Just A Little Talk With Jesus Makes it Right – A homily for the Third Sunday of Lent

As we examine the Gospel for this weekend’s Mass we do well to understand that is about human desires and how the Lord reaches us through them. Prior to examining the text in detail, let’s consider a few things:

  1. What it is that really makes you happy? We desire so many things: food, water, shelter, clothing, and creature comforts. We long for affection, peace, and a sense of belonging. Sometimes we want stability and simplicity, at others we yearn for change and variety. Our hearts are a sea of desires, wishes, and longings. Today’s Gospel says that a woman went to the well to draw water. She represents each one of us and her desire for water is symbolic of all our desires.
  2. In reality, your desires are infinite. Can you remember a time when you were ever entirely satisfied, when you wanted absolutely nothing else? Even if you can recall such a time, I’ll bet it didn’t last long. That is because our desires are without limit.
  3. The well in today’s Gospel symbolizes this world. Jesus says to the woman, Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again. The world cannot provide what we are really looking for. No matter how much it offers us, it will never suffice, for the world is finite while our desires are infinite. In this way our heart teaches us something very important about ourselves: We were not made for this world; we were made for something, someone, who is infinite, who alone can satisfy us. We were made for God.
  4. The water offered is the Holy Spirit. Jesus said elsewhere, “If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” Now this he said about the Spirit, which those who believed in him were to receive (Jn. 7:37-39).
  5. The Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say about the meanings of our longings:

The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God; and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for. … With his longings for the infinite and for happiness, man questions himself about God’s existence. In all this he discerns signs of his spiritual soul. The soul, the seed of eternity we bear in ourselves, irreducible to the merely material, can have its origin only in God (Catechism # 27, 33).

  1. Scripture speaks to us about our desires: Of You my heart has spoken: “Seek His face.” It is your face O Lord that I seek; hide not your face! (Psalm 27:8-9). Only in God will my soul be at rest, he is my hope, my salvation (Psalm 62:1).
  2. Augustine wrote these classic words to describe our truest longing: “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless till they rest in Thee” (Confessions 1,1).

With these in mind, let’s look at the journey that this woman makes to Jesus. Things start out rough, but in the end she discovers her heart’s truest desire. The journey is made in stages.

Rendezvous – Notice that Jesus is the one who takes the initiative here. As the Lord teaches elsewhere, It was not you who chose me, It was I who chose you (John 15:16). Jesus encounters a woman from Samaria at Jacob’s well. She desires water, but Jesus knows that her desire is for far more than water or in fact anything that the world gives. Her desire has brought her face to face with Jesus. It is a holy and fortunate rendezvous. Jesus begins a discussion with her about her heart’s truest longing.

Request – The discussion begins with a request. The text says, It was about noon. A woman of Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.” Imagine, God asking you for anything; what a stunning thing! What can she or anyone really give God? The answer is simply this: the gift of our very self. God has put a threshold before our heart that even He will not cross unless we first say yes to Him. Jesus’ request initiates a discussion, a dialogue of two hearts. As we shall see, the woman struggles with this dialogue. To be sure, it is a delicate, even painful process for us to accept the Lord’s invitation to self-giving. Something within us makes us draw back in fear. Scripture says, It is an awesome thing to fall into the hands of living God (Heb 10:31).

Rebuke – Sure enough, she draws back with fear and anger. She says, “How can you, a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan woman, for a drink?”—For Jews use nothing in common with Samaritans. In our journey to God, we do not always trust or understand Him at first. Some are afraid to relate to God because they think they will lose their freedom or that they will have to change too much. Others loathe the commandments or fear that they cannot keep them. Still others are angry at the unexpected twists and turns of life and do not want to trust a God who doesn’t always give them what they want. The woman’s anger is not really at Jesus; it is at “the Jews,” with whom the Samaritans have a hostile relationship. This is sometimes the case with God as well. It is not always the Lord Jesus, or God the Father, whom people hate or distrust; rather, it is Christians. Some have been hurt by the Church or by Christians; others have prejudiced opinions influenced by a hostile media and world.

Repetition – Jesus repeats His offer for a relationship. He says, “If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” I don’t know about you, but I am mighty glad that the Lord does not merely write us off when we say no to Him. Jesus stays in the conversation and even sweetens the deal by making an offer to give her fresh, living water. The Lord does the same for us. First He gave the Law, then He gave the prophets; now He gives His Son. It just keeps getting better. First He gave water, then He changed it to wine, and then He changed it to His blood. Despite our often harsh rejection of God, He keeps the dialogue going.

Ridicule – The woman is still hostile and now even ridicules Jesus: “Sir, you do not even have a bucket and the cistern is deep; where then can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us this cistern and drank from it himself with his children and his flocks?” To the world, the teachings of God often appear to be foolishness. People often dismiss religious faith as fanciful and unrealistic.

Reminder – Jesus now re-frames the question by reminding the woman of the obvious: Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again. What she is relying on can’t come through for her. The world’s water does not satisfy us; the world’s delights are transitory. They promise ultimate satisfaction, but soon we are thirsty again. The world is the gift that keeps on taking; it takes our money, loyalty, freedom, and time, while giving us only temporary—and ultimately unsatisfying pleasures—in return. It’s a bad deal. Every one who drinks from this well be thirsty again.

Re-upping the offer – Jesus says, “… but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Here the Lord speaks of happiness and satisfaction that he will give, that grows in us and makes us more and more alive. The “water” he offers (as noted above) is the gift of the Holy Spirit. As the Holy Spirit lives in us and transforms us, we become more and more content with what we have. As the life of God grows in us, we become more alive in God and joyful in what He is doing for us. This is what the Lord offers us: the gift of a new and transformed life, the gift to become fully alive in God. I am a witness of this. How about you?

Result – The woman has moved toward Jesus; she has warmed to His offer. She says, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” Here is the result of the Lord’s persistence. Thank God that He does not give up on us. He keeps calling, even when we say no, even when we sin; He just keeps call our name!

Requirement – Jesus wants to give this gift, but first He must help her to make room for it. For the truth is that she has unrepented sin. A cup that is filled with sand cannot be filled with water. The sand must first be emptied out and then the cup cleansed. Thus Jesus says, “Go call your husband and come back.” The woman answered and said to him, “I do not have a husband.” Jesus answered her, “You are right in saying, ‘I do not have a husband.’ For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true.” Now she does what most of us do when we are in an uncomfortable spot: she changes the subject. She attempts to engage in a discussion about where to worship. Jesus is patient and answers her, but ultimately draws her back to the subject at hand: her heart and what her desires are really all about.

Reconciliation – At this point the conversation gets private; we are not permitted to listen in. It is just between her and Jesus. But whatever it was, she is elated and will later declare, “He told me everything I ever did.” There is no sense in her tone that Jesus was merely accusatory. Rather, it would seem that Jesus helped her to understand her heart and her struggle. An old song says, “I once was lost in sin but Jesus took me in and then a little light from heaven filled my soul. He bathed my heart in love and he wrote my name above and just a little talk with Jesus made me whole.” Here, Jesus reconciles her with God and with her own self.

RejoicingThe woman left her water jar and went into the town and said to the people, “Come see a man who told me everything I have done. Could he possibly be the Christ?” They went out of the town and came to him.” Do not miss that little detail: she left her water jar. She left behind the very thing she was depending on to collect the things of the world. What is your “water jar”? What do you use to gain access to the world and to collect its offerings? For most of us, it is money. Scripture says, For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs (1 Tim 6:10). At any rate, the woman is joyfully empowered to leave this enslaving water jar behind. Freed from its load, she is able to run to town and declare Jesus to others. Her joy must have been infectious, for soon enough they are following her out to meet the Lord!

This is the journey of a woman who represents each one of us. This is our journey, out of dependence, out of an enslaving attachment to the world. It is our journey unto Jesus, who alone can set us free. Here is our journey to understand that our desires are ultimately about God.

You can listen to this homily here: Just a Little Talk With Jesus.

I have it on the best of authority that as the woman joyfully journeyed back to town, she was singing this gospel song:

Straining Out Gnats and Swallowing Camels As Seen in a Commercial

In the Gospel of Matthew (Mat 12:1-8), Jesus is rebuked for violating the Sabbath. This reminded me of the video below, which illustrates how we sometimes follow smaller rules while overlooking more important ones in the process.

The Lord Jesus was often scorned by the people of His day, who claimed that He overlooked certain details of the law (often Sabbath observances). But those who rebuked Him for this were guilty of far greater violations. For example,

  1. [Jesus] went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.” Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent. He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus (Mk 3:1-6).
  2. Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone (Luke 11:42).
  3. Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue ruler said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.” The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” (Lk 13:14-16)
  4. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean (Matt 23:24-25).

Yes, they are straining out gnats but swallowing camels, maximizing the minimum but minimizing the maximum. Note that in the first passage above they are actually planning to kill Jesus for healing on the Sabbath!

Perhaps my all-time favorite illustration of this awful human tendency is in the Gospel of John:

Then the Jews led Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness the Jews did not enter the palace; they wanted to be able to eat the Passover. So Pilate came out … (John 18:28-29).

They are plotting to kill a just and innocent man; indeed, they are plotting to kill God. They are acting out of wickedness, envy, jealousy, hatred, and murderous anger, but their primary concern is avoiding ritual uncleanliness! Yes, they are straining out gnats but swallowing camels.

We who are pious and observant need to be wary of this tendency. Sometimes in congratulating ourselves over adherence in lesser matters, we can either offend or neglect in weightier ones. Perhaps I attend Mass each Sunday (a grave obligation); perhaps I pray the rosary (a highly commendable practice); perhaps I tithe (a commendable precept). These are all things that ought to be done (one is commanded, one is commended, and one is a precept). But what if at the same time I am hateful toward someone at the office, unforgiving to a family member, and/or insensitive to the poor?

The danger could be that I let my observance of certain things allow me to think that I can “check off the God box” and figure that because I went to Mass, prayed the rosary, and gave an offering, I’ve “got this righteousness thing down.” Too often, very significant and serious things like love, mercy, forgiveness, and charity are set aside or neglected as I am busy congratulating myself over my adherence to other, sometimes lesser, things.

This oversight can happen in the other direction as well. Someone may congratulate himself for spending the day working in a soup kitchen, and think that he therefore has no need to look at the fact that he is living unchastely (shacked up, for example) or not attending Mass.

We cannot “buy God off,” doing certain things (usually things that we like) while ignoring others we’d rather not. In the end, the whole counsel of God is important.

We must avoid the sinful tendency to try to substitute or swap, to observe a few things while overlooking others.

We see a lot of examples of this in our culture as well. We obsess over people smoking because it might be bad for their health while ignoring the health consequences of promiscuous behavior, which spreads AIDS and countless venereal diseases and leads to abortion. We campaign to save the baby seals while over a thousand baby humans are killed each day in the United States. We deplore (rightfully) the death of thousands each year in gun homicides while calling the murder of hundreds of thousands of babies each year a constitutional right. The school nurse is required to obtain parental permission to dispense aspirin to students but not to provide the dangerous abortifacient “morning after pill.” We talk about the dignity of women and yet pornography flourishes. We fret endlessly about our weight and the physical appearance of our bodies, which will die, and care little for our souls, which will live. We obsess over carbon footprints while flying on jets to global warming conferences at luxurious convention center complexes.

Yes, we are straining gnats but swallowing camels. As the Lord says, we ought not to neglect smaller things wholly, but simply observing lesser things doesn’t give us the right to ignore greater ones.

Salus animarum suprema lex. (The salvation of souls is the highest law.) While little things mean a lot, we must always remember not to allow them to eclipse greater things.

The ideal for which to aim is an integrated state in which the lesser serves the greater and is subsumed into it. St. Augustine rightly observed,

Quod Minimum, minimum est, Sed in minimo fidelem esse, magnum est (St. Augustine – De Doctrina Christiana, IV,35).

(What is a little thing, is (just) a little thing, but to be faithful in a little thing is a great thing.)

Notice that the lesser things are in service of the greater thing—in this case fidelity. And thus we should rightly ask whether some of the lesser things we do are really in service of the greater things like justice, love, mercy, fidelity, kindness, and generosity. Otherwise we run the risk of straining out gnats but swallowing camels.

Enjoy this commercial, which illustrates how one rule (no loud voices in the library) is observed while violating nearly every other.

Some Teachings on Hell

Given today’s Gospel on Lazarus and the rich man (Dives), we do well to ponder some of the teachings we have on Hell, most of which come from St. Thomas Aquinas.

The teachings of the Lord on Hell are difficult, especially in today’s climate. The most difficult questions that arise relate to its eternal nature and how to square its existence with a God who is loving and rich in mercy.

1. Does God love the souls in Hell? Yes.

How could they continue to exist if He did not love them, sustain them, and continue to provide for them? God loves because He is love. Although we may fail to be able to experience or accept His love, God loves every being He has made, human or angelic.

The souls in Hell may have refused to empty their arms to receive His embrace, but God has not withdrawn His love for them. He permits those who have rejected Him to live apart from him. God honors their freedom to say no, even respecting it when it becomes permanent, as it has for fallen angels and the souls in Hell.

God is not tormenting the damned. The fire and other miseries are largely expressions of the sad condition of those who have rejected the one thing for which they were made: to be caught up into the love and perfection of God and the joy of all the saints.

2. Is there any good at all in Hell? Yes. Are all the damned punished equally? No.

While Heaven is perfection and pure goodness, Hell is not pure evil. The reason for this is that evil is the privation or absence of something good that should be there. If goodness were completely absent, there would be nothing there. Therefore, there must be some goodness in Hell or there would be nothing at all. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches,

It is impossible for evil to be pure and without the admixture of good …. [So]those who will be thrust into hell will not be free from all good … those who are in hell can receive the reward of their goods, in so far as their past goods avail for the mitigation of their punishment (Summa Theologica, Supplement 69.7, reply ad 9).

This can assist us in understanding that God’s punishments are just and that the damned are neither devoid of all good nor lacking in any experience of good. Even though a soul does not wish to dwell in God’s Kingdom (evidenced by rejection of God or the values of His Kingdom), the nature of suffering in Hell is commensurate with the sin(s) that caused exclusion from Heaven.

This would seem to be true even of demons. In the Rite of Exorcism, the exorcist warns the possessing demons, “The longer you delay your departure, the worse your punishment shall be.” This suggest levels of punishment in Hell based on the degree of unrepented wickedness.

In his Inferno, Dante described levels within Hell and wrote that not all the damned experience identical sufferings. Thus, an unrepentant adulterer might not experience the same suffering in kind or degree as would a genocidal, atheistic head of state responsible for the death of millions. Both have rejected key values of the Kingdom: one rejected chastity, the other rejected the worship due to God and the sacredness of human life. The magnitude of those sins is very different and so would be the consequences.

Heaven is a place of absolute perfection, a work accomplished by God for those who say yes. Hell, though a place of great evil, is not one of absolute evil. It cannot be, because God continues to sustain human and angelic beings in existence there and existence itself is good. God also judges them according to their deeds (Rom 2:6). Their good deeds may ameliorate their sufferings. This, too, is good and allows for good in varying degrees there. Hell is not in any way pleasant, but it is not equally bad for all. Thus God’s justice, which is good, reaches even Hell.

3. Do the souls in Hell repent of what they have done? No, not directly.

After death, repentance in the formal sense is not possible. However, St. Thomas makes an important distinction. He says,

A person may repent of sin in two ways: in one way directly, in another way indirectly. He repents of a sin directly who hates sin as such: and he repents indirectly who hates it on account of something connected with it, for instance punishment or something of that kind. Accordingly, the wicked will not repent of their sins directly, because consent in the malice of sin will remain in them; but they will repent indirectly, inasmuch as they will suffer from the punishment inflicted on them for sin (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 98, art 2).

This explains the “wailing and grinding of teeth” in so far as it points to the lament of the damned. They do not lament their choice to sin without repenting, but for the consequences. In the Parable of Lazarus, the rich man in Hell laments his suffering but expresses no regret over the way he treated the beggar Lazarus. Indeed, he still sees Lazarus as a kind of errand-boy, who should fetch him water and warn his brothers. In a certain sense the rich man cannot repent; his character is now quickened and his choices forever fixed.

4. Is eternal punishment just? Yes.

Many who might otherwise accept God’s punishment of sinners are still dismayed that Hell is eternal. Why should one be punished eternally for sins committed over a brief time span, perhaps in just a moment? The punishment does not seem to fit the crime.

This logic presumes that the eternal nature of Hell is intrinsic to the punishment, but it is not. Rather, Hell is eternal because repentance is no longer available after death. Our decision for or against God and the values of His Kingdom values becomes forever fixed. Because at this point the will is fixed and obstinate, the repentance that unlocks mercy will never be forthcoming.

St. Thomas teaches,

[A]s Damascene says (De Fide Orth. ii) “death is to men what their fall was to the angels.” Now after their fall the angels could not be restored [Cf. I:64:2]. Therefore, neither can man after death: and thus the punishment of the damned will have no end. … [So] just as the demons are obstinate in wickedness and therefore have to be punished for ever, so too are the souls of men who die without charity, since “death is to men what their fall was to the angels,” as Damascene says (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 99, art 3).

5. Do the souls in Hell hate God? No, not directly.

St. Thomas teaches,

The appetite is moved by good or evil apprehended. Now God is apprehended in two ways, namely in Himself, as by the blessed, who see Him in His essence; and in His effects, as by us and by the damned. Since, then, He is goodness by His essence, He cannot in Himself be displeasing to any will; wherefore whoever sees Him in His essence cannot hate Him.

On the other hand, some of His effects are displeasing to the will in so far as they are opposed to any one: and accordingly a person may hate God not in Himself, but by reason of His effects. Therefore, the damned, perceiving God in His punishment, which is the effect of His justice, hate Him, even as they hate the punishment inflicted on them (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 98, art 5).

6. Do the souls in hell wish they were dead? No.

It is impossible to detest what is fundamentally good, and to exist is fundamentally good. Those who say that they “wish they were dead” do not really wish nonexistence upon themselves. Rather, they wish an end to their suffering. So it is with the souls in Hell. St. Thomas teaches,

Not to be may be considered in two ways. First, in itself, and thus it can nowise be desirable, since it has no aspect of good, but is pure privation of good. Secondly, it may be considered as a relief from a painful life or from some unhappiness: and thus “not to be” takes on the aspect of good, since “to lack an evil is a kind of good” as the Philosopher says (Ethic. v, 1). In this way it is better for the damned not to be than to be unhappy. Hence it is said (Matthew 26:24): “It were better for him, if that man had not been born,” and (Jeremiah 20:14): “Cursed be the day wherein I was born,” where a gloss of Jerome observes: “It is better not to be than to be evilly.” In this sense the damned can prefer “not to be” according to their deliberate reason (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 98, art 3).

7. Do the souls in Hell see the blessed in Heaven?

Some biblical texts say that the damned see the saints in glory. For example, the rich man in the parable can see Lazarus in the Bosom of Abraham (Lk 16:3). Further, Jesus says, There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves are thrown out (Lk 13:28). However, St Thomas makes a distinction:

The damned, before the judgment day, will see the blessed in glory, in such a way as to know, not what that glory is like, but only that they are in a state of glory that surpasses all thought. This will trouble them, both because they will, through envy, grieve for their happiness, and because they have forfeited that glory. Hence it is written (Wisdom 5:2) concerning the wicked: “Seeing it” they “shall be troubled with terrible fear.”

After the judgment day, however, they will be altogether deprived of seeing the blessed: nor will this lessen their punishment, but will increase it; because they will bear in remembrance the glory of the blessed which they saw at or before the judgment: and this will torment them. Moreover, they will be tormented by finding themselves deemed unworthy even to see the glory which the saints merit to have (Summa Theologica, Supplement, q 98, art 9).

St Thomas does not cite a Scripture for this conclusion. However, certain texts about the Last Judgment emphasize a kind of definitive separation. For example, in Matthew 25 we read this: All the nations will be gathered before [the Son of Man], and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. … Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life (Mat 25:32, 46).

Clearly, Hell is a tragic and eternal separation from God. Repentance, which unlocks mercy, is available to us; but after death, like clay pottery placed in the kiln, our decision is forever fixed.

Choose the Lord today! Judgment day looms. Now is the time to admit our sins humbly and to seek the Lord’s mercy. There is simply nothing more foolish than defiance and an obstinate refusal to repent. At some point, our hardened hearts will reach a state in which there is no turning back. To die in such a condition is to close the door of our heart on God forever.

Somebody’s knocking at your door.
Oh sinner, why don’t you answer?
Somebody’s knocking at your door!

Three Teachings on Temptation

Sunday’s Gospel about the temptation of Jesus in the desert by Satan evokes several questions. The answers I propose are not intended to be a theological treatise, but rather a pastoral reflection.

I. Why does God permit temptation? God does not permit any evil or problem unless it can serve some greater good. In the case of temptation, He permits it because it summons us to love Him while giving us the freedom to reject or accept that call. God seeks sons and daughters who can love Him freely.

Of God’s creatures, only angels and humans possess free will. We are summoned to love, but love requires the freedom to make choices. In giving us freedom, God permits alternatives to saying “yes” to Him. These alternatives present themselves as temptations.

Temptation existed even in Eden, in paradise; and prior to that, the angels had a sweeping choice for or against God. Scripture hints that one third of them fell to the earth and are what now called demons (see Rev 12:4). Our “yes” to God must be very precious indeed, because in granting this freedom He permits that some, indeed many, choose to reject Him.

A second reason God permits temptation is that it tests and strengthens us. An old saying reminds us, “Things do by opposition grow.” Temptation is a kind of opposition we must learn to endure. In enduring, though, we become stronger. The spiritual life is like the physical life in that we grow stronger through repeated action. After lifting weights repeatedly, our physical strength increases and we can overcome increasingly more difficult physical challenges. It is the same with the spiritual life. An old gospel song says, “Yield not to temptation, for yielding is sin. Each victory will help you, some other to win.” Scripture says, Resist the devil and he will flee (James 4:7). Resisting implies ongoing effort, standing up to the devil repeatedly. It’s not a one-time battle, but an ongoing war in which each small victory makes us stronger and the devil more discouraged. As we grow stronger, the devil eventually stops wasting his time tempting us in certain areas. At times the battle may weary us, but in the long run, it strengthens us. Jesus illustrates this in his three-fold battle with Satan in the desert.

II. What are the sources of temptation? There is a tendency to attribute temptation and struggles to the devil, but tradition speaks to two additional sources: the world and the flesh. (Note that the flesh is not merely our body; it is a term that describes our rebellious tendency to sin and be prideful.) Scripture affirms these different sources, for not only are there passages in which the devil directly tempts (e.g., Adam and Eve in the Garden, Jesus in the desert), but there are ones that speak to the temptations of the world and the flesh: For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world (1 John 2:16).

Frankly, many people do not need direct demonic temptation; they do a pretty good job of exposing themselves to temptation by indulging the flesh and embracing the world. The devil can pretty much leave them alone and monitor their self-destruction from a distance.

This is one reason those striving to convert and return to the Lord are often the target of demonic attacks. As long as they were traveling on the road to destruction and Hell, they barely noticed the devil, because he was walking right behind them. When they began to turn around, though, they ran right into him. While the devil can and does manipulate and influence both the flesh and the world, we do better to look first to these two sources before ascribing temptations directly to the devil himself.

The influence of the flesh and the world are more under our control and thus should be the main focus of our battle. We do well to limit our exposure to the world and to spend more time with heavenly influences such as Scripture, the liturgy, prayer, and healthy, godly relationships. We should also focus more attention on self-mastery, through frequent confession, practicing virtue, and keeping careful custody of our mind and heart. Thus we see that Jesus is in the desert engaged in deep prayer, mortifying the flesh, and stepping away from the world.

III. What is the chief weapon Jesus uses in refusing temptation and how can it help us? Temptation is ultimately about influence and the battlefield is the mind. In the story of Jesus’ temptations, he answers every sinful suggestion by the devil with Scripture.

  1. It is written: One does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.
  2. Again it is written: You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.
  3. It is written: The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.

To every foolish and sinful thought Jesus replies, “It is written …”

Because the battle in temptation is about influence, the following question arises: What most influences you: the world, the flesh, the devil, or God?

We must actively seek to be influenced by God, by godly thoughts and godly truth.

There is an old saying, “Sin makes you stupid.” And indeed it does. Sin darkens our intellect and leads us to make convoluted justifications and rationalizations of attitudes and behaviors that any child can see are wrong and defy common sense. St. Paul describes sin-induced stupidity when writing about the people of his time who suppressed the truth about God; claiming to be wise, they became fools, and their senseless minds were darkened (see Rom 1:18-22). He also advises us, Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Rom 12:2). Nothing can so renew our minds as the very Word of God. By it we are called to see and judge all other things.

Thus, an essential antidote to temptation is to be deeply rooted in the truth of God. This does not mean merely mechanically quoting verses during an argument. Rather, it means being transformed by God’s Word and watching how it performs in our life. I have been reading Scripture every day for the last thirty years. The Word of God has changed me and has been instrumental (along with sacraments, prayer, and godly fellowship) in putting down sin and resisting the temptations that precede it. Some things that used to tempt me no longer do; other temptations that were once strong are now weaker. Still other temptations remain, but the battle is engaged! Jesus is right: the Faith and the Word of God are a strong shield to protect against the fiery darts of the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Temptation is an ongoing battle for all of us until the day we die. All the more reason to permit the Lord to teach us its causes, the way it operates, and the ways to resist it.

Jesus Does Not Forbid Correcting the Sinner

Many of the psalms and proverbs of ancient Israel are in the form of poetry. In ancient Jewish poetry, however, the rhyme is not in the sound; it is in the thought. Consider a couple of examples from the psalms and note how each couplet consists of a thought in the first line followed by the same idea stated in a slightly different way in the line that follows:

Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?

The kings of the earth take their stand
and the rulers gather together,

against the LORD
and against His Anointed One:

“Let us break their chains
and cast away their cords.”

The One enthroned in heaven laughs;
the Lord taunts them
(Psalm 2:1-3).

 

Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever!

Who can utter the mighty deeds of the LORD,
or declare all his praise?

Blessed are they who observe justice,
who do righteousness at all times
! (Psalm 106:1-3)

Recognizing that the second part of each couplet fleshes out  the concept presented in the first part, we learn several things from Psalm 106: the goodness of the Lord is manifested in His steadfast and enduring love, reciting the mighty deeds of the Lord is a way of praising Him even if insufficiently, and observing justice means always doing what is right.

If we apply this same insight in studying the Gospel for today’s Mass (Monday of the Second Week of Lent), we can better understand Jesus’ meaning:

Stop judging and you will not be judged.
Stop condemning and you will not be condemned 
(Luke 6:37).

Considering these verses as a pair helps us avoid a common misunderstanding. Many people today try to shame Christians who criticize or “judge” the behavior of public sinners. For example, if we state that fornication or homosexual acts are morally wrong, we often hear something like this: “You’re judging me! You’re not being a very good Christian because Jesus says not to judge.” This is a misinterpretation of Jesus’ message. Jesus does not forbid all judgments (that would be absurd); rather, he forbids the judgment of condemnation. We can see this in the couplet from Luke above: the second part fleshes out the first part. Jesus is warning us against the judgment of condemnation.

What does it mean to condemn? Most literally and etymologically, it means to consign someone to Hell (something that is not within our power to do). It comes from the Latin con (with) and damnare (to damn; harm; pronounce as unfit, reprehensible, or deserving of severest censure.) The Greek word καταδικάζω (katadikazo) used in this passage has a similar meaning. The prefix “kata” intensifies dikazo (judge) making that judgment severe.

Thus, the Lord is warning us against pronouncing unnecessarily severe punishment or condemnation. People need time to repent. Correction or rebuke, which are sometimes necessary, should be designed to assist a person in reflecting and repenting, not to crush or humiliate him.

Later in this same passage Jesus further warns, For the measure you measure to others will be measured back to you(Luke 6:38). If you are needlessly severe with others, God will use this standard to evaluate and punish you. Because we’re all going to need grace and mercy from God, we do well to show mercy to others. As James says,  Judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy (James 2:13).  (I have written more on this matter in a previous post: Can We Influence How God Will Judge Us?.)

Thus, the Lord does not forbid us to judge between good and bad behavior. We are expected to make such judgments and to distinguish between right and wrong. Further, He does not forbid us to correct one another. In fact, Scripture consistently counsels that we correct the sinner. (I have written in more detail on that in this post: Correcting the Sinner Is an Essential Work of Charity.)

Attempting to shame Christians into remaining silent rather than correcting others is a misunderstanding of Jesus’ message in these and similar passages. Taking a text out of context is a pretext of sorts. In this case the reason behind it is to attempt to silence criticism of immoral behavior. Also, notice that when someone rebukes you for correcting or “judging,” he is doing precisely the same thing to you! In calling you out, the person is violating his own rule. Recognize this hypocrisy and do not be fooled by this misinterpretation of Jesus’ words.

Every Round Goes Higher – A Homily for the Second Sunday of Lent

The second Sunday of Lent always features the Transfiguration. This is because we are following the Lord on His final odyssey to Jerusalem, and this journey up Mt. Tabor was one of His stops (with Peter, James, and John).

It is commonly held that Jesus did this to prepare His apostles for the difficult days ahead. There’s a line from an old spiritual that says, “Sometimes I’m up, sometimes I’m down, sometimes I’m almost on the ground … but see what the end shall be.” This is what the Lord is doing here: He is showing us what the end shall be. There is a cross to get through but there is glory on the other side.

The purpose in placing the account of the Transfiguration here is that it helps describe the pattern of the Christian life, which is the paschal mystery. We are always dying and rising with Christ in repeated cycles as we journey to an eternal Easter (cf 2 Cor4:10). This Gospel shows forth the pattern of the cross: the climb, the rising, and the glory of the mountaintop. Then it is back down the mountain again only to climb another one (Golgotha), and through it find another glory (Easter Sunday). Let’s look at today’s Gospel in three stages.

I The Purpose of Trials Jesus took Peter, James, and John and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves.

We often pass over the fact that they had to climb that mountain, no easy task.

Anyone who has been to Mt. Tabor can attest to its altitude: almost 2000 feet. Ascending it likely took the better part of a day and was probably somewhat dangerous. Looking down from the top on the Jezreel Valley (a.k.a. Megiddo or Armageddon) provides a view similar to what one would see out an airplane window.

So we have here a symbol of the cross and of struggle. A climb up the rough side of the mountain was likely exhausting, testing their strength.

I have it on the best of authority that as they climbed they were singing gospel songs like this one: “I’m comin’ up on the rough side of the mountain, and I’m doin’ my best to carry on!” Another song says, “My soul looks back and wonders how I got over!” Yet another says, “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder, every round goes higher, higher.”

This climb reminds us of life. Often we have had to climb, to endure, to have our strength tested. Perhaps it was the climb of earning a college degree. Perhaps it was the climb of raising children or building a career. What of real value do you have that did not come at the price of a climb, of effort and struggle?

Most of us know that although the climb is difficult, there is glory at the top if we but endure. Life’s difficulties are often the prelude to success and greater strength.

Although we might wish that life had no struggles, it would seem that the Lord intends them for us, for the cross alone leads to true glory. Where would we be without some of the crosses in our life? Let’s ponder some of the purposes of problems:

God uses problems to DIRECT us. Sometimes God must light a fire under you to get you moving. Problems often point us in new directions and motivate us to change. Is God trying to get your attention? Sometimes it takes a painful situation to make us change our ways. Proverbs 20:30 says, Blows and wounds cleanse away evil, and beatings purge the inner most being. Another old gospel song speaks of the need for suffering to keep us focused on God: “Now the way may not be too easy, but you never said it would be. ‘Cause when our way gets a little too easy, you know we tend to stray from thee.” Yes, God sometimes uses problems to direct our steps to Him.

God uses problems to INSPECT us. People are like tea bags: if you want to know what’s inside them, just drop them into hot water! Has God ever tested your faith with a problem? What do problems reveal about you? Our problems have a way of helping to see what we’re really made of. I have discovered many strengths I never knew I had through trials. There is a test in every testimony and trials have a way of purifying and strengthening our faith as well as inspecting it to see whether it is genuine. 1 Peter 1:6 says, In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These trials are only to test your faith, to see whether or not it is strong and pure.

God uses problems to CORRECT us. There are some lessons we learn only through pain and failure. When you were a child, it’s likely that your parents told you not to touch a hot stove, but you probably really learned by being burned. Sometimes we only learn the value of something (e.g., health, money, a relationship) by losing it. Scripture says, It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees (Psalm 119:71-72). Before I was afflicted, I strayed. But now I keep you word (Psalm 119:67).

God uses problems to PROTECT us. A problem can be a blessing in disguise if it prevents you from being harmed more seriously. A man was fired for refusing to do something unethical that his boss had asked him to do. Although his unemployment was a problem, it saved him from being sent to prison when management’s actions were finally discovered. In Genesis 50:20, Joseph speaks to his brothers: You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.

God uses problems to PERFECT us. When responded to properly, problems are character builders. God is far more interested in your character than your comfort. Romans 5:3 says, We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they are good for us they help us learn to be patient. And patience develops strength of character in us and helps us trust God more each time we use it until finally our hope and faith are strong and steady. Peter 1:7 says, You are being tested as fire tests gold and purifies it and your faith is far more precious to God than mere gold; so if your faith remains strong after being tried in the fiery trials, it will bring you much praise and glory and honor on the day of his return.

So here it is, the cross symbolized by the climb; but after the cross comes the glory.

II The Productiveness of Trials And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no fuller on earth could bleach them. Then Elijah appeared to them along with Moses, and they were conversing with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus in reply, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here! Let us make three tents: one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He hardly knew what to say, they were so terrified. Then a cloud came, casting a shadow over them; from the cloud came a voice, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”

All the climbing has paid off. Now comes the fruit of all that hard work. The Lord gives them a glimpse of glory! They get to see the glory that Jesus has always had with the Father. He is dazzlingly bright. A similar vision from the Book of Revelation gives us more detail:

I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me. And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a son of man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. The hair on his head was white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. His feet were like bronze glowing in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of rushing waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, … His face was like the sun shining in all its brilliance. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. Then he placed his right hand on me and said: “Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades” (Rev 1:12-17).

Yes, all the climbing has paid off. Now comes the glory, the life, the reward for endurance and struggle. Are you enjoying any of the fruits of your crosses now? If we have carried our crosses in faith, it has made us more confident, stronger. Some of us have discovered gifts, abilities, and endurance we never knew we had. Our crosses have brought us life! St. Paul said, that this momentary affliction is producing for us a weight of glory beyond all compare (2 Cor 4:14). He also said, For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us (Rom 8:18).

So here is the glory that comes after the climb. Here is the life that comes from the cross.

III. The Pattern of Trials – Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone but Jesus alone with them. As they were coming down from the mountain, he charged them not to relate what they had seen to anyone, except when the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

Although Peter wanted to stay, Jesus makes it clear that they must go down the mountain for the time being and walk a very dark valley to another hill (Golgotha); for now, the pattern must repeat. The cross has led to glory, but more crosses are needed before the final glory. An old spiritual says, “We are climbing Jacob’s ladder … every round goes higher, higher, soldiers of the cross!

This is our life. Always carrying within our self the dying of Christ so also that [the rising of Christ], the life of Christ may be manifest in us (cf 2 Cor 4:10).

There are difficult days ahead for Jesus and the Apostles, but the crosses lead to lasting glory. This is our life too. The paschal mystery is the pattern and rhythm of our life.

Here is an excerpt from the song “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.” The song repeats, “… every round goes higher, higher.” One can almost imagine a spiral staircase as the rounds get pitched higher musically. This is the pattern of our life: we die with Christ so as to live with Him. Each time we come back around to the cross, or back around to glory, we are one round higher and one level closer to final glory.

A Picture of Sloth in a Commercial

The commercial below basically says, “If you prefer the inferior product of our competitors, go right ahead and stick with them, but as for us, we’ll go with what’s better!

One of the tasks of the spiritual life is to allow God to convert our desires. In our fallen state we have tend to want things even if we know they are harmful to us—and we desire them in abundance, too. We are also inclined to be averse to things we know are good for us. It all began in our childhood when we wanted Twinkies galore but pushed broccoli around on our plate rather than eating it.

Many people struggle to desire prayer and spiritual reading, preferring lesser or even sinful activities. The root sin here is sloth, which is sorrow about, or aversion to, the good things God offers. We need to pray frequently and fervently for the conversion of our desires.

If I were to reword the theme of this commercial along spiritual lines, I’d say, “If you want to go on preferring the lesser, passing things of this world, go ahead, but as for me and my household, we will prefer the Lord!”

Lenten Assignment: Be Grateful!

True gratitude is a grace, or gift, from God. It proceeds from a humble and transformed heart. We do not render thanks merely because it is polite or expected, or because God commands it but because it flows naturally from a profound experience of gratitude. The “command” of Scripture to give thanks is not a moral cliché but a truth and a description of what flows from a transformed heart.

We should seek from God the powerful transformation of our intellect and our heart so that we become deeply aware of the remarkable gift that is everything we have. As this awareness deepens so does our gratitude and joy at the “magnificent munificence” of our God. Everything—literally everything—is a gift from Him. Consider the following reflection from St. Gregory Nazianzen:

Recognize to whom you owe the fact that you exist, that you breathe, that you understand, that you are wise, and, above all, that you know God and hope for the kingdom of heaven and the vision of glory, now darkly as in a mirror but then with greater fullness and purity. You have been made a son of God, coheir with Christ. Where did you get all this, and from whom?

Let me turn to what is of less importance: the visible world around us. What benefactor has enabled you to look out upon the beauty of the sky, the sun in its course, the circle of the moon, the countless number of stars, with the harmony and order that are theirs, like the music of a harp? Who has blessed you with rain, with the art of husbandry, with different kinds of food, with the arts, with houses, with laws, with states, with a life of humanity and culture, with friendship and the easy familiarity of kinship?

Who has given you dominion over animals, those that are tame and those that provide you with food? Who has made you lord and master of everything on earth? In short, who has endowed you with all that makes man superior to all other living creatures?

Is it not God who asks you now in your turn to show yourself generous above all other creatures and for the sake of all other creatures?(From a sermon by Saint Gregory of Nazianzen, bishop. Oratio 14, De Pauperum amore, 23-25: PG 35, 887-890.)

Yes, we have so much for which we should be grateful!God holds together every fiber of our being: every cell and every part of every cell, every molecule and every part of every molecule, every atom and every part of every atom. He facilitates every function of our body: every beat of our heart, every movement of our body, the functioning of every organ. God sustains every intricate detail of the world in which we live: the ideal orbit of our planet such that we neither boil nor freeze; the magnetic shield that protects Earth from harmful solar radiation; every intricate process of our planet, solar system, galaxy, and universe. All of this, including us, is sustained by God and provided for by Him. The depth, height, length, and width of what God does is simply astonishing—and He does it all free of charge. Pondering such goodness and providence helps us to be more grateful. Yes, allis gift.

There are some gifts of God that don’t seem like gifts at all:losses, tragedies, and natural disasters. In such moments it is easy to feel that He has forsaken us; gratitude is probably the last thing on our mind. Even here, Scripture bids us to look more closely: And we know that all things work together for the good of those who love God and who have been called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28). We don’t always know how, but even in difficult moments God is making a way unto something good. He is paving a path unto glory, even if through the cross. Jesus has said to us, But I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy. On that day you will have no more questions to ask me (Jn 16:22-23). Yes, even in our difficulties we are more than conquerors (Rm 8:37) because the Lord can write straight with crooked lines and make a way out of no way. Yes, allis gift!

It is hard to overestimate the role that gratitude plays in good mental, emotional, and spiritual health.Grateful people are different: more joyful, generous, kind, patient, serene, and confident. All of this comes from the fact that gratitude makes present to us the provident goodness of God. Acknowledging how good God has been to us helps us to become more trusting and less anxious. Because of this we have the confidence to be more generous; there is no need to hoard things because we know that God will take care of us. Yes, through gratitude we are freed from many anxious cares and given a serene and stable joy; we are equipped to be so much more patient and generous.

Ultimately, gratitude is a gift to be received from God. We ought to ask for it humbly. We can dispose ourselves to it by reflecting on things such as those discussed above, but ultimately gratitude comes from a humble, contrite, and transformed heart. True gratitude is a grace, a gift, that comes from a heart deeply moved, astonished, and aware of the fact that God is so very good. Allis gift!