The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines integrity as a “firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values.” It has to do with the qualities of incorruptibility, unimpaired judgment, completeness or undividedness. Integrity implies we have everything required for a good conduct and nothing misplaced. This is what we are called to this week. Given our Lord’s saying that it is from the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks, if our hearts are filled with integrity, we will always speak with integrity, exercise authority with integrity, and not raise unfair criticisms against others. We will not deliberately undervalue their good efforts out of jealousy or envy. In today’s Gospel, Jesus highlights three main areas of moral integrity that we need to work on as the season of Lent approaches – integrity in leadership, integrity in the evaluation of others, and integrity in our personal conduct.
Integrity in leadership: The Lord wants us to realize that every leadership position is founded upon certain principles which the leader must always adhere to. A leader who deviates from the foundational principles of his or her office will become blind and end up leading the followers astray. This is true in politics, in business and more so in the Church.
A priest, for instance, who does not follow the books but goes about making up his own liturgical practices, will only succeed in leading the people far and far away from the true worship of God. And when the worship of God is bereft of authenticity, the people start to lose their sense of reverence, their sense of awe and wonder about the transcendence of God. And it is only a matter of time before that affects their approach to morality and their faith in general starts to dwindle.
This is true in other spheres of life as well and that is why Jesus wants us to be mindful of this. We must try to see and live clearly before helping others, or it will be a case of the blind leading the blind. If a blind man were to offer to help us cross the street, we would either nicely decline, think he was crazy, or perhaps imagine that he had supernatural powers.
So, those of us in leadership must spend time in prayer and reflection to determine the solid foundation on which to live and to guide others. If people recognize something to be evil, they avoid it; that is a basic ethical principle. Therefore, every leader must not only have integrity but must be seen to practise it.
Integrity in judging others: The Lord wants us to be careful not to criticize others for the very faults that we ourselves might be guilty of. That is hypocrisy pure and simple.
We are called to be people of introspection and make sure to work on our own weakness before we criticize or condemn others. When the American President Clinton was having his scandals in the 1990s, one of the people spearheading his impeachment proceedings was the House Speaker, Newt Gingrich but it turned out later that the man himself was having an extra-marital affair at the time of the impeachment. That is why the Lord puts it very clearly today: “Take the plank out of your own eye first, and then you will see clearly enough to take out the splinter that is in your brother’s eye” (Lk. 6:42).
Integrity in personal conduct: To differentiate a good tree from a bad one we have to look beyond the foliage (the words) and concentrate on the actual fruit that is produced (the deeds). Similarly, people will always look beyond our words and judge us by our concrete acts. There was once anart exhibition which featured a truly remarkable picture. Viewed from a distance, this picture seemed to portray a monk engaged in deep prayer, his hands clasped, his head bowed. But as one drew nearer and examined the painting more closely, it revealed that the monk was indeed squeezing a lemon into a punch bowl!
This rings true of the saying that looks can be deceptive. Thus, our integrity must go beyond the superficial and show clearly in our everyday dealings. If we have integrity on the inside, it will naturally show in our external conduct. In line with the saying that no one can give what they do not have, our interior life must be filled with integrity so that we are able to manifest that in the way we behave whether at home, at work or in church.
In today’s First Reading, we are warned to practise integrity in the way we speak. The Book of Sirach teaches us that a person’s words are the accurate indicator of their quality.
Appearances are not enough and, thus, we are told in the reading: “Do not praise a man before he has spoken, since this is the test of men” (Eccl. 27:8). This is clear warning to watch our speech because words are very powerful. However, sometimes we get it wrong and our words and actions fail the integrity test. This is caused by the effects of Original Sin. Fortunately, this is what Christ came to fix and that is why, in the Second Reading, St Paul thanks God for the power over sin which we gain through our Lord Jesus Christ.
We are called to keep working hard and never give in to temptations. If we persevere in Christ, we will share in his victory over sin and death.
This week, therefore, let us subject our daily conduct to the integrity test, and let us ask the Lord for the grace to identify and overcome our areas of weakness so that we may live a life on integrity to the end. Amen.