Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

We have a term for it in the parish office. COVID brain. It is our lame attempt to explain how certain people can be so cluelessly selfish, rude, and glaringly unchristian in the way they treat their neighbor because they have just spent a better part of the last 19 months wallowing in isolation and irrelevance and self-pity unmooring their sense of compassion and trust and decency that has given them unfettered license to visit their darkness and bile and rage upon random friends and unsuspecting strangers whenever it suits them. Unless we know they were like that long before COVID. Then they’re just selfish and rude and unchristian. Bless their hearts. But probably just as many deaths have gotten listed as COVID-related in the last 19 months because no one was willing to dig deeper, so we have learned to absolve many selfish, rude, and unchristian behaviors visited upon us by declaring them COVID-related so we can spare ourselves the self-righteous resentment and send them on their merry way. COVID brain all around.

As the funeral procession from church on Friday turned left at the traffic light into Lew Dewitt Boulevard, an SUV came speeding down from the other direction past the funeral director’s car getting between us and the sheriff deputy’s cruiser because the driver wasn’t going to let half a dozen cars through to the cemetery. Just COVID brain.

Friday we marked a grim milestone in the US with 700,000 COVID deaths. But the sad reality is that some of us behave like the danger is long past. Or at the least the virus that has ravaged humanity for the last 19 months better not come near because we’re done living by its rules. I’m thinking PTSD or some variety of hypervigilance fatigue. How can we be done caring for our neighbor’s welfare because it stresses us out? How do we justify wanting to make the best of whatever time we have left by hanging out with friends never mind that we potentially endanger others at home or at work with some glib “que será será”attitude? Russian roulette COVID brain.

And when otherwise loving and courteous parishioners throw a fit because the pastor requires limits on indoor in-person church activities out of an abundance of caution while the local hospital pleads for support in light of increased testing positivity rates and COVID hospital admissions, suddenly it’s a fight to the death in defense of constitutional rights. It’s just a heartfelt plea for help asking the healthy to stay healthy for the sake of our frontline healthcare professionals who dedicate their lives to the care of the very sick. No one is getting arrested or thrown in jail. COVID brain on thin ice.

But Jesus wasn’t dealing with COVID in the gospel. So when the Pharisees asked him “Is it lawful?” it seems they were only interested in whether Jesus would approve Moses’ permission knowing full well Moses was modifying God’s fundamental design for marriage and family. And if Moses the great servant of God and leader of Israel said it was okay, it had to be okay. Do you Jesus approve of what Moses did here? And Jesus couldn’t help but shake his head. “Because of the hardness of your hearts, Moses wrote you this commandment.” There’s God’s design. There’s Moses’ concession. Then there’s humanity’s hardness of heart.

Let’s just take a moment to consider humanity’s hardness of heart. Now the Law of Moses was regarded for the longest time in Israel as simultaneously religious law and civil law. And like many theocratic societies, a grievous disregard for religious law was often punishable in this life as well as in the next, with arrest and trial and prison and even execution in this life and with untold spiritual anguish and eternal damnation in the next. I suppose it makes sense to religious hardliners that every effort to avoid untold spiritual anguish and eternal damnation before the throne of God should be motivation enough to convince potential lawbreakers it was in their best interest to not be arrested and tried and sent to prison and be executed as well. So, they’re really on our side, we the selfish and sinful and imperfect, until we cross the line. So don’t.

The Law can be very cold and impersonal sometimes because it is meant to be independent of random circumstances and shifting human emotions. Jesus even went so far as to declare that God’s design remains unchanged despite humanity’s hardness of heart. But he also teaches us that God is merciful and compassionate. And if Moses the great servant of God and leader of Israel was willing to permit divorce contrary to God’s eternal design because of Israel’s hardness of heart, perhaps God Almighty was not as cold and impersonal as hardline religious law is often determined to present him. Or perhaps Moses was beginning to acknowledge the merits of separating religious law from civil law because of humanity’s incredible hardness of heart and God’s even more incredible merciful heart.

Parents who govern their families with an iron fist often end up raising resentful and even outright rebellious children. Civic leaders who govern their constituents with an iron fist often end up trampling goodwill, demeaning their most vocal critics, and pitting themselves against their own people. Religious leaders who govern their flock with an iron fist often end up discouraging sincere believers, driving away those who struggle, and distorting the fundamental message of God’s love and mercy altogether.

Let’s face it. There’s simply no getting away from humanity’s hardness of heart. If Moses the great servant of God and leader of Israel caved and modified the Law to accommodate the selfish and sinful and imperfect, might we perhaps be more gracious and forgiving, less abrasive and condemning, and less dismissive of our cluelessly rude, selfish, and glaringly unchristian neighbor? COVID brain or not, we hold the conviction that God sent his only begotten Son to save us from the hardness of our own hearts that we might behold and experience God’s own amazing heart of mercy and compassion.

When God designed human nature to profit from the awesome blessing of friendship and companionship, God was taking a huge risk that two selfish, sinful, and imperfect creatures would be so much better together than just one by itself. How’s that for divine logic? The beautiful partnership of marriage would be built on friendship and companionship and God would extend to his creatures a share in his own power to create new life. But just as close friends and companions can sometimes drift apart or come crashing in a blazing fireball of destruction and mayhem, God’s original design would remain the ideal. Success is never guaranteed just because we desire it. But we can keep aspiring and striving for it. And perhaps we might not give up too quickly on one another because God isn’t giving up on us either. Encourage the sincere, support the struggling, and gently lead back those who stray, COVID brain or not.

Rolo B Castillo © 2021