There is an old saying, “Stop telling God how big your storm is and start telling the storm how big your God is.” In other words, we often need to shift our focus, building up our trust and confidence. Because we are so wired for fear, we tend to overestimate the power and shrewdness of demons, or of our enemies, or of whatever it is we fear. At the same time, we tend to underestimate the power of God, the power of our own resources, the strength that God gives us, and the perduring quality of what is good and true.
As we head into what is certain to be a difficult and contentious week (weeks?) ahead we need to draw close to God and trust him, whatever the outcome. There are clearly high stakes in this election but God is not overcome. Whether in verdant pastures he leads us, or through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, the point is that he leads us.
Whatever our current conflicts, they are caught up into a bigger conflict where we all have a common enemy: satan. St Paul speaks to this in a reading from Thursday of the this 30th Week of the year:
Draw your strength from the Lord and from his mighty power. Put on the armor of God so that you may be able to stand firm against the tactics of the Devil. For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the cosmic rulers of this present darkness,with the evil spirits in the high places. (Eph 6:10-11)
Yes there is a cosmic battle that gives birth to our worldly ones. Our truest and common enemy is not one another one another, “flesh and blood” as Paul writes, but it is Satan and his minions. Sadly we allow them to divide us and so a battle rages now in our culture, full of wrath and loud shouting.
In the stormy days to come, of our own making and also of Satan’s making, stay very close to God. Be also encouraged by a remarkable passage in the Second Book of Kings that draws back the curtain for a moment and shows us a world we seldom see. The passage centers on the prophet Elisha and the King of Syria’s attempt to capture and kill him. Elisha is not worried, but his young assistant (or servant) is quite dismayed by the approaching Syrian army:
When the servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city. And the servant said, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” He said, “Do not be afraid, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed and said, “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw: And behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha (2 Kings 6:15-17).
Yes, for just a moment the mystical curtain is drawn back, and the young servant of Elisha sees that we are not alone in this battle. Indeed, myriad angels, saints, and God Himself engage the battle for us. Elisha reminds us, Those who are with us are more than those who are with them. God’s power far surpasses whatever foolishness of the devil is making the rounds. At times, the city seems surrounded (as Elisha’s servant saw), but Elisha isn’t worried because he sees something else, something far greater and more glorious; he knows where to focus.
To be sure, there is a battle to be fought, but we do not fight it alone. There are a multitude of angels and saints and behold, chariots of fire round about. Lord open our eyes that we may see and understand that we are not alone. Give us the courage to engage the battle with the sword of your word, of your truth! Fix our focus on You, not on the storms of life.
This song in the video below says,
When the oceans rise and thunders roar
I will soar with you above the storm
Father you are king over the flood
I will be still and know you are God
Find rest my soul
In Christ alone
Know his power
In quietness and trust
The first reading from Wednesday’s Feast of Simon and Jude presents a key feature of the apostolic mission of the Church; it also provides an interesting word study. Here are the key verses:
You are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the holy ones and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the Apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the capstone (Ephesians 2:19-20).
The highlight of this passage is bringing people out of the status of strangers and sojourners and into the household of God, the Church. There are two Greek words that merit some of attention, and one of them paints a kind of picture of the work of every parish.
The Greek word translated as “strangers” is ξένοι (xenoi). Its primary meaning is “foreigners,” people from somewhere else. It is the root of the English word “xenophobic,” which refers to a fear of foreigners. For our purposes in this verse, the word just refers to those from far away. The word paints a picture of the catholicity of the Church, which is to include people from all nations, both near and far. The mission of the Church is unto all the nations so as by faith and Baptism to get them into the Church, which is the household of God.
The Greek word translated as “sojourners” is πάροικοι (paroikoi). While this translation is not inaccurate, it misses the subtleties of the Greek. There are two Greet roots: pará (close or beside) and oíkos (house). So, it means someone living close by. This is where the English words parochial and parish come from.
Thus, the Greek presents a kind of picture of what a parish is. It is a Church with people living nearby. Parishes have boundaries and the pastor and people are responsible for all the people inside their boundaries: all the people, not just the Catholics! So, the job of the parish (parochia in Latin) is to care for and evangelize all the people living nearby, all those inside its boundaries. The mission of a parish is, to use St. Paul’s image, to get those living nearby into the Household of God (the Church).
This, then, is the apostolic mission of the Church: to bring people from near and far into the Household of God, which is the Church solidly standing on the foundation of the Apostles with Christ as the great cornerstone or keystone on which all lean. These two Greek words present a kind of word picture that can assist us in perceiving our mission near and far!
The epistle from Monday’s daily Mass (30th Week of the Year) contains an admonition against unchastity. This grave warning is essential in times like these, when many call good or “no big deal” what God calls sinful. This is especially true in the realm of sexuality; entire sectors of society not only tolerate but even celebrate sexual practices that Scripture calls gravely sinful and that will lead to Hell if not repented of. Homosexual acts, fornication, and adultery cannot be considered allowable by any Catholic or any person who sincerely accepts Scripture as the Word of God. Even those who do not share our faith should be able to observe the damage these acts cause: they spread disease, harm marriages and families, subject children to less-than-ideal households (e.g., single mother/absent father), and lead to abortion. Regarding the Pope’s recent remarks on same-sex union, I have written on thathere at the National Catholic Register. On account of those remarks it seems necessary review once again important teachings here and on the EWTN Morning Glory radio show.
In today’s post I will focus on the sin of fornication and present the clear biblical teaching against it. Sadly, many Catholics report that little to nothing is heard from the pulpit or in the classroom about this issue. The hope in this post today is to present a resounding, biblical trumpet call to purity that leaves no doubt as to the sinfulness of sex before marriage. Scripture is clear: fornicators will not inherit the Kingdom of God. That is to say, fornication is a mortal sin and those who do not repent of it will go to Hell.
The usual conditions for mortal sin apply (grave matter, sufficient reflection, and full consent of the will). In most situations, these conditions are met. Over the years I have met with many sexually active couples preparing for marriage and have never found them to be surprised that I rebuke them for this. They know it is wrong; the voice of God echoes in their consciences. As for consent of the will, although some fall occasionally in a weak moment, consistent fornicating with no measures taken to prevent it (e.g., not cohabitating) is not weakness; it is sinful neglect of prudence and common sense.
We are in a sinfully confused cultural setting in which many either celebrate or make little effort to avoid what God calls serious sin. The Church must not lack clarity, yet pulpits and classrooms have often been silent. This has led to parents themselves to be silent—and silence is often taken as tacit approval.
Fornication cannot be approved of. It is sinful and excludes unrepentant sinners from Heaven. Our charity for souls compels our clarity about the grave sinfulness of premarital sex.
The following passages from the New Testament clearly condemn fornication and other unclean or impure acts. The gravity and clarity of such condemnations are helpful in the sense that they help us to take such matters seriously and steer clear of them. However, the condemnations should not be seen in isolation from God’s mercy, as He never fails to forgive those who come to Him with a humble and contrite heart. God hates sin, but He loves sinners and is full of mercy and compassion for them. This mercy must be accessed through repentance, however.
There is a general requirement for sexual purity.
Among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or crude joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No fornicator, no impure or greedy person—such a man is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with worthless arguments. These are sins that bring God’s wrath down upon the disobedient; therefore, have nothing to do with them (Ephesians 5:3-7).
Unrepentant fornicators are excluded from the kingdom.
The one who sat on the throne said to me, “See I make all things new!” Then he said, “Write these matters down for the words are trustworthy and true!” He went on to say: “These words are already fulfilled! I am the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. To anyone who thirsts I will give to drink without cost from the spring of life-giving water. He who wins the victory shall inherit these gifts and he shall be my son. As for the cowards and traitors to the faith, the depraved and murderers, the fornicators and sorcerers, the idol-worshipers and deceivers of every sort—their lot is the fiery pool of burning sulphur, the second death!” (Revelation 21:5-8)
Happy are they who wash their robes so as to have free access to the tree of life and enter the city through its gates! Outside are the dogs and sorcerers, the fornicators and murderers, the idol-worshipers and all who love falsehood. It is I Jesus who have sent my angel to give you this testimony about the Churches (Rev. 22:14-16).
No fornicator, no impure or greedy person—such a man is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God (Eph 5:5).
I warn you, as I have warned you before: those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God! (Gal 5:21)
Sins of the flesh crush the spirit within us.
My point is that you should live in accord with the Spirit and you will not yield to the cravings of the flesh. The Flesh lusts against the spirit and the spirit against the flesh; the two are directly opposed. This is why you do not do what your will intends. If you are guided by the spirit you are not under the law. The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery, idolatry, sorcery, hostilities, bickering jealousy, outbursts of rage, selfish rivalries, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, orgies and the like. I warn you, as I have warned you before: those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God! (Galatians 5:16-21)
Even our thought life is summoned to purity.
You have heard the commandment “You shall not commit adultery.” What I say you to is, Anyone who looks lustfully at a woman has already committed adultery with her in his thoughts. If your right eye is your trouble, gouge it out and throw it away! Better to lose part of your body than to have it all cast into Gehenna. Again, if your right hand is your trouble, cut it off and throw it away! Better to lose part of your body than to have it all cast into Gehenna (Matthew 5:27-30).
From the mind stem evil designs—murder, adulterous conduct, fornication, stealing, false witness, blasphemy. These are the things that make a man impure (Matt. 15:19-20).
Wicked designs come from the deep recesses of the heart: acts of fornication, theft, murder, adulterous conduct, greed, maliciousness, deceit, sensuality, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, an obtuse spirit. All these evils come from within and render a man impure (Mark 7:21).
Sexual impurity is a form of worldliness and idolatry.
Put to death whatever in your nature is rooted in earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desires and that lust which is idolatry. These are sins which provoke God’s wrath (Colossians 3:5-6).
My body is not my own to do with merely as I please.
Can you not realize that the unholy will not fall heir to the Kingdom of God? Do not deceive yourselves: no fornicators, idolaters, or adulterers, no sodomites, thieves, misers, or drunkards, no slanderers or robbers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you; but you have been washed, consecrated, justified in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God. Do you not see that your bodies are members of Christ? Would you have me take Christ’s members and make them members of a prostitute? God forbid! Can you not see that the man who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her? Scripture says, “The two shall become one flesh.” But whoever is joined to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Shun lewd conduct. Every other sin a man commits is outside of his body, but the fornicator sins against his own body. You must know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is within – the Spirit you have received from God. You are not your own. You have been purchased at a price. So, glorify God in your body (I Cor. 6:9-11, 15-20).
The call to Christian purity is not merely a human opinion; it is God’s declared truth. Further, sexual sin is a form of injustice.
Now my brothers, we beg and exhort you in the Lord Jesus that, even as you learned from us how to conduct yourselves in a way pleasing to God—which you are indeed doing—so you must learn to make still greater progress. You know the instructions we gave you in the Lord Jesus. It is God’s will that you grow in holiness: that you abstain from sexual immorality, each of you guarding his member in sanctity and honor, not in passionate desire as do the Gentiles who know not God; and that each must refrain from overreaching or cheating his brother in the matter at hand; for the Lord is the avenger of all such things, as we once indicated to you by our testimony. God has not called us to sexual immorality but to holiness; hence whoever rejects these instructions rejects, not man, but God who sends the Holy Spirit upon you (I Thess. 4:1-8).
Fornication and other sexual sins are numbered among the more serious sins.
We know that the Law is good, provided one uses it in the way law is supposed to be used—that is, with the understanding that it is aimed, not at good men but at the lawless and unruly, the irreligious and the sinful, the wicked and the godless, men who kill their fathers or mothers, murderers, fornicators, sexual perverts, kidnappers, liars, perjurers, and those who in other ways flout the sound teaching that pertains to the glorious gospel of God—blessed be he—with which I have been entrusted (1 Timothy 1:8-11).
Fornication and adultery dishonor marriage.
Let marriage be honored in every way and the marriage bed be kept undefiled, for God will judge fornicators and adulterers (Heb 13:4).
Therefore, do not be deceived. Fornication is a serious sin, a mortal sin. It is a sin that excludes one who does not repent of it from Heaven. It offends God, harms marriage and the family, spreads disease, encourages abortion, is an injustice to children and society, and dishonors marriage. It merits strong punishment, as God’s Word declares.
Do not despair of God’s mercy but do repent. Mercy is accessed only through repentance. It is wrong—seriously wrong—to fornicate. Repent without delay.
There was an expression common among the rabbis of Jesus’ time, wherein one rabbi would ask another a question, and request that the answer be given while “standing on one foot.” This is a way of saying, be brief in your answer.
That idea may be behind the question that is raised in today’s Gospel by the scholar of law, who asks, “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”
The text says that he asks this question of Jesus in order to “test” Him. In effect, he says to Jesus, “All right, let’s get right to the point. You’re talking about a lot of new things, but what is the greatest commandment?”
For this reflection, though, let’s just set aside the background hostilities and allow Jesus to recite the law, standing on one foot. In responding, Jesus recites the traditional Jewish Shema:
שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָד. Šĕmaʿ Yisĕrāʾel Ădōnāy Ĕlōhênû Ădōnāy eḥād. Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.
The fuller text recited by Jesus is from Deuteronomy:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts (Deut 6:4-6).
Jesus then adds, also in common Rabbinic tradition, And the second is like it, love your neighbor as yourself. The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.
That’s it—the whole law, standing on one foot. The first table of the law (the first three commandments): love the Lord your God. The second table of the law (commandments 4-10): love your neighbor.
There is value in noting several aspects of this summary:
The Leadership of Love– Jesus says that the whole law and the prophets depend on the command to love God and your neighbor. Love comes first and is the foundation, the power of the law. Jesus says elsewhere, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). In other words, it is love that enables us to keep the law. When we want to do something, then the doing is both joyful and in some sense effortless. Love changes our desires so that we want what God wants and we keep His law not because we have to but because we want to.
The Layers of Love– The text says we should love God with our heart, our soul and our mind. These layers of our existence encompass the whole of the interior person. Thus:
Mind– Through love we come to a new mind, that is, a new way of thinking.
Heart– Through love we receive a new heart; our desires are reformed and conformed to God.
Soul– Through love we receive a new soul. We begin to live a whole new life because the soul is the life-giving principle of the body.
The Lavishness of Love– Note the use of little word all. We love the Lord with all our heart, all our mind, and all our soul. When we love, we are not minimalists; we are lavish. Our response to God is wholehearted, not perfunctory. Love does not ask, What is the least I can do? Love asks, What more can I do?
It is said that Rabbi Hillel (110 B.C. – 10 A.D.), being even briefer, said of the second table of the law, “Do not do unto others that which you would hate done unto yourself … all the rest is commentary.”
We like to make it more complicated, but it really isn’t. If elaboration is required, consider the Ten Commandments, understood and expressed in the light of love:
I love no other gods. If I really love God, should I need separate laws that tell me that I ought not to put other gods, whether things or people, ahead of Him? No! I want to be faithful and would never dream of being unfaithful by “sleeping with other gods” of any kind.
I love His name. I do not need rules that forbid me from using God’s name hatefully or in vain and empty ways. I love His name; hearing it lights up my heart with love.
I love to praise Him. If I love God, I do not need to be compelled by law or fear to come to Mass on Sunday and worship Him. I want to worship Him and praise His name.
I love my family, Church, and country. If this is so, then I do not need to be told to revere those who have lawful authority in those places. I love my family; I am willing to honor, revere, and pray for them. I also love my Church and willingly love her leaders and pray for them. I follow the teaching of the Church with joy, trusting that I am hearing the voice of the Lord, who teaches me through the Church. I love my country and pray for our leaders, that God may uphold and guide them. I willingly follow all just laws and work for unity based in truth and for the common good.
I love my neighbors. If so, why would I want to kill them, whether physically, emotionally, or spiritually? If I love others, I revere their life and act in ways that build them up, encouraging them and helping them to have a richer, more abundant life rooted in the truth. I would never act recklessly to endanger any of them because I love them.
I love human life. If I love my neighbors, why would I tempt them or exploit them sexually? If I love the human family, why would I endanger it by treating lightly the great sacredness of human sexuality by which God calls us into existence? Why would I want to look at pornography or laugh at crude jokes that demean something so sacred? If I love others, why would I want to gratify myself at their expense?
I love others by respecting what is rightfully theirs. If I love others, why would I wish to steal from them, to harm or endanger what belongs to them, or to deprive them of what is rightfully theirs? Why would I be unjust to others by refusing them just wages? Why would I be unjust to the poor by refusing to help them when it is within my ability to do so? If I have two coats one of them justly belongs to the poor. If I love others why would I steal or act unjustly? I want to help them and am glad when they are blessed. I respect what they rightfully have and share in their joy.
I speak the truth in love. Why would I lie to those whom I love? Why would I seek to harm their reputations or gossip about them? Why would I pass on hurtful things that I don’t even know to be true? Why would I fail to share with them the truth in love? Love rejoices in the truth; why would I lie or suppress the truth?
I rejoice in the good fortune of others. If I love others why would I seek to possess what they have or resent them for what they do have? I love them and am happy for them. Perhaps their blessings mean that I too will be blessed.
I reverence the families of others. Why would I ever seek to harm the marriage or family of another or resent the gift he has in his spouse and family? I am happy for his blessings. I am happy that my friend has a loving wife and well-behaved children. Out of love, I seek to encourage him to rejoice in his gifts!
So it all comes down to love. Love rejoices in God. Love wants whatever God wants. Love rejoices in others and wants what is best for them.
Love is the key, but many of us struggle to love. God can give us a new heart, one that starts loving Him, fully and freely; one that has a deep love—even affection—for everyone. God will do that for us if we want it.
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws (Ez 36:26-27).
A thousand questions and doubts may come to mind when we are called to love. Even when we love, we cannot always say yes. Love sometimes must say no; love cannot approve of everything. Love must sometimes correct and reprove. In the end, people know whether you love them or not and they know whether you love God or not. If people know of your love for them and experience it, it is possible for them to receive even the difficult and challenging things you say. Yes, all these doubts and questions are answered by love.
Now I ought to stop, because if Jesus gives the “standing on one foot,” then the preacher must be brief as well. You and I like to complicate things and ask a lot of questions, but the answer is simple enough: love. Yes, all the rest is mere commentary.
This song reminds us that to love God is, first of all, to experience powerfully His love for us. One day it will finally dawn on us that the Lord died for us.
The Gospel for Thursday of the 29th Week of the Year speaks of a great cosmic battle taking place all around us. In it, Jesus speaks of His mission to engage our ancient foe and to gather God’s elect back from the enslaving clutches of Satan, who was a murderer and a liar from the beginning (cf John 8:44).
Jesus is approaching Jerusalem for the final time and describes the battle that is about to unfold. It is a battle He wins at the cross and with His resurrection, but it is one whose parameters extend across time to our own era.
Let’s consider Jesus’ description of the cosmic battle and of His mission as the great Shepherd of the sheep and the Lord of armies.
A Passion to Purify – Jesus begins by saying, I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing!
Fire is both powerful and transformative. It gives warmth and makes food palatable, but it also consumes and destroys. Nothing goes away from fire unchanged!
The Lord has come to purify us by the fiery power of His love, His grace, and His Word. He has a passion to set things right.
Purification is seldom easy or painless, though, hence the image of fire. In this great cosmic battle, fire must be cast upon the earth not only to purify but to distinguish. There are things that will be made pure but only if other things are burned away and reduced to ashes.
This image of fire is important because many people today have reduced faith to seeking enrichment and blessings. Faith surely supplies these, but it also demands that we take up our cross and follow Christ without compromise. Many if not most enrichment and blessings come through the fiery purification of God’s grace, which burns away sin and purifies us of our adulterous relationship with this world. Fire incites, demands, and causes change—and change is never easy.
Therefore, Jesus announces the fire by which He will judge and purify this earth and all on it, rescuing us from the power of the evil one.
This is no campfire around which we sit singing songs. Jesus describes it as a blaze that must set the whole world on fire!
How do you get ready for fire? By letting the Lord set you on fire! John the Baptist promised of the Lord, He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire (Matt 3:11). Indeed, the Lord sent forth His Spirit on the early Church as tongues of fire (cf Acts 2:3) to bring them up to the temperature of glory and to prepare them for the coming judgment of the world by fire.
The battle is engaged. Choose sides. If you think you can remain neutral or stand on some middle ground, I’ve got news for you about which side you’re really on. No third way is given. You’re either on the ark or you’re not. You’re either letting the fire purify you or you’re being reduced to ashes. You’re either on fire by God’s grace (and thereby ready for the coming judgment of the world by fire) or you’re not. The choice is yours. Jesus is passionate to set things right. He has come to cast fire upon the earth.
A Painful Path – The text says, There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished!
The Lord does not come among us merely come to get us out of trouble but to get into trouble with us. Though sinless, Jesus takes upon Himself the full weight of human sinfulness and manfully carries it to the cross. He accepts a “baptism” in His own blood on our behalf.
In waging war on our behalf against the evil one, Jesus does not sit in some comfortable headquarters behind the front lines; He goes out “on point,” taking the hill of Calvary and leading us over the top to the resurrection glory. He endures every blow, every hardship on our behalf.
Through His wounds we are healed by being baptized in the very blood and water He shed in the great cosmic war.
It is a painful path He trod, and He speaks of His anguish in doing it, but having won the victory He now turns to us and invites us to follow Him through the cross to glory.
The choice to follow is ours. In this sense the cosmic battle continues, as Jesus describes in the verses that follow.
A Piercing Purgation – In words that are nothing less than shocking, the Lord says, Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. From now on a household of five will be divided, three against two and two against three; a father will be divided against his son and a son against his father, a mother against her daughter and a daughter against her mother, a mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.
The words shock but they speak a truth that sets aside worldly notions of compromise and coexistence with evil. For there to be true peace, holiness, and victory over Satan, there must be distinction not equivocation, clarity not compromise. Fire and water do not mix; you can hear the conflict when they come together: hissing, popping, searing, and steaming. One must win; the other must lose. Compromise and coexistence are not possible.
The Lord said (in Matthew 10:34) that He came not for peace but for the sword. In this there is a kind of analogy to a surgeon’s scalpel. The surgeon must wield this “sword” to separate out healthy flesh from that which is diseased. Coexistence is not possible; the diseased flesh must go. The moment one talks of “coexisting” with cancer, the disease wins. Were a doctor to take this stance he would be guilty of malpractice. When there is cancer, the battle must be engaged.
Thus, in this great cosmic battle, the Lord cannot and will not tolerate a false peace based on compromise or an accepting coexistence. He has come to wield a sword, to divide. Many moderns do not like it, but Scripture is clear: there are wheat and tares, sheep and goats, those on the Lord’s right and those on His left, the just and wicked, the lowly and the proud, the narrow road to salvation and the wide road to damnation.
These distinctions, these divisions, extend into our very families, into our most intimate relationships. This is the battle. There are two armies, two camps. No third way is given. Jesus says elsewhere, Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters (Matt 12:30).
About all this we must be sober and must work for our own salvation and the salvation of all, for while there may not be a season of mercy and patience now, the time is short for us all. The distinction between good and evil, righteousness and sin, will be definitive and the sword must be wielded.
Thus, the Lord speaks to us of a cosmic battle in the valley of decision (cf Joel 3). Jesus has won, and it is time to choose sides. Even if our own family members reject us, we must choose the Lord. The cosmic battle is engaged. The fire is cast, and the sword of the Spirit and God’s Word is being wielded. The Lord has come to divide the good from the wicked, the sheep from the goats. Judgment begins now, with the house of God. Scripture says,
For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? (1 Peter 4:17)
If this be the case, how do we choose sides, practically speaking? And having chosen sides, how do we join the fight with the Lord in the cosmic battle?
One of the more interesting and surprising images the Lord used for Himself was “thief.” There is a reference to this in the first reading for this Wednesday of the 29th week of the year. I’ll comment more on that passage in a moment, but first here are some other texts in which He used this imagery:
But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him (Matt 24:33; Lk 12:39).
Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you (Rev 3:3).
“Behold, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on, that he may not go about naked and be seen exposed” (Rev 16:15).
St. Peter also used the image of a thief, but perhaps out of reverence for Christ, applied it more to the Day of Judgment.
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. (2 Peter 3:10).
In today’s first reading, which we will discuss in more detail, St. Paul used a similar image.
Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief … let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thess 5:1-4; 8-9).
It is provocative and even shocking that Lord would compare Himself to a thief. Let’s consider some of the implications.
1. By this image the Lord turns the tables. Thievery suggests unjust possession. In this sense, the Lord is clearly not a thief; He is using a simile. He says that He is like a thief, not that He is a thief. Indeed, how can the owner of all things unjustly possess what is already His?
The impact and indictment of the reference is on us, not on the Lord. That He would seem to any of us to be like a thief is indicative of our injustice, not His. Too easily we forget that the things we call our own are God’s and God’s alone. We are stewards, not owners. When the Lord comes to take what is rightfully His—and has always been—we should be grateful to hand it back with interest (see the Parable of the Talents). To those who have forgotten that they are mere stewards, the Lord will seem to come to steal from them. They will see His coming as threatening because He will put an end to their schemes and worldly wealth.
Because they wrongly see these things as theirs, they will see Him as a thief—or worse, a robber. In the Parable of the Vineyard (Matthew 21:30ff) the Lord says that they will beat His prophets and even kill His Son. The injustice and crime is theirs. God cannot steal what He already owns. The vineyard was His and He rightly sought His portion. Murderously, they sought to withhold what they thought was theirs but in fact was not.
The Lord’s ways are justice and truth. God will take back all that is His. We will pay for what we have stolen through greed, injustice, selfishness, lust, and gluttony. To some who forget that He is the true owner of the vineyard, He may appear to be like a thief, but it is really we who are thieves. We will cry “Thief!” but the Lord will simply reply, “You are the man; it is you who have said it” (see 2 Sam 12:7; Matt 26:64).
2. By this image the Lord speaks to the hidden quality of His presence to some. In using the image of a thief (Κλέπτης (kleptes) in Greek) the Lord speaks of a stealthy, hidden presence. Thieves do their work in hiding or when we are unaware. A robber, on the other hand, confronts you, taking what he wants with violence while you can only watch helplessly.
The word thief here is indicative of the Lord’s hidden presence. The Lord is not a thief, but He seems like one to those who are forgetful of His presence. Don’t fool yourself, thinking that He is not in the house of your life; He sees and knows everything.
3. By this image the Lord puts to the lie the illusion of our own hiddenness. Thieves work in hiding. Many people who sin and misuse what the Lord owns often forget that to God, nothing is hidden. Thus they meet the definition of a thief because they attempt to take or misuse secretly what is not theirs to begin with.
God may seem hidden and distant, but He is not. He sees everything, knows everything, and is reckoning everything. Every “hidden” deed of ours is written in the book. An ancient hymn says,
Lo the Book exactly worded Wherein all has been recorded Thence shall judgment be awarded.
When the Judge his seat attaineth And each hidden deed arraigneth Nothing unavenged remaineth (Dies Irae).
God is watching and He is closer to you than you are to yourself.
4. By this image the Lord exhorts us to remember and to be ready. A recent break-in at my rectory motivated me and the staff to become more careful and vigilant. But why should the loss of passing goods cause us more concern than the certain arrival of the Lord, the true owner of all things? Although He may seem to come like a thief, He is not a thief. The real questions I should be asking myself are these: Am I a thief? Have I used what God owns in ways that are against His will or that displease Him? If so, He will come when I least expect it and take what I wrongfully think is mine. I may think Him a thief, but He is not. As true owner, He cannot unjustly possess what is already His.
We had better think about this now because the Lord is already in the house and His presence will be disclosed at any moment. Are you ready? Are you watching? Be vigilant. The Judge stands at the gate, but He has the key, not you.
Is He a thief? No. Are you a thief? Am I?
Epilogue: There came a moment in Jesus’ life when He was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane and Judas, who was a thief (see John 12:6), led a band of brigands to arrest Him. Stepping forward, Jesus turned the tables on them and said, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me?” (Mk 14:48) Yes, He turned the tables on them and on the temple leaders who sponsored them. They saw Jesus as a usurper, as one who came to steal their priesthood and leadership. He was no thief, no robber. He was the great High Priest, the One who came to fulfill everything that they were supposed to be preaching. It was they who sought to kill him and unjustly possess the vineyard for themselves. To thieves, robbers, and murderers, Jesus was like a thief, but He was not. They were thieves—and even worse, robbers and murderers.
When Jesus says that He may be coming like a thief, be careful; He may be holding up a mirror to you!
Disclaimer:In a heated political time of a nearing election I find it necessary to say that this post is not a commentary on the current election or the candidates. I wrote this post some time ago and it has been sitting in my draft folder, long-forgotten. It is not about the current moment, it is about human patterns that transcend this or that time.
Over the years, in meeting especially with teenagers in Sunday School, I have used an old Jim Croce song to instruct them that worldly norms, and worldly leaders come and go. What is “hip” and cool today is considered silly and out of date tomorrow. My advice to them was to stay close to the Scriptures and teachings of the Church which are time-tested and do not change. I have often warned the young people not to admire those in the culture who exult fornication, disrespect for women, homosexual acts and all sorts of violence and evil in music and movies. A line from psalm 37 comes to mind:
I have seen the wicked triumphant, towering like a cedar of Lebanon. I passed by again; and he was gone. I searched; he was nowhere to be found. (Psalm 37:35-36).
To the young people and to all of us, comes this admonition from the same psalm:
Do not fret because of the wicked; do not envy those who do evil, for they wither quickly like grass and fade like the green of the fields. (Psalm 37:1-2)
In the lyrics to the Jim Croce song that follows, there is described a man named Jim who is the uncontested towering leader and king of 42nd Street. He’s a pool hustler, among other things, and drives a “drop-top” Cadillac. But one day he hustles the wrong guy, a man named Willie McCoy, (also known as “Slim.”) who comes to settle accounts. Big Jim is taken out. Meet the new King of 42nd Street: Slim!
Here are the lyrics to the song and its story.
Uptown got it’s hustlers
The bowery got it’s bums
42nd street got big Jim walker
He’s a pool shootin’ son of a gun
Yeah, he big and dumb as a man can come
But he stronger than a country hoss
And when the bad folks all get together at night
You know they all call big Jim boss, just because
And they say
You don’t tug on superman’s cape
You don’t spit into the wind
You don’t pull the mask off that old lone ranger
And you don’t mess around with Jim
Well outta south Alabama came a country boy
He say I’m lookin’ for a man named Jim
I am a pool shootin’ boy
My name is Willie McCoy
But down home they call me Slim
Yeah I’m lookin’ for the king of 42nd street
He drivin’ a drop-top Cadillac
Last week he took all my money
And it may sound funny
But I come to get my money back!
And everybody say “Jack don’t you know
You don’t tug on superman’s cape
You don’t spit into the wind
You don’t pull the mask off that old lone ranger
And you don’t mess around with Jim
Well a hush fell over the pool room
Jimmy come boppin’ in off the street
And when the cuttin’ were done
The only part that wasn’t bloody
Was the soles of the big man’s feet
Yeah he were cut in in bout a hundred places
And he were shot in a couple more
And you better believe
They sung a different kind of story
When big Jim hit the floor.
Now they say
You don’t tug on superman’s cape
You don’t spit into the wind
You don’t pull the mask off that old lone ranger
And you don’t mess around with Slim!
Yeah, big Jim got his hat
Find out where it’s at
And it’s not hustlin’ people strange to you
Even if you do got a two piece custom-made pool cue
Yeah you don’t tug on superman’s cape
You don’t spit into the wind
You don’t pull the mask off the old lone ranger
And you don’t mess around with Slim!
And thus we see that Jim gives way to Slim; there’s a new king of 42nd street (for now). We might wish that some good king replaced a bad one, but that’s only one way change comes. Sometimes Satan turns on his own. Perhaps they are no longer useful to him, or perhaps he’s got them so “in the bag” that he no longer needs to hold them with worldly gains and glory. But the point remains, the wicked and the worldly cannot stand their ground for long. The world is often a series of one bad idea or personality after another. They come and go, but the Gospel remains.
Yes! The Gospel remains. And it’s true for more than just individuals. In a wider sense, leaders, movements, trends and even nations, cultures and States, come and go over time. In the past 2,000 years the Church, which perdures, has seen empires come and go, nations rise and fall. In addition, philosophies, conflicts, movements, heresies and whatever else you can imagine emerge, have their influence, and ultimately fail as impractical or destructive. And here we are, the Church, still proclaiming the same Gospel that Christ delivered to us.
It doesn’t matter how big and bad, how well-funded and influential, what is wicked cannot forever endure. This too shall pass. There is only one Noah’s Ark in the flood waters of change and the vicissitudes of this world and that is the Church. In spite of the creaking boards of our weaknesses and the stench our sins, the Church perdures. This is not by our accomplishment that we should glory in it. This is the promise and work of Christ who said, The heavens and earth may pass away, but my words will never pass away. (Mat 24:35).
There are only two teams on the field; there are no sidelines or people permitted in the stands. Choose sides. But here’s the awesome thing: we already know that Team Jesus is going to win no matter how flashy and cool the uniforms and tactics of the other team are. Choose well and forget the glamor of evil, for:
I have seen the wicked triumphant, towering like a cedar of Lebanon. I passed by again; and he was gone. I searched; he was nowhere to be found. (Psalm 37:35-36).
The Gospel for Sunday contains lots of interesting juxtapositions: hatred for Jesus but grudging respect, real questions vs. rhetorical ones, politics and faith, duties to Caesar and duties to God. The word “juxtaposition” comes from the Latin juxta, meaning “near” and positio, meaning “place” or “position”. Juxtaposition is the placing of two things near to each other, usually in order to see how they are similar yet different. Most often the differences are emphasized more than the similarities.
Let’s look at the juxtapositions in today’s Gospel, concentrating most of our attention on our duties to God as compared to our duties to “Caesar.”
I. The Plotting of the Peculiar Partners – The Gospel begins by describing an extremely unlikely set of “bedfellows.” The text says, The Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap Jesus in speech. They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians. A very unlikely set of allies indeed. The Pharisees hated the Herodians. It was a combination of political and racial hatred, just about as poisonous as you could get in the ancient world, yet they both agreed that this Jesus fellow had to go.
Here is an important teaching: if you’re going to be a true Christian, the world will hate you. Too many Christians think that some segment of the world will agree to live in peace with us and so we strive to forge allegiances with it. In the modern American milieu, some think that the Republicans or the Democrats are natural allies, but we really don’t fit well into either party nor any worldly “club.”
Catholicism is an “equal-opportunity offender” in its unabridged form. Issue by issue We may appeal to one political party or another on a particular issue, but on the whole we’re a nuisance: we’re pro-life, traditional family values, immigrants’ rights, and affordable housing. We both please and annoy, which is another way of saying we don’t fit neatly into the world’s categories; everyone has some reason to hate us.
Welcome to Jesus’ world, in which groups who seemed to agree on nothing were aligned when it came to hating Jesus.
II. The Praise that is actually a Perilous Provocation – In their opening remarks to Jesus, His enemies give Him grudging respect. They do so not to praise Him, however, but rather to provoke Him. They say, Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion, for you do not regard a person’s status. Tell us, then, what is your opinion … Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?
The praise is largely a pretext that is used to provoke. In effect, they think they can they can force a definition on Jesus: “You’re ‘the Man.’ You’re the prophet. You’re the only one around here who tells the truth no matter what.” Now none of these things are false and they bespeak a grudging respect for Jesus.
However, they are only using this to draw Jesus into a worldly debate that is well “below his pay grade.” They want Jesus to take sides in a silly human debate over politics and worldly power. They want him to get arrested and killed over something that is not worth dying for.
Prophets die for the truth revealed by God not for who the “big cheese” should be in human affairs. They want Jesus to opine as if He were some sort of talking head on TV rather than the prophet and Lord that He is. A question of this sort is not worthy of Jesus’ attention. Ask this of the local senator or mayor but leave God out of human political distinctions and camps; do not expect Him to take sides. He is beyond our distinctions and will not be confined by party lines, national boundaries, or political philosophies.
We may well contend that certain systems of government better reflect the Kingdom than others, but in the end, God cannot be reduced to being a Republican, a Democrat, or for that matter an American. He is God and He transcends our endless debates and camps. He is not a talking head; He is God.
Generally speaking, rhetorical questions are statements or arguments posed in the form of a question. If I say to you, “Are you crazy?” I’m not really looking for an answer; I’m making statement that I think you are crazy. This is what takes place in today’s Gospel. The questioners already have their own opinions and aren’t change their minds no matter how Jesus answers. They don’t really want an answer; they want something to use against Him.
If Jesus says, “Yes, pay the taxes,” it will make Him unpopular with the crowds. If He says “No, don’t pay the taxes,” He will be arrested and likely executed.
In the end, Jesus calls them what they are: hypocrites, a Greek word meaning “actor.” And that is what they are. This whole thing is an act. This is not about discovering the truth; it is about setting a trap.
But Jesus will have none of it. He will not be reduced to human distinctions and categories. The truth He proclaims transcends the passing political order and any human power struggles. He will not be drawn into choosing sides. Rather, He will apply the rule of truth evenly to all.
Jesus is reality in the face of rhetoric, perfection in the face of politics, divinity in the face of division.
III. The Protesting of their Pretext and Pretense – Knowing their malice, Jesus said, “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?” Not everyone who engages us is truly looking for an answer or for the truth. We cannot always know things, but Jesus surely could. Often, when engaged in a discussion about the truth of the Gospel, one discovers that authentic dialogue is not actually taking place. In that case it is permissible to merely proclaim the truth firmly, clearly, and with due charity, and then end the conversation. Jesus called them on their pretense and authoritatively announced the principle with the goal of ending the conversation and sending them away to think.
IV. The Pointed Proclamation of the Principle – Jesus says, simply, and in a way that transcends worldly “all-or-nothing” scenarios, Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.
Such an answer elicits in us a desire for elaboration, but in our demands for more detail, we too often seek to conceal the fact that we really know the answer. We also betray the need of the flesh to specify everything so as to control and limit its impact.
If we really need a list, we might include some of the following things we ought to do in order “repay” to Caesar:
1. Obey all just laws. 2. Pay legally assessed taxes. 3. Pray for our country and its leaders. 4. Participate in the common defense based on our abilities and state in life. 5. Take an active and informed role in the political process. 6. Engage in movements for necessary reform. 7. Contribute to the common good through work (domestic or market-based) and through the sharing of our abilities and talents with others. 8. Maintain strong family ties and raise disciplined children who are well-prepared to contribute to the common good and to the good order of society. 9. Encourage patriotic love of our country. 10. Strive for unity and love rooted in Truth.
Here are some things we might include in a list of what we owe to God:
1. Adoration, love, and gratitude 2. Obedience to His Word and His Law 3. Worship 4. Repentance 5. Support of His Church by attendance at sacred worship, financial support, and sharing of our gifts and talents 6. Proclamation of his Word both verbally and by witness 7. Devoted reception of the sacraments 8. Raising our children in His truth and in reverence of Him 9. Evangelization (making disciples) 10. Preparing for death and judgment through a holy and reverent sojourn in this world.
A glance at these lists reveals that there is some overlap. One would expect this with God because He defies our human categories and distinctions. In the overlap, we see a setting forth of the great commandment of Love: that we should love the Lord our God with all our soul, strength, and mind, and our neighbor as our self (e.g., Matt 22:37). For while God is not Caesar and Caesar is not God, love unites both categories.
To love our country is to love our neighbor. To work for, support, and be involved in the common good is to love our neighbor. And to love our neighbor, whom we see, is to begin to love God, whom we do not see. Further, to seek to reform our land, secure justice, and ensure unity rooted in truth is to help usher in the Kingdom of God. To be rooted in God’s law, walk in His truth, and raise our children as strong and disciplined disciples of the Lord is to bless this country. To obey God and to walk in sobriety, love, and self-discipline is not only to render to God but also to be a good citizen.
However, it must be clear that God is and must be our supreme love. Jesus is not setting forth an equivalence here. This world is often at odds with God and thus we who would be His disciples must accept the fact that we will often be seen by this world as though we are aliens from another planet. Neither Jesus nor we should expect to fit precisely into any worldly category or club. We will be an equal-opportunity irritant to any large group. If we are going to be faithful Catholics then we must expect to be outsiders, outliers, and outcasts.
Rendering to God comes first. Too many people today, however, are more passionate about their politics than their faith. They tuck their faith underneath their politics and worldview. They are more inclined to agree with their party than with the Church or even the Scriptures. If you point that out, though, they’re likely to accuse you of violating the separation of Church and State (a phrase that does not appear in the Constitution, by the way) or tell you that unless something is infallibly defined (as they determine it) they are free to ignore the teaching of the bishops, the Pope, and/or the Catechism.
Here is the question we must ask ourselves: Do we really put God first? Is His Word really the foundation of our thoughts and views or are we just playing games? Loving this world and working for the common good are not at odds with our love for God, but submitting to worldly categories and human divisions and permitting them to drive our views is most often opposed to God, who will not simply be conformed to human political movements.
God has set forth the Catholic Church to speak for Him but He has not anointed any political movement or worldly organization to do so. No Catholic should surrender to artificial and passing distinctions or to organizations. No Catholic should permit worldly allegiances to trump what Scripture and the Church clearly proclaim. Sadly, today many seem far more willing to render to some version of “Caesar” than to render obedience and allegiance to God and to the Church, which speaks for Him. The Church is an object of faith; a political party is not. Render to God what is God’s.
This song in the video below says that God and God alone is fit to take the universe’s throne.