Ever wondered why many world superpowers were ready to go to war over the crises in Syria even with inconclusive evidence that the Syrian government had indeed used chemical weapons to kill over 1000 citizens? Ever wondered why it is so tempting for many world leaders to take sides, drew red lines, make threats of brutal retaliation if attacked, and flex their military and political muscles in response to the Syrian conflict? Why this willingness to dominate others and to express our superiority over them at the smallest provocation? If you ever wondered the deeper spiritual reasons behind this readiness and determination to respond to purported violence with violence, I invite you to reflect on the MSNBC’s description of Secretary of State, John Kerry’s words about the crises in Syria.
Making a forceful case to answer a “crime against conscience,” Secretary of State John Kerry declared… that the U.S. had a moral obligation to punish Syria for using chemical weapons — painting a ghastly portrait of twitching bodies, victims foaming at the mouth and row upon row of children gassed to death.
John Kerry words are really ironic, if not hypocritical, when one realizes that in the history of the United States, it is hard to think of any administration that has given as much unequivocal support as this administration for the killing of the unborn in the womb and the emotional and physical wounding of their mothers. Never have we seen such intense government initiated and promoted advocacy for the killing of the unborn under the spurious word, “choice.” Is it morally right to chemically terminate the unborn in the womb using arbortificients and contraceptives in the US but morally wrong to use large scale gas in killing equally innocent children in Syria? Is there a difference in both situations? If we have an obligation to punish Syria as Secretary Kerry said, then we have a greater obligation to put an end to this senseless genocide within our own land. As long as we condone, ignore, or support such heinous crimes like abortion in the land, we will have an insatiable desire to compete with and dominate others.
In effect, when we fail to deal with sinful structures within ourselves, within our families and society, we will be overcome by the desire to compete with, dominate and oppress others. This is the age-old principle that we see in our world today. As long as we compromise with evil within, try to ignore it, pretend it is not that bad, or try to justify it, we will be overtly and bitterly competitive and aggressive towards others. The desert fathers would remind us that, “When we make friends with our demons, we see our friends as demons.”
A good example of this principle is the case of Cain and Abel in Gen 4. Cain greatly resented his brother Abel because of the Lord’s favor towards Abel. But the problem was not with Abel or with the Lord’s favor with him; but the problem was with Cain allowing evil to fester from within his own self. Hence the Lord’s warning, “If you do well, you can hold up your head; but if not, sin is a demon lurking at the door; his urge is toward you, yet you can be his master.” Cain did not heed this warning to overcome the demon within but let his murderous competition rage and grow until he was led to kill his brother Abel. If only he had fought the right demons, the ones within himself, he would not have considered his brother a demon to be disposed of at will.
Today’s Gospel passage shows Jesus responding to the scribes and Pharisees, the masters of bitter competition who always want to prove themselves religiously superior to others. These men had questioned and tried to make St. John the Baptist look like a fake prophet. They had accused Jesus’ disciples of not keeping the Old Testament laws and they will eventually team up with the Jewish leaders to condemn Jesus Christ, the Righteous One, to death. They cannot stand seeing Jesus welcome sinners and eat with them simply because they themselves have ignored the reality of sin in their own lives. Jesus had once said to them, “Woe to you Scribes and Pharisees! You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every kind of filth…You are like unseen graves over which people unknowingly walk. ” (Mt 23:27, Lk 11:44) The Pharisees’ and scribes’ excessive competition and desire to look better than others is not unconnected with their failure to fight their own demons within. Neglecting the enemy within, everyone else becomes for them an enemy to be demonized.
The parable of the Prodigal Son is a contrast between two sons and their loving Father. But sons are overtly and bitterly competitive because of sinful tendencies from within. The younger son, moved by his greed and impatience, obtains his inheritance from the father even before his father’s death and, most importantly, before his elder brother. In his greed, even his own father becomes an adversary: “Father, give me the share of your estate that should come to me.” On the prodigal son’s return home, after the father welcomes him, the older son too shows his own bitterly competitive spirit when he insensitively says to the Father, “When this son of yours returns after swallowing up your property with prostitutes, you kill the fattened calf for him.” He is angered and cannot stand the return of his own brother and the father’s joy at his return. In his own self-righteousness and selfishness, he is offended by the father’s joyful celebration of his brother’s return. On the contrary, the father is not competitive but rejoices because his family is intact again. His overtures to the older son are an invitation to let go of the bitter competition and to join in the celebration.
This parable of the Prodigal Son shows us the heart of the Father towards us. It shows us how God longs for us to not only repent from our sins and to return to His love but also to be people who share of ourselves with others and let go of all bitter competition and desire to dominate or punish others. The blood of Jesus Christ shed on Calvary did not only win us redemption from sin and grace to resist the forces of evil within, but His blood also broke down the barriers between us and others so that we do not have to succumb to this desire to dominate, punish, or oppress others. But the battle must begin with self. Unless we fight our own demons first and seek to “remove the plank from our own eyes first,” we will see others as adversaries to be overcome and conquered at all cost.
The Second Reading shows us Moses before God. God wants to punish the Israelites for their idolatry and then make of Moses a great nation. Moses has a chance to get back at this stubborn people and be the only faithful one among all the people. Moses has a chance to be the one and only head of a new and more faithful people of God. But Moses refuses to be a man of bitter competition and dominance. He pleads for and obtains mercy for the entire nation. Moses can do this only because He is a friend of God.
Jesus Christ, Our God and Savior, is the New and Eternal Moses who obtains for us mercy and rejoices when we share in His own life and destiny. He does not come to compete with us or to punish us for the things we do. He is fully aware of who He is – the beloved and Holy Son of God. When we surrender our sins to His precious blood and let His words dwell in our hearts, we discover God’s unconditional love for us. We then grasp the truth that our true enemies in life are our inner demons and patterns of sin and we resolve to struggle against them with hope and courage. In and through the Sacraments of the Eucharist and Reconciliation we find the doorway to know and struggle with the structures of sin in our lives and the grace to be merciful and patient towards others. In our private lives, in the Church, in the society, as long as we are not fighting the right demons, the ones within, using every single grace that God offers us in prayer and in the sacraments, then every other person and group inevitably becomes a demon to be overcome, oppressed, dominated and punished.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, if we are people who are constantly competing with others, if we are people who always want to dominate, punish, or oppress others, if we are constantly threatened by the good we see in others, if we cannot tolerate the faults or failings of others, if we are insatiably drawn to be number 1 at all costs even if it means demeaning others, if we as the members of God’s holy People constantly bring others down in order to look good, if we cannot resist the desire to look superior to or better than others, then we must stop and ask ourselves these basic questions, “What demons am I fighting? Are they the right demons?” The peace of the world depends on our prompt and honest answers to these questions.