Dialogue and Mission

“This is how you are to eat it; with your loins girt, sandals on your feet and your staff in hand, you shall eat like those who are in flight. It is the Passover of the Lord.”

Exodus 12:11

Jesus was going through a field of grain on the sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “See, your disciples are doing what is unlawful to do on the sabbath.” . . . “If you knew what this meant, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned these innocent men. For the Son of Man is Lord of the sabbath.”

Matthew 12:1-2, 8

Today we read of the preparations for the Hebrews’ Exodus from Egypt. It begins with the careful detailing of how they are to prepare and eat the meal they are to share “like those in flight.” In the midst of the threat they are under from Pharaoh and the treacherous journey they are about to undertake, they are to take the time to carefully prepare and nourish themselves and to share this last meal in Egypt together. In Matthew’s gospel we read of how hunger overtakes Jesus and his disciples and that, without hesitation, the human need for nourishment is to be met — even at the cost of violating a sabbath precept.

Yesterday during a conversation with a friend he posed a difficult question. In essence he wondered how it was that so often “religious people” become so dissociated from their humanity and thus, so rejecting of aspects of the humanity of others. Why for such people are sexual sins so much more central and so much more grievous than what seem to be much more serious human offenses? And how is it that far too often, the rigid and upright seem to suffer the most scandalous falls?

Today we hear in the scriptures of how at the moment of the Exodus and in the life of Jesus and his disciples our humanity is taken fully and appreciatively into account. The great acts and works of salvation are for human persons, who not only worship but also need to eat, to rest, to connect with others and the world by means of their sexuality, to care for bodies that are subject to sickness and weakness, and to learn what it means to be human by trial and error.

Among many others over the ages, Sigmund Freud spoke of religion as an illusion. As with any human reality or understanding, there is always the possibility that we can use at least our interpretation of religion as a way to buttress our own psychologically necessary illusions about our lives. The great irony in this is that the great wisdom traditions of humanity are actually ways to living more fully in the truth. This is in large part what makes the true practice of them so difficult for us. In practice, if not in theory, most of us live to some degree or other enthrall to the basic human belief that we need to foster our own illusions to make it through life. To live holding together all our inconsistencies and complexities can seem a bit too much on a day to day basis.

What made the greatest practitioners of the traditions great through the centuries was not their reaching a superhuman or perfected state of life. It was their ability to know themselves as the greatest of sinners and, at the very same time, forgiven and loved unconditionally by God. It was their experience of God’s merciful love, for themselves and for all, that enabled them to live face to face with their own and others’ contradictions and sinfulness.

Pope Francis is fond of quoting Pope Paul VI’s insight that “dialogue is the new name for love.” To place “dialogue” at the center of the call is, in truth, both a new and radically traditional vision of the mission of the Church. That mission is not to come as a conqueror, as a bearer of a “so-called” superior culture and vision. It is, rather, to encounter the other from a place of humility, from a willingness to learn as well as teach, to truly understand, not on our own terms but on the terms of the other. Pope Francis says that we must “set out on that ‘exodus’ which is necessary for all authentic dialogue.” We must leave behind our preconceptions and our false certitudes and dare to encounter the other in faith. True encounter and dialogue requires of us that we enter into the desert of the truth of our own uncertainty, and limitation, and sinfulness. We do not meet the other as the bearer of answers and of the truth but rather as a struggling, sinful, and vulnerable human being like them.

There is no love in our compulsion to reinforce our own illusions and justify ourselves by “setting straight” the other person. We meet others with this kind of violence because we dare not expose and so realize ourselves our own falseness and uncertainty. The dialogue that Pope Francis calls us to can only be possible when we are humble enough to encounter the other not only with what we know but what we do not know, not only with our convictions but also with our doubts, not only with our successes but also with our failures. Humility may well be the core disposition for mission and ministry. It is the gospel of Jesus, the merciful love of God that we want to offer to others, not our own perfection, power, or competence.

As a young person, I often had difficulties with my father, in part because his weaknesses and  his vulnerabilities were never far from the surface. He was not the model of fatherhood that the culture of the 1950’s presented, or even that I thought I saw in other fathers in the neighborhood. Yet, late in his life and ever since his death, it is in his life, words, and witness that I have come to realize the truth of God’s closeness to us in our suffering and weak but glorious humanity. At so many difficult and frightening moments in life, I hear my father repeat to me, “It’s okay, Johnny.” “It’s okay” doesn’t mean it will all work out as I want it to, or that difficulties and struggles will not remain my lot. It is, however, what it means to live in what St. John of the Cross calls “the nakedness of faith.”

One of the greatest ironies of human experience is that we are strongest when we encounter each other in the truth of our weakness as well as our strength. “For it is when I am weak that I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10), as St. Paul writes. Without setting “out on the exodus” which is the journey out of our own illusions (even religious ones) and into the truth of our own humanity, there can be no dialogue, no encounter, no space for the strength of the Lord to enter into us when we dare to meet each other humbly and honestly.

 

Dialogue is our method, not as a shrewd strategy but out of fidelity to the One who never wearies of visiting the marketplace, even at the eleventh hour, to propose his offer of love (Mt 20:1-16). 

The path ahead, then, is dialogue among yourselves, dialogue in your presbyterates, dialogue with lay persons, dialogue with families, dialogue with society. I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly. The richer the heritage which you are called to share with parrhesia, the more eloquent should be the humility with which you should offer it. Do not be afraid to set out on that “exodus” which is necessary for all authentic dialogue. Otherwise, we fail to understand the thinking of others, or to realize deep down that the brother or sister we wish to reach and redeem, with the power and the closeness of love, counts more than their positions, distant as they may be from what we hold as true and certain. Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor, it has no place in his heart; although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing. 

Pope Francis, Address to the Bishops of the United States, 23 September 2015

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