Brief synopsis of the readings: Apologies to non Catholics who are reading this, but our first reading comes from the Old Testament Book of Sirach. It’s a book that Catholics recognize and Protestants and Jews do not. The author of Sirach gives advice from father to son about how to live. Here Sirach is telling his son to keep the commandments and choose life over death. Also, God never commands anyone to sin. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus continues to teach. He tells his followers that he has not come to abolish the Law or the Prophets but to fulfill them. But he extends teachings from the Law. The Law prohibited murder but Jesus extends this to teach that anyone who is angry will answer for it. The Law prohibited adultery but Jesus extends this to teach that a man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart. Furthermore, “if your right eye should cause you to sin, tear it out and throw it away.” Also, “[A]nyone who divorces his wife, except in the case of fornication, makes her an adulteress, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
Hall of Fame baseball catcher Yogi Berra is often quoted as saying, “if you come to a fork in the road, take it.” This may or may not be true, but he did coauthor a book with that title. In any case he would appreciate our first reading.
Several times in the Old Testament we are told that we stand at a crossroad. We can choose life or death, good or evil, light or darkness.
And while we all believe this, while we all recognize that our discipleship necessitates a moral compass, I think we miss much of Jesus’ message. You see, I think we look at this crossroad only on large issues. How do we vote on abortion? What do we think of gay marriage? Who do we vote for in the Presidential campaign?
But I read these readings with an understanding that our moral compass develops both from our biggest decisions and our smallest. God cares about our choices no matter how many people they affect and no matter how much we grade their importance.
That said, I’m grateful to not be a fundamentalist. Our moral compass needs to cover all aspects of our lives, but I believe Jesus was using hyperbole to make a point. While we are all called to perfection I don’t think that Jesus demands a zero tolerance policy for us when we fall short. I’ve never met anyone who has cast away a wandering right eye. I also believe there is a difference between looking at a woman lustfully and committing adultery. Those of my age or older remember well November of 1976 when Jimmy Carter (who was running for President) granted an interview with Playboy magazine and confessed “to looking on a lot of women with lust.”
And so where does that leave us? Well, I think that leaves us in a good place. No sin is unforgivable, we are not called to cause ourselves bodily injury, and all of our decisions call us to choose life over death.
As I said earlier, we often think about choosing life over death only in our biggest decisions. And I’m going to challenge that. In our lives we do make big decisions but many of them are not choices between good and evil, right and wrong. Should I marry this person? What career path should I follow? Are we ready for another child? These are not really moral decisions. We’re choosing a life path and we make these decisions based on what we think (and hope) will happen in the future. Will this be a good marriage? Will this be a career path that fulfills me? Will we have what we need to welcome another child?
Moral decisions are different, and often small decisions, made in the moment. And these decisions, one at a time, inform our moral compass, our choice of life and death. I have a choice of investments for my retirement portfolio; do I choose a mutual fund that does not include tobacco companies? On my way to work everyday I stop at an intersection where someone holds up a sign about being hungry. Do I give him money, or do I remember to bring a sandwich I can give to him, or do I simply strike up a conversation and promise him that I will pray for him? I see a woman with several children, some of whom are in a stroller, and she’s struggling to open a door. Do I assume she’s on her own for having so many children or do I open the door and make her day just a little bit easier? Do I see this same woman looking horrified because one of her children has a meltdown in aisle 5 and you whisper in her ear: “It’s OK; it happens to all parents. Nobody is judging you.”?
It’s been my experience that our choice between life and death often turns not on our largest decisions, but on our smallest. I’ll confess to a bias here: I’ve been a hospice chaplain for the last 19 years and I’ve learned a critical lesson. Offering a kind word in a difficult situation creates more life than a brilliant speech given after winning an Emmy.
Thirteen years ago I found myself in a hospital room with someone who was clearly dying. His daughter, Lynn, asked me to see him. We had a wonderful visit, and as I left I offered to pray with him. He eagerly accepted my offer and when I asked what I should pray for, he said this: “Let’s pray for the loneliest soul in Purgatory.”
Catholics run the gamut of beliefs in Purgatory, and I have to confess that I’m one of those who believe that it exists. I believe that when we die we carry with us all our grudges and memories of how we’ve been done wronged. Purgatory exists at the doorstop of Heaven, and God tells us that we are welcome to enter Heaven when (and only when) we let go of our grudges. Some of us will happily jettison them to enter Heaven while others will demand justice and spend their time on the threshold of Paradise.
My encounter with Lynn’s father told me that he read today’s readings with wise eyes. Nearly at the end of his life his concern wasn’t for his fate or the fate of his loved ones. He cared about the loneliest of the low. He recognized that his salvation was tied to everyone else’s and a salvation that included everyone works for all of us. And, if you agree with my understanding of Purgatory, we prayed for someone who was there out of his (or her) unwillingness to let go of a grudge.
Small decisions, good or evil, build the bricks of the structure we create for our lives. When we make a life giving decision (like holding the door open for a young mother with children) it makes the next life giving decision easier. But in the same way, when we chose a different path, when look at her with fear and anger and assume she’s on welfare that we’re paying for, it makes the next harsh decision easier. It gives us a smug reason for not helping her but also gives us a darker view of our world and the people around us.
And so I ask that we reflect on these readings the next time we have a small moral decision to make.