26th Sunday in Ordinary time

The word ‘radical’ seems to be amongst the most popular adjectives in use nowadays. It’s used to describe a whole raft of social aspects. The ‘radical’ cuts of public spending and the ‘radical’ reform of the benefit system, for example; we’ve all heard about those and many have experienced the pinching results. In many established democracies across the globe, ‘radical’ politicians of various political colours seem to make gains or even come to power. The latest most extreme example is the President of the Philippines boasting openly about his unlawful killing of drug dealers. Somehow his action puts him on a par with ‘radical’ Islamists, who try to impose their morality and beliefs upon others by force. Many more examples of ‘radical’ attitudes and approaches could be given, but such a list would be virtually infinite and deeply dispiriting. Most radical forms of expression feature two intertwined properties: most of the time their proponents’ intentions are well-meant – and most of the time they generate a lot of suffering.

An ancient Roman writer, Cicero, wrote in the year 55 BC: ‘Historia magistra vitae est’, which translates as ‘History is the teacher of life’. He meant that the study of the past should serve as lessons for the future, in order to avoid repeating mistakes. Over the millennia, this phrase of his has been one of the pillars of classical education. Yet the study of our past clearly demonstrates that the same mistakes have been made over and over again, reappearing in different incarnations, but essentially the same every time. In just over a month’s time we will be celebrating the centenary of the Armistice, the end of the war that was to end all wars. Only twenty-one years later an even worse, more brutal and truly global war started. As the human race we have a seemingly inexhaustible drive for destruction; the flimsiest excuse is enough to trigger hostilities.

The Apostles’ appeal to Jesus in today’s gospel offers a great reflection on that syndrome. They ask him to ban an unnamed healer, using Jesus’ name without authorisation, from healing people. Outwardly it looks as though they are worrying about Jesus’ reputation, while in fact they are worrying about their own exclusivity being threatened. Blinded by their jealousy and craving for power, they don’t see the good and the relief being provided by the man to those in need. Jesus’ response extends the boundaries: ‘Anyone who is not against us is for us.’ For his followers as well as for his contemporaries, divided as they were along political, national, religious and racial lines, such a statement must have raised an awful lot of eyebrows, to say the least. That is a markedly radical approach, but radical contrary to common perceptions. Jesus’ call to build bridges rather than moats or walls has been challenging from the outset and it remains challenging today. We are way too skilled at drawing dividing lines on every imaginable level.

Jesus’ radical approach has another important aspect that his followers must take into consideration and must take it seriously. The sole field where Jesus demands from each one of us to be radical is our own personal fight against the evil in each one of us. I call it ‘the inward radicalism’ because its target is my own inclination towards evil in whatever form it appears. ‘If your hand should cause you to sin, cut it off; if your eye should cause you to sin, tear it out.’ Jesus purposely uses extreme overstatement to drive home how radical each one of us must be in dealing with any form of evil within our own selves. It’s all about cutting off our ties with evil, not physically cutting off our body parts.

Why should we take such radical steps in the first place? St Augustine casts some light on that question: ‘Men are hopeless creatures, and the less they concentrate on their own sins, the more interested they become in the sins of others. They seek to criticise, not to correct. Unable to excuse themselves, they are ready to accuse others.’ Miraculously, the more we are aware of our own shortcomings and imperfections, and the more we try to deal with them, the more empathetic and understanding we become towards others’ shortcomings and imperfections. In my short, twenty-one-year pastoral career I haven’t seen a single soul brought to Jesus by bitter judgmental comments; but I’ve seen a good number of troubled souls finding their feet again when they were offered empathetic support. No one needs any official authorisation from Jesus in order to do good; nor is there any need for any official authorisation to love your neighbour as yourself.