A week ago, I was reading the gospel passage, where the Pharisees try to trick Jesus into speaking treason by asking him whether it is lawful for them to pay taxes. He answers them with the famous phrase, “Give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s”. Normally, when I read this passage, I am content to think what a clever answer that was, but this time I was led to wonder: “What are the things that belong to God?” As I sat there pondering, a memory came to mind of the story a man called Thomas told me many years ago. Thomas had done very well at school and was full of hopes for the future, but then his health began to fail and he was eventually diagnosed as having leprosy. He told me that everyone suddenly became frightened of him and he was quickly sent away downriver to be put on a boat to the Leper Hospital, here at Kuching. That journey lasted three days – three dark days deep inside the boat, when no one came near him except to push his meals at him. He was convinced he was going to Kuching to die; he tried to pray but his thoughts and feelings were too bitter. Then, the boat docked at Kuching and before long the door to where he lay opened and an old man, himself a patient of the hospital, came in and with a big smile said, “Come on, old fellow, we will soon have you on your feet again!” Thomas told me it was like the sun coming out and he knew he was not going to die – he was going to live!
As I sat remembering that story, I asked: what was it that had had such an effect on Thomas – the words? No, not just the words, but the way the words were said – with kindness. It was through the kindness and concern of that old man, that God reached down to Thomas and gave him hope and the assurance of life. There is an ancient saying in the Church: “Where there is charity and love, there God is present” and the same can be said of “kindness”.
When we think or talk about the Christian life, we are very often concerned with what we should do and we give much less thought to “how” we should do it. I remember, as a young priest, making visits to the people in the villages near my first mission. I knew very little of the language and even if I had known more, I was very young and would not have known how to chat comfortably with them – but, I tried. With my catechist, I went from house to house, trying to talk with them and then giving them a blessing – but all the while I was questioning the value of what I was doing, because I could not speak the language. Over thirty years later, I was to discover that I had been greatly missed, when I was transferred from that mission; missed – I was told – because I smiled at people and was kind!
This should not surprise us, because we claim to be “children of God” and if this is not to be just an empty phrase, then it must mean that when people look at us, we remind them of our Father. If we were, then, asked how we are supposed to remind people of the Father, we would probably answer: by what we do and say. However, history shows us many examples of people doing so-called “Christian things” or saying “Christian words”, but the harshness with which they say and do those things hides the Father rather than revealing him. More and more I have come to believe that it is not so much what we do, that shows who the Father is, but the way in which we do them – with compassion, kindness and care.
God works through our kindness and care, touching the hearts of those we meet and giving them life and hope and this means that even the smallest action – such as those few words spoken to that young man, Thomas – can become words of resurrection and life. So, then, coming back to my original question: what are those things which belong to God? They are, of course, the things we are able to share with those in need – and this varies from person to person – but that which applies to us all is that when we reach out to those in need – we do so with a smile and a touch of kindness and care.
I have just come back from a visitation to the two young Mill Hill priests who have arrived in Sarawak over the last eighteen months, for I have a watching brief to see that they are settling well into their missions. They seem to be doing well and I enjoyed visiting those two missions, which I had not seen for many years and I also found that my knowledge of Iban is coming back and flows much more easily than it did a year ago – but I do miss my own bed and also my own bathroom!! At the first mission, I took a shower and was covered in soap, when the water failed. At the second mission, the water-heater failed and despite the temperature here – I do not like cold water showers first thing in the morning. I’m getting soft!
Last Friday, I went to visit a priest friend of mine, who has a parish on the coast. As usual, I stayed the night with him, went swimming in the sea the next day and then came home. But the evening I arrived there was a Mass, followed by a fellowship supper and Fr John asked me to preside at the Mass which I did. After the Mass, a woman – a grandmother! – came running down the aisle, threw her arms round me and gave me a hug and started speaking to me in Melanau – which was the language of my first parish. The astonishing things was that I understood most of what she said and it turned out that she had grown up in one of the villages I visited at that time – but I had not seen her for 36 years!
I was asked to help with the Key magazine, the annual publication of St Peter’s College. I had the idea of getting the students to tell their stories in accordance of this year’s theme of the Scriptures as story. It is working well, except they are all coming for help with their contributions. I am not even getting a day off on Sundays – one lad was at my door within five minutes of my arriving back from Mass, this morning!