It is often the case that Spring Training and Lent coincide on the calendar. Baseball players need to get into shape again at this time of year, and it includes both physical exercises and work on various athletic skills. For Christians, Lent gives the opportunity for spiritual exercises and renewal of various holy practices.
The focus in today’s Gospel on being compassionate and on restraining our judgment is an important part of the clinic that the Church offers us in Lent. The compassion that Jesus insists upon so strongly refers not so much to emotions of sympathy or pity but to acts and attitudes of care, concern, and mercy that intentionally resemble the love of God Himself. “Be compassionate as your heavenly Father is compassionate,” Jesus tells us. “Do not judge, and your yourself will not be judged.”
How should we understand Jesus in this passage? The compassion of the Father is manifested to us in a great variety of ways that are suitable for our human lot. Above all, His compassion is shown by sending us His Son, to share our condition, to redeem us by His suffering and death, and to lead us to salvation. It is manifest in His readiness to forgive the sins of those who repent and to restore in us by His grace what was damaged by sin.
Reflection on how the Father is compassionate gives us some clear directions for our own compassion. The mission of the Son to work out redemption is a mission that will involve pain and suffering, but the generosity of God is not to be outdone. It does not come about because it is something that God owes us, but simply because of God’s goodness in response to our needs. In the person of Jesus we encounter one who knows every aspect of our condition and one who loves us, not because we are worthy but in order to make us worthy. It is a compassion that calls sinners of every stripe to abandon what is sinful and to return to God. In God the repentant will find a Father who accepts them back and who gives His grace in abundance to turn the order of their loves around, the better to conform to His will.
In the call to compassion Christ invites us to join Him in showing mercy to others and in working for their holiness. It is a call to exceeds the natural and normal inclination to love and care for those whom we somehow find worthy. It is a call to reach out to others not because they are worthy but because they are in need. It is a call to extend ourselves to others by being mindful of their condition and by offering something that can truly be helpful to them in their needs, both physical and spiritual.
To imitate the Father’s compassion well, we need to distinguish between true and false compassion as well as to find good ways to bestow what help we can in ways that others can receive it. As we ourselves know, it is often more comfortable to be the one giving than the one receiving, for in at least some circumstances it can seem embarrassing to have to receive the charity of others. We would do well to find ways to make our gifts in ways that those we want to help can receive what we have to give and yet retain a sense of their own dignity. It is not just a matter of finding some pocket change for a beggar on the street but also of finding out the person’s name and talking to them a bit. And when it comes to the serious matter of dealing with someone who has been involved in sin or wrongdoing, we may find that the obligation of true compassion actually means finding a way in which to give fraternal correction or to challenge someone to think about what God really wants of us. In that case it would be a false compassion simply to ignore or overlook something that goes against the law of God, let alone to approve it or to enable it. Such conduct would not be a compassion that imitates the compassion of the Father, who manages both firmness and gentleness in calling the sinner back to Himself.
In a similar way, when Jesus insists “Do not judge, and you will not be judged yourself,” He gives us clarity about how we are to restrain our inclinations to be the prosecutor, judge, and jury when we notice something wrong or sinful. As the old adage very wisely puts it, “judge the sin, not the sinner.” We do not know the conscience of another person – only God knows that. But being clear about the distinction between the sin and the sinner gives us the way to honor the Lord’s directive here about not judging other people. We dare not claim for ourselves the prerogative that belongs to God alone – making judgments about a person’s moral state. But the obligations of practical charity, fraternal correction, and fidelity to God’s will ever remain. In a given case, true compassion, according to the Father’s heart, may well mean that we have to take the risk of challenging someone whose conduct is running counter to God’s will. Our task is to be creative and find a way to do it in a way that seems judgmental, but that is firm and yet gentle, like the Father’s way of calling us sinners back to Himself.
Good thing that we have Spring Training, I mean, LENT!