Mark 7:1-23, 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
It happened again last week. I heard from a friend yet another story of a priest who refused to bless the body of a troubled teenager who took his own life. The mother pleaded with the priest desperately and tearfully, my friend said. The young man had always been a troubled child, probably suffering from depression. I imagine nothing could break a mother’s heart more than the death of a child who took his/her own life. And in this case, nothing might have consoled the mother better than the simplest blessing from a priest. Well okay, if it was really against the priest’s conscience to bless her son—because maybe he wasn’t updated in his catechism, or he was taught wrongly in the seminary—would it have killed him to come over and pray with the family? Still, the priest remained unmoved by the mother’s pleading. This is the third story I’ve heard this year of certain priests refusing to bless someone who took one’s own life.
In the past, our Church regarded suicide as a “mortal” sin. If you remember, sin is “mortal” when with full knowledge and full consent, someone deliberately and gravely harms another person— and well oneself, which is the case in suicide. But modern psychology has since guided our Church towards affirming a very crucial reality: that people who take their own lives may not always be fully in their right minds. Thus, because their freedom and will are impaired, they may not be entirely culpable. The catechism says: “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, suffering, or torture, can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.” I hasten to say, however, that suicide is still wrong, in the sense that we must never, in any way, shape, or form harm ourselves. Suicide should not happen and must be prevented at all cost. But see, the greater part of that responsibility lies more on us who are well, rather than on those who are not.
The Pharisees lived by a roster of meticulous don’ts, especially regarding purity. But in their breathless obsession with the don’ts, they left the do’s gasping for air. Logically speaking, Pharisees did have do’s. But their do’s were merely the obverse, the default opposite of their don’ts. They did eat with ritually pure hands, for instance; but only because that was the obverse, the default opposite of: “Don’t eat with ritually unwashed hands.” They did purify their cups and plates, jugs, kettles, and beds, but only because it was the obverse of: “Don’t use houseware without cleansing them according to kosher rules.” So, it might not be entirely logical to say that Pharisees lived only by don’ts. The big problem was that their do’s were just the opposite side of the same coin—a shiny but worthless coin.
When the priest heard the word “suicide,” it must have set off an alarm of don’ts in his clerical-head, his priest-head, drowning the more consequential do’s in his pastoral heart, his shepherd’s heart.
Our Lord invested himself fully in people’s lives. His ministry was a daily “doing-for” and “doing-with” the people. He healed and fed and drove out demons. Jesus’ do’s were not simply the obverse of don’ts in his head. He did heal, but it was not an obverse of “do not get sick,” which would’ve been absurd. He fed, but it was not an obverse of “do not get hungry.” When he drove out demons, not an obverse of “do not be possessed.” Illness, hunger, and possession were curve balls that life pitched to real people in Galilee. So, Jesus spent his days doing everything to catch curve balls. He allayed people’s fears, restored their health, nourished what they starved for. So at the end of each day, I imagine, in God’s checklist for his son, he marked: “done, done, done.” The Pharisees, meanwhile, sat—no, perched on a high pole of don’ts, up and away from people in real need. So I imagine, in God’s checklist for them, he marked, “none, none, none.” If you live with so much don’t’s than do’s, you really might end up with nones rather than dones.
Imagine growing up in a family where the children must live by don’ts. There are families like that, by the way (and I guess, seminaries, too!) Don’t do this and don’t do that. That’s not allowed. Don’t be that way. The children grow up either very passive and scrupulous. Or they swing to the other extreme, become reactive and cantankerous, having been judged and jailed for the don’ts they breached back home.
Dear sisters and brothers, to mature in faith in God, we must eventually outgrow scrupulous compliance to don’ts. As you might have long noticed, we’re not always capable of avoiding evil, even with the best intentions. Yet, even in the ever-present possibility and reality of sin, there is always a good we can do, a good that’s always within reach. Should we desire a closer following of the Lord, doing good for others must preoccupy us much, much more than maintaining personal and pious purity.
It all comes down to our image of God again, doesn’t it? If we think that being a Christian is all about a whole set of don’ts rather than do’s, maybe the image we have of God is a God of no’s rather than of yes’s. Imagine if that were true. Imagine if God judged us merely according to the no’s and the don’ts that we failed to obey. Thank God it was a God of yes’s that Jesus revealed to us in his life and ministry. In fact, Jesus was so busy with God’s yes’s to people, he left the Pharisees an impression that he was flouting God’s “No! Don’t!” When in fact, he lived, was killed, yet rose again all to the Father’s “Yes, do!
*image from the Internet