Sunday, May 15, 2016
Where Is The Line?
I remember when I was in my 20’s and Ron and Carla, our best friends, spoke about raising their kids. I was an advocate then of teaching strict limits --- there are the commandments --- but Ron, especially, was one who believed in teaching his kids (they had two) what he believed. “I’ve learned that things are not always black and white,” he said. I responded: “Well, kids being kids, wherever you draw the line, they’ll test it, they’ll stretch it to the limit, and soon create their own line much further out. You do them no favors by starting them with broad limits; set limits broad enough and they’ll soon have none at all.” Carla died about age 32, and Ron moved away and eventually found someone else to help raise his kids. I never got to apply my child-rearing theories, and my then-wife found another man, crossing a line that was all too clear to me.
Pope Francis today seems to be stretching the limits of our faith; he reminded me of Ron. The pope talks in words which seem --- especially to the secular press --- as if they are stretching the limits of the line which cannot be crossed. The pope doesn’t actually say that some things which were clearly defined as sin are now no longer considered sinful, but he does seem to want to talk about those things, as if the matter were open for discussion, as if “it’s not always a matter of black and white,” as Ron used to say. And that troubles many, including me. I want clear boundaries, perhaps recalling how in my youth I often dared to step over even those clear lines, and fearing what I might do if they were more grey, even today. I know me. And so some people, good people, rightly seem to say to the pope: “You’re leading the flock astray. With grey lines, there will be more of the flock (like me) sinning, and becoming lost.”
Those words of criticism, even of the pope, seem right to me, but then I noticed that word, “flock,” in what was being said.
The pope is often called the shepherd of the Catholic Church, and I recalled the story of the Good Shepherd, who left his flock to go after the lost sheep. He left the 99 to search for the one. Looking at Pope Francis’ actions that way, from the point of the loving shepherd, which he is supposed to be, perhaps I can see what he is trying to do (even if I still don’t totally agree). He seems to be reaching out over “that line” to the lost sheep. Unlike his flock “which know my voice,” the ones outside DON’T know his voice. Calling to them will accomplish nothing, and perhaps even scare them further away (stranger-danger alert). So he has to reach out to them, and get near to “that line” by his actions. Is that leading his good flock astray? Perhaps some who would hang on his every word and action might think so, but not most, who know him. I’m reminded of the time I caught my dad doing something wrong, and I said: “So, can I do that then?” And I recall clearly his answer: “You know the rules. Just because I jump in the water doesn’t mean you should follow. You can’t swim!” If I thought my dad’s actions were making “the line” a bit grey, he reminded me of how black and white it was, despite his actions. Maybe Pope Francis, reaching out to the lost sheep, is doing something similar.
I’ve read how some hear the pope’s words and think: “He’s setting up what used to be the norm as now being the ideal --- something not reachable. He’s preaching that we all sin. Yes we do; get over it; it can be forgiven.” From the pope’s words and actions it certainly can seem that way, but I think he is not denying our striving, our REQUIRED striving, for the ideal. Look at it another way: everyone should graduate high school with some knowledge of calculus. Is that an ideal? No, if you know nothing of calculus you might not graduate at all. But everyone can’t just be taught calculus and be expected to understand. A first grader won’t understand the concepts of calculus; he must grow and learn. That’s our life in Christ: we must grow and learn all our life; we must grow in holiness, becoming more like Him. Is that “an ideal,” since we will never become as gods here on earth? True, the PERFECT achievement of our goal is beyond us, an ideal, but the STRIVING to achieve it is not an ideal; it is a commandment. The pope is not changing the commandment to strive for the ideal, nor is he teaching ways around the commandment. He is reaching out across the line, to the first graders, to get them on the road to calculus, to get them to want to know calculus --- or in the matters of faith, to know Jesus Christ.
And all of this reminds me of, if you can believe it, an even bigger picture. It’s in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. It speaks about the unconditional love of The Father. The son who stayed at home --- like the 99 of the flock --- doesn’t understand the celebration at the return of the one who was lost. “But everything I have is yours,” the father explains to the loyal son. He gives that son unconditional love, but He also offers that unconditional love to the one who strayed. “But look at what he did,” the loyal son says. And it seems hard for the Father to get His explanation across, so he says: “What part of the word ‘unconditional’ don’t you understand?”
Unconditional love, the love Jesus wishes us all to have, to strive all our life to achieve, loves a person despite his actions --- even sins. Sins can be forgiven --- by Jesus, not us --- but we are to love the sinner anyway. In imitating Christ, we are to really “hear His voice and follow Him.”
So just where is “the line” we shouldn’t cross? It’s where it’s always been. And if we see others on the other side of the line, even if they seem happy, even if they’re celebrating all their victories of THIS life, even if the pope is beginning a conversation with them, we need to remember: They’re on the other side of the foul line. Their points don’t count in the real game of life, eternal life. The pope’s trying to get them back on the field.
And if all these things, these goings on of the pope still confuse us, perhaps we need to spend some more time reading the words of The Shepherd, so when we hear His voice we know it (and it’s not as hard to learn as calculus), and we won’t be pointing at others and saying “But look what they did”.
Finally, after considering all these things, I read the Gospel on this the feast day of St. Matthias, from John 15:17.
What I command you is to love one another.
There is no “line” beginning, ending, or bounding the limits of that commandment.