Sermon - Year B

10th Sunday in Ordinary Time

“It’s not you, it’s me” is often used when a couple splits up. On the face of it, it’s intended to soften the blow as the acting party takes the blame. But in reality, it means: “It’s you, not me. You haven’t met my expectations and standards, or you have disappointed me one way or another.” Most people instinctively blame something or someone for anything that has gone wrong. It’s common in domestic settings, workplaces and politics. When public figures have been caught red-handed and are forced to apologise, they often take the non-blame form: “I’m sorry if you were offended” or “I’m sorry you feel that way.” It seems such figures are really sorry for being caught rather than their wrongdoing. It’s nothing new; the final act of the dramatic fall of the first parents, as we heard it in today’s first reading, illustrated the same mechanism.

“Have you been eating of the tree I forbade you to eat?” needed a simple, one-word positive answer. But admitting to having broken the restriction would mean accepting blame for it and its consequences. Thank goodness, there was someone else to blame: “It was the woman you put with me; she gave me the fruit, and I ate it.” Such an obedient man… His wife told him to do something, and he diligently did it. The responsibility was hers and, perversely, God’s: “It was the woman you put with me.” Then, it was her turn to bat the responsibility away: “The serpent tempted me, and I ate.” At least she didn’t blame God for her “misfortune.” From the passage read out today, we could wrongly conclude that passing the buck worked well as only the serpent got its comeuppance: “Be accursed beyond all cattle, all wild beasts. You shall crawl on your belly and eat dust every day of your life.” The passage ended on a high note with the announcement of the ultimate victory over satan: “I will make you enemies of each other: you and the woman, your offspring and her offspring. It will crush your head, and you will strike its heel” in line with Jesus’ triumph as shown in today’s gospel. However, when we read the entire biblical story of the first fall, we can see that the man and his wife, too, had to put up with the dire consequences of their disobedience.

The latter word seems to garner a lot of positivity these days. It’s commonly equalled with a spirit of freedom and personal independence, an opportunity to live one’s life to the full without any restrictions or constraints. It might seem to work for a while until it doesn’t, when the inevitable unpleasant consequences catch up and someone has to pick up the pieces. In its severe form, someone puts himself in the position of the ultimate lawmaker, or – to use biblical language – be like God, which was the initial temptation of the first couple: “God knows that when you eat of [the tree] your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God.” (Genesis 3:5)

The relative popularity of disobedience is due to a misunderstanding of what obedience is about. It’s often seen as restrictive, limiting one’s choices and stifling personal freedom, usually paired with the assumption that the rules must be followed blindly and thoughtlessly. Such a misconception applies to moral codes, highway codes, and social norms. But at the heart of such rule-breaking lies selfishness disguised as personal freedom or non-conformity. It can be endurable when it’s “practised” by very few, but it turns into chaos when more and more people subscribe to it.

While we should always strive for personal freedoms for everyone, we must also acknowledge that our liberty is limited by someone else’s rights. Since time immemorial, people have regulated life in their small tribal communities by social norms, unwritten rules and customs. With the creation of larger settlements and the development of hierarchical social structures, such informal regulations were codified to organise society in a peaceful manner. Though imperfect, such laws helped keep relative order between the competing interests of individuals, groups or communities. In the past, the importance of sound social norms was underwritten by divine authority, like the Ten Commandments, which concisely addressed the main societal challenges. 

The main challenge with laws is that we quickly lose the perspective of seeing them as serving society. While some revolt against norms and regulations, others think they must be kept for their own sake. Both attitudes are wrong. At first glance, in the gospels, Jesus seemed to be on the revolutionary side, raging against rigid laws and offering unrestricted freedom. In fact, he called his followers to go deeper with their commitment to ever greater respect for others: “You have heard that it was said […], ‘You shall not murder’; […] But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment. “ (Matthew 5:21-22) Jesus wasn’t raging against the law but against its rigid, merciless adaptation by the Jewish religious elite. He was teaching his followers how to understand the meaning of the law and apply it in everyday life’s challenging circumstances. St Paul summarised it beautifully in his letter to the Romans: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.” (13:8-10)

Image by Afif Ramdhasuma from Pixabay