Imagine that you belonged to a big family; your father was a former military man who imposed strict rules within the household. You grew up under a black-or-white discipline of a father who treated all of you in the family as if you were on a military training. Likewise, he set high standards for you, his children, to achieve excellence at school. Your father’s decisions were always cut and dried, no if’s or but’s or anything in between. Growing up, it was made clear to you and your siblings to live out perfection – nothing less – or else, an unimaginable punishment awaits. Imagine if you fell short to your father’s expectations and the punishment meant you did not get to eat anything for a day, or you were prohibited to talk to anybody at home, or you were excluded from any family activities – not to mention the physical punishment that came with it. A kind of punishment that absolutely made you feel like you were an outcast; that you did not belong; that you were not loved… Just because you fell short of what was expected from you.
Wouldn’t you feel discriminated, discouraged and unjustly treated? Wouldn’t you do the same thing to others taking such environment as the ‘norm’ as you grew up with it?
Imagine if all fathers in every household were like your ‘hypothetical father,’ this world would either raise a generation of ruthless robots, or cradle the survivor population of exclusivism and legalism. Fortunately, despite a world of divisiveness as what we have right now, ours is still a generation that believes in humanism and inclusivism.
In the Catholic church, the debate on inclusivism versus exclusivism has been a heated issue for centuries. ‘Inclusivists’ say that we are all children of God; that despite our sinfulness, if we repent and live according to God’s Word, we will attain salvation. On the other hand, the ‘exclusivists’ say another thing; that God chooses His people and there are some who choose to be indifferent to the call, and Jesus’ redemption is solely found within the Catholic church.
In 2013, Pope Francis made a firm stand that shook some conservative Catholics proclaiming a highly inclusive statement that all of us are redeemed through Jesus Christ – Catholic and non-Catholic, religious and atheists. Pope Francis particularly used the definition of the Second Vatican Council of the term, ‘church,’ which is described as “the People of God.”
Pope Francis said that, “to be the People of God, first of all means that God doesn’t belong to any particular people because He is the one who calls us… and this invitation is addressed to all, without distinction, because God’s mercy wills everyone to be saved. Jesus doesn’t tell the Apostles and us to form an exclusive group of elite members. Instead, Jesus says, ‘Go and make disciples of all nations.’ Whoever feels far from God and from the church, to whoever is nervous or indifferent, to whoever thinks they are no longer able to change: The Lord also calls you to be part of his people and He does so with great respect and love… A person becomes part of this people not through physical birth, but by a new birth – Baptism – through faith in Christ, God’s gift that must be nourished and made to grow throughout our lives.”
The law or mission of the People of God, he said, “is the law of love, love for God and love for neighbor – which isn’t a sterile sentimentalism or something vague, but is the recognition of God as the one Lord of life and, at the same time, welcoming others as true brothers and sisters… the two go hand in hand.”
Moreover, the pope leaves us with the reminder that, “being the church (the People of God) means being God’s leaven in our humanity. It means proclaiming and bearing God’s salvation in our world, which is often lost and needful of having encouraging answers, answers that give hope, that give new energy along the journey.”
Pope Francis envisions that the church “be the place of God’s mercy and love where everyone can feel themselves welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live according to the good life of the Gospel.” And for this to happen, “the church must have open doors so that all might enter. And we must go out of those doors and proclaim the Gospel.” (Ref. National Catholic Reporter, 2013)
This powerful statement of the pope is an encapsulation of the readings today. In the first reading of the book of Wisdom, we are reminded of God’s greatness yet unconditional mercy for us, sinful beings, “because [He] can do all things and overlook men’s sins so that [we] can repent. Yes, [He] loves all that exists… [He] spares all things because all things are [His], Lord, lover of life whose imperishable spirit is in all.” God’s inclusive love for all is indeed humbling and awe-inspiring.
In the gospel of St. Luke (19:1-10), Jesus dined with Zacchaeus, a rich chief tax collector - who was considered to be a sinner because of his means of living. Many could not believe Jesus’ inclusive attention towards a sinner like Zacchaeus. However, because of Zacchaeus’ relentless effort to see and seek Jesus, he was blessed with Jesus’ words, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
Indeed, it is very encouraging to know that God reveals Himself as a Father who embraces everyone in His love no matter how messed up or broken we are. He knows His children and discounts no one despite any shortcoming.
If our Lord is unconditionally merciful and inclusive to all of us, are we not expected to be the same way to our neighbor? If Jesus, who was sinless, took time to lay his eyes on Zacchaeus, a sinner, should we not spare a brother or sister, who happens to resort to prostitution for a living, from shaming and discriminatory labelling? Should we not treat a work colleague, who has mental issues, with the same respect and dignity as much as we give our boss? How about hearing out the suggestion of an outreach volunteer, who happens to be homosexual or LGBT, with the same sincerity and openness as we extend towards a heterosexual person?
Between the Lord and ourselves, we are at the receiving end. We receive His mercy and compassion despite our sinfulness, despite His redundant forgiveness. And in this ‘set up’ we feel very encouraged to do better every day because of the chances that we are given to improve. However, between our fellow sinful neighbor and ourselves, who should be in the best position to show mercy, compassion and forgiveness? Who should be in the receiving end?
Father God, time and again, you reveal your mercy and compassion for us that never run out. Thank you for assuring us of your love when we feel distant from you. May you grant us a heart that sees our neighbor with unconditional love, mercy and compassion. Please help us to be more like you. Amen.