And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted up to heaven? You will go down to the underworld. For if the miracles that have taken place in you had taken place in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I say to you that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.
In his book What’s Wrong With The World, G. K. Chesterton famously declared: “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.” Yet, even when we try, we cannot help but experience the huge gap between the “ideal” which the gospel lays out and our own daily reality. Today’s gospel reading, however, reminds us of an even more painful experience than that of failing to live up to the ideals of Jesus’ teaching.
“If the miracles that have taken place in you had taken place in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.” The core of our faith lies not in the ethical teachings and ideals it presents to us. It lies, rather, in a person, in one who has throughout our lives done “miracles” in us by the love that has been shown to us. It is not so much what the people of Capernaum fail to do, as it is their refusal to be grateful for and responsive to the love they have been shown. And so it often is with us.
A question that recurs frequently these days when we consider the state of our social and political lives and how leaders and lawmakers can seem to be so unmindful of the needs and suffering of their people is “Why do they behave this way?” How is it possible that there can be an epidemic of gun violence in our country and our legislators do nothing to deter it? How can there be children without food and families without healthcare and yet what is proposed are not solutions for those in need but policies to enhance the wealth of the affluent? It is the same question that arises when we read of those religious leaders and other persons and even whole populations that were unmoved and unchanged by the life and works of Jesus. It remains, even now, the same question for ourselves.
As I read the gospel today, I asked myself the question and experienced the sadness of its answer: “Given what the Lord has done and continually does for me, how is it that I am so often unwilling to give all I have in return?” Why does my own comfort and my sense of my own needs so often lead me to behave as if my life were my own and not God’s gift to me. When I think of the conditions of responsiveness, fidelity, and integrity that I impose on others before offering them friendship, I am saddened by how often my response to the Lord lacks these things. We pray in Psalm 116: “How shall I make a return to the Lord for all the good he has done for me?” Too often, however, I live my days without even asking the question. I forget that my life is relationship, that I only exist because of the love of Another for me, and, as a result, gratitude should be my primary motivation.
The older among us were formed in a faith tradition which seemed to use guilt as a primary motivator. From early on many of us associated church teaching with intimidation and fear. The threat was that we would be punished eternally if we failed in living in accordance with the teachings. Besides resulting in a, perhaps unintended, abusive structure, this also had the effect of evoking a strong reaction in us. By rejecting deformative guilt, we also experienced a depleting of our capacity for repentance, a disposition that the gospel suggests is a necessary prerequisite for the acceptance of the life and message of Jesus.
Over the years, I have encountered many people for whom their religious upbringing, as shame and guilt inducing, had contributed to their serious emotional struggles. Yet, to suggest that the response to this is to deny all sense of our own failings and lacks in life is equally self-destructive. We can become mired down and depressed in a false sense of guilt and shame, but we can also become superficial and dissociated if we must always be right and our failures and mistakes are without consequence.
We need to be able to recognize when we act purely out of self-interest and not in gratitude and love. We can, perhaps, all remember moments in life when we have hurt someone who has been good to us and loves us. We all know times when by our words or actions we have threatened the bond with a beloved other, and the fear and sadness that were part of those moments. It is not, necessarily, a sign of a poor self-image when we experience the sadness of failing another or our own true life direction and call. While melancholia or depression is not healthy, sadness about a “state of things” for which we are, at least in part, responsible can be and often is a truly spiritual disposition.
In fact, it is possible to say that it is only in moments of sadness and repentance born of awareness of our failure that we really come to know the love of God for and in us. Sadness, in this sense, is inherently relational. It is not self-preoccupation but is rather a heartfelt desire for relationship to one to whom we have been unfaithful. It is a reaching toward the other from whom we have distanced. It is here that the eternally profound image of Jesus from the Parable of the Prodigal Son helps us. The son has rejected his father and gone away on his own, yet the father is always looking for him. In our sadness, in true repentance, we can become aware of a love for us that is not dependent on our fidelity. If we did not fail, we would never come to know that God’s love for us is not dependent on what we do. It is, rather, a constant, faithful, and merciful love of who we are, wherever we find ourselves. The prerequisite to experiencing this love, however, is our own recognition, acceptance, and repentance of our failures. It is this repentance which creates the space in us to know a love of a radically different order from what we most often take love to be.
We engage in a continuing examination and appraisal of our lives in light of our call and the gospel not as an act of self-perfection or out of fear of the consequences of our failures. Rather, we do so to come to understand a love that is “far beyond all that we could ask for or imagine” (Eph. 3:20). It is love not fear that must ultimately motivate us. We come to know that love as we grow in self-awareness and humility. True self-acceptance can only come as we know the love of God, not for the person we ought to be, but for who we are. In a strange but wonderful paradox, we come to know that truth through the very experience of being unfaithful to it and remaining with and present to the sadness that this infidelity evokes in us. As Jesus calls Peter, Andrew, James and John to be his disciples, and shows himself to them by filling their nets with fish, Peter declares: “Go away from me, Lord. I am a sinful man.” Pope Francis describes himself first of all as “a sinner.” The experience of our true call from God, and so God’s love for us, is at once an experience of our own sinfulness. It is as we are saying with Peter, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinner”, that the Lord comes even closer to us and shows us every more clearly “the way that we should go” (Psalm 143:8).
Father in Heaven! Reawaken conscience in our breast.
Make us bend the ear of the spirit to Thy voice, so that
we may perceive Thy will for us in its clear purity as it
is in Heaven, pure of our false worldly wisdom, unstifled
by the voice of passion; keep us vigilant so that we may
work for our salvation with fear and trembling; oh,
but grant also that when the Law speaks most strongly,
when its seriousness fills us with dread, when the thunder
booms from Sinai—Oh grant that we may hear also a
gentle voice murmuring to us that we are Thy children,
so that we will cry with joy, Abba, Father.