I think I was six. Mum had gone out to something and dad was in charge. I wanted to go out to play and was told, “be back by seven.” But I wasn’t. When I got in, I got a spanking and remembered showing my mum the next day my glorious wounds! I was never late home again.
I was not happy about that spanking, but I later realised my dad was educating me, he was loving me through discipline. Had he not disciplined me, who knows what I would have got up to? Instead, I learned that there were limits, and that limits were for my good. Indeed, I learned that I was limited, that I needed taught, that I did not know everything nor was I free to do anything. And when you learn these things, sometimes through bitter experience, you become more authentic, you become who you really are. If you don’t learn them, chances are that you will become a wild and disturbed human being.
The Word of God addressed to us today basically says the same thing, but takes it to a much higher level, to the level of what is right and wrong before God. Human beings have a love-hate relationship with right and wrong. We love right and wrong when it comes to doing our exams. No child can say, “one and one may be two for you, but not for me.” Reality imposes in such things what is correct and incorrect. If you were stopped for driving on the wrong side of the road, you would not dare say to the policeman, “driving on the left may be alright for you, but not for me.”
Parents who let their children do what they like fail to form them in what is right and wrong. A parent knows instinctively when something their child proposes is good for them or not. They would fail in love if they did not act on that instinct. When you get a bottle of pills, you know it’s harmful, it’s wrong to take more than the prescribed dose at the prescribed time. So, again, in such matters we are gladly aware what is right and wrong.
What is astonishing is that, when it comes to morality and religion, suddenly we are told that there is no right and wrong, no black or white, no good or evil. Inexplicably, the name of the game in morality and religion is little more than controlled chaos. Everything is grey. There can be no steadfast rules. The very way of thinking which is so obviously ridiculous when it comes to saying one and one don’t make two or its okay to drive on the wrong side of the road, that way of thinking is now the norm. It’s what’s right for you, what you think is good, what is harmful in your perspective. In morality and religion everything becomes relative, everything is optional in a kind of take-or-leave-ism. Cafeteria Catholicism.
Whereas the policeman and the arithmetic teacher are to be obeyed, there is no need to obey God – after all He is so merciful! – no need to pay heed to what the preacher says – after all he is just a man – no need to worry about becoming wild or disturbed morally or spiritually – after all, what you decide for yourself is all that matters and “doesn’t do anybody any harm.”
The truth is that right and wrong are all the more necessary in the moral and religious context precisely because morality touches the core truth of what it means to be human and religion concerns the ultimate destiny of our lives. We should not be less preoccupied about good and evil, right and wrong, in our moral and religious lives, but all the more so. And it is Jesus Himself who condemns evil and wrong and who praises and loves good and right. No-one can seriously read the Gospels and conclude that Jesus did not care about standards or norms in our moral and religious lives, or that he left no clear parameters as to what He expects of us. Otherwise, today’s Gospel makes no sense. Why would He talk about the brother who has done some serious wrong needing to be corrected? Why would he establish excommunication if the sinful brother does not respond to the efforts of the community to correct him?
When Jesus says that the brother is to be treated like the tax collector or sinner, he means that a public separation from the community is in order due to the seriousness of his sin, until such times as the brother repents. In other words, the discipline is in place in order to bring the brother to his senses, repent of his sin and find peace and joy once more within the community he had offended.
Also through Ezekiel, in the first reading, God makes it plain that there is such a thing as mortal sin, sin that kills the soul. He holds the prophet, the preacher, responsible for the death of the sinner if he does not plainly tell the sinner his sin. Here is the basis of the terrible responsibility placed on the preacher to denounce sin, to teach what is the law of God. He must speak the truth in love, of course, but saying “in love” should not then disqualify him from speaking the truth! It is love to speak the truth. He must be as sensitive as he can be, of course, to his hearers, but he cannot let fear of offending sensitivities, or fear of opposition, silence him. And if a person’s sensitivities are offended by the truth, it may be that that very suffering brings them to the awareness that there is something in their lives which is not in line with the truth. It is their chance to find repentance and healing.
Neither the preacher’s fear nor the sensitivities of the hearer can be the standard of what is to be preached. I know that I am more afraid of the threat that God made to Ezekiel (that he would lose his soul) if I do not preach the truth than I am of the opposition and sometimes the anger of those who hear what I have to say. Human annoyance can be unpleasant, but it will pass. Divine anger will not. If I can put it this way, I am terrified of not speaking the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help me God.
All of that said, it is true that living the truth in morality and religion is not easy. No one denies that. Nor does anyone deny that sometimes in certain circumstances it is not easy to see how the truth can be lived. But the truth of what is right and of what is wrong are like two crutches, to help us walk in the moral and religious life. When someone is weak, you don’t help them by kicking the crutches away. You give them stronger crutches, you point out the path more clearly and, above all, you administer to them the sacraments of divine grace to give strength to their trembling knees. If there are grey areas, grey is only grey because it mixes black and white, right and wrong. The idea is not to leave someone in the grey, but to help them towards the white. If we linger in the grey when we can move to the white, we are in bad faith and may be secretly courting the black. Christ died that the black be blotted out, that we come to the light. He did not die that we would remain in sin or in uncertainty, but that we would have the comfort and consolation of his Truth.
I therefore encourage you to blow the dust off your catechism, or to get one in the first place, and to learn or refresh your memories on the moral and religious truths of the Catholic faith. They are not a threat, but an immense gift of the loving mercy of God. They are the road map to salvation. Surely, we cannot neglect such grace!