Today’s Gospel is the perfect selection to prepare for Lent. We are reminded so clearly that good deeds must flow from a good heart. Luke’s genteel, gentile audience would have endorsed this heartily but would have been bewildered by how Luke thought a good heart would be formed and how it would be tested and shocked as to how it would be expanded.
All the examples of ethical living in today’s passage may be found in classical authors. Other New Testament writers such as Matthew or Paul may show familiarity with the moral theories of their day, but Luke is quoting them, and he knows that his highly educated audience knows that he is. They would have enthusiastically agreed that for ethical excellence a person must seek out a good teacher who is wiser and more experienced than he or she may be. They understood that teaching was a dynamic activity. At first a novice would blindly follow the master but in time he or she would be “fully trained” and be like his or her master making mature decisions. Until then he was if not ethically blind, at least visionally impaired.
Classical authors found the efforts of the poorly formed to act like a master humorous and worthy of derision. These were usually young men who acted as if they had wisdom that they did not, caused general chaos and, in plays, were usually physically injured for their impertinence.
Most importantly the noble pagans would have agreed that moral education sought what we now call conversion: an interior change. A good tree does not bear rotten fruit, nor does a rotten tree bear good fruit would have been understood by all
How then is one formed into a good person?
This is where Luke must show his genteel readers that they may be doing the same things, but they will be doing it for different reasons and for more people.
A classical adage states “I hate and cast aside the vulgar crowd” (odi profanum vulgus et arceo, Horace). Contact with the ignoble would make a noble person base. The more contact with those whose hearts are not virtuous would challenge the virtue of another. This makes perfect sense. Classical people, indeed, most people up to the 18th century, understood that we were formed by communities. A community which held out great virtues could lift a person up. Should one fall into a bad – literally vicious – community he or she would be dragged down. A good community would need to police itself so that those who lost their virtue would be removed without pity or delay. The noble romans would have included the poor, certainly the urban poor, and the uneducated among the base. We may find this morally unacceptable but at least they were honest about it. Our modern meritocracy often does the same but not as honestly or self-consciously.
The power of groups is so great that this is a positive natural reaction. But Luke knows that there is more. There is the power of a loving God. Last week Luke told us to love our enemies. To make matters worse he said that the most high God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. His comments about the poor, which we have come to call a preferential option, would also be scandalous for them. The prosperous gentiles are told to be merciful to the very people the best pagan authors told them to cast aside. . This is possible and indeed desirable because the creator of the universe is more powerful than anything in the universe. The power of sin is great and without the risen Lord as Paul shows us so beautifully in our second reading this week it will triumph: indeed, with original sin, it did. The church speaks of sin of the world. Without Jesus, it will overpower us. By ourselves we are not good enough. Luke knows that this is not a mere doctrine on paper but a living and challenging reality. We are expected to love those around us – the good, the bad and ugly – every day. Let us remember here the tendency to find ways of including the financially poor and the poorly credentialed in this. This is how we connect most intimately to each other and finally to God. Immediately after today’s passage Luke writes: “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ but not do what I command? (Lk 6:46).
He commands that we build on lives on relationships and critically important are those with those who are struggling in any way. Those who may offend us morally or more likely aesthetically. They will help us build a house on rock that will withstand a hurricane. Failure to do this will build a house – indeed a life – on sand which will collapse in a drizzle.
So let us begin Lent with the dispiriting fact that we are not spiritual masters but with the encouraging reality that Jesus is all powerful and all present. There is a plank in our own eye.. Lent is the time to see it and to begin to remove it. This will not follow immediately much less automatically but Lent derives from the Greek word for Spring and it a time for beginnings
Luke’s people are like us, educated and with possessions. We will remove the plank from our own eyes, make spiritual process and produce good fruit not by associating with people like ourselves but by building lives on real love and charity with those most unlike us.
Find the poor, find the difficult, reach out to the outcast in the family, especially the lonely who are so because they have pushed everyone away. Include your parish family, neighbors, and coworkers in this as well.
Pope Francis has called this the margins and assured us that rebirth is found here and the deeper we go into them the more certain we will find Jesus.