Sermons

Sun, Jul 02, 2017

A quintessential trait

Series:Sermons

So, Cardinal George Pell has been charged.

We don't know the details of those charges.

And I'm not going to make any comment about whether I think he's guilty or not--

that wouldn't be appropriate.

What I'm interested in is the subtle relish with which the matter is being reported--

not just in the media...

but, especially, on social media.

Why?

Why are so many wont to believe the allegations...

or, at the very least, to revel in them?

Perhaps it's that...

in many respects...

George Pell is a polarising figure.

Over the years, he's earned a certain reputation for his belligerent pontification.

Add to that, of course, the way that he has handled the whole paedophilia scandal:

within the diocese of Melbourne he instituted a process that offered only small compensation sums to victims...

along with stringent privacy clauses;

he personally instructed church lawyers, who were fighting victims' claims in court, to play hard.

And then, of course, there was his own testimony to the Royal Commission.

Despite all that was happening round him--

when he was a young priest in Ballarat--

and 'common knowledge' about certain paedophiles...

Pell stated, under oath, "It was a sad story and of not much interest to me".

In other words, he didn't want to know...

and he didn't care.

Similarly, before leaving the witness box he read an apology to a certain victim--

who had also been treated harshly by the church's legal response--

but, upon leaving, Pell walked straight past that same man without pause...

without blinking...

without any acknowledgment.

Therein, I think, lies the essence of our dislike of Pell--

the seeming lack of any compassion.

Someone who isn't moved by another's plight...

someone who seems incapable of empathy--

well, surely, they're capable of anything.

 

Empathy--

daring to walk a mile in someone else's shoes...

looking beyond my own experience and my own needs...

and considering another's--

it is, in many ways, one of the pre-eminent human virtues...

something that truly sets us apart from other animals.

And yet, we're not always good at empathising--

especially in the case of the vulnerable...

the marginal...

the different...

and the 'other';

and, in so doing, we only compound the vulnerability of the vulnerable...

and we demonise the different.

All too frequently, we fail to empathise--

out of fear...

out of apathy...

out of selfishness...

or, worst of all, out of uncaring ideology.

And that lack of empathy is, perhaps, at its most hideous and heinous... 

when it's religiously motivated.

Unfortunately, don't we see that all too often?

Be it the Church's mishandling of paedophile clergy--

endeavouring to protect the institution...

rather than responding appropriately to the victims;

or its treatment of gay and lesbian people;

or its attitude towards the terminally ill whose suffering cannot be controlled.

So often, throughout its long history...

the Church has failed to protect the weak and the vulnerable...

to embrace the rejected and the despised.

In some ways, perhaps, that was understandable--

if not forgivable--

in the centuries when the Church was dominant;

when it held a privileged position within Western society;

when, in many respects, it not only shaped...

but was shaped by...

the dominant cultural discourse;

when it reflected the dominant ethos and values of the world around it.

And, maybe sometimes, we don't fully appreciate how things have changed.

We don't appreciate that we--

the Church--

are now marginal to community life.

We still like to pretend that we're society's moral guardian...

and we still swallow so many of our culture's values and ideology uncritically...

rather than embrace our marginal place...

and allow our experience of marginality to feed our empathy.

 

And yet, if we look back--

back to a time when the church was in a marginal social position--

we find that it, too, struggled.

The community to which Matthew's Gospel was addressed was marginal--

they were small...

they weren't rich or powerful.

And they were treated with suspicion and contempt by their wider society--

both by the Greeks and Romans...

as well as the rest of the Israelite community from which they had come.

They were seen as different...

'other'...

strange.

They didn't fit in.

They experienced rejection, ostracism, and hostility--

especially from their own families.

And, within the context of ancient society, that was very profound.

Theirs was a world in which family was much more important than it is for us...

because most families struggled to make enough to survive...

and the household unit was the productive unit...

so they depended upon everyone doing their share.

It was a world where there was no social-security system...

and they were utterly dependent on their extended family for support.

So family division was, literally, a life and death matter.

And the author's comment, here-- 

that allegiance to Jesus would set father against son...

or daughter against mother--

was a reality that they did face.

 

And yet, there's a suggestion in this morning's reading...

that the experience of Matthew's community--

of rejection, ostracism, and hostility--

isn't necessarily producing a response of empathy.

For, he commends "whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of the little ones".

This expression--

"the little ones"--

is one of the author's favourites;

and how these "little ones" are treated mark...

for him...

one of the defining characteristics of a follower of Jesus.

Clearly, the expression refers to those in the community who are most vulnerable and most at need:

the powerless...

the weak...

the hurting...

the abused...

and the abandoned.

The author calls upon his community to recognise and draw upon their own experience...

and to show empathy for--

to welcome and embrace--

the last and the least;

those whom their culture and society deemed the lowest of the low...

the least deserving of compassion.

But his rationale is not just that that affirms our essential humanity.

No!

Even more than that, for the author, it is a theological issue.

If empathy--

seeing beyond my own experience and needs...

and understanding those of another--

is a quintessential human trait...

then...

according to the theologian, Charlene Burns, it's first and foremost a divine trait.

Surely the incarnation is nothing if not an act of divine empathy?

More than that, she argues, empathy constitutes for us the 'image of God' in which we are 'created'.

Thus, according to the author of Matthew's Gospel:

"Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me".

They are called to care for the lowest and the least...

as if they were caring for Jesus himself. 

That is the essence of what it means to participate in God...

to be children of God.

And, in that respect, nothing has changed!

 

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