God Wants Friends, not Slaves

St Mark makes two puzzling observations in today’s Gospel reading.

First, he refers to the “brothers and sisters” of Jesus.

How could Jesus have brothers and sisters since Mary remained a perpetual virgin?

That question is easily solved: in the Hebrew tradition, this was a reference to Jesus’ relatives – most likely his cousins.

The second puzzle is this.

St Mark tells us that when Jesus first preached to the people in his hometown, he was “amazed at their lack of faith.”

They were impressed by his eloquence, but reluctant to believe and obey.

They were like the people of Israel as described in today’s First Reading: rebellious, defiant and obstinate.

In both cases, through the prophets of the Old Testament and Jesus in the New Testament, God was clearly speaking to his people, but they refused to listen.

That is puzzling, because, after all, God is omnipotent, and we were made to live in communion with him, so you would think that the human person would automatically respond well to God’s words and presence, like iron being drawn to a magnet. Perhaps we ask ourselves: “How could they miss the Son of God standing before them?”

Why didn’t it happen like that?

For one simple reason: Jesus Christ forces himself on no one. God who is revealed in Christ is not a tyrant or owner of slaves. God purposely limits his omnipotence in order to respect human freedom.

He gives countless signs and indications that he is trustworthy, that he is who he says he is, but he refuses to give any evidence that will eliminate the need for trust, for faith.

He invites; he does not compel.

He appeals to the heart, by showing love, and by speaking the truth.

But if we refuse his advances, he leaves us free to go our own way. He wants followers who are friends, not slaves – a kingdom of freedom, not bondage. Christ said ‘I call you friends not servants.’

Major Apologies

This is why the Church did public penance, making a solemn, public apology, for times in the past when Catholics have tried to force non-Catholics to convert.

This public penance was performed by Pope St John Paul II in the name of all Catholics, as part of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000. The ceremony took place on March 12, 2000, in St Peter’s Square.

A large crucifix was displayed, and a candle was lit underneath it each time the Holy Father asked God’s forgiveness for past sins of the Church.

Some of those sins had to do with forgetting that God respects all people’s freedom, that he doesn’t want followers who are slaves, but followers who are friends; even more followers who are adopted sons and daughters.

Despite what some say, it has never been the official policy of the Church to force people to become Catholic. But at times throughout our history, there have been individual Catholics, and even bishops and priests and Catholic monarchs, who did pursue that policy.

The Spanish and Medieval Inquisitions were sometimes abused in this way. It is an historical fact too that the Church courts of the Inquisition were far more merciful than the royal courts of the Spanish monarchs. It is a falsehood that the Church put to death thousands of people.

When St John Paul II did penance for these sins, he didn’t list them all one-by-one. Instead, after Cardinal Ratzinger invited everyone present to repentance, the Holy Father went right to the core issue.

He said: Lord, God of all men and women, in certain periods of history Christians have at times given in to intolerance and have not been faithful to the great commandment of love, sullying in this way the face of the Church, your Spouse. Have mercy on your sinful children and accept our resolve to seek and promote truth in the gentleness of charity, in the firm knowledge that truth can prevail only in virtue of truth itself.

Following Christ’s Example of Patient Respect

One way we can show how much we love Christ is by following his example of patient respect.

We must not browbeat, criticise or condemn those who do not share our faith or have left the faith; even though those same tactics may be used against us. We must continually speak the truth in charity, bearing the pain of not seeing or knowing the effect or fruits of our efforts. We must rely on Christ, who said to St Paul ‘My grace is enough for you: my power is at its best in weakness.’

Patient and respectful interaction with non-believers and non-Catholics will attract others to the Christ and His Church. At the same time, we must cling to the truth of the Gospel and the magisterium of the Church.

Most of all, let’s ask Christ that we may imitate the great apostle and preacher, St Paul, and speak with compelling words that invite, but also to speak with the example of our lives, the witness of ones who know the Truth who is Christ and who offer Him to the world in the gentleness of charity. Then when we do use words, they will ring true.

(With acknowledgment to ePriest.com)