Our communities should represent what God wants for our world

Fr. Gerry Hughes SJ, a Jesuit writer of spirituality, says: “There is no such thing as a spirituality of  justice; there is only a spirituality of the Gospels, of which justice is an integral component.” I agree with him.
Tonight I want to talk about justice in its limited form as right relationships with one another, within our Church and within the wider society. How God relates to us is the model for how we relate to each other and so I want to approach the question of justice from the point of view of the Gospels; what the words and actions, the life and death of Jesus tell us about how God relates to us and how we are to relate to each other.
I am not a theologian, nor a scripture scholar, as will be quickly evident to any theologians or scripture scholars listening. Whatever little theology I have, I learnt from homeless people. My theology lecturers might say, with some reason, that if I had attended more lectures, I might have learnt more theology. Nevertheless, listening to homeless people and reflecting on their experience has radically challenged and changed me and has changed my understanding of who God is and what God wants. It has also taught me to read and understand the Gospels, and the meaning of the life of Jesus, in a new and exciting way. It is from that experience that I talk today. In working with homeless people, I found myself trying to answer two questions: The first was “What is the Good News of the Gospel which I have to bring to homeless people? As an amateur social worker, I can bring some of them accommodation, drug treatment or counselling, but as a priest, as a Minister of the Word of God, what is the Good News which the Gospel offers to homeless people? Is it that God loves them? That is certainly true, but it will hardly have them jumping up and down the aisles with joy! Is it that there will be a place for them in Heaven? That is also true, but I think they would prefer to hear that I had a place for them tonight!
Or, more broadly, in the context of your own work, what is the Good News of the Gospel which you bring to those who are unemployed, who may be losing their homes, whose children are on drugs, who are struggling or stressed?
The second question I had was this: The message of Jesus was certainly not irrelevant in his day. Everywhere Jesus went, he was followed by large crowds. Five thousand people, not counting women and children, listened to him all day long, even forgetting that they were hungry. Every town he went into, the whole town, we are told, turned out to hear him. The poor man who was paralysed and wanted Jesus to cure him couldn’t get near Jesus because of the crowds and had to be lowered down through the roof. “Large crowds followed him, coming from Galilee, the Decapolis, Jerusalem, Judaea and Transjordan,” the Gospel writers tell us. And yet, today, the message of the Church, which is supposed to be the continuation of the message of Jesus, is seen by so many to be irrelevant to their lives. Could the message have changed? I believe in some ways it has.
How is it possible that the message could have changed?
Everything we receive, everything we see, or hear or read is filtered through various lenses. Those lenses include the attitudes which have been handed down to us from tradition, culture,
family, society, social class, Church and our own experiences. For example, if I grew up in a Unionist family in Northern Ireland, I may see things very differently from someone who grew up in a Republican family. If I have been the victim of serious crime, my attitudes to criminals and crime, might be very different to the attitudes of someone who works with offenders. If you grew up in a family that was very supportive of Fianna Fail, well, there are some good counsellors available! These attitudes become so much a part of ourselves that we do not usually question them – they appear to us to be self-evident, obvious, common-sense. If we encounter someone with very different attitudes, instead of allowing them to challenge us, we can often be very dismissive of them. When we read the gospels, yet another filter comes into play: our attachments. We are all attached to different things, to material possessions, to particular people perhaps, and we are all attached to our mindsets, to the way we see and understand the world we live in. Attachments bring fears. Those attachments are our securities, and we fear losing them. Nothing filters our understanding of the message of the gospels as much as our fears. And fears bring denial. Like the overweight woman who stepped on to the weighing scales. Indignantly, she declared that the scales weren’t working properly – they’re telling her she should be two feet taller! If we are financially very comfortable, we may have difficulty reading the verse: “If anyone wants to be my disciple, he must give up all his possessions.” Of course Jesus didn’t mean you had to give up all your possessions, we have to study the scriptures, and read the scripture scholars, to understand what exactly he meant by that! The fact that Jesus may have meant exactly what he said is so frightening, so threatening that we cannot entertain the idea. However, if you are a homeless person living on the street, the idea that the disciples of Jesus have to give up all their possessions might sound like a great idea – there may now be enough to go around and maybe they wouldn’t be homeless. Indeed, the early church also thought it was a great idea.
I am suggesting that Church authorities also interpret the message of the Gospel through those same lenses. And in our Western world, perhaps the additional attachments which filter the Church authorities’ understanding of the message of Jesus include the wealth, the power and the status of the Church, and the Church’s fear of losing them. We have seen that in recent times in the Church authorities’ perception of child sexual abuse and how it shaped their response. Perhaps it shapes also their perception of the ACP and how they respond.
And so, we, both individuals and Church, cannot understand the Gospels unless we understand ourselves, our prejudices, our securities, our attachments, our fears and the baggage we carry. My understanding of the Gospels is also filtered through my own securities, attachments and fears, so I welcome and value your criticism. To talk, then, about justice, right relationships with each other, from a Gospel perspective, I have to ask three questions.
What does God want?
The first question is: What does God want? This is actually a very dangerous question. This question has led (and continues to lead) to conflicts around the globe; the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Reformation were all the consequence of some people in authority thinking they knew what God wanted. Today we have suicide bombers in Iraq and Afghanistan, women being stoned to death for adultery in Somalia, young men in Iran being hanged for being in a homosexual relationship because some people in authority believe that this is what God wants. Right wing dictators have claimed that God was on their side, even as they committed atrocities against their own people. Some in the Republican Party in the United States believe in a God who is angered by abortion, but tolerates torture against suspected terrorists and approves of the death penalty, which of course suits their political agenda.
Individually, and as Church, we need to be always suspicious that we may be shaping God’s will to fit comfortably with our own will.
Who is God? To answer the question “What does God want?” we have to ask another dangerous question: “Who is God?” This question was, I believe, the fundamental conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities of his time and it ultimately led to the execution of Jesus. I believe it remains the fundamental conflict within our Church today. And the answer to this question shapes our understanding of justice, and how God wishes us to relate to each other.
I believe that Jesus came to tell us only one thing. Nothing about the past or the future, nothing about Heaven or Hell or who goes there, but simply to tell us who God is. After all, Jesus had come from God, he was the revelation of God, he was God. Jesus revealed in his own person, in his words and actions, in his life and death, who God is.
So to answer the question “Who God is?” I look to the Gospels.
A God of the Law For the religious authorities at the time of Jesus, God was a God of the Law. God desires, above all else, that the people of God should obey the Law.
The religious authorities had good justification for this understanding of God. The people of God believed that when God sent Moses to lead them out of Egypt, God made a covenant with the people: on God’s part, God promised to protect them always and to lead them into the promised land; but on their part, they must obey the laws which God was giving them through Moses. These laws instructed them how to live in right relationship with God and with each other. Failure to keep the laws, as given by God, meant that the people of God had abandoned the Covenant and God might therefore abandon them. God’s passion was the observance of the Law.
The Church, too, has often proclaimed a God of the law. Just as God created the universe, and laid down the physical laws by which the universe functions, laws which are universal and unchangeable, so God created human beings and laid down the laws by which we are to live our lives, laws which are also universal and unchangeable. Jesus came, then, to reveal those moral laws or precepts, and, if I obey them, I will be given a place in Heaven. If I don’t obey them, then I will be punished.
God’s passion then is that we human beings observe these laws which Jesus came to reveal.
A God of the Law is a God who is a Judge, a God who rewards and welcomes those who keep the law but punishes and excludes those who do not keep the law. Belief in a God of the Law therefore shapes our understanding of what God wants, and therefore defines the relationships we have with each other. Anyone, like Jesus, dissident priests, organisations like the ACP who challenge this understanding of God is seen therefore as a threat to the faith
of the people and has to be suppressed. The fulfilment, then, of God’s justice becomes the exclusion of the sinner.
A God of compassion
Then along came Jesus. Jesus saw the poverty, the suffering and the marginalisation of so many of his own people by the religious authorities, who justified this state of affairs by reference to their God, the God of the Law, who excludes those who fail to keep the Law.
The problem with Jesus was that he never studied theology. So he didn’t understand the complexities of all that the religious authorities were teaching. He didn’t understand how important it was to uphold the law and to be seen to uphold the law. He didn’t understand that if you do not condemn and exclude those who fail to keep the law, why would anyone bother to keep the law. No, Jesus was just “the carpenter’s son,” one of the laity no less, who saw things in black and white. A bit like the prophets of old. He was moved by the suffering of his people. And Jesus proclaimed a different God, a God of compassion.
There is a lovely story in Mark’s Gospel. Jesus is preaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath day. He notices a man with a withered hand. Interestingly, the man with the withered hand does not ask Jesus to cure him; in fact, he does not attract Jesus’ attention in any way. It is Jesus who takes the initiative. He says to the man: “Stand up out here in the middle.” Now Jesus is going to cure the man, but the Law forbids him from curing the man for that is to do work, and work was forbidden on the Sabbath. Why does Jesus say: “Stand up out here in the middle” and ask for trouble? And gets trouble. We are told at the end of the story that the Pharisees met at once and made plans to kill Jesus. So why does Jesus say: “Stand up out here in the middle.” If I had been Jesus, I would have been smarter: I would have said to the man: “Around the back afterwards, we won’t cause any fuss.” And why not? The end result would have been the same – the man goes away cured. No, Jesus cures the man in full view of everyone, and breaks the Law, because what he is doing is at the heart of the revelation which Jesus came to bring, namely, that God is a God of compassion, and not a God of the Law. Belief in the God of compassion defines what God wants very differently to belief in a God of the law and therefore shapes in a very different way our relationships with each other. The fulfilment, then, of God’s justice becomes mercy and compassion.
The God of compassion and the God of the Law are incompatible. Jesus had no time for legalisms. He was telling the people that in certain circumstances, God actually required them to break the Law. This was heresy. Jesus was seen as a threat to the faith of the people of God.
Yet, Jesus saw a value in the law: indeed, he considered it very important. The purpose of the law is to instruct people how to live in harmony with God and with each other. But it is an educational tool, not an end in itself.
Tony de Mello SJ, a Jesuit mystic, tells the story of a person who wanted his friend to see the beautiful sunset. So he points his finger at the sunset and says: “Look at that beautiful sunset.” Now if the person keeps looking at his finger, they miss the sunset! Tony de Mello’s comment is that the law is like the finger; it is pointing to something beyond itself.
St. Paul says the same thing in a different way:
“Love can cause no harm to your neighbour, so love is the fulfilment of the law.” (Romans 13, v10)
Imagine a child with two sweets. His mother says to him: “You must give one of your sweets to your sister.” What is the mother trying to say? She is telling the child that he must be generous and share what he has. But if the child focuses on the law, “you must share your sweets with your sister”, then the child has to work out what to do if he has three sweets! Does he have to cut one of the sweets in half in order to share with his sister and so obey the law? And if his sister is overweight, does he still have to share his sweets, or can he keep them all for himself? If the child focuses on the law, he has to work out how the law applies in a whole variety of situations. He may end up keeping the law, but forget what the law was trying to express, namely that he should be generous and share.
Jesus saw, all around him, in the exclusion of many of his fellow human beings, the consequences of preaching a God of the Law.
Our Church has often preached a God of the Law. You were identified as a good Catholic by your adherence to a variety of laws and regulations: going to Mass on Sunday, not getting a divorce, not using condoms, not using contraceptives, opposing gay relationships and so on. Your fidelity to the Church’s laws and rules was the proof of your fidelity to God. Your relationship to God was defined by your observance of laws – if you do as you are supposed to do, then God is pleased with you and will reward you with a place in Heaven; if you do not do as you are supposed to do, then God will be angry and punish you, possibly with a place in Hell.
But Jesus did not preach a God of the Law who rewards the just and punishes or excludes the sinner. He preached a God of compassion who rewards the just and reaches out to, and forgives, the sinner.
Is this why today the message of the Church, which is supposed to be the continuation of the message of Jesus, is seen by so many ordinary people as irrelevant to their lives? Unlike the thousands of people who followed Jesus, enthused by what he was saying, today thousands of people, especially the young, are walking away. Perhaps they are walking away from the Church because they no longer find God there. They are searching for a God who is compassion, and being given a God who is a lawgiver. The religious leaders at the time of Jesus identified God with their religious system – perhaps we, in our Churches, have done the same! Our commitment to Jesus Christ and the Gospels cannot be identified with our fidelity to the institutional Church structures, practices and laws, which Cardinal Martini described before his death, somewhat generously I thought, as 200 years out of date. How can we invite young people today to commit themselves to a male-dominated, authoritarian institution which suppresses dissent and attempts to control what its member may even discuss?
How do you preach a God of the Law? Why, you get scholars to study the Law, surround them with their learned books to examine all the different situations in which the Law might apply, and then you get them to come down and tell people what they are supposed to do. Any resemblance to the Roman Catholic Church is purely intentional.
But you cannot preach the God of compassion in that way. To reveal the God of compassion, you have to be the compassion of God. You cannot just preach the God of compassion from a pulpit. You can only preach the God of compassion if you are immersed in the poverty and suffering, the homelessness and hopelessness of people around you. It is that real poverty and suffering, homelessness and hopelessness that the God of compassion addresses. And so to understand the revelation of Jesus, that God is compassion, we cannot disconnect Jesus from the society into which Jesus was born, and in which he lived and died. We have to look at the suffering of the people of that time, and the economic, social and political conditions which caused that suffering, just as we have to do today, if we are to preach a God of compassion. Perhaps we have disconnected Jesus from the real, concrete suffering of the people of his time, because to do so today would challenge us, even threaten us. The Kingdom of Herod So what was society like in the Kingdom of Herod?
Jesus was born into the Kingdom of Caesar. The people of Israel were subject to occupation by the Roman Emperor, who appointed local rulers, such as Herod, to oversee the occupation. Herod’s job description was simple: to eliminate any potential threat to Roman rule, which he did with ruthless efficiency, and to collect crippling levels of taxes, which fed and maintained the Roman army of occupation and supported the local ruling class in their luxurious lifestyle. If the people were unable to pay the oppressive taxes demanded of them, the little land they might own was confiscated to pay their debt and given to the supporters of the regime, who thereby built up large estates. These wealthy landowners lived in the cities and leased their land out to tenants, who had to hand over up to one half of their produce as rent. Jesus, growing up, would have heard the story of the forty young rebels, who were burnt alive for leading a protest, and the two thousand Jews who were crucified after a revolt in the city of Sepphoris, about four miles away from where Jesus was learning to walk. Life had little value in Caesar’s Kingdom; it was totally dependent on the whim of Caesar or his representatives. When Jesus talked about rulers who “lord it over” the people and “are tyrants over them,” the people knew exactly which ruler he was talking about. The Kingdom of Caesar was a very brutal place. This Kingdom of Caesar was also a kingdom of poverty and suffering. The vast majority of the population were extremely poor. Most lived from day to day, never sure where they were going to get food tomorrow for their families to eat. When Jesus asked his followers to pray: “Give us this day our daily bread,” this was a real prayer for them, as it is today for those millions living on the edge of starvation. For most of us, however, it is a prayer whose meaning is purely metaphorical.
Many others lived on the edge of destitution: those with infirmities, the blind, the lame, the deaf, the dumb, the lepers. They had no life, they simply survived from day to day, forced to beg just to stay alive, a very precarious existence.
Others were rejected and unwanted and marginalised: those who were considered to be sinners, who had no regard for the Law. They were despised and ostracised.
And yet, in this Kingdom of Caesar, a small minority, perhaps 7-8%, lived lives of ostentatious wealth, living in mansions, with no concern for the poor and the hungry around them. These were the royal court, the priests and religious aristocracy who became wealthy through the buying and selling of sacrificial offerings in the Temple, and the rich landowners. This was God’s chosen people, oppressed both from outside and from within, struggling to survive and maintain any sense of their own dignity: rejected by the respectable and powerful in their society, who told them that they had also been rejected by God. This was not what God had in mind when God liberated the people from Egypt and led them into the promised land. This was not a people over whom God could possibly want to reign. The Kingdom of God And Jesus came proclaiming a new Kingdom, over whom God would happily reign. Jesus proclaimed “the Good News to the poor.” Who were these “poor” that Jesus referred to? They were not the “spiritually poor.” They were the hungry, the destitute, the crippled, the unwanted, the rejected, those whose suffering Jesus witnessed at first hand every day, as he walked the rural roads of Galilee and entered its towns and villages. The God of compassion could not ignore the suffering and the cries of the people of God.
And Jesus told these hungry, unwanted people stories about this new Kingdom of God that was coming.
Jesus talked about the rich man “who feasted sumptuously every day and was dressed in the finest linen” and who couldn’t even be bothered to gather up the crumbs that fell from his table to give them to the poor man at his gate. The people Jesus was talking to knew exactly, some from their own experience, what he was talking about. And when Jesus went on to say that the rich man would be cast down to Hades and Lazarus would be welcomed into the Kingdom of God, you can imagine them looking at one another and nodding their heads in approval. Their own religious leaders were telling them that there would be no place for them in God’s kingdom because they had been rejected by the God of the Law, and here was Jesus telling them about a God, a God of compassion, who would welcome them into God’s Kingdom. This was indeed good news to the poor.
And when Jesus talked about the rich landowner who had a massive harvest and said to himself: “What I am to do? I know, I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones” without any consideration for those around him who were hungry, the people Jesus was talking to knew exactly what part of town these guys lived in. And when Jesus said that God is going to require his soul tonight, you can imagine them smiling with approval. This was indeed a God they would want to believe in.
And when Jesus talked about the large landowner who sent his servants to collect his share of the produce from his tenants (often demanding as much as half of the produce of the land) and the tenants beat the servants and sent them off, they must have applauded loudly.
These were not “made-up” stories; Jesus was telling it as it was. And he was telling them that, in the Kingdom of God that was coming, their lives were going to be very different.
And when Jesus talked about the labourers who waited in the market square all day, hoping to get a few hours work, they knew exactly what Jesus was talking about: some of them, no doubt, had “been there, done that”. And when Jesus said that even those who were given work at the eleventh hour also received the same wage, one denarius – enough to feed their family for the day – they were astounded; they never heard of any rich vineyard owner doing such a thing. A rich landowner who actually cared whether his workers had enough food or not! And when Jesus tells them that the rich vineyard owner is like God, they are filled with wonder; could God really be a God that cares about them and whether their families will get fed? They want to hear more about this wonderful God.
But Jesus didn’t just tell people about the God of compassion. When Jesus healed the blind and the lame and the lepers, who were told by their own religious leaders that they were cursed by the God of the law, in the very act of being healed they experienced the God of compassion that Jesus revealed. This was a God beyond all their expectations.
And Jesus ate with sinners. Sinners who were told by their own religious leaders that they were forsaken by the God of the Law. In their table fellowship with Jesus they experienced the unconditional forgiveness of the God of compassion. This was not just “Good News,” this was extraordinary news, beyond all their expectations.
And when Jesus reached out, in friendship, to the unwanted and marginalised, who were told by their own religious leaders that God had rejected them, they experienced the unconditional acceptance of the God of compassion. This is what they had not even dared to hope for, and now it was becoming a reality for them.
And when the rich young man wants to follow Jesus, he is told that he must first share his wealth with the poor. When he is unable to do so, he is sent away, sad. You can hear some heckler in the audience shouting up: “Good for you, Jesus. That guy doesn’t care about us. He only cares about himself. He cannot be part of our Kingdom.”
Jesus is telling those who came to listen about a Kingdom where those on the margins of society will be welcomed, respected, and valued instead of being rejected, despised and unwanted; where people will reach out to the poor, and share what they have, so their needs will be met, instead of being ignored. In this new Kingdom, people will live together in a totally different way and by totally different values to the values of the kingdom in which they are now living. In this new Kingdom, their King will be, not the brutal Herod or the warmongering Caesar, but God, a God of compassion, a God who cares.
The God who liberated the people of God from their suffering and oppression in Pharaoh’s Kingdom has now come, in Jesus, to liberate the people of God from their suffering and oppression in Caesar’s Kingdom.
So they wanted to know: where was this new Kingdom to be found? And what did they have to do to enter this Kingdom of God? The early Christian community Most Christians today, if you talk about the Kingdom of God, presume you are referring to Heaven, a Kingdom in another place and another time. Traditional spirituality refers to our time on earth as a pilgrimage, we are on a journey to our true home in Heaven.
The early Church, after the death and resurrection of Jesus, understood that, in their community, the Kingdom of God was already present here on earth. This community was to continue the mission of Jesus, to reveal the God of compassion by being the compassion of God to each other and to the world. In this community, the Kingdom of God that Jesus had announced was close at hand, was now present in our world.
I read the Gospels now, not as instructions to me as to how I should live my life according to the moral laws of God which Jesus revealed, but as instructions to the early Christian community – and therefore to us, as the Christian community in our time – as to how we are to live together in order to be the Kingdom of God on earth. A community of radical solidarity And so I read the story of the feeding of the five thousand people (Luke 9) Five thousand people spent the whole day listening to Jesus. In the evening, the disciples had to go up to Jesus and say: “Jesus, would you ever shut up. The people are hungry. Send them off to the towns and villages around, so that they can get something to eat.” The whole point of the story, for the early Christian community, lies in Jesus’ answer to the disciples: “No, you give them something to eat yourselves.” The Christian community understood that this was an instruction from Jesus to them. They were to ensure that they reached out to those amongst them who were in need and not leave their needs unmet. In their compassion and care for each other, they revealed the God of compassion.
The early Christians understood that they were to live together in radical solidarity with each other, loving each other with a love that was willing to share everything for the sake of those in need. Just as Jesus had given up everything, including what was most precious to him, his own life, for their sake, so they, as followers of Jesus, were to be prepared to give up everything, even what may be most precious to them, for the sake of their brothers and sisters. And so the rich young man, a good young man, a young man who had kept all the commandments from his youth, a young man who was every vocation director’s delight, nevertheless, he could not become a follower of Jesus, could not be admitted to the early Christian community, because his unwillingness to share what he had for the sake of those in need was a contradiction to everything that Jesus lived and preached, a countersign to the Kingdom of God, to revealing a God of compassion by being the compassion of God.
A community of radical inclusiveness
One of the characteristics of Jesus’ life that was remembered and passed down from generation to generation of Christians in those early communities was the fact that Jesus shared table fellowship with sinners (Luke 5 v30) “Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners.” And “eating” of course signified friendship and acceptance. This caused Jesus endless difficulties. “How could this man be from God, when he associates with the enemies of God, those who do not keep the Law?” good living people, asked. The God of the Law cannot tolerate the actions of the God of compassion. Jesus didn’t go up to sinners and ask them were they sorry for what they had done, and did they promise never to do it again, and if so, then he would be willing to sit down and eat with them. No, the Gospels tell us simply “Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners.” How would the early Christian community understand these words when they heard them read at the Sunday Eucharist? Seven simple words which any ten year old child could understand, but they couldn’t understand the meaning of them. Jesus they knew to be God, the Son of God; “God eating” would bring to mind the Kingdom of God in Heaven, which was often portrayed as a meal at which God presides. And who will be present at that meal? Why, those who were excluded, unwanted and marginalised here on earth by the God of the law. And, so they reasoned, if they will be welcomed amongst God’s guests in the Kingdom of God in Heaven, then they should also be welcomed in their community, the Kingdom of God on earth.
And so the early community understood that this radical inclusiveness, revealed by the actions of Jesus, was normative for their community and life together. In this community, no-one was to be unwanted, rejected or marginalised, or made feel second-class.
Yet there are those in second relationships or gay relationships or unmarried relationships who feel excluded and rejected by the Church because they are not living in conformity to the laws of the Church.
There are priests and religious, both male and female, who experience only condemnation, exclusion and marginalisation by the very Church which is mandated by its founder to reach out to all in compassion, love, and tolerance.
And there are women who feel second-class citizens, marginalised within their own Church, solely on the basis of their gender.
A community of radical equality
In this community, not only were economic relationships to be transformed, inequality and greed replaced by sharing and caring, but social and political relationships were also to be transformed.
In this community, all relationships are based on equality. While there are different roles within the community, some are prophets, some are teachers, some have leadership roles, there is to be no differentiation of status in this community:
“But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have only one Teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have only one Father – the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called teachers, for you have only one teacher, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Matt 23 v 8 – 12)
In this community, everyone is to be equal, except one, the Leader of this community, the Risen Jesus. This Community was to be a community of brothers and sisters, free of all domination. Jesus warned the community against replicating the relationships of power that existed in the wider society. “But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; (Matt 20 v 25-28) In the washing of the feet at the Last Supper, Jesus himself showed the apostles what leadership meant in the Kingdom of God. ‘Do you understand,’ he said, ‘what I have done to you? You call me Master and Lord, and rightly, so I am. If I, then, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you must wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you.’” (John 13 2–15).
The God of the law requires those in leadership roles to uphold the law by rejecting those who defy the law.
The God of compassion requires those in leadership roles to sit down and eat, and discuss, and share with those whom they perceive to be defying the law.
The Christian community, then, represents, in history, what God desires for all humanity in the face of poverty, oppression and violence – a community which lives together in radical solidarity and equality, and so in justice and peace, over whom God can reign. This community is both 100% religious and 100% political.
Imagine a parish where everyone’s needs were met, there was no-one hungry, no-one homeless, no-one lonely who was not being visited, no-one in hospital who was not being visited, no-one in prison who had been abandoned by the community. And in this community, everyone felt loved and valued and respected, no-one was marginalised or made to feel unwanted, everyone’s views were listened to with respect and discussed in love and tolerance.
Wouldn’t that be the Kingdom of God on earth?
• This talk was first given by Fr Peter McVerry  at the AGM of the ACP on Friday, Nov. 9th

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  1. Thank God Fr Peter you are not a theologian or a scripture scholar. If you were you would have been silenced by the Church of the law, many years ago. I was privilaged to be in attendance in the Regency Hotel on friday last. I would hope that those who are totally committed to the present model of church, would ponder on Fr Peter’s words. Open your hearts to the God of compassion.

  2. Con Devree says:

    Fr McVerry’s main point is totally correct, painfully so. Interaction with the poor is a great educator. One cannot quibble with “Love can cause no harm to your neighbour, so love is the fulfillment of the law.”
    His penultimate paragraph begins with “Imagine a parish where everyone’s needs were met.” Earlier he paints the relevant picture: people living in “radical solidarity” where no one is “unwanted, rejected or marginalized.” The “relationships of power that” exist “in the wider society” are not to be replicated. There are examples of people whose practices are not acceptable.
    Four reasons are given as to why the imagined state of affairs is not being realized: fear; that our life circumstances filter our attitudes (well established in sociology); that those in “leadership roles” in the Church do not “sit down and eat, and discuss, and share with those whom they perceive to be defying the law;” that our God is regarded more as a God of Law than of compassion.
    Are these reasons comprehensive enough? There are some more important dimensions, vital evidence and realities.
    First, history reeks of evidence of the poor for whom their faith was a significant consolation
    Second, we have examples of those who truly loved “each other with a love that was willing to share everything.” I refer to just two – Blessed Mother Teresa and former Jesuit Fr Richard Ho Lung. The former was blessed with a congregation exceeding 5000 in her lifetime. The latter’s congregation resembles a male version of Blessed Teresa’s, started in 1981 and has 500-600 members.
    Third, these two people demonstrate that we need more than reason or biblical narratives or persuasion to act in accordance with our responsibilities. These are not sufficient. Blessed Teresa and Fr Richard exemplify a total loyalty to the Magisterium, a commitment to unity, and an utter reliance on The Eucharist, prayer and penance. The early Church had these and this explains why it “thought it [solidarity with the poor] was a great idea.” This loyalty, commitment and reliance enable us to surrender to grace, and are the antidote to the filters Fr McVerry refers to. They place us into new spiritual circumstances.
    Could I have the temerity to suggest that Fr McVerry catechize us bit more on the way of the Blessed Teresa and Fr Richard?

  3. You may not be a theologian or scholar, but you are a brilliant teacher who speaks with and from his heart, and that’s its true power. You know how to plant the seed that is the Word of God and help it take root and blossom.
    I do wish to thank you for this and the admin for posting. Something was playing on my mind of late and you have very much clarified it. Confusions with the ‘god of law’ and the God of Love. You should have it published somewhere.

  4. John Healey says:

    It is true that there is much more to our faith than rules and that we must always strive to be charitable. On the other hand, the notion that Jesus was totally accepting of all forms of behaviour, a sort of “let-it-all-hangout” radical, provided this was done in the name of love is untenable and impossible to reconcile with so much of the Gospels, including the passages below:
    “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:18-19.
    “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Matthew 13:41-42.
    “Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6.

  5. I was truly saddened by John Healey’s post (no 4) above. It appears to me that John was throwing cold water on Fr Peters work. I do not know Fr Peter personally, but I was present when he gave his address at the Regency Hotel recently, and I firmly believe that I was in the presence of a very great and selfless Priest.
    Quoting selective passages from scripture to prove a point was I believe an insult to Fr Peter. I understand scripture means different things to different people depending on context. Matthew 19.24 is a good example,”It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God”. If that quotation is accepted literally than Fr Peter and myself have nothing to worry about. However I cannot say the same for the Pope and his Cardinals.

  6. John Healey says:

    @Ger Gleeson. It was not my intention to pour cold water on anyone, but it would be misleading to suggest that because Jesus was accepting of sinners he was accepting of sin and unwilling to call sin by name. This was not the case. He didn’t tell the the woman taken in adultery that adultery was not a sin; instead, she was told by Him to go and sin no more. The New Testament is full of such references. There is no point trying to wish these away because they seem uncomfortable. The Gospel is both uncomfortable and challenging and is surely meant to be.
    “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.” Matthew 7:13

  7. John Healey, nowhere in his address did Fr Peter state that sin was acceptable to Jesus. He was continously talking about SINNERS,INCLUDING YOU AND ME, AS WELL AS THE UNFORTUNATE PEOPLE HE WORKS WITH ON A DAILY BASIS. The joy of the forgiving God is much better news for all of us, rather than the God of Fire and Brimstone, which we all grew up with. Only God himself will deal with the sin.
    My favourite saint has as far as I know has no name. He was the good thief on the cross. Jesus did say to him with his dying breath, “Today you will be with me in paradise”. I have a funny feeling that he will say that to hopefully all of us. After all he is the God of Compassion.

  8. aine cassidy says:

    I don’t understand why Fr McVerry believes that he is not a theologian or scripture scholar, from what I read, I think he is blessed biblical rabboni with a very bright future ahead of him!!!
    God bless your work

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