Our first reading presents us with a vision of evil. Our first reading goes beyond wanton destruction, goes beyond the desire to watch the world burn, to quote Alfred in The Dark Knight. Our first reading depicts people seeking to undermine goodness. It shows the desire for others to give up and damn themselves. On this level, our first reading today is brilliant psychology. We see various reactions against good people, including shame, anger and the desire to challenge, to push to the limit, hoping someone will fail and fall to our level.
On the other side, it also presents us with the ultimate test of goodness, the ultimate test of faith: intentional, inflicted suffering. If someone tests us, do we really believe in goodness? Do we really believe that God will come to our aid? Do we really think that because we are in the right, we will win in the end? Will we act out or remain true? Can I maintain my integrity?
I’d like to tell another story now. One of the first AIDS hospices in Washington DC was run by Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. One of the patients there was particularly difficult. The story goes that every time the sisters came to feed him or wash him or care for him, he made it very unpleasant, insulting them, yelling at them, basically being a total pain. I am not sure what the timeframe for this was, but later a priest was doing the rounds. When he was about to visit this man, the sisters warned the priest how difficult he was. But when he got to the man, he found him as gentle as a lamb. In fact, the man asked him how he could go about becoming a Catholic. Given the contrast between what he had been told and what he was experiencing, the priest asked the obvious question: why do you want to be a Catholic? The man replied something along the lines of: “I have tested these sisters every single day, every single visit. I have been horrible to them. They have responded with nothing but love. I want to know the love that they know.”
This is why, though our first reading might be a masterpiece, when it is combined with our gospel, it becomes something else entirely, something completely transcendent. It is one thing to claim that I am on the side of right and that my God will vindicate me in the end. This type of faith is nothing to be sneezed at. It is the triumph of cultures like Greek philosophy, seen perhaps in the trial of Socrates. Plato wrote something very similar to our first reading in his Republic. Indeed, such faith, such truth has much to tell us about the victory of Christ in his Passion and death.
It is one thing to have this kind of faith, but it is another thing to have the perspective of our gospel today. Our gospel today (and indeed the gospel generally) takes all this to another level. Is my integrity at such a level that I can forget myself and focus on the other person? Can I do what Jesus commands? Can I treat my aggressors like I would a child? And how does one receive a child properly? What does a child need most of all? Love. Can I transcend righteousness in order to love my enemies? Can I look at those who attack me as children of God and therefore beloved of the Father? Do I like Jesus say to those who would betray me, Peace be with you?
I can only speak for myself, but when things don’t go my way, especially if I am frustrated, most especially if I am blatantly taunted, I am tempted to jump to vindication, to wonder how to win the encounter. I jump into the language of the disciples, about who was most important, who should win. Yes, I might be frustrated, but so what? Again, yes, there might be something true about a situation being unfair – there is something objective about justice. But the gospel goes beyond this. I am to welcome Christ in my neighbour.
One final point. When I was trying to work out what I wanted to say today, I went for a bit of a walk. While I was walking, I saw a fantastic silhouette of two trees dancing, projected onto a brick wall. I stopped to take a photo of it, and immediately the shadows disappeared. I looked up and, right at that moment, the sun had gone behind a huge cloud. I laughed at having missed the moment, and put my phone away. As soon as the phone was away, the sun popped out again, through a break in the clouds that I had not noticed. I got my phone out again, and just as I was about to take the photo, the sun disappeared again. I realised God was playing peekaboo with me.
Perhaps this might be a useful test of where we find ourselves in today’s readings. Have I kept a sense of humour or am I trying too hard to work out who won or what I am owed? Can I laugh with God right at this moment? Am I trying to catch a glimpse of God, who is always hiding waiting to be found, even in the face of an aggressor? God, who like a child is always ready to be loved because he has loved us first?