One of the ways in which the message of the Christian gospels has changed our society, even among those who claim no allegiance to any of the mainstream churches, is the way in which people have come to respond with outstanding generosity to the needs of others, especially when it comes to national appeals in the face of major disasters or regular appeals through such charities as CAFOD for the assistance of those in need in the developing (or sometimes not-developing) regions of the world. But a godless charity is an impoverished charity, and somehow we must find a way of strengthening the spiritual element in what could easily become just well-intentioned conscience calming.
Each year a firm sends me one of those desk calendars where you tear off a large red number to display today’s date, and at the bottom of each page, in small print, it offers you a pithy quotation such as: ‘If the facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts’ – Einstein. Others are anonymous sayings to live by, such as ‘Flattery is like chewing gum, enjoy it but don’t swallow it’.
One recent one seemed to me relevant to the theme for our Sunday reading, it read: “Don’t look down on anyone unless you’re helping them up’. I don’t know who said that but we can all see what it means: it reminds us that the role each one of us is called to play in the common enterprise of getting through life to our eternal destiny, and helping others to do so, is not a matter of securing our own position in the pecking order but of thanking God for any success we may have achieved, rather than boasting about it, and putting our skills to good use by holding out an unostentatious hand to those less fortunate than ourselves.
For our Sunday we do not have to look very far: St Paul is telling the Corinthians amongst other things that they are indeed smart guys and have been very successful – and he urges them to be helpful to the poor, not by impoverishing themselves but by being generous in proportion to their disposable or superfluous income. In the Gospel we have two examples of Jesus helping individuals who have approached him, the second (the raising of the supposedly dead daughter) being a very literal example of my calendar’s exhortation not to look down on anyone unless you are helping them up. Jesus looks down on the sick girl out of love and pity rather than contempt – and he raises her up to life.
Week after week now in this season of so-called “ordinary time” we will be getting these little extracts from the ongoing message or good news which Jesus preached over a period of some three very intensive years. One can divide them into all sorts of categories and themes and of course, we get them in little weekly dollops whereas they were generally preached as an ongoing continuum. The danger inherent in the way we receive them on a Sunday by Sunday basis is that they carve up the Christian precept almost as if we could have a list with little boxes in which we could tick things off. The catechism doesn’t help here in the way it gives us lists of deadly sins and corporal works of mercy. Even the New Testament shows evidence of dissensions among the disciples between those who favoured what they called works over the more spiritual aspect of religion which they called faith.
I don’t want to take this complaint too far because clearly it is both possible and often useful to present things in the form of an ordered list and we are assured by St Paul that different people quite simply have different callings in life. But the essential unity of our response to Christ’s message is something we need always to keep in mind: our prayer, our compassion and our practical charity complement each other and make up a unity – that single-minded approach to everything and everyone which constitutes our Christian philosophy of life. That is why, unlike pagan religions, Christians talk about the love of God and loving God. Love is all pervasive, it doesn’t chop things up – or count the cost.