I would think all priests have a kind of toolkit that they use in the brief pastoral moments in the celebration of the Sacrament of Penance. For example, they may have standing penances that they like to give in certain circumstances. For me, speaking strictly in the abstract and hypothetical, let’s imagine a child confessing meanness to a younger sibling, or a spouse treating their partner badly. As a penance, I might ask them to spend the rest of the day responding to that sibling or spouse with complete care and kindness, so much so that the aggrieved person thinks that the new saintly helper is ill. I can imagine that children go away thinking that this could be fun, a kind of game, while spouses might go away thinking that the exercise is pointless, that clergy don’t understand loveless marriages.
Those responses might symbolize the hope or despair we have for the future of humanity, especially Christianity’s potential to shape that future.
When people embrace the possibility of overdoing forgiveness, generosity, love and care, there is still hope for us. When people hunker down behind their walls, resentments and resignation, we cannot hope for much.
Three times in today’s important Gospel teaching, Jesus questions and challenges those who have a business transaction view of relationships – “What credit is that to you?” “What’s extraordinary about that?” “What merit is that?” – if you are just simply responding in kind to those who are good to you. You be nice to me, I’ll be nice to you. I’m ok, you’re ok. And if you’re not nice to me, look out, we are enemies.
How is that a helpful way for humans to get along? Or, for that matter, how is that any improvement that we have with animals, who don’t know better?
Today’s Gospel wisdom offers a broader, godly, expansive view of relating: welcoming, not-judging, open-hearted, in the very imitation of Jesus himself.
Even though there is less green space on our planet, we see how the “law of the jungle” is alive and well with human behavior. Aggression, authoritarianism and brute force are back in style. Depending on what happens in Ukraine, we could be back in the cold war – or worse – very soon. Where is human love imitating divine love, “be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful”?
So, even though this isn’t confession, I’ll still recommend to everyone to practice for the rest of the day: be as kind and attentive and present to everyone you meet, at least for today. And maybe that will spark something that will stick with you for a lot longer. Lord knows our world needs it.