If you choose, the First Reading says, you can keep the commandments, and you will be saved. Acting faithfully is a choice given to each one of us and we can choose between life and death, good and evil. Whatever is chosen, God will grant. This reading from Sirach is challenging to me. The last sentence reads: God has not commanded anyone to be wicked nor has permission been given to sin. There is the caveat–there is a consequence to our choices. Lots to ponder in this reading.
For over a decade I have done prison ministry. I attend the chapel service once a month at the federal prison on the outskirts of town. I sit with the men and the conversation meanders all over the place. I have been noticing a disturbing difference in the past few years, especially among the younger men. They are less and less remorseful for the crimes they have committed. Sirach says: The Lord has placed before you fire and water; stretch out your hand for whichever you choose. These men seem to choose to be burned by the fire rather than drinking the life-giving water.
Last night I chatted with several men during the course of the visit. I often have been correct about those who will bounce back in after release. The attitude is often telling. Addictions and mental health issues make starting over a challenge. A lack of network support results in failures. It is the attitude though, that really determines whether a person will stay out or not. The priest had done a fantastic job on the homily, linking the Gospel of Matthew about leaving your gift at the altar and seeking reconciliation first with someone who you have injured. This topic played itself out during my chats. I was unsettled with more than one of the conversations I had. In one, the blame was placed on the system by someone who was being released on Monday but who had no plan in place as to where to live or how to earn money. This was no youngster but clearly had a sense of entitlement as he reached out his hand for fire and failure. His attitude was that others were at fault and not so much the choices–or lack thereof–that he had made.
The other person I spoke to at length openly shared what he had done and that he did not feel sorrow for his crime though he prayed for the victim’s family. An ex-gang member who had found Jesus–or so he said–showed off the tattoos he had earned — his red rum badge (murder spelled backwards) and the other elaborate badge showing the scene of the murder. He had received a lighter sentence, despite the brutal nature of his crime, but he had been violent towards both guards and inmates, and therefore he has had a number of years added to his time. I asked whether he felt sorry for what he had done and the response was that the guy had it coming. Perhaps that is true but that decision remains with God. The inmate choose fire–he reached out his hand and shot a family member rather than the guy who had been the cause of his trouble. One could argue that this family member was also choosing fire by being present in a home where crimes were occurring. However, the inmate did not flinch as he told me about slitting the throat of another prisoner once in the system either. He simply kept listing a number of violent episodes calmly, seemingly detached emotionally from what he had done.
I cannot judge this man but his attitude makes me wonder about those of us–myself included–who say we are Christians but yet come to the altar with blood on our hands. We say we will pray for those we have offended but never reach out our hands to choose water and healing. It may appear that we are choosing water but it is not the life-giving kind. Acting faithfully is a matter of personal choice. God does not ask us to be wicked and give us leniency to sin. God is clear in this reading about keeping the commandments in order to be saved.
In this last year, I have looked at my behaviour more and more critically, trying to pare down to the essence of who I want to be when I leave this world. In the past 24 hours, I have wondered when I am showing off my tattoos instead of expressing my sorrow for them. We all have our default sins–the ones that catch us and cause us to fall. As a spiritual director, I would say that pride is one that most retreatants come to in the First Week. As I do my daily Examen lately, I am looking for patterns that I long to be gone before I am. I remember journeying with someone once who was dying and marveling at how gossip and criticism fell by the wayside as this person drew closer to a final breath. That gift observed moved me but at the same time, I still have a long way to go before I am happy at removing the tattoos that I cling to as my badges of honour. I want to stretch out my hand and choose the Life-giving Water instead of the fire. God will let me continue to choose the fire and come to the table with blood-stained hands, but God longs for so much more for me than that. I trust in God to keep calling me to stretch towards the Life-giving choice and nudging me to be faithful.
What is your tattoo that you still wear as a badge of honour instead of surrendering it?
Do you use the daily Examen to keep track of your patterns of sin?
I stretch out my hands, dear God, and I hesitate between choosing some days. Evil is seductive and pokes at our souls until we reach towards the fire rather than the water. Keep our eyes on the altar of sacrifice. Wash our hands free of the bloodstains we bring. Your redeeming blood is sufficient. I choose You and Your commandments. You who knows every human action, grace me with discernment so that I may choose wisely the Life-giving water you offer again and again. Amen.