“When a man takes an oath, Meg, he’s holding his own self in his own hands….” Man for All Seasons, Robert Bolt, Columbia Pictures 1966.
“Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me….” Matthew 10:37.
The picture above, taken from the movie Man for All Seasons, shows Thomas More and his family in 1535 in the Tower of London where he was being held prisoner. His wife, daughter and son-in-law have been allowed to visit him on condition they try to get him to sign the Act of Supremacy which declared King Henry VIII to be head of the Church in England, thus deposing the Pope. More could not agree with that, and refused to sign, for which he had been imprisoned. They failed. More was eventually tried, perjured evidence was given against him, he was convicted and sentenced to death and was beheaded in that same year. He was declared a saint in 1935. His statement to his daughter Margaret, quoted under the picture above, is another way of saying that taking an oath before God is a declaration of who I am. It is a direct statement to God as witness. Should you say something under oath you do not accept, know is wrong or sinful, then you have denied who you are before God. In that case, who are you? As he says to his daughter, “Some men aren’t capable of this [stating the truth], but I’d be loath to think your father one of them”. In other words, he would not be that man his daughter thinks is her father, or Lady Alice thinks of as her husband. He would be a pathetic shadow of a once-honorable Christian man. That’s what the Lord is saying today in the gospel. Loyalty to him must be absolute and unquestioning. In that way you can be the best you can possibly be to all those around you. So it is not to deny those closest to you, but to become even closer, loyal, loving and true to them, and set an example of how totally good you can be as a true disciple of Jesus. Remember that Jesus’ whole life was dedicated to the well-being of others at every stage and in every situation. He was so completely true to himself that he, as with More, refused to deny who he was in the eyes of God and suffered accordingly.
More before the Special Commission in Westminster Hall to be tried for high treason. Columbia Pictures 1966.
More was a lawyer by trade. In that capacity he had become Lord Chancellor of England, the most powerful man in the kingdom after the king himself. When he was asked to do something against his conscience, he resigned his office to retire to what he hoped would be a peaceful existence, but is was not to be. He had a a reputation for excellence across the continent. He book Utopia was renowned. It was he who established the immunity from prosecution for members of the House of Commons so that they could say whatever they wished in Parliament, a tradition which has lasted down to today on both sides of the Atlantic. The man was brilliant. He refused to sign on to an Act of Parliament making the king supreme head of the Church in England, and thereby deposing the Pope in Rome. More thought that wrong (though he did not say that; he remained silent on the matter), and resigned his office. His silence resounded throughout Europe as all waited to see what would happen next. Refusal to subscribe to the Act was punished by imprisonment; More was sent to the Tower of London – his cell is still there today. That was when his family was allowed to visit him on condition they would persuade him to agree to the Act. They failed, not understanding his determination not to yield even to them. They were asking, of course, for him to betray who he was. The situation was very similar to Jesus before the high priest who demanded to know if he believed he was the Christ, the Son of the living God, to which Jesus, fully believing he was, said “I am” (Mark 14:62) for which he was crucified. Had he denied it, it would have meant his whole life was meaningless and a total failure. Had More agreed with his family, he would have considered himself a traitor to God, his life a fraud and his life meaningless. He knew to his bones he could not live like that.
“Friend, be not afraid of your office. You send me to God” Columbia Pictures 1966.
So what is the lesson from Jesus’ uncompromising words today? Well the one writing this webpage and those reading it would probably say they are followers of the Lord Jesus. That means that what he said, what he did and what he believed to be the truth have been accepted, incorporated, and have become the foundation of our lives. We strive to be his authentic followers; in fact, as best we can, to be Christ to the world. In that way we try to embody Shakespeare’s timeless exhortation, “To Thine Own Self Be True” (spoken by Polonius, Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 3. Sadly, Polonius was not the shining example of the advice he gives to his son Laertes in that scene, but the meaning is timeless and true). That might go for us too when we fail to live up to Jesus’ command in today’s gospel, but we also believe in a God of forgiveness and love. And so we must be forgiving and loving also, both to ourselves and to others. So if on face value Jesus seems to be demanding something wild, extraordinary and impossibly cruel, he is, in fact, demanding that we be perfect, be true Christ to the world so that we can model his universal love and openness to all, to family, friends, everyone and above all to him. In that way we can be true to ourselves no matter what, with Jesus himself beside us fulfilling his promise to be with us always. Hence More believed utterly in his last words: “I die the King’s good servant, but God’s first”.
Thomas More as Lord Chancellor of England, Holbein the Younger 1527, The Frick Collection, New York City, USA.
Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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