6th Sunday of Year A

At the Law Institute in Melbourne there is a restaurant called, “The Bottle and the Snail.”  It is named after a famous law case in the early 1930s, the case of Donoghue and Stevenson.[1]  A young lady had drunk a bottle of ginger beer and as she was finishing it discovered a snail at the bottom of the bottle.  Within a few days she had fallen sick, but at the time there was no legal apparatus by which which could gain any kind of compensation.  Eventually the case was taken all the way to the English House of Lords which accepted the principle in common law which is now the basis of all compensation cases in our legal system. The premise of our legislation now, as it was in the case of Donoghue and Stevenson, is the ‘duty of care.’  Individuals, companies, organisations and associations have the duty to take every reasonable step to avoid injury being inflicted on other. Given that this principle of duty of care has become so much part of our thinking and practice today it is strange to think that it only came into law around the middle of the last century.  It took a long time to enshrine this principle of our social practice in law and to develop in what we now call, Work Health and Safety.

Today’s gospel reminds, however, that such a principle is not new to the Christian heart.  The principle of the duty of care is fundamental to the approach to others taught us by Jesus, and it underscores the moral imperatives given us by the gospel we have just heard.  Those imperatives are all put forward as expressions of the law of the new kingdom brought into the world by Jesus.  It is to be the law not of a court tribunal and sustained by a fear of retribution for transgression, but rather a law of living together which flows from a particular disposition of our hearts. Ultimately, of course, it is to the law of human relations; the law of love.  

One of the greatest Christian writers, Augustine, writing in the 5th century, declared, “Love, and do what you will.”[2]  It was an extraordinary affirmation that if we focussed on the most loving response, the most loving action, the most loving outcome then our behaviours would find the right balance between freedom and responsibility.  Love is that which brings freedom and responsibility together.  “Love, and do what you will,” wrote Augustine.  “If you keep silence, do it out of love. If you cry out, do it out of love. If you refrain from punishing, do it out of love.”  

The Gospel and Augustine, however, are not talking here about love as kind of modern feeling.  From the Christian perspective love is never simply reduced to a feeling.  Rather, love is the decision to consider life from the vantage of the other.  Ultimately, love from the Christian perspective is the decision to die to oneself in order that another might rise to a fuller life.

We cannot be reminded enough that Jesus never simply calls us to feeling lovingly towards one another.   There are many people in our world whom we will never feel lovingly towards, for all manner of reasons.  We are not called to feel lovingly towards them. No, the Gospel calls us to act lovingly in others’ regard. 

Regretfully, we can get caught in a very modern trap that unless we feel a certain way, we cannot act in that way.  This is a modern lie, and we need to confront the lie often.  We can feel one way, and we can act another way.  This is not about a lack of integrity.  This is not to become hypocritical.  I can feel one way; I can act another.  I can feel lazy, and still act diligently.  I can feel nervous, and still act confidently.  I can feel angry, and still act lovingly.  I can full of hurt and revenge and still act with forgiveness.  I can feel full of doubt, and still act with faith.  If we waited until we felt a certain way before we acted, we would rarely achieve that way of living we are called to by Jesus. 

Feelings are one thing; actions are another. We can never base our actions on what we feel.  I am not saying that our feelings are not unimportant.  They are vital indicators.  I would not want to join in the sentiment expressed once by one of the old monks in the monastery in which I lived for many years who once declared with great intensity, and with breathtaking irony, “I HATE feelings!!”  However, our feelings are only part of us. They rise and fall for many different reasons, not all about which we are fully conscious.  We do not base decisions on them.  We base our decisions, and our actions, on our values.  And these values come from outside of us.  They come from the Gospel, which is larger than myself, and they come from the wisdom of my religious Tradition which is greater than me.  Conversion is not about changing the way we feel; it is about changing the way we act.  Integrity is not about aligning our actions with our feelings.  Integrity is about aligning our actions with our values.  This is precisely why to act with integrity is to act with courage.  We transcend what we feel; and we act out of a conviction of what is objectively right, not simply in regard to what might feel right subjectively. Morality is not about how we feel. It is about how we act.  The Gospel does not call us to feel a certain way. It calls us to act in a certain way.  

Jesus is not calling us, however, to act in a way completely irrespective of what is going on inside us.  In fact, as the gospel puts before us, it is quite the opposite.  For it is true, the more we act in a certain way, our feelings will follow.  Feeling follows action, rather than action following feeling. I think this is what Jesus is trying to underscore in the moral imperatives he gives us today.  He is calling us to act in a certain way that puts the other first, not ourselves. And in so doing he recognised that in time our actions will become more and more grounded in an interior disposition, constituted not by our irascible feelings, but by love, that decision to think in terms not of our self, but of the other. 

When we act from love, we are demonstrating the living law of the gospel:  it is living because it is that which creates life. All else is like a snail preserved in a bottle of ginger beer.

[1] See Sir Harry Gibbs Legal Heritage Centre, “Donoghue v Stevenson (1932) AC 562, https://legalheritage.sclqld.org.au/donoghue-v-stevenson-1932-ac-562

[2] Augustine, Homily 7 on Letter of St John, n. 8.

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