During the 1976 presidential election, there was a candidate, up to that time not well known out of his native state, who had become the nominee of his party. He was a Navy veteran, a farmer, a Sunday school teacher, and had been Governor of Georgia. Right before the general election, he gave an interview with a magazine where he admitted that he had “committed adultery in [his] heart many times.” For those of you that, like me, have gray hair, you recognize this person as former President Jimmy Carter. The scriptural passage to which he was holding himself up is today’s Gospel.
This Gospel is a difficult one. It holds us all to an incredibly high standard. I know that I have often told myself that wanting to do something that is wrong is not a sin if you don’t do it – it only becomes a sin when and if you actually do it. Jesus is telling us that no, it is still a sin not to love others as God loves them, in thought or in deed. This sounds impossible, and maybe it is, but that is no excuse for not trying to get better, always learning and always challenging ourselves to conform our lives to the ideal that Christ presents.
One of the problems with using a public figure, let alone a politician, for an example during a homily is that people bring their already well established judgments on his or her life and accomplishments to bear on the person. I am not asking that we assess former President Carter on his merit as a leader or government official – we can leave that to the political scientists, economists, and historians. What I would like to look at is not Jimmy Carter as a Christian, but at the response of the typical American to his statement, in this United States that we proudly proclaim to be a Christian country.
I say this because this interview was viewed by most of America in a negative light. Time Magazine labeled it as one of its “Top 10 Unfortunate Political One-liners.” [http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/article/0,28804,1859513_1... Many people at the time wrote about it. Some saw it as a boastfulness, as in “look at me and what high standards I hold myself to.” Other saw it as a sign that he would be overly critical of others – who wants a scold for a president? Still others saw it as TMI: too much information.
What does it say that in a country where many Christians insist that we must “Keep Christ in Christmas,” complain that there is not enough prayer in school, or decry the immorality of governmental decisions on abortion or the death penalty, what does it say, that when someone professes Christian values in a public forum, that we cringe or look for ulterior motives?
If we have Christian love of others in our heart, we should try to see what is said by others in the light that it was intended. Hearing these remarks, one could see humility of a man who struggles, a person who is honest about his failures in life and does not lie about it, or a person who is brave enough to admit he is human.
The message for us today is that being a Christian is not something you do; being a Christian is something you are. It is not enough that a Christian not hate his neighbor; a Christian must love his neighbor. When we see a beautiful person, we must not look upon them as an object of desire but as another person whom God loves. We must look upon a person who is homeless, not as an object of scorn for their failure to achieve societal respectability or professional success but as a person worthy of our sympathy for not having been given the gifts in life that we ourselves have been given by God. The person that just cut us off in traffic might just be a jerk, but our Christian calling demands that we give a benefit of the doubt – maybe the person has an emergency situation which has preoccupied him or her to distraction. While a sin of thought might not be as bad as a sin of action, it is still a choice that we make and a habit that we can form in our approach to others.
Since being a Christian is an identity that goes to our very soul, the Church teaches that it leaves an indelible mark, that is to say permanent and irremovable, upon the soul from our initiation into the Church at Baptism. [CCC 1121] Just as Father Oscar does not cease to be a priest when he takes off his Roman collar, just as a woman does not cease to be a wife when she goes on a business trip, just as a man does not cease to be a father after he drops his kids off at school, so too we continue to be Christians when we leave the doors of this church at the end of Mass. Our thoughts are held to the same standard as our actions.
But with this indelible mark of a Christian which we receive at Baptism, in addition to the high standards which are now expected to live up to, we fortunately also receive the permanent promise of the grace of God to help us to live up to these standards. Jimmy Carter went on in his interview to state that, “This is something that God recognizes I will do – and I have done it – and God forgives me for it.” Now I have to admit that while doing research for this homily I found myself thinking, “well, he's not showing much remorse.” Here I am, writing a homily about being charitable in our thoughts towards others and I immediately gave his response a negative spin. I should have given him credit that, in a secular magazine during a free-ranging interview, he raised Christian standards up for all to see. I was less than charitable that he didn't begin a full sermon on the subject of reconciliation, which looking back on that would have been inappropriate given the forum. He was right and I was wrong.
Ash Wednesday is just a week and a half away. May I suggest that, instead of giving up candy or soda or Scotch, or whatever, that we give up looking upon others in a way in which we would not look upon God or ourselves. Try to always give someone the benefit of the doubt when we are not sure of their motives. This will do more to prepare our hearts and those of the people around us for Easter than giving up something which we should probably give up anyway and therefore is not much of a sacrifice.
Another way that we can apply today's Gospel was in a recent voter guide put out by the Diocese of Charleston. It read, “As Catholics, our baptismal commitment to bear public witness to the values of Jesus Christ requires our active participation in the democratic life of our nation.” [http://charlestondiocese.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/South-Carolina-C... Having the courage to raise moral issues in a public forum and having the respect to listen to others who may have differing views without demonizing their motives is the best way to live up to our Christian mandate.