Irish Jesuit priest Fr Peter McVerry suggests that Jesus was crucified by well-meaning people who genuinely believed they were doing God’s will by removing a dangerous troublemaker. They were well-respected, good living people who kept the Jewish religious laws faithfully; praying, fasting, paying their tithes, observing the Sabbath strictly and avoiding contact with sinners. Why then did Jesus condemn them so strongly?
Keeping the law and observing our religious duties are obviously good and virtuous deeds. The problem arises when we think that such observance is sufficient or even the most important part of religion. In his account of the Last Judgement (Mt 25) and in the Parables of The Rich Man and Lazarus (Lk 16) and The Good Samaritan (Lk 10) Jesus makes it clear that without love, service, compassion and mercy, outward religious performance is empty.
On several occasions in the Gospels Jesus is described as feeling compassion – for the crowd, for two blind men, for the widow of Nain, etc, always responding to the pain and sorrow of the needy. Compassion lay at the heart of his ministry, as it must for his Church, which is all of us. But those whose religion was confined to legal observance and outward ritual, while neglecting mercy and compassion, he condemned as “hypocrites” (Mt 23:13-28).
Our world places great emphasis on performance; on success, wealth and status. It admires and glorifies ‘celebrities’ and ‘high fliers’ – those in the fast lane of life! Last month we were fed by the media with stories of Olympic ‘stars’ creating new records and achieving world fame. Of course there is nothing wrong with striving for success and progress. Indeed it is our duty to develop our talents and achieve our full potential in life and in society. The problem arises when we regard these achievements as a measure of our true worth; when they become an end in themselves to such an extent that we are ready to resort to any means – drugs, corruption and other dishonest methods to achieve them, and look down on those left behind.
There is always the danger that our religious attitudes too may become corrupted by the superficial values of the world we live in. We may judge our spiritual health by external performances like the Pharisees of old. Some religious groups imagine that salvation is reserved for the elite (including themselves of course!), for those who are ‘righteous’, and they will ask “Are you saved?” But God himself assures us, “The Lord does not see as human beings see; they look at the outward appearance but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam 16:7).
At the Special Olympics (for handicapped people) in Seattle, USA in 1976, nine competitors lined up for the 100 metres final. At the sound of the gun they all started but one of them stumbled, fell over on the track and began to cry. The others heard the cry, slowed down and looked round. Then they turned and went back, helped the fallen runner to rise and, arm in arm, walked together to the finishing line, as the whole stadium burst into prolonged applause. I’m sure Jesus applauded too!
When it comes to the heavenly Olympics prize-giving, there will be many surprises! Jesus tells us “Many who are now first will be last and many who are now last will be first” (Mt 19:30), and he thanks the Father, “Lord of heaven and earth, for having hidden these things from the wise and learned and making them known to little children” (Lk 10:21); to the ordinary, humble, simple and compassionate people of our world.
Bro Columba Gleeson