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“Love God and love your neighbor as yourself,” Jesus says. The question then is: How do we love God and neighbor in the world we live in, for example, in our families? That’s the question the recent Synod of Bishops considered, the synod convened by Pope Francis who invited church leaders from around the world to join him in looking at the times in which we live, “the signs of the times,” and see how we can adapt to the changing conditions of society.
For two weeks in Rome, leaders of the Catholic church studied reports they received previously from all parts of the world, shared their reflections and made some preliminary recommendations. Now, the pope asked them to bring their reflections home to be discussed by their local churches and then return to Rome to continue the process with him next year.
It’s a long, extended process, over two years; it’s not finished yet.
You can read about the synod in your diocesan paper or online, and I hope you do, because it gives us an interesting look at family life in all parts of the world. You can find the working paper from the synod on the Vatican website.
Let me mention a few things from the working paper for the synod. As you might suspect, it reflected on the family from the perspective of the bible and church tradition, but then in Part II it takes up the challenges a family faces today.
One is a perennial challenge: lack of communication in families. Husband and wife not talking to each other, children not talking to parents. Where there’s no communication in a family, there’s a loss of meaning and an experience of love. (64)
Families can also be torn apart by violence and abuse, an abuse that can be psychological, physical or sexual. Families can be damaged by addictions to alcohol and drugs. The synod then mentions some dangers today from the social media and the internet, particularly pornography. (66)
Let me quote from its document: “… Television, smart phones and computers can be a real impediment to dialogue among family members, leading to a breakdown and alienation in relationships within a family, where communication depends more and more on technology. In the end, the means of communication and access to the Internet replace real family relationships with virtual ones. This situation runs the risk of leading to not only the disunity and breakdown of the family but also the possibility that the virtual world will replace the real one.” (68) The people on television, video games, become more real than the people in your home.
The economy and work also influence families. Let me quote again: “The pace of work can be fast and sometimes even exhausting…and increasingly hectic life leaves little opportunity for moments of peace and family togetherness…Increasing job insecurity, together with the growth of unemployment and the consequent need to look for work elsewhere, have taken their toll on family life. “ (70)
There’s a need for governments and businesses to make sure there are decent jobs and just wages, as well as programs that assist families and children. (71)
I think you can see from these few examples that the synod is looking at real life situations.
The 3rd chapter of the synod document gets most attention in the media. “Difficult Pastoral Situations.” The first difficult situation it mentions is the increasing number of couples, particularly in North America and Europe who are living together, without getting married. They do this for different reasons, the surveys say. Sometimes its because of “financial need, unemployment and lack of housing.” Sometimes it the “fear of making a commitment and the idea of having children. They don’t want to make definitive decisions or have responsibilities that come with marriage. The leaders of the church are asking–and we all have to ask– how can we help young people enter into the long term relationship which is marriage? (82)
Another difficult situation, “especially in Europe and across America is the very high number of people who are separated, divorced or divorced and remarried.” Because of their situation, many of them can’t receive Holy Communion. The questions being asked is what can we do to help these people and how can we make them and their children feel at home in the church? (86)
The final difficult situation is about same sex marriage. The synod is rejecting the view that homosexual unions are the same as the traditional union of man and woman. “Yet, at the same time, we need to make clear that men and women with homosexual tendencies ‘must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity.’” (110)
There’s an opposition, then, to “redefining” marriage between a man and a woman through laws permitting a union between two people of the same sex. We’re trying to find a balance between the Church’s teaching on the family and a respectful, non-judgmental attitude towards people living in such unions. (113)
I began with the simple words of Jesus, “You shall love God and your neighbor. Not easy in a complex world, but we’re called to do just that.
When Pope Francis called for the synod he asked the bishops to consult their people and listen to them. He asked for transparency in discussing these issues. He recognizes there will be different ideas and different solutions concerning these challenges. He said we are on a journey. It’s a unique process the pope has begun and I hope we all can enter into it.
Matthew’s Gospel contains many indications of the Jewishness of Jesus. In today’s reading at Mass (Matthew 5, 17-37), we can see him as part of the Jewish world in which he lived. A loyal, practicing Jew, he participated fully in his religion and culture. He kept the Jewish feasts and observed the Jewish laws; he was in the synagogue every Sabbath.
Yet, Jesus was not uncritical of the Jewish world in which he lived. That’s what we hear in today’s gospel.
Some of his words seem harsh to us– “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away…And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.” But this is Jesus speaking as the Jewish prophets spoke. They used harsh words to make their point. Like them, he spoke strongly when religious standards were neglected and not being fulfilled. “I came not to abolish the law or the prophets but to fulfill them.” His criticism extended to the Jewish leadership of his day– the scribes and Pharisees.
Jesus criticizes especially a way of living that focuses on externals–and sometimes just a few externals– and doesn’t focus enough on inner thinking and inner judgments. For example, he mentions a commandment “You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.” But there are other ways you can destroy people. You may not go to jail for them either, but you can destroy people by anger or demean them by looking at them as fools. Strong words, but he’s making a point and his point isn’t just for his time and place.
“ ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Again, you may not go to jail for your thinking, but your thoughts can poison your appreciation of people. I think that’s what pornography does. It poisons your mind and lessens your respect for others.
By the way, that picture above is King David. You know where his thoughts got him.
Watch your thinking and your judging, Jesus says. The way you think is critical to the way you live. The way you look at things within is crucial to the way you do things without.
The final parts of our gospel are about divorce procedures and taking oaths. Some people in his time loved to see life in terms of law; some today still do. All you have to do is keep within the law, be law abiding, live legally and that’s enough. As we see in this gospel, Jesus never saw keeping laws enough. They’re just a start.