Sunday of week 8 of Ordinary Time

Commentary on Sirach 27:5-8; 1 Corinthians 15:54-58; Luke 6:39-45

TODAY WE HAVE THE CONTINUATION of Luke’s sermon on the plain (not the mount). Last Sunday’s Gospel told us not to judge or we would be judged ourselves. Does not mean that we are never to criticise other people? ‘Criticise’ comes from Greek krino, krisis, to make a rational judgment. So we speak of a film or drama ‘critic’ who may indeed tear a production to pieces or, on the other hand, may praise it to the skies, give it five stars and ‘two thumbs up’.

What is being forbidden by Jesus is not judgment as such but negative, destructive judgment. There are times when we are expected to give constructive, helpful criticism.

We are often free with the first, slow with the second (by giving excuses that we are not qualified, etc). We cannot pass judgment unless we have some vision and understanding. How can the blind, those without understanding, presume to give leadership to others who are blind? Jesus asks us. The result is inevitable: “Both will fall into the pit.”

In life, it is not at all unusual to hear people talk with great authority on things of which they know very little e.g. complex policies and problems. People who never open a Bible, seldom go to church, are not involved in its activities or not even Christians, frequently have no hesitation in saying what is wrong with the Church. This does not meant Church has no faults. Nor does it mean that the Church’s weaknesses should not be highlighted. It does mean that one should speak from genuine knowledge, accurate data and to the people who can do something about it. The same applies to everything else we like to pass judgment on.

Following Jesus’ example

The disciple is not above the teacher. This is to say that our judgements should be like those of Jesus. The one who is fully qualified will be like the teacher: judging to save and help, not to knock down and destroy. If we are to avoid blindness we need to walk in the footsteps of people who can see. We need to acknowledge our own blindness, our blind spots, our myopia, our astigmatism of prejudice and lack of objectivity.

It is not much use prefacing some solemn judgement on the Church, for instance, with “When I was in grade school, I was always taught by Sister Imelda that…” What we learnt in grade school or high school is not enough so many years later when the Church itself has changed in so many ways and we ourselves have changed. But most of us tend to be both perspicacious and blind: we can see the slightest fault in others while being totally oblivious to much greater faults in ourselves.

Some of us spend large parts of our lunch breaks and recreation times “gossiping”. This consists mainly of saying what is wrong with other people (present company excepted, until present company goes away). Do we ever feel slightly nervous leaving a party or a group that has been involved in extensive gossiping about peers or colleagues? As soon as we walk out the door they may start saying the same things about me that I was saying about other absent people. On the other hand, if a subject of criticism walks into the room, he or she is likely to be greeted like a long-lost friend, as if they were the most wonderful people in the world.

Why do we do so much of this kind of thing? Do we really enjoy it? Do we feel good about it afterwards? Do we believe that if only OTHER people – the boss, some colleagues, parents, children – changed, life would be wonderful?

Pre-emptive strikes

In fact, I think much of our criticism is a form of self-defence, a kind of pre-emptive strike. We feel inadequate and insecure and try to even things out by pulling down people we feel are better than us. No wonder Jesus calls us ‘hypocrites’. This word – from the Greek hypocrites, used to refer to a stage actor. When I go on like this I am playing a role in which I am the tragic, misunderstood hero or heroine and the rest are out to get me. It is usually quite a false and misleading picture of the reality.

The Greek actor wore a mask to indicate role he was playing. We spend a lot of time wearing masks to hide from others the real self we are secretly ashamed of. By supposedly “exposing” the weaknesses and wickedness of others we give our fragile egos a boost.

But, Jesus says that everything depends on the inner person and not on the outward appearance. Hypocrisy will not long go undetected. No really good tree can produce bad fruit; and no really bad tree can consistently produce genuinely good fruit. “Shake up the sieve and the rubbish soon appears,” says today’s First Reading. Once we open our mouth we reveal ourselves. “Do not praise people before they speak, for this is the way people are tested.” When we gossip we often tell people a lot more about ourselves than those we are condemning.

Place for criticism

It is important to emphasise that the Gospel is in no way saying we should not have opinions or that we should not express them. What it is saying is:

a. To avoid having such a high awareness of the shortcomings of others that we have lost the ability to see and accept our own.

b. We can spend hours talking about what is wrong with other people – superiors, peers, family members – in their absence but are not prepared to bring our grievances for open dialogue with the people concerned.

Change will never take place under such circumstances. And one wonders sometimes if we really want things to change! Wouldn’t life be extremely dull with nothing whatsoever to grumble about?

c. People who gossip incessantly suddenly become reluctant and tongue-tied when asked to evaluate honestly (i.e. both positively and negatively) a colleague who is being considered for another post. Such an evaluation, including its negative parts, may be extremely helpful both to the candidate and the whole organisation. It can avoid the appointment of a person to a position who is quite unsuitable – and it may happen that I am the only person aware of the weakness.

d. We live under the illusion that if my boss changes, my spouse changes, my work or home environment changes, then I will be happy. Why should other people change just for me?

Let me change

The real solution is for me to change. To respond proactively rather than just have a kneejerk reaction every time something touches a sensitive nerve in me. Let me be in charge of my own life and stop trying to change others. As Fr Tony de Mello used to say, “When I change, my whole world changes”. And, not only that, when I change, other people are likely to change but, even if they do not, my attitude towards them will not be the same. We have to make our own bed; we don’t wait for others to do so. To quote Fr de Mello again, “Attitude is everything.” My attitude, that is.

I can learn to be totally accepting of reality, of the way people are. I can refuse to be intimidated or irritated or resentful. I can take off my actor’s mask and be fully myself. In the process I can let other people too be themselves. I am no longer worried about planks in my own eyes or in others’. What you see is what there is.

I judge myself by the standards of Jesus: a good tree bears good fruit. “A person’s words flow out of what fills their heart.” And the words – fruits of a good tree – are full of warmth and affirmation and encouragement and compassion with now and again some positive, constructive confrontation and challenging.

It sounds a much better recipe than a life spent in never-ending griping and sniping.

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