A Discerning Heart – Arnel Aquino, SJ

Matthew 23:1-12, 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time


Did you read about the 83 year-old old Chinese mother, Mrs. Huang, who killed her 46 year-old disabled son, Li? Li was born prematurely, in severe mental and physical disability. He could neither walk nor talk, and his condition worsened with age. From the day he was born to the day he died, Li was completely dependent on his mother. “I would never give up on him. He was my son,” Mrs. Huang answered when the court asked if she had ever thought of killing her son in the past. “But for the past two years,” she said, “my own health was too poor to take care of him. I’m getting older and weaker and might die before him.” She could have entrusted Li to her elder son but she didn’t want to burden him either as he was equally poor. “I’d rather commit murder than let my son suffer without me.” So, last May 9, Mrs. Huang fed her son 60 sleeping pills, stuffed his nose with cotton pads, and strangled him with a silk scarf.

“Oh, she’s going to hell,” many Catholics like us might think. “Oh, she must be deranged, but that doesn’t make the murder excusable, she will be judged guilty by God,” we’d think. “Oh, ‘thou shalt not kill is thou shalt not kill’. She killed. And her own innocent son. It’s like abortion,” we’d think. “Oh, age doesn’t matter. She is immoral. She has blood on her hands,” we’d think…and we would probably be right, objectively; that is, from an “objective” distance; that space that separates point A, Mrs. Huang, and point B, us. And in between point A and point B lay the clear and unmistakable words of law, God’s law and man’s, about life, about death, about murder.

But thanks be to God, the often cold and exacting words of law that spans between us and Mrs. Huang is alleviated, because you and I know that God did not create just words of law. In fact, God put in each one of us, a heart, even before he drew up the words of a law that would be later be the Ten Commandments. “Genesis precedes Exodus,” so to speak; the creation of the human heart precedes the creation of the law. But God made that heart a discerning heart, a heart that knows not only right or wrong, not only black or white, not only virtue or sin—but also discerns the many interstitial gradations in between. This is why, when I presented to you Mrs. Huang’s case, I suppose you found it very disturbing, precisely because you knew the law up here (in your head), but you also “knew” that something was happening down here (in your heart), something you knew was equally crucial, if not, even more crucial than knowing the law. And hey, discerning with the heart is not just “emotions” which many people say becloud reason, no. It’s a heart that discerns, a heart where God also moves, a place where the oftentimes the cold and yawning distance between word of law and spirit of the law is overlaid with mercy. That’s why in a case like this, even Judge Wan Yunfeng, an atheist, I suppose—even a non-believer like him had it “in his heart” to sentence Mrs. Huang to 3 years of imprisonment, but suspended for 4 years. Meaning, she would do prison time in 2020. By then, she would have been even older, if alive at all…which was really a mercy-call rather than a sentence.

Thankfully, there are still many Catholics who will think that the judge’s verdict is really a “no-brainer”, that you don’t need sophisticated savvy about the law to come up with a sentence like that, a correct sentence, a mercy-call rather than a judgment-call. Thankfully, there are still Catholics who think that if Jesus were to adjudicate Mrs. Huang’s case, based on his record in the Gospels, he would set her free. He wouldn’t condone the act. But he would free her. Why? Because of all people, the Lord knows you can’t throw two heavy stone tablets of law at two people who are already suffering.

“The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Do and observe all things they tell you, but do not follow their example. Because they preach but not practice. They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they won’t lift a finger to help them.” Do as they say, Jesus says, and not as they do. No, the Lord wasn’t asking the people to go ahead and start breaking laws, left and right, no. He just couldn’t believe how a bunch of men who loved to self-celebrate their lawfulness were suffering from the worst case of heartlessness…

…Which reminds me of the school here run by priests who, when they found out that a graduating student was a child of a single parent, kicked her out of the school… and the priest, who hearing the confession of a woman who had committed abortion years ago, gave her the penance of adopting a child to pay for the innocent life she killed… and the bishop of Madison, Wisconsin, who recently commanded his priests to refuse a Christian burial to any deceased partner in a same-sex relationship. I kid you not, sisters and brothers, whenever I read about the Pharisees, there is no time when I do not wonder if we, priests, are their reincarnation. Because what’s supposed to be a no-brainer, we smother with the law. But, thankfully, many Catholics—both priests and lay—still have a heart that knows it’s a no-brainer when faced with a Mrs Huang, or a child of a single parent, or a woman who committed an abortion and repents, or a surviving partner asking for a blessing on the dead. Thankfully, many Catholics, priests and lay, still have a fully-functioning heart…a heart that discerns, a heart that overrides the legalistic brain when it is behaving like an idiot.

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