Some years ago when I was a prison chaplain I was talking to one of the inmates in our local women’s prison. She told me that she had been working on the streets and was HIV positive and also had Hepatitis C. It was addiction to drugs that had put her on the street and had kept her there for many years. It was probably the sharing of needles that caused her two illnesses.
She was well educated and came from a good family. She bitterly regretted how she had wasted her life and wanted to experience the love and forgiveness of God. She acknowledged that it was only the fact that she was now locked up in prison and faced a sentence of several years that had enabled her to break through the bars of the even worse imprisonment of her addiction.
Jesus words in the Gospel today are both good news and bad news. His words are good news for that young woman and the many like her. But they are bad news for those who are so fixed in their own self-righteousness that they don’t even recognise that they too are in some way imprisoned.
With Jesus there is always the chance to turn back from the road to perdition. He is always there just over our shoulder, as it were, waiting and indeed longing for us to turn to him. But turning to him requires a certain degree of humility; it requires an acknowledgement by us that we are actually unable to manage our lives by ourselves and that it is only by coming to recognise our dependence on God that we will ever find salvation.
This is not easy for the self-important. Those who want to make a splash in the world; those who crave the recognition and approval of others are themselves in the grip of an addiction. They rarely find their way to God without a crisis or a catastrophe in which they discover that by themselves they can do nothing of any real value. Often it is only by being brought low that they can be lifted up by God.
The Scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ time, and the equivalent in our own day, are caught in a bind. Their problem is that they believe that they alone are doing God’s will. Their pursuit of respectability means that they are frequently (but not only) to be found in prominent places in church and in society. They don’t realise that being in the Church means being an Apostle of Christ not a promoter of self.
Now there is a bit of the Scribe and Pharisee in us all. The hard but most essential task for each of us is recognising that fact and then trying to root out those tendencies. We don’t want to denigrate ourselves and sink into the gutter like the young woman I spoke about but neither do we want to Lord it over others like the Scribes and Pharisees. We want a middle road, but more importantly we want to do things Christ’s way.
And I think that is the secret: doing things Christ’s way. If we do what he did, if we think like he thought, if we mix with the high and the low and feel at ease with both like he did, if we pray like he prayed, if we forgive like he forgave, if we heal as he healed; if we do all these things we will find the golden road that leads to heaven.
There is a very important lesson for us all in this Gospel text; I think that it is probably most important for parents. The lesson is: Always leave a way back. In any family there are rows and disagreements especially when children reach the sometimes-stormy teenage years. Occasionally the problems seem irreconcilable and in heated arguments things can get said which are deeply regretted later. Frequently children leave home in the natural course of events to go to college or to work away or whatever. But sometimes they storm-off and sometimes they are ejected from the home.
In these extreme cases no matter how bad the behaviour or how hot the temper of the various parties it is very important that the parent ensures that the child knows that the door is left ajar. It is vital that they know there is a way back. The same goes for adult relationships which turn sour.
I remember once when I was living in the Salvatorian Community House in Wealdstone, the telephone rang and I picked it up. There was a young man on the end of the line looking for the Salvation Army. The Salvatorian Order and the Salvation Army are next to each other in the phone book and he simply got the wrong number.
After sorting out the confusion I realised that this young man was quite desperate. He was on the point of leaving his family home in the north of England to go to London. He was trying to find a bed at a Salvation Army Hostel for when he got there. I couldn’t help him on that one but I tried to dissuade him from making the journey since I knew from my previous work in a night shelter just how hard and dangerous life is in London for a homeless young person.
But he was quite insistent that he was going to London whatever I said. And he was going by coach the following morning because it was the cheapest way. In response to my questioning he implied that there were compelling reasons why he had to leave home. I understood that he might be the victim of some kind of violence or abuse or perhaps he had committed an offence and was wanted by the police. There could be many possible reasons but he didn’t want to say.
So, I switched tack and managed to persuade him to get a return rather than a single coach ticket which in those days just cost £1 extra. At least it would give him a way out if he couldn’t manage in London or got into difficulties there. He reluctantly made a promise that he would get that return ticket and then his money ran out and the call ended.
I don’t know what ever happened to that young man. It was a freak chance that he dialled the wrong number and ended up speaking to me. I don’t know if he took the advice, I don’t know where he ended up; all I know is that he was desperate enough to leave home and take his chances in London.
All I am proud to have done is tried to ensure that he had a way back; that, bad though his family situation might be, at least there was a way open for a reconciliation.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket