The challenge for every Christian is to care about every single other person the way God cares for them, without considering their race, their religion, their background, or anything else that makes them seem different or even disturbing to us. God could have wafted into our world like an angel without really being human, but he chose to become like us; and his Baptism is the first moment in the adult life of Jesus when he does this. How easily he could have thought, “I am God’s son” or just “I am a holy Prophet. I am close to God in a special way. I don’t need Baptism like these ordinary people.” But he didn’t! And he goes on to accept the mockery and violence of others without turning against them. For he says, does he not? “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Each of us is free to choose to act in this way. It can be hard to be kind and loving when people annoy us or anger us or even attack us, but that is the ideal, the target, we should always aim for. Freedom does not mean just doing what we want to. It means choosing freely to do those things and to act in those ways that serve the highest good, what we call the “Sovereign Good”, the good that is the will of God for his world. This is a high calling, this idea of always aiming for a target, and it is at the heart of what “sin” means. For “sin” does not necessarily mean that something is bad or wicked. No, “sin” actually means missing the target, falling short of the ideal. And it is only because the world uses the word “sin” simply to mean something bad, that I am going to avoid using it during these homilies on morality.
Another mistake we make is to confuse our feelings, what I feel is right and good, with what actually is right and good. Our feelings, like our conscience, can be good or bad, or rather muddled between the two. That is why the old saying taught me by my mother “Look before you leap” is so important. Some of you know how impetuous I can sometimes be, saying or doing things without thinking of the consequences. I guess we are all like that, especially when we allow our feelings to run away with us; but some of us are worse than others! That’s why our conscience, in Catholic teaching, should not be seen as an automatic pilot connected to our feelings, but much more something in our hearts and minds that is a judgement of reason rather than simply an emotion.
So if we are to treat every person properly, our conscience has to be informed. We have to work at it. This is why prayer is so important. We confessors often suggest that people pray for those that they have difficulty getting on with. But by that we do not mean pray that they will change to suit us. We mean : pray that we will see the situation the way God sees it, and rise above our feelings to something higher and better. As St Paul says in his Letter to the Phillipians (4:8) “Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think on these things.”
We live in a world where people talk about justice and freedom and liberty and equality as rights that they ought to be given – by their government and by society in general. What we all need to realise is that such things can only exist if each human being strives to give them to others, strives to be a really good person every day. Those who do not believe in a higher power to turn to and pray to for help in this process are, we would say, missing out on a vital source of inner strength that we all need, to be able to live as good people. We Christians are realists. We meet each week for this very reason, we try to pray every day, to strengthen our links with God, the power of goodness and love that we need to help us cope with our wayward and selfish nature. As Isaiah cried out in today’s 1st Reading (Isaiah 55:1-11) “O come to the water all you who are thirsty… Listen, listen to me…… Seek the Lord while he is still to be found…. Yes, the heavens are as high above the earth as my ways are above your ways, my thoughts above your thoughts.”
You have heard me say before, and I will say it again, that morality, trying to be good, should not at the heart of the Christian life. What should be at the heart of our life as Christians is our relationship with God, because it is only from this that true morality springs – a realisation of how hard it is to be truly good, and thus a turning to God every day to help us. This is the real struggling human world that God chooses to be part of, both when he is born as a human baby of a real loving human mother, and as an adult when he chooses to be baptised and to walk the road that will take him ultimately to the cross. As St John writes in his 1st Letter, of which we heard a later part as our 2nd Reading today. “In this is love: not our love for God, but God’s love for us when he sent his Son to be the sacrifice that takes our sins away.” (1 John 4:10)
As I give this series of Homilies on the Moral Life that we Christians are called to live out in response to that love, I hope I will be able most of all, not to go on about sin, but to share with you the high ideals that we should all be aiming for. And this all starts, as I said at the beginning, by us aiming to treat every person the way God treats us all, with infinite love and understanding. Hopefully then, we begin to rise above the awful ways we humans sometimes treat one another, as we become aware of our own prejudices and failings. Not just to tut tut about things in France as this week, or in Syria or Iraq or Palestine, or anywhere else we can think of, but most of all in our own back yard wherever we happen to live and work. There is the challenge we face as Christians. There is where we need God’s help and grace.