Inside the Boundaries?
Fourth Sunday of the Year. Fr Joseph Bailham suggests that love is the ultimate boundary of our lives.
Do you have any boundaries in life? I imagine the answer is ‘Yes.’ The word ‘boundary’ might conjure up an array of images for us. We might think of our personal lives, and the boundaries we might try to keep between work time and time for relaxation. We might think of work and the professional boundaries we might have to keep, say, between boss and employee, or employee and client. Maybe the boundaries in our moral lives come to mind, the line between what we consider acceptable and that which is unacceptable. In the world of counselling and therapy, one hears not infrequently that boundaries are there to protect ourselves and others: boundaries here are seen as positive. But of course, some boundaries are more contentious: I’m reminded of the so-called “Mexico wall” which was the focus of much attention during the Trump presidency. For some, a boundary to protect; for others, a boundary to exclude.
Jesus crosses a boundary in the Gospel today and not everyone is happy about it. Initially we are told that Jesus had ‘won the approval’ of the congregation in the synagogue, and ‘they were astonished by the gracious words that came from his lips.’ So far, so good. The slight puzzlement over Jesus’s identity— ‘This is Joseph’s son, surely?’—is not enough to bother the crowd too much.
Then all changes. From Jesus having won their approval, they then intended to throw him down a cliff. The trigger: the claim that God would intervene positively in the lives of those beyond the chosen fold. Not only that, but God also helped others even when, within the fold of the Chosen People, there were individuals with the same needs.
Those gathered before Jesus had their known boundaries, and Jesus was crossing them. The lesson we should take from Jesus is not that boundaries are irrelevant; this is not a call to anarchy. The lesson we should take is that maybe we need to reassess what boundaries we have in place.
We might see in our second reading the boundaries rewritten for us. The boundary which overarches all that we do and all that we are is love (caritas/agape). It is a boundary more akin to rules of a game than a physical barrier. Love is the rule of the game of life; it is the rule by which we play the game not only well, but by which we may play the game, in a real sense, at all. It is a boundary that enables us to be more who we are made to be. It is not a boundary for us to hide behind or to use as a shield, for this love spoken of draws us out of ourselves and into relationship. The Catechism says it is the ‘theological virtue by which we love God above all things for His own sake, and our neighbour as ourselves for the love of God.’
Often quoted in sermons heard at Blackfriars, Oxford, Herbert McCabe once said, ‘If you do not love, you will not be alive; if you love effectively, you will be killed.’ This is brought home in an obvious way by the reaction of the crowd to Jesus in the Gospel account today.
Is it not the case that some of the boundaries we keep in life are, especially regarding others, the fruit of past hurts? Do some of those boundaries, rather than protect us, instead hinder us from living the game of life well and to the full? Are there boundaries I keep between God and me?
I like the saying, ‘Do not remove a fence until you know why it was put up in the first place.’ Today’s readings challenge us not to tear down our boundaries recklessly but do challenge us to look more closely with a questioning eye at what our boundaries are in relation to God and our neighbour. The congregation no doubt saw themselves safely within the boundary of God’s house, ready to slam the door shut in the face of Jesus, the unwelcome visitor with strange ideas. Perhaps, though, in the passion of the moment, they did not realise that they might be on the wrong side of the door.
Picture: detail from ‘The Great Wall of America’ by Gary Goodenough