One thing everyone knows about Christians is that they should never, ever judge. No matter how badly people behave, no matter how much hurt or harm they cause, no Christian should ever presume to judge another’s conduct, still less condemn it. Christians should be compassionate and forgiving, and they should live much more simply and frugally than the rest of the world. Anyone reading today’s gospel, Luke 6. 36–38, will see I have written nothing but the truth — though that reference to frugal living is possibly more a construct of the popular imagination as it applies to priests and religious, as Cardinal Fell is discovering to his cost. So, why the tone of irony?
I am ironical because, like most literal interpretations of scripture, it can easily end up distorting the scriptures to mean the opposite of what they intend. When Jesus tells us to be compassionate as our Father is compassionate, he is asking something huge, but he is not asking us to suspend our rational faculties. Common sense is precisely that — common, and sense. We are to try to see others as God sees them, but that does not mean we are to be blind to their faults or indifferent to the danger they pose. Compassion for Mohammed Emwazi, for example, ought not to mean he should be allowed to go on butchering people, rather the reverse. It is in his own best interests — as well as those of other people — that his violence should be checked. That is to show compassion both for him and for his victims.
What about judgement in general? Here I admit we are often on trickier ground. Social Media is awash with instant, sometimes very harsh, judgements on people. We tend to condemn the sinner with the sin, ourselves determining that it is sin in the first place. Take Cardinal Fell’s expenses, for example. When I read through the list yesterday, I actually chuckled. Some things seemed to me perfectly explicable. Having flown Economy from the U.K. to the U.S. a number of times, I can imagine someone flying from Australia to Europe opting for Business Class, if possible, especially when such a ‘comfortable shape’ as the cardinal; and as to spending $3,600 on vestments/clerical tailoring, only someone who has never had the misfortune to have to buy something of that nature will know how highly the (lay) firms that supply such goods charge. Other items, such as the expenditure on furniture, probably deserve closer scrutiny. What we are dealing with, however, is not so much what the cardinal spent as public perception of a how a cardinal should live. Secular clergy do not take a vow of poverty, but we still make assumptions about what is or is not fitting based on a monastic ideal of simplicity of life. Is that right? Although no friend to extravagance, I’d have to say I don’t think it is, although I’m always uneasy when those who serve as priests or religious are self-indulgent in material things.
Today’s gospel requires a lot of prayer. It can’t be interpreted to mean one thing, and one thing only, in any and every circumstance. It may make us think more deeply about how we engage with others; how we determine and, on occasion, defend our values; it should certainly make us more loving and generous. But I don’t think it should make us wishy-washy. When people tell us how they think we should live our monastic life, or how we should deal with a particular situation, we usually weigh what they say, in case, like the visiting monk, they have been sent for that very purpose, but we don’t necessarily agree or act on their suggestion. A doormat is a doormat and not really an adequate expression of being created in the image and likeness of God.