Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Imitating Matt Talbot as to the one Master

In response to a question, Fr. Bernard McGuckian S.J. quotes Matt Talbot as an illustration regarding the distinction between appropriate respect and servility. (JB)

What is asked of me?

Fr. Bernard McGuckian, S.J.
The Messenger, January, 2009

Patrick D. writes: 'But I say this to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you' (Mt. 5:44). I find this demand of Our Blessed Lord very, very hard to follow. I am tired of people walking over me. The more civil and subservient I am to them, the more this happens. So do I really have to pander to people to be a proper Christian? Fr Bernard McGuckian SJ replies.

The Scripture passage you quote is from the famous Sermon on the Mount. Jesus starts off with a reminder and a demand for attention which he repeats no less than six times. 'You have heard how it was said... but I say this to you.'

There is an implication here of a divine right to speak in this way which was not lost on some of those listening. It would eventually lead to his crucifixion for making himself equal to God. He was claiming the right to tell them that what was good enough for their fathers was no longer good enough for them. He was also raising the tape for all of us. This is clear from what he says about killing, adultery, divorce, truthfulness, vengeance and the one in question here, love for enemies and persecutors.

Jesus is concerned about what goes on in the hidden places of the heart because this is where the great drama of every human life is played out. He sees very little worthy of praise in refraining from murder since he asserts that there will be hell to pay for even thinking or speaking badly of others. He astonished his listeners then, and still does, by suggesting that it is possible to commit adultery with a woman who is not even aware that someone is looking lustfully at her.

To God, what goes on in the secret of our hearts is as clear as day. He may or may not be impressed with what he sees. Again, there is nothing particularly godlike in showing love to people who are nice to us. If God limited himself to loving those who love him, where would we be? On the contrary, He does not withhold sunshine or rain from any of us, regardless of our conduct. Jesus presents this expression of divine mercy and compassion as a model for our imitation.

The big change that has taken place between the Old and New Testaments is that Jesus, the Incarnate Word of God, is now among us in person. After his Passion, Death - and Resurrection, the 'amazing' grace that makes possible a higher moral standard is available to all humanity. However, we can choose to ignore Jesus and
his offer of help, thus depriving ourselves of the resources needed to live a fully Christian life. 'Cut off from me,' he said 'you can do nothing' (Jn.15:5).

Forgiving enemies is certainly one of the important things beyond the powers of unaided human nature. However, if we stay close to Jesus, accepting both his example and his grace, we will be empowered to share in his magnanimity on Calvary: 'Father, forgive them for they know not what they do' (Lk.23-34).

You write about being 'civil and subservient'. I would be reluctant to bracket those two words together. The former is a virtue, the latter a vice. We should always be civil and courteous to other people but never subservient. Subservience, with its connotation of obsequiousness and servility is unworthy of a Christian. Often it is only a ploy, as in the case of Uriah Heep, in David Copperfield, immortalized in literature by Charles Dickens and sometimes described as 'humility with a hook'.

Venerable Matt Talbot, the saintly Dublin working man, showed how clearly he understood the distinction between appropriate respect and servility in a famous remark he made about the owner of the timber yard where lie worked: 'T. C. Martin is my boss. He is not my master.' Matt had only one Master. We should all imitate him in this.

'So, do I really have to pander to people in order to be a proper Christian?' My answer to this would be a categorical 'no'. To pander is to cater to the lower tastes and desires of others or exploit their weakness. One dictionary says that to pander is 'to satisfy another's whims, tastes or desires, especially where these are considered to be in some way inferior'.

This is worlds apart from what St. Paul had in mind when he said that he made 'himself all things to all people'. Entering sympathetically into the lives of others in a helpful way did not require him to approve of all that they did nor to lower his own personal standards. He wanted to do them good as he saw it. The same applies to each one of us.

Proper Christians don't pander to anybody. They try to love others as Christ loves them. They mustn't be like 'Poor Judd', the old curmudgeon in the musical Oklahoma. In one of the songs Curly tells us - tongue in cheek - that Judd really loved everybody and everything, only 'he never let on'. True love always finds a way of 'letting on'.


Note: Fr. McGuckian is the Central Spiritual Director of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association, of which Matt Talbot was an early member.