EIGHTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
Sir 27:4-7, 1 Cor 15:54-58, Lk 6:39-45, Integrity. Positive Judgments of Others; Our Call to New Life in the Risen Lord; Mind Your Tongue!
People in the world business used to be proud to have the motto, “My word is my bond.” Once one’s word was given on a deal, it was considered binding. A transaction worth millions could be completed by a few words or the shake of a hand. The action of a few moments would receive written confirmation a day or even weeks later.
It’s an uncompromising adherence to a code of moral or other values – utter sincerity, incorruptibility, honesty, and candour. Integrity of character avoids any and all kinds of duplicity, deception, artificiality, or shallowness. One of the difficulties with developing integrity is that that’s most easily done in reflective silence. That doesn’t mean we can’t publicly talk about it. Today’s liturgy does.
Today’s Gospel is a series of three unrelated separate sayings of Jesus harvested into one place, either because St Luke strung them together that way or because Jesus had adapted himself to the Jewish way of preaching. The three sayings have to do with the blind leading the blind, the splinter in a companion’s eye, and a good tree and its fruits. The sayings are part of Luke’s “Sermon on the Plain”, the charter of Christianity, perennially meaningful. Shorter than Mathew’s “Sermon on the Mount”, the sayings are short lists of absolutely essential components of authentic Christianity – “one-liners” such as modern co-medians use, like “take my wife – please!” Jesus’ one-liners here are about being a true follower of Jesus, mostly in the area of integrity within oneself and having positive judgments of others.
Jesus applies these principles to several areas. For one thing (vv. 39f.), there isn’t much sense to leaders trying to guide others until and unless the leaders have been there themselves. For another thing (v. 41f.), we ought to have enough integrity to see both ourselves and others honestly. Jesus must have been exercising his sense of humour when he compared a splinter in a neighbor’s eye with a whole wooden beam in one’s own. His idea can be encapsulated in the old saying that there’s so much bad in the best of us and so much good in the worst of us that it hardly behooves any of us to talk about the rest of us. To the Christian disciple who’s concerned with the faults of another and ignores his own, Jesus applies the word “hypocrite”, a designation he had previously given only to the scribes and Pharisees.
Lastly a good tree doesn’t bear rotten fruit, nor a rotten tree good fruit (vv. 43f.). While this isn’t scientifically true, Jesus’ meaning is that internal dispositions reveal themselves in external actions –something like today’s aphorism to the effect that “if you give them enough rope they’ll hang themselves.” Someone once said to a teacher, “I can’t hear what you say for listening to what you are.” People show their true condition best when they’re being themselves. If a person’s speech is profane or crude, we have a right to conclude that there’s something wrong with the person inside. He’s insecure, or weak, or ignorant, or doesn’t like himself very much.
The portion of the Book of Sirach in today’s First Reading uses the same approach. Written almost 200 years before Christ, early on this long book of 51 chapters was called “Wisdom of the Son of Sirach”; then it came to be also called Liber Ecclesiasticus, “Church Book”, because the Church made extensive use of it in presenting moral teachings. It’s a collection of helpful, holy teachings. Today’s excerpt is a very good example of the widespread emphasis on speech in the Wisdom literature of the Ancient Near East, as well as in the Jewish Scriptures. This emphasis on speech was carried forth by the teaching of Jesus and other New Testament passages, especially the Epistle of St James.
Sirach says that people’s faults appear when they speak, especially when they speak and aren’t considering their words. We often hide behind masks – but conversation reveals our inner thoughts no matter how careful we are to dissemble. Speech is a means of testing the inner character of a person, because what comes in speech betrays what’s in our heart. The climax of the reading is the last line (v. 7), saying that what a person says is clearly the test of that person. Sirach’s teaching is very relevant for human integrity in today’s world of public relations and image-making, the soundbite and the slogan.
Through speech God gave human beings the ability to communicate in greater detail than any other animal, and yet some people are so gross in its use! Speech is mightier than fighting, speech can be poetry, speech is civilization itself, speech was made to open person to person, but we allow our use of speech to degrade our integrity. From the speech we hear in the streets, we wonder how much of our speech is the improvement on silence that it’s supposed to be. We even desecrate the reverential silence we’re supposed to respect at church on Sunday. The maid in the courtyard the night Jesus was being condemned told St Peter, who at the time was denying Jesus, that his speech gave him away (Mt 26: 73), and the same is true of us. Speech is a mirror of the soul; as a person speaks, so he is.
If we need motivation toward integrity, today’s reading from St Paul gives it. In this chapter, Peter asserts that belief in the resurrection of the Lord implies belief in the resurrection of the faithful. In today’s passage, Paul’s own experience of the Risen Lord and his life of hardship focused his attention on the life beyond the present world. Our new life in Jesus renders insignificant the physical death that appears so final and complete to those who don’t see life in terms of the eternal risen life of Jesus.
Sin, scorpion-like, contains a string, by which it injects a poison (v. 56). That poison is death, moral if not physical. Being so personally self-satisfied as to be constantly criticizing others and lacking true integrity is one result of that poison. As the poet (Anonymous, The Man in the Glass, adapted) wrote:
When you get what you want in your struggle for self
And the world makes you king for a day,
Just go to a mirror and look at yourself,
And see what THAT one has to say.
For it isn’t your father or mother or spouse
Who judgment upon you much pass;
The person whose verdict counts most in your life
Is the one staring back from the glass.
That’s the person to please, never mind all the rest
For he’s with you clear up to the end.
And you’ve passed your most dangerous, difficult test
If the one in the glass is your friend.
You may fool the whole world down the pathway of years
And get pats on the back as you pass.
But your final reward will be heartaches and tears
If you’ve cheated the one in the glass.
Paul ends the chapter, as he often does, by making his teachings a challenge. In this case, it’s a demand for action – be firm, steadfast, always fully devoted to the work of the Lord (v. 58), knowing that we have all the glory of our resurrection to look forward to.
Even so – called educated and highly successful people often appear to lack the integrity to find meaning, direction, and contentment in life. Our entire goal is to respond to God’s call to new life with the risen Lord, a life that results both from his gift and our efforts. Fulfilment of that goal is infinitely worth the struggle involved in retaining our integrity. Our children are often the best judges of integrity versus phoniness. They’re not impressed by false fronts of even their parents. We can’t fake integrity or hide it, so let’s try deliberately to develop it.