This is a story some of you might find quite familiar. It’s a true story of a good Catholic mother whose very intelligent son went off to University and began to live a wild selfish life. In effect, he enjoyed doing things that he knew were wrong. At first his sad mother simply refused to have anything more to do with him, but then a wise confessor told her to do the opposite, to carry on loving and caring for him, and constantly to pray for him. This she did and she shed many tears in the process. Finally, when I suspect she was near to giving up, when he was in his 30’s, he found the way to change, and eventually, much to the surprise of his mother, he became a priest, and one of the most brilliant preachers and teachers Christianity has ever had. Yes, you may have guessed that this happened 1700 years ago. The young man was called Augustine and his mother Monica, and both are now saints of the Church whose feast days we have celebrated this week.
I tell their story because it’s easy to think that the way we cope with wrong things in ourselves or others is to spend a lot of energy trying to suppress them, just as Monica shunned her son Augustine. But Jesus warns us in our Gospel today (Mark 7:1-23) that we should not try to create a surface respectability – to paper over the cracks as they say. This would be, as Jesus said quoting Isaiah, “to honour me only with lip-service, while their hearts are far from me.”
Jesus takes this further. He says that we need to realise that what matters is what is deep inside us not what is on the surface, and surely this means that the way we become deep down good, is to actively seek to do good and to think about good things rather than bad things, and never to assume we are OK just because everything seems OK on the surface? As St Paul puts it (Phil 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.”
Let’s look at some examples from the list Jesus gives us in our Gospel. What are the good things we should think on, in order to fight against greed and envy and slander? Three very common sins in our world today. I want to start with slander because quite rightly many people mention this sin when they make their confession. They don’t use the word, of course, but they confess running other people down behind their back, or of gossiping. I am always a bit wary of thinking of gossiping as being wrong, because there is surely good gossiping as well as bad. There’s no harm in having a chat about others, even being critical of others, provided it is kind and loving. Indeed that’s the point isn’t it? If the gossip begins to turn into running someone down and simply speaking ill of them, then just going quiet isn’t good enough. We have to actively turn the conversation in some way into a more positive way of speaking about them. So if someone starts saying that so and so drives them mad because he or she fusses too much, we have to point to the good intentions in the one criticised. It may sound trivial, but saying something like, “I am sure she or he means well” can make all the difference, because it changes our attitude to them.
Of course, this doesn’t mean being naïve about someone’s failings, for sometimes being kindly critical is the path towards helping someone behave better. Monica didn’t say to Augustine. “I don’t mind what you do, I still love you”, for it is clear that he always knew that she didn’t approve of his lifestyle, even though she still loved him. We sometimes forget that the world of Monica and Augustine was like ours in many ways. It was a society characterised by violence, by a lack of respect for life, by loose sexual behaviour, and by some people being able to engage in this kind of lifestyle simply because they had too much money.
Augustine implies that what was wrong about him – and this takes us on to greed and envy – was that he had an unbalanced view of the good things of life, not that the things themselves were not good. He writes about all this in his Confessions. He says (and he is talking to God “In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you. Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all.” In other words what he had to do was to think about these things in another way, so that he could use and enjoy them, without being enslaving by them.
It’s surely the same with us. If someone has something good that we would like to have, we need to rejoice with them rather than get filled up with envy and greed. This is a tough one isn’t it, because I’m not suggesting that we should rejoice because the rich have millions whilst other live in poverty. Rather that we, by remembering the poor, should not want to become too rich, and should have pity not just for the poor but also for the rich, those who have so much and still want more. Jesus pointed out the foolishness of this when he said “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven ….. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” (Matt 6:19-21)
This is precisely why Christianity is not principally about being moral, because that is a surface thing. It is principally about faith, about having a different attitude to life, about having a heart that is linked to God and to the goodness he has created and wants us to share. We come to Mass each week, we pray as often as we can, so that our hearts may be turned more and more towards God, and so that every day we may be transformed by his love, and become more like him.