You may have noticed an upsurge in social media and elsewhere in what was once called vituperation, not to say calumny and slander. If politicians and commentators of various stripes followed the old adage “if you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all,” the silence would be deafening. On the other hand, to remain silent in the face of manifest corruption, especially in high places, is not only cowardly but foolish. There is wisdom in the other adage, often applied to St. Catherine of Siena, who accused the pope himself of coddling depravity, “She spoke truth to power.” It’s a prophetic task, but one with a steep price on its head.
As it happens, today’s readings are appropriate for this year of wildly unpredictable events and political uncertainty. But it’s not just politics – uncertainty is also the norm in show business, and tonight, of course, is once again Oscar Night – if we are to believe the media hype, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and the Fourth of July all rolled into one. Many Americans can’t get enough of it, and if the entertainment news outlets have some awful information about actors, directors, and producers to spread around, so much the better. Sports figures, too. Entire television programs seem to be aimed at finding out and reporting the worst about anyone. And if you get tired of news programs dissing the rich and famous and powerful there’s always the afternoon talk shows and live TV courtroom dramas.
St. Paul’s commentary strikes a very different chord. He was no stranger to calumny, bad mouthing, unfair criticism, and general rash judgment. It must have stung at times, but in the end, he could care less what people thought about him. “Stop passing judgment,” was his verdict. By ‘judgment,” he means negativity, condemnation. You might detect a little echo here of what we heard from the Letter of St. James three weeks back concerning sins of speech.
I was particularly impressed by the comment of Pope Francis a few years ago when a reporter asked him about gay people in that famous candid interview. No doubt they were expecting the usual tirade from loudly self-professed Christians such as we are hearing more and more in Uganda, Nigeria, South Africa, and Russia. But what they got sounded more like St. Paul: “Who am I to judge a gay person of goodwill who seeks the Lord?”
Who am I to judge? A thoughtful fellow I knew years ago defined a fundamentalist as someone who holds the bible up to your head and pulls the trigger. Of course, you could say that was also judgmental. It’s hard to get away from it. But it’s worth trying. Paul’s defense was his total trust in God. As we heard in that first lovely reading from Isaiah, God will never forget us. Everyone else might forsake us, but God never will.
For Jesus, it’s the same, not surprisingly. Why worry about things that ultimately do not matter? If a child suffers because she is bullied at school, it’s because she has already accepted that what other kids say counts. But it doesn’t. Not really. We have to learn that – over and over. If God is for us, who can be against us? [Rom 8:31]. Isaiah and Jesus teach the same thing: God knows what we need better than we do. Like Paul, we should put our trust there, not in Twitter or Buzzfeed. Or, as Jesus tirelessly reminded his disciples, money.
Ash Wednesday falls during the week ahead, which means, of course, that Lent is almost here. Time to take stock. It might be good to begin by trying to stop worrying about ourselves and judging others harshly. Let’s get a little more God into our lives this year.