Leviticus 19:1-2.17-18; 1Corinthins 3:16-23; Matthew 5:38-48
A few weeks ago I bought a Volkswagen Golf. Great car! Love it! Except for the indicator switch which is on the left hand side where the window wiper control should be. You’d think Mr Volkswagen would have … oh, never mind!
The point is that this little change has entirely brought me undone a number of times, especially in moments of pressure. Contrary to my instructions, my right hand continues to believe that it alone is permitted to turn on the indicators and habit is adamant there must be no change, no role reversal. To misquote St Paul: I fail to carry out the things I want to do, and I find myself doing the very things I hate.
Habit is a terrible prison because it runs so deep in us. Lately I’ve been trying not to say ‘Our Mass is ended; go in peace’. Someone reminded me the correct phrasing is not ‘our’ Mass but ‘the’ Mass. Do you think I can manage to remember the change? Only about once in every ten Masses – but I’ll get there in time because, like changing hands for the indicator switch, this change is only a very minor habit which will not require me to change my inner self.
If only every change were like that! But there are, as we all know from experience, habits that can only be changed by changing ourselves. Anyone who’s ever given up smoking or alcohol will know what I’m talking about. Changing these habits can be very, very daunting. They require motivation, will power, support from others and perseverance. They also require the virtue of hope: hope that the victory can indeed be won.
I gave up smoking 33 years ago and distinctly remember that horrible feeling of waking up to the awful realisation I could never put another cigarette between my lips again. It was like a death in the family. A dark void hovered over me which told me I would never be happy again. It was a lie, of course. Gradually that darkness began to break up and every now and then bits of sunlight broke through until, one morning, I woke up and knew I was free. And this brings us to the real reason for getting rid of bad habits and thereby changing our inner selves: so that we might be free.
So that a man might be free to love his wife faithfully Jesus last week taught that if a man looks at a woman lustfully, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart. In other words, learn to keep your eyes to yourself – become pure in your heart! How many of us have made a resolution to do this? How many have persevered in the struggle? Those who have will have experienced what St Paul really meant by the words: I fail to carry out the things I want to do, and I find myself doing the very things I hate.
So that we might be free Jesus says: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. How many of us have sincerely resolved to obey this command of the Lord? – to so change the inner composition of our unyielding, proud, revengeful hearts that we become capable of actually loving our enemies?
Lest we think this is impossible we should recall the opening words of last week’s first reading from Ecclesiasticus: If you wish, you can keep the commandments, to behave faithfully is within your power.
Naturally enough we will require the grace of God to achieve every inch of progress. Nothing is possible without God’s help and fortunately, he is always ready to give it.
There are so many areas of life we Christians blithely neglect, either because we think them unimportant or because we believe them impossible to achieve. How many prospective converts are turned away from a parish when they see the lack of inner conversion in parishioners who constantly gossip about one another; who judge others in their community with small-minded nastiness; who criticise whatever fails to meet with their personal approval?
Each of these sins is worthy of insertion into a good resolution to change.
The call to conversion is real; the need to respond is essential. Why? Because we are children of God and much of our behaviour is not worthy of our heavenly Father. Indeed, I imagine he would be ashamed to call many of us his children.
I have made a few resolutions in my life and some, like giving up smoking, I have kept. The Father has a resolution for each of his children and he requires that we give it our full attention. It is slightly more difficult than the one Mr Volkswagen requires of us but it's far more fulfilling: You must therefore be perfect just as your heavenly Father is perfect.