Too lenient a punishment, said some. Too harsh, said others. A fair and proportionate decision made by Pope Francis, said Archbishop Leo Cushley. Yesterday’s decision by the Vatican regarding Cardinal Keith O’Brien made headlines across the country, and inevitably produced a wide range of comments. Those who made them did so from various points of view. Some had expected an exemplary total crushing of the man, while others called for mercy and forgiveness. Both approaches are easy for those who aren’t directly involved; it’s much more difficult and complicated for those affected by the Cardinal’s actions. Sometimes I’m quite astonished by people appealing for mercy for others, but merciless in their own attitude; or those calling for harsh punishment of others, but very lenient and forgiving towards themselves. People’s justice can be an extremely tricky thing. Cruelty and violence committed in many corners of the world that fill up our TV screens, radio waves and front pages are made in the name of justice, however twisted such a claim may look.
Today’s readings present the sort of approach that seems to be counterintuitive to our sense of justice. Through the prophet Jeremiah God announces a new covenant despite the previous one being trampled on, violated and abandoned by the people. This new covenant will be better, reaching into the soul and being deeply rooted there. Interestingly, this new covenant is not offered to the people as a reward for their repentance or their change of heart. God forgives and forgets their unfaithfulness prior to his offer. The new covenant will lead to their change of heart, not the other way round. That announcement is fulfilled by Jesus. He comes as an innocent, sinless, perfect Son of God in human flesh, and pays the price of our sins, offering himself as the ultimate sacrifice. In today’s gospel he’s talking about it, comparing himself to a single grain of wheat, ready to die to yield a rich harvest. Though this comparison is not literally true in biological terms, it’s a potent image of Jesus giving up his own life for the sake of the many. His death precedes any repentance; his death makes one’s change of heart possible as the power of Satan over humanity is broken.
This counterintuitive approach is incomprehensible to many. I’ve come across some people who see God’s boundless mercy and readiness to forgive even the greatest sinners as an insurmountable obstacle, actually preventing them from accepting Christianity as their way of life. After all these years we are still very good at receiving God’s mercy for ourselves, but demanding a just and punitive approach for others. We are deeply-believing Christians but we all hone our own, sometimes petty, grudges and resentments towards others. This call, repeated by Jesus in today’s gospel, seems to fall on deaf ears every now and again: ‘If a man serves me, he must follow me, wherever I am.’ Jesus goes to the cross to die for the imperfect, the unpleasant, and the troublemakers of this world. Are you going to follow him?