Homily for Mass of Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B

16 Aug 2015

One of the most successful TV sitcoms of all time was Frasier. It ran for eleven seasons till 2004 and won 37 Emmies. It’s the story of the “lovably pompous” radio-psychiatrist, Dr Frasier Crane (played by Kelsey Grammer), and various relatives and friends. In one episode the mild-mannered Frasier is increasingly irritated at the rudeness of others: someone parking in his spot, making him late for his show; another taking a video he’d asked for at the shop (remember video shops?); a neighbour playing music at full-blast; and so on.[1]  Finally, he retreats with his brother Niles to his favourite café and waits patiently for his favourite table, only to have someone sidle in and grab it. This straw breaks the camel’s back: Frasier loses his temper and manhandles the queue-jumper out of the café, saying “Perhaps what you need is an etiquette lesson!”

Whatever we think of Frasier’s methods of instruction, there does seem to have been a decline in recent years in ‘please’, ‘thank-you’ and ‘excuse me’, in geniality, politeness, that courtesy Chesterton called “the wedding of humility with dignity”. Of course good manners can be hypocritical, habitual rather than heart-felt, papering over feelings of resentment, superiority or indifference. Only a certain class of people, mostly found in Britain and rarely in Australia, thought good manners the highest virtue; most people know there are many more important ones.

Yet the English are right to teach us that courtesy does help grease the wheels of society. Polls suggest most people lament the perceived rise of rudeness in the workplace, on the roads, in the social media, amongst neighbours, even at home. One study found that 2 in 5 social media users have ended contact after a virtual altercation.[2]  Another suggested that rudeness is contagious and can spread through workplaces like the flu.[3] 

We’ve all witnessed someone do something that annoys another driver – cuts in front of them, for instance – and that driver retaliates by blowing the horn, waving fists, even ramming the offender’s car in an act of ‘road rage’.[4]  More mundane instances of dangerous or discourteous driving include: speeding or feather-footing, merging without indicating, crossing unbroken lines, driving while distracted by a phone, tailgating, and so on.[5]  When I returned to Sydney after some years away I noticed a competitive streak amongst many drivers here: it’s as if they are always in a race and don’t want anyone to get in front of them. Perfectly nice Dr Jeckels can become Mr Hydes behind a wheel.

Nor is discourtesy confined to the roads. People wander the footpath glued to their smart-phones and oblivious to all around them. Or generously share their phone conversations or personal tastes in music with everyone in the train. Or ignore others at table with them while staring at their devices. Some years ago, I was hearing a man’s confession when to my astonishment he took a mobile call and discussed shopping on the way home!

We could all add examples. The causes are complex: different manners in different cultures; hypnotic technologies; all-consuming work; the breakdown, sometimes for the better, of rigid formalities of former times. But at the heart of the decline in manners is, I suspect, a decline in simple awareness of and regard for others.

This trend is contrary to Christian Scripture and tradition. Our proverbial first reading recommends we keep our eyes open and be sensitive to what we do (Prov 9:1-6). Our epistle also exhorts us to be aware of others and careful in our behaviour, redeeming rather than magnifying the thoughtlessness of the age. St Paul hadn’t come across smart phones and amplifiers, but he’d noticed that people’s manners are generally better under the influence of the Holy Spirit than the kind that comes in bottles. He lauds helpful rather than hurtful words; sacred music such as we sing at St Mary’s over the cacophony of the city; gratefulness rather than boorishness towards God and neighbour (Eph 5:15-20). Elsewhere he tells us to regard others as better than us, to be always gracious in speech, never rude, and to “show perfect courtesy to all” (1Th 5:15; 1Cor 13:5; Gal 5:14; Phil 2:3; Col 4:6; Tit 3:2). St Peter likewise exhorts us to suffer evil rather than perpetrate it, to repay evil not with evil but with a blessing, to give an account of the hope within us with gentleness and reverence, and finally, to be united, sympathetic, fraternal, compassionate and courteous. (cf. 1Pet ch 3)

Many saints since Peter and Paul have also been gentlemen and women. In the 12th canto of the Paradiso, Dante imagines St Bonaventure the Franciscan praising “the modest speech and glowing courtesy” of St Thomas the Dominican; both thought the other a spiritual ‘knight in shining armour’ and each acclaimed the founder of the other’s order for passing on such courtly manners to his sons. Aquinas thought affability, generosity and courtesy (iocunditas, facetiæ, curialitas) essential virtues in any community, opposed to vices like quarrelsomeness, scurrilousness and boorishness. God Himself teaches us these things by His own example: “Great is the courtesy when the King of Kings and Lord of Lords invites us to His wedding feast,” said Thomas.

Christ Himself modelled such gallantry. Though he could be righteously angry or direct in his speech, He was never petulant or rude. He treated all He met with respect and patience, such as the woman at the well, the rich young man, the unjust tax-collector, the rough publican, the muddle-headed apostles, the wow-seeking crowds. As Judas approached with treacherous kiss Jesus called him ‘friend’. He touched gently, spoke sympathetically, calmed storms. He taught us to revere and act lovingly towards brethren, neighbours, strangers, even enemies; to lend, give and forgive expecting no return. He insisted that our external good manners should also reflect a good heart within. We must treat others not as they treat us, with eye-for-an-eye logic, but as we’d like to be treated, as God’s treats us, with eye-of-God logic (cf. Mt 7:12; 22:39; Lk 6:31-5 etc.).

For some weeks now we’ve been reading chapter 6 of John’s Gospel. Here we see Christ gently, step by step, teaching about that Eucharist. Today He says: I am the living bread, the heavenly manna, the food of life; my flesh is real food, my blood real drink; to consume these is to live in me and me in you, so you share my eternal life (Jn 6:51-58). Some found such talk appalling: Jesus and the Catholics seem cannibals or, worse, theophagists, like pagans of old eating their gods. Some would leave Jesus and His Church rather than accept such hard teachings about the Real Presence (Jn 6:66). But Jesus does not coerce minds or force love. He teaches, invites, directs, all with the greatest courtesy, all the way to the grave – and beyond. Would that were so of all His disciples!

1.High Crane Drifter from Series 3.
3.https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/rudeness-workplace-like-flu-spreads-jan-johnston-osburn; http://blogs.wsj.com/atwork/2013/08/29/uh-oh-rudeness-is-on-the-rise/
5.http://www.gio.com.au/news/gio-research-finds-driver-discourtesy-rife-nsw; http://www.driversafety.com.au/news-suncorp-insurance-research-finds-driver-discourtesy-rife-in-queensland-192.aspx; http://www.nytimes.com/2006/11/25/books/25rude.html?pagewanted=print&_r=0; http://blogs.wsj.com/juggle/2011/07/06/an-uncivil-cycle/; http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/nation/2005-10-14-rude-amercians-poll_x.htm; https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/tech-support/201306/is-rudeness-now-in-fashion