Sunday, 23 February 2020

Gossip: Love your Enemy, 7th Sunday Ordinary Time, Year A

Mt 5:38-48
We just heard the Lord Jesus Jesus give us the command to “Love your enemy”.
This is one of the most beautiful, but most difficult, parts of the Lord’s teaching.
Today I want to focus this on the issue of gossip, on what we do with our WORDS, because this is one of the primary examples of how we can fail to love our enemy.
And this, in different ways, is very easy for us to fail to do.

In the Gospel, the Lord spoke about those we “hate”(Mt 5:43).
Most of us tend not think that we “hate” people:
We might dislike people we find disagreeable,
We might feel hurt and wounded by people who have done us harm.
But, we tend not to think that we “hate” them.

However, let’s think about what hatred is.  
The great master and teacher of the moral life, St Thomas Aquinas, says that hatred is when we wish ill to someone.
I want someone to lose his job,
I rejoice when someone’s fence blows down, etc.
Love, in contrast, wishes the opposite:
Even though that person cost me my job, I want him to get a pay raise.
Even though that son-in-law is bad for my daughter, I want him to be healthy.
["To love is to will the good of another"(CCC 1766, citing St. Thomas, ST I-II q26 a4).]
Sometimes, it can be really difficult to love someone, 
It can be really hard to will-the-good for someone.
The model here is God:
God wills good weather to both the evil man and the good man (Mt 5:45),
God wills salvation to both; He wants both to convert and be saved.
And the Lord tells us that we must be perfect as He is perfect (Mt 5:48).

How does this work with speech, with words?
When there is someone we dislike,
When there is someone who is opposing what we want,
It can be hard to speak well of him,
It can be hard to think well of him,
It can be hard to love him.

To speak evil of someone, however, is to do evil to them.
To criticise someone’s character, is to DAMAGE them. [C.f Summa Theologica II-II q73]
St Thomas notes that a person’s most valuable social possession is his reputation, his “good name”.
Without a good reputation we cannot function in society
-no one will engage with us, we are alone and bereft, or at least partially so.
[c.f. Catechism n.2477: "Respect for the reputation of persons forbids every attitude and word likely to cause them unjust injury."]
When we damage someone’s reputation, we steal from them something we have no right to take.
Gossip is thus sometimes compared to theft, 
though other saints compare it to murder -wounding another; social death.
The saints teach us that gossip is a mortal sin, a sin so serious that we can go to hell for committing it.

Sometimes people say to me, “I don’t gossip, I just say what it is true”.
BUT,  usually it’s not our place to say something, even if it is true.
AND, frequently, things we think are true are only partially true,
Or we don’t know some other fact that changes the overall assessment.

Why am I saying all this?
In part, because I think there is serious habitual problem with gossip in our parish, something that seems to have been in this parish for many years.  [Postscript: I was told after this sermon that Canon Patrick Chrystal preached one of his last sermons here on the problem of gossip in this parish, a 'much stronger' sermon than this one.  This reinforces the impression that this is a long-standing issue in this parish.]
Two weeks ago I praised our parish (see here), for all the good that has been done and is done here:
the charitable work, the food bank support, the visiting of the housebound etc.

-all that is real and true, but sadly there is a darker side to our parish life.

This week, I need to do the opposite of praising this parish.  I am saying this about gossip, here in this parish, because I think this is a particularly big problem in our parish:
speaking ill of others.
Now, some of you, I know, will hear this and be surprised 
-you never gossip, and the parishioners you mix with don’t.  If so, that great.
-there are some truly beautiful souls in this parish who are either oblivious to this, or, better yet, see it and rise above it.
Others of you, however, will hear this and deny it 
-you’ll say that your words of criticism are needed, you’ll deny that you gossip.  
I have been amazed, in my nearly 4 years in this parish, how blatantly people will speak ill of others 
-in front of the priest!
Not one occasion, but many occasions, by many people, continuing over 4 years.
So, Gertrude will say, “The problem with George is that…”
And George will say, “The problem with Peggy is that…”
And, when I, as parish priest, have gently tried to correct the lack of charity in someone’s speech, my words have been either brushed aside or not even understood
-the gossip and criticism and wishing-evil-to-others are so HABITUAL that the criticism isn’t even understood.

So, what I am asking today, is that we all examine ourselves carefully on this point:
Does what I am saying DO GOOD for the person I am speaking ABOUT?
Do I really have a right to say such a thing?
AND, because it always takes two people for gossip to happen:
Have I LISTENED to gossip?  
Have I interrupted and told someone that they shouldn’t be criticising others?
God causes sunshine to pour down on the evil man as well as the good,
Who am I to DO evil to someone that God does good to?
Who am I to SPEAK evil of someone that God does good to?
Who am I to tolerate it when someone else speaks evil of another?

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