Instruct the Ignorant!

Homily at St Philip Evans, on the 5th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.

Do you show mercy in your daily life?

If we want to be merciful, like the Father, we must offer mercy.

If we want to make a good confession this Lent, we must face up to where we’ve failed.

Over the next few weeks, we will consider the spiritual works of mercy. Today, I invite you to ask: have I instructed those who are ignorant?

Consider ignorance. There are things we don’t know we don’t know, ‘til someone shows us. I’ll always be grateful to the friend who taught me that SHIFT-F3 on my computer keyboard can flip a word into capital letters – a great time-saver! And to the seminarian who taught me to kick a football straight using the side of my foot, not the toe of my boot. I’m reminded of the story of the teenage boy who left home thinking his parents were quite ignorant, and returned from college amazed at how much they’d learned in three years!

What about religious ideas? In last weekend’s sermon, we were reminded that God has poured blessings on outsiders, so we must be ready to reach out and invite them in. But in this day and age, it can feel very uncomfortable to claim we “know the right answer” about religious things.

You might have seen the recent BBC documentary where Adrian Chiles travelled the Mediterranean, interviewing religious believers. His closing comments made his position clear: he was the kind of Catholic who felt he had a lot in common with Muslims who care about people, and with Jews who care about people, but said: “If you believe your way is the only way, your truth is the only truth – I’m sorry, I’m not on your team.”

Ouch.

Our Lord Jesus once said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. No-one comes to the Father except through me.”

Does that mean Our Lord and Adrian Chiles aren’t on the same team?

St Paul wrote, in the words we’ve just heard, “The gospel will save you only if you keep believing exactly what I preached to you – believing anything else will not lead to anything.” He also tells us that he has taken care to make sure he is teaching what the other apostles also taught: that Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures. Knowing the truth matters.

An O-ring seal compressed in a vice - it stays that way when released, if cooledLast weekend, news programmes remembered that 30 years previously, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after take-off. The reason? Safety seals in the outer casing didn’t work properly in very cold weather. The risks were known, but NASA felt pressured to keep projecting a “can-do” attitude to spaceflight. When Nobel prizewinner Richard Feynman pointed this out, he concluded: “Reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”

Claiming that we know the Right Answer doesn’t always make us popular. But reality always wins.

There’s a right way to kick a football. There’s a quick way to use a Word Processor. And there is most definitely a wrong way to launch a Space Shuttle, if you want to keep its passengers safe.

We can sympathise with Adrian Chiles. He doesn’t want to claim there is a Right Answer about religion, because he is anxious – “How can we ever be sure that we’re right?” What he really means is that he finds something in our Catholic faith attractive enough that he is drawn to join, but not so compelling that he’s motivated to invite others.

Faith is a kind of knowing. It’s a knowing that we know without knowing how we know.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus calls fisherman to be fishers-of-men, to seek souls, to win people as his friends and followers. Does he do this out of self-interest, wanting a bigger crowd than any other rabbi – or does he do it because following Jesus matters?

Simon Peter sensed that it matters. What other rabbi could show a fisherman where to make a record-breaking catch?

St Paul sensed that it matters. Hadn’t this Jesus, after dying on a Cross, showed himself to 500 disciples all at once, and then to Paul himself while journeying to Damascus to take many Christians prisoner?

It’s a spiritual work of mercy to instruct the ignorant. But to do this, we have to know the truth, and know how to pass it on tactfully. The basics are the Creeds and Dogmas of our faith. In these, we are confident – we literally “have faith”.

How can we tell the difference between the basic teachings, and other things which are just the opinions of scholars, or the way we happen to do things? This takes study. It’s a spiritual work of mercy to instruct the ignorant. If you don’t know the answer, begin with yourself. After all, for some months now, we have been praying for the Lord to invite us to know him better, through study.

Do you show mercy in your daily life?

Today, I invite you to ask: have I instructed those who are ignorant?

If not, make a good confession – and then begin with yourself!