A Question of Focus

Earlier this morning I thought of writing a post about conscience with topical allusions to Bishop Philip North, the new guidelines being proposed by the General Pharmaceutical Council and the European Court of Justice’s decision regarding the wearing of religious symbols in the workplace. But I quickly realised that any such post would end up becoming not a discussion of conscience but a battle over the rights and wrongs of the three cases I intended to use as illustrations.

I don’t think such a diversion would be because people failed to see the point I was trying to make (although sometimes they do); I think it would be because the point they themselves wished to make was infinitely more interesting than anything I could say, and who could possibly blame anyone for that? We all do it. We all love to turn the subject of conversation round to something that really interests and engages us. The only problem is, we tend to do the same thing when confronted with scripture or the liturgy or anything else that requires us to stand aside from our own noisy certainty and listen, humbly and attentively.

I often think that when Mrs Zebedee came to Jesus and asked for James and John to sit at his right hand in the kingdom of heaven (today’s gospel, Matt: 20. 17–28), it was not so much because she was a pushy mother as because her sons had very selective hearing. They had filtered out all Jesus had said about suffering in order to concentrate on the coming glory of the kingdom. Their focus turned out to be quite different from that of Jesus. This Lent we might all usefully ask ourselves what we are trying to filter out from the gospel, what we are trying to avoid. The answer may surprise and chasten us.

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Pushy Mum (and Dad) Syndrome

We are all familiar with Pushy Mum Syndrome: the mother whose energies are entirely devoted to advancing her child’s chances in life. All her ugly ducklings are swans, if only the world would see; and how hard she works to make sure the world does see! Pushy Dad Syndrome also exists but can be harder on the little chip off the old block, who is expected to be everything his father never was — and more. I wonder whether Mr and Mrs Zebedee would recognize themselves in that description, the pushiness and the fiery temper being among their traits passed on to their sons. When the mother of James and John approached Jesus to ask a special place in the Kingdom for her sons, I daresay both parents justified their ambition by claiming it was not for themselves. They were only interested in the good of their children. The put-down Mrs Zebedee received must have delighted the other disciples, though they may have shivered at what Jesus had to say about servanthood (Matthew 20.17–28).

Today’s gospel alerts us to two things most of us would rather not think about: the way in which we can deceive ourselves about our true motives — doing things for the good of others is surely irreproachable — and our reluctance to embrace the sacrifice that following Jesus necessarily involves. Scrutinising our own motives isn’t easy and often requires someone else to show us what we would rather not see. It can be painful, but we need to remember that truth is ultimately not only freeing but healing, too. As to sacrifice, we are surely far enough into Lent for everyone to realise that it is not the little sacrifices we take on ourselves that count, but the unexpected ones God sends us that matter. If that sounds rather severe on this lovely spring morning, there is something more we could reflect on. God desires only what is best for us, genuinely so. In him there is no trace of Pushy Mum or Pushy Dad, only infinite love and goodness.

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