on how I live out my commitment to be a follower of Jesus. There was a time in my life when living as a Catholic meant saying prayers that I had learned by rote and going to Mass every Sunday. That was about it! Then, when I joined the Christian Brothers, I quickly learned that survival meant compliance with every direction promulgated by the Novice Director, even when my head told me that some of those directions were ludicrous. I and my peers learned the necessity of conforming with all the “Thou shalts” and all the “Thou shalt nots”. I came to see Religious practice as something of a burden that somehow was meant to be pleasing to a God I was expected to obey. I have no doubt that the commercial and professional worlds trained neophytes with equally stringent rules and practices. While such practices may have toughened those to whom they were prescribed, they did little to promote healthy emotional growth or to contribute growth into independence, freedom and a willingness to take initiative.
Every profession, be it in the sphere of law, medicine, architecture, teaching or religious life and practice, invites those who choose to undertake it to engage in a formation process. As Sr. Evelyn Woodward explained in her wonderful book Poets, Prophets and Pragmatists (Ave Maria Press, Indiana, 1987): “Formation is assisted growth into life.” That growth has to be into life, not stagnation, not dependence, not conformity. Complementing what Sr Evelyn said is the joint statement of the late Archbishop Philip Wilson and the late Br Michael Hill fms that: “A code of conduct formulated for any profession aims to breathe freedom and energy into practitioners of that particular profession as they interact with the people who come to them seeking to benefit from their expertise. A code of conduct is not intended to restrict or stifle the conduct of those professionals to whom it applies. Rather, it is a set of behavioural standards to ensure that professionals themselves preserve their own dignity and respect the human dignity of all to whom they relate in the exercise of their profession.” (Foreword, Integrity in Ministry, National Committee for Professional Standards, p. iv, 2004)
Through our baptism, we Christians profess our commitment to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, giving witness to his teaching set out in the Gospels and designed to promote the life, dignity and freedom of all humanity. That is our profession as card-carrying Christians. Before commenting on the significance of today’s gospel-reading for our lives, I want to refer to several aspects of it that are worthy of note. The first is that all of the Sermon on the Mount was addressed to the whole audience that had gathered to listen to Jesus. Matthew noted that at the very end of the long discourse, stating that there was clear crowd approval of what Jesus had said, and explaining why: “Jesus finished this discourse and left the crowd spellbound at his teaching. The reason was that he taught with authority, not like their scribes.” (Matthew 7: 28-29)
Secondly, before proceeding to extend and challenge his audience, Jesus alluded to the fact that, despite their best intentions, all people can lose their enthusiasm when it comes to reaching out to others, and just slip into mediocrity. He did that through the metaphors of salt losing its taste and light losing its brilliance. He then went on to make the point that the gifts everyone has are for the benefit of others and for giving glory to the God from whom those gifts have come in the first place. Isn’t it true that there have been times in our lives when we have lapsed into thinking that our good works have been about accruing “heavenly brownie points” for ourselves?
In the Sundays ahead we will hear two more extracts from this long discourse. Throughout it, Jesus repeatedly reminded his audience of what was taught to them by Moses, Isaiah and the other prophets but then he urged them on with challenges to something more – to reconciliation whenever relationships broke down, to a firm resolution to dismiss intentions of seeking retribution whenever injustice was meted out to them, to forgive enemies and even reach out to them in love, to treat everyone with respect and dignity for all are beloved of God. The agenda for all who accepted Jesus’ message then and are open to it now was and is to be agents of building and maintaining the reign or kingdom of God.
We count ourselves as followers of Jesus and activists in building and proclaiming the reign of God. That surely means that we cannot remain silent when we come face to face with injustice, with anything that undermines the reign of God. What then is our attitude and response to people in power who oppose the admission of refugees seeking security, food and accommodation? To those who insist on capital punishment for people who commit violent crimes? To those who make fortunes at the expense of those who are destitute? To those who insist on the rights of individuals to purchase and use lethal weapons? To those who cannot bring themselves to respect the dignity and freedom of their sisters and brothers from different ethnic origins? Silence in situations like this is surely a betrayal of the faith we proclaim.
In the discourse we call the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus delivered a message that was designed to revolutionise the society in which he had grown to maturity. If we listen closely to that discourse, our only authentic option will be to allow ourselves to be galvanised into becoming agents of justice, peace, reconciliation, compassion and forgiveness. If we fail to do that, our faith in Jesus Christ will become bland and ineffective, inspiring and encouraging nobody. The light of the faith we claim to hold up will flicker and die.
There is a place for regular prayer and worship in our lives, a place for gathering as parish communities in prayer and praise of the God who has invited us to be kingdom builders, but our prayer and worship must be matched with authentic, kingdom-building action. If we dare to embrace what Jesus proclaimed to all who would be his followers, we might well be shaken to the core, but our living will be full of zest and enlightenment.