Doin’ the Right Thing

Homily at St Philip Evans, on the Thirty-First Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year A.

A Jesuit and a Franciscan sat down to dinner. On the table was platter with one large fish, and a smaller fish. As soon as the Franciscan had said grace, the Jesuit reached over and took the larger fish for himself. The Franciscan took the small piece, in silence. Aware that there was a bad atmosphere in the room, the Jesuit asked what the problem was.

“It’s just that St Francis taught us that we should always choose the smaller portion for ourselves,” said the Franciscan.

“So what’s the problem?” said the Jesuit, “That’s exactly what you’ve got!”*

We expect certain standards of behaviour from the people around us – and all the more so when those other people are religious leaders, politicians, or exercise authority in business or public life. During the last couple of weeks the news has been full of claims of people whose integrity has fallen short – first in Hollywood, then in our Houses of Parliament.

Human nature hasn’t changed much in 2000 years. We’ve just heard Our Lord calling out the Pharisees for making rules and then setting a bad example. The first reading dates from 500 years before that, when the Prophet Malachi condemned the Jewish priests of his day for not following God’s law.

St Paul, on the other hand, is trying to set a good example: for the last three weeks we’ve been listening to his letter to the Thessalonians, which is the earliest piece of Christian writing we have. When Paul and his mission team went to Thessalonika, the people saw that these missionaries were living with integrity between when they taught and how they lived; they didn’t even ask for money, but earned their own living while they were preaching the message. In turn, the Thessalonians embraced the Christian message fully, and started living according to the teachings of Jesus.

Part of our problem in Britain today is that our culture is no longer based on the teachings of Jesus. Even 50 years ago, there would have been a shared understanding around Christian values. If two people wanted to have a close relationship, they would start dating, then get married, and only then enjoy full intimacy. Once a person was married, they were not available for other relationships. Of course people got tempted to break the rules – but by and large, there was peer pressure from family and friends to keep the rules.

In today’s world, the rules are different. Society around us can’t agree on any other rules, so the only possible rule is: adults can do whatever they like together, as long as they agree. But when personal relationships get mixed up with the person who can choose whether you get a promotion or pay-rise, there is always a subtle pressure which means you are not totally free to say no. We Christians need to recognise this. If we are are unmarried or widowed, and therefore free to seek a romantic relationship, we would do well to identify a few rules for ourselves.

  • First, we must choose not to date anyone with whom we have a power-relation, either as a boss or an employee. If we do fall in love in such a situation, the price of pursuing the relationship should be for one person, preferably the more powerful one, to leave the organisation. (This is an ideal – but we should hold ourselves to high ideals.)
  • Second, if we do choose to flirt with someone, it should only be someone we view as a possible future husband or wife – someone who is also unmarried or a widower.
  • Third, when we do start dating someone, we should set out our values clearly from the beginning: we believe that certain kinds of intimacy must wait until we are married. This avoids disappointment and misunderstandings for all concerned. We can no longer take it for granted that other people – even if they are churchgoers – automatically share this point of view.

Some of us come from cultures where it is normal for parents to make introductions in the hope of marrying their children into good families. It’s not wrong to make suggestions, but the Catholic Church teaches that marriage must always be a free choice between the man and woman concerned. If you do choose to arrange a possible relationship for your children, integrity requires that you give your adult child room to say “no” with dignity. It would be a terrible thing to place your offspring in a dilemma where honouring their parents means accepting a relationship they are not entirely comfortable with. Indeed, Scripture warns parents not to “drive your children to resentment”.

Of course, integrity goes beyond romantic relationships. We may be in workplace situations where we are asked to break a rule or give someone an unfair advantage in exchange for a pay-rise, promotion, or other perk. Perhaps Our Lord had this kind of situation in mind when he said “the children of this world are more astute than the children of light”. It’s a very worldly thing, to do someone a favour in return for some advantage. But that’s not how Christ asks us to live. If we truly put our trust in him, and resist such behaviour for his sake, then I believe that he will bless us because of it. Scripture declares that God will turn all things to good for those who love Christ JesusA finger pointing to the left with other fingers curved over the hand's palm.

So remember the old saying, that when we point the finger at someone, there are three fingers pointing back at ourself. So how is your integrity today? Before we rush to condemn the greedy Jesuit, or anyone who happens to be in the news headlines this week, let’s examine our own behaviour, and raise our own standards. This requires self-discipline, but we can also encourage each other to keep high standards. It’s up to us! Remember one more old saying: A true gentleman is someone who knows how to play the bagpipes… and doesn’t.

* Adapted from Jesuits Telling Jokes.