I Shall Recover It All- A Meditation on the Gospel for the 5th Sunday of Lent

In today’s Gospel We hear the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead. The story is a significant turning point in the ministry of Jesus for, as we shall see, it because of this incident that the Temple Leadership in Jerusalem resolves to have Jesus killed.

As is proper with all the gospel accounts we must not see this as merely an historical happening to people 2000 years ago. Rather we must recall that I am Lazarus, I am Martha and Mary. This is also the story of how Jesus is acting in my life.

Let’s look at this Gospel in stages and learn how the Lord acts to save us and raise us to new life. This gospel has six stages that describe what Jesus does to save us:

I. HE PERMITS – Sometimes there are trials in our life by God’s mysterious design to bring us to greater things. The Lord permits these trials and difficulties for various reasons. But, if we are faithful, every trial is ultimatly for our glory and the glory of God. The text says,

Now a man was ill, Lazarus from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who had anointed the Lord with perfumed oil and dried his feet with her hair; it was her brother Lazarus who was ill. So the sisters sent word to him saying, “Master, the one you love is ill.” When Jesus heard this he said, “This illness is not to end in death, but is for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

Notice therefore that Jesus does not rush to prevent the illness of Lazarus but permits it now for something greater, that God’s Glory in Jesus be manifest, and, we may add, for Lazarus’ own good and his share in God’s glory.

It is this way with us as well. We do not always understand what God is up to in our life. His ways are often mysterious, even troubling to us. But our faith teaches us that his mysterious permission of our difficulties is ultimately for our good and for our glory.

Scripture says,

  1. Rejoice in this. You may for a time have to suffer the distress of many trials. But this so that your faith, more precious than any fire tried gold, may lead to praise, honor and glory when Jesus Christ appears. (1 Peter 1: 10)
  2. But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I will come forth as gold. (Job 23:10)
  3. For our light and momentary troubles are producing for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Cor 4:17-18)

An old gospel hymn says: Trials dark on every hand, and we cannot understand, all the way that God will lead us to that blessed promised land. But He guides us with his eye and we follow till be die, and we’ll understand it better, by and by. By and by, when the morning comes, and all the saints of God are gathered home, we’ll tell the story of how we’ve overcome, and we’ll understand it better by and by.

For now it is enough for us to know that God permits our struggles for a season and for a reason.

II. HE PAUSES – Here to we confront a mystery. Sometimes God says “wait.” Again, this is to prepare us for greater things than that for which we ask. The text says,

Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So when he heard that he was ill, he remained for two days in the place where he was.

Note that the text says that Jesus waits because he loved Martha and Mary and Lazarus. This of course is paradoxical since we expect love to rush to the aid of the afflicted.

Yet Scripture often counsels us to wait:

  1. Wait on the LORD: be of good courage, and he shall strengthen thine heart: wait, I say, on the LORD. (Ps 27:14)
  2. For thus says the Lord God, the holy one of Israel, “By waiting and by calm you shall be saved, in quiet an in trust, your strength lies. (Isaiah 30:15)
  3. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance…God’s patience is directed to our salvation. (2 Pet 3:9)

Thus, somehow our waiting is tied to strengthening us, and preparing us for something greater. Ultimately we need God’s patience in order for us to come to full repentance, so it may not be wise to ask God to rush things. Yet still his delay often mystifies us, especially when the need is urgent.

Note too how Jesus’ delay here enables something even greater to take place. For, it is one thing to heal an ailing man. It is another and greater thing to raise a man who has been dead four days. To use a meal analogy, Jesus is preparing a feast. Do you want a microwave dinner or a great feast? Great feasts take longer to prepare. Jesus delays but he’s preparing something great.

For ourselves we can only ask for the grace to hold out. An old gospel song says, Lord Help me to Hold out, until my change comes. Another song says, Hold on Just a little while longer, every thing’s gonna be alright.

III.HE PAYS – Despite the design of God and his apparent delay, he is determined to bless us and save us. Jesus is determined to go and help Lazarus even though he puts himself in great danger. Notice in the follow text how the apostles are anxious about going to Judea. For, it is a fact that some there are plotting to kill Jesus. In order to help Lazarus, Jesus must put himself at great risk. The Text says:

Then after this he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.” The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just trying to stone you, and you want to go back there?”Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in a day? If one walks during the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. But if one walks at night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.” He said this, and then told them, “Our friend Lazarus is asleep, but I am going to awaken him.” So the disciples said to him, “Master, if he is asleep, he will be saved.” But Jesus was talking about his death, while they thought that he meant ordinary sleep. So then Jesus said to them clearly, “Lazarus has died. And I am glad for you that I was not there, that you may believe. Let us go to him.” So Thomas, called Didymus, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go to die with him.

We must never forget the cost that Jesus has paid for our healing and salvation. Scripture says, You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. (1 Pet 1:18).

Indeed, the apostles concerns are born out when we see that, because he raised Lazarus from the dead, the Temple leaders from that point on plot to kill Jesus (cf John 11:53). It is of course dripping with irony that they should plot to kill Jesus for raising a man from the dead. We can only thank the Lord who, for our sake endured even death on a cross and purchased our salvation by his own blood.

IV.HE PRESCRIBES – The Lord will die to save us. But there is only one way that saving love can reach us and that is through our faith. Faith opens the door to God’s blessings and it is a door we must open by God’s grace. Thus Jesus inquires into the faith of Martha and later of Mary. The text says

Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever you ask of God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise.” Martha said to him, “I know he will rise, in the resurrection on the last day.” Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.

Jesus prescribes faith for there is no other way. Our faith and our soul are more important to God than our bodies and creature comforts. For what good is it to gain the whole world and lose our soul? We tend to focus on physical things like our bodies, our health and our things. But God focuses on the spiritual things. And so before raising Lazarus and dispelling grief, Jesus checks the condition of Martha’s faith and elicits an act of faith: “Do you believe this?” ….Yes, Lord, I have come to believe.

Scripture connects faith to seeing and experiencing great things:

  1. All things are possible to him who believes. Mk 9:23
  2. If you had faith as small as a mustard seed, you could say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it would move. Nothing would be impossible for you.” (Mt 17:20)
  3. And he did not do many miracles there because of their lack of faith. (Matt 13:58)
  4. When he had gone indoors, the blind men came to him, and he asked them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” “Yes, Lord,” they replied. Then he touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith will it be done to you” (Mat 9:28)

So Jesus has just asked you and me a question: “Do you believe this?” And how will you answer? Now be careful. I know how we should answer. But how do we really and truthfully answer?

V.HE’S PASSIONATE – Coming upon the scene Jesus is described as deeply moved, a perturbed, as weeping. The text says,

When Jesus saw her weeping and the Jews who had come with her weeping, he became perturbed and deeply troubled, and said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Sir, come and see.” And Jesus wept. So the Jews said, “See how he loved him.” But some of them said, “Could not the one who opened the eyes of the blind man have done something so that this man would not have died?” So Jesus, perturbed again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay across it. Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the dead man’s sister, said to him, “Lord, by now there will be a stench; he has been dead for four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believe you will see the glory of God?” So they took away the stone. And Jesus raised his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you for hearing me. I know that you always hear me; but because of the crowd here I have said this, that they may believe that you sent me.”

In his human heart Jesus experiences the full force of the loss and the blow that death delivers. That he weeps is something of mystery since he will raise Lazarus in moments. But for this moment Jesus enters enters and experiences grief and loss with us. It’s full force comes over him and he weeps, so much so that the bystanders say “See how much he loved him.”

But there is more going on here. The English text also describes Jesus as being perturbed. The Greek word here is Greek word ἐμβριμάομαι (embrimaomai), which means literally, to snort with anger; to have have great indignation. It is a very strong word that includes the notion of being moved to sternly admonish. What is this anger of Jesus and to who is it directed? It is hard to know exactly, but the best answer would seem to be that he is angry of death, and what sin has done. For it was by sin that suffering and death entered the world. It is almost as thought Jesus is on the front lines of the battle and has a focused anger against Satan and what he has done. For Scripture says, by the envy of the devil death entered the world. (Wisdom 2:23). And God has said, As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?’ (Ez 33:11).

I do remember at the death of loved ones that I experienced not only sorrow but also anger. Death should NOT be. But there it is, it glares back at us, taunts and pursues us.

Yes, Jesus experiences the full range of what we do here. And out of his sorrow and anger, he is moved to act on our behalf. God’s wrath is his passion to set things right. And Jesus is about to act.

VI.HE PREVAILS – In the end Jesus always wins. And you can go to the end of the Bible and see that Jesus wins there too. You might just as well get on the winning team. He will not be overcome by Satan, even when all seems lost. God is a good God, he is a great God, he can do anything but fail. Jesus can make a way out of no way. The text says,

He cried out in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, tied hand and foot with burial bands, and his face was wrapped in a cloth. So Jesus said to them, “Untie him and let him go free.”

I have it on the best of authority that as Lazarus came out of the tomb he was singing a gospel song: Faithful is our God! I’m reaping the harvest God promised me, take back what devil stole from me, and I rejoice today, for I shall recover it all!

But notice something important here. Although Jesus raises Lazarus, and gives him new life, Jesus also commands the bystanders (this means you) to untie Lazarus and let him go free. So Christ raises us, but he has a work for the Church to do, to untie those he has raised in baptism and let them go free.

To have a personal relationship with Jesus is essential, but it is also essential to have a relationship to the Church. For after raising Lazarus (us) he entrusts Lazarus to the care of others. Jesus speaks to the Church, to parents, to priests, catechists, and all members of the Church and gives this standing order regarding the souls he has raised to new life: Untie them and let them go free.

We are Lazarus and were dead in our sin. But we have been raised to new life. And yet, we can still be bound by the effects of sin. And this why we need the sacraments, scripture, prayer, and other ministry of the Church through catechesis, prayer, preaching and teaching. Lazarus’ healing wasn’t a one and your done scenario and neither is ours.

We are also the bystanders – And just as we who are in need of being untied and set free, who who are also members of the Church, also have this obligation to others. Parents and elders must untie their children and let them go free by God’s grace, pastors their flocks. I too as a priest have realized how my people have helped  to untie me and let me go free, how they have strengthened my faith, encouraged me, admonished me and restored me.

This is the Lord’s mandate to the Church regrading every soul he has raised: untie him and let him go free. This is the Lord’s work, but just as Jesus involved the bystanders then, he still involves the Church (which includes us).

Yes, faithful is our God. I shall recover it all.

Artwork above from the ancient mosaics at Ravenna

This is the song Lazarus sang as he came forth (I have it on the best of authority)

Walk in the Light – A Meditation on the Gospel of the Fourth Sunday of Lent

In today’s Gospel, Jesus, the Light of the World, brings light to a man born blind. If you are prepared to accept it, you are the man born blind, for all of us were born blind and in darkness. It was our baptism alone, and the faith it gave, which has rendered us able to see, and, by stages, to come more fully into the light. The man in today’s Gospel shows forth the stages of the Christian walk, out of darkness, and into the beautiful light of Christ. Let’s take a moment and observe these stages evident in this man, for we are the man.

I. The Problem that is Presented – We are introduced to man who was blind from his birth, he is quite incapable of seeing at all. The text says: As Jesus passed by he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him. We have to do the works of the one who sent me while it is day. Night is coming when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

So there is the problem, he is blind, he has no vision. And this us. On account of Original Sin we had lost all spiritual vision. We could not see God, or endure the light of his glory. This lack of vision causes many to have no “vision” for their life. They don’t know why they were made, or what the true purpose of their existence is. Many cannot see past the sufferings of this world to the glory that waits. Still others have retreated into the material world and cannot see beyond it. Others have retreated even further, away from reality into the realm only of their mind, their own opinions and so forth. St. Augustine describes this condition of the human person as curvatus in se (man, turned in on himself). Yes, there is a blindness that imprisons many in the darkness. And even for us who do believe there are still areas where it is hard for us to see. Coming to see God more fully, and ourselves as we really are is a journey we are still on.

While the disciples want to dwell on secondary causes, Jesus sidesteps these concerns and focuses on solutions. The fact is he is blind, assessing blame is unproductive. Healing the man is uppermost. In a statement, dripping with irony, Jesus says that the works of God will be made visible in a blind man. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength. (1 Cor 1:25). Yes, God can make a way out of no way and write straight with crooked lines. So Jesus gets to work.

II. The Purification that is Prescribed – Having diagnosed the problem and noting that the man is in darkness, Jesus, the Light of the World, begins the work of healing this man. The text says, When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva,and smeared the clay on his eyes, and said to him, “Go wash in the Pool of Siloam” – which means Sent -. So he went and washed, and came back able to see.

Hopefully, you can see baptism here.  Jesus says, “Go and wash.” – He went, he washed and he came back able to see. Yes, this is baptism. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says of Baptism: This bath is called enlightenment, because those who receive this [catechetical] instruction are enlightened in their understanding… Having received in Baptism the Word, “the true light that enlightens every man,” the person baptized has been “enlightened,” he becomes a “son of light,” indeed, he becomes “light” himself.…(CCC1216).

Baptism is required, in order to truly see. It is no mere aside that John mentions the name of the pool to which the man goes: Siloam, a name which means “sent.” Jesus sends him, and He sends us. Baptism is required. Jesus says elsewhere:  “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. (John 3:5)

Notice he comes back ABLE to see. But just because you’re able to see does not mean you actually DO see. Right now I am able to see the Statue of liberty, my eyes work fine for that. But I do not yet see it. I have to make a journey to do that. Thus, the man here is able to see Jesus, but he does not yet see him. He has a journey to make in order to do that. Though able to see but he, like we, has a long way to go to see Jesus fully, and face to face. Baptism is not the end of our journey but the beginning of it. It renders us able to see. But we are still new born babes. We need to grow. We can see, but there is plenty we haven’t seen yet.

III. The Perception that is Partial – Hence we notice the man can see, but he still does not know much of the one who has enabled him to see. Notice what the text says: His neighbors and those who had seen him earlier as a beggar said, “Isn’t this the one who used to sit and beg?” Some said, “It is, ” but others said, “No, he just looks like him.” He said, “I am.” So they said to him, “How were your eyes opened?” He replied, “The man called Jesus made clay and anointed my eyes and told me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ So I went there and washed and was able to see.” And they said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I don’t know.”

So he’s able to see. But he hasn’t seen much. The man must grow in his faith to come to know who Jesus Really is. Look at how his partial perception is described. For now, he merely understands Jesus as “the man called Jesus.” To him,  Jesus is just some “dude,” some “guy.” And then they ask where Jesus is, and all he can say is that he does “not know.” Hence although he able to see, he does not yet actually see Jesus.

And this describes a lot of Christians. They know about Jesus but they don’t know him. Many Catholics in the pews are “sacramentalized but unevangelized.”  That is, they have received the sacraments, but have never really met Jesus Christ and do not know him in any more than an intellectual way. Many don’t even expect to know him. He is little better to them than “the man called Jesus.” They’ve heard of Jesus, and even know some basic facts, but he still remains a distant figure in their lives. And when asked questions about him, they respond like this man, “I don’t know.”

The man needs to make progress, and he will and we shall now see. Remember, you are the man.

IV. Progress Through Persecution and Pondering – The text goes on to show us the progress this formerly blind man makes in coming to know and finally see Jesus. It is interesting that this progress comes largely through persecution. Now persecution for us need not always be understood as being arrested and thrown in jail etc. Persecution can come in many forms such as puzzlement, expressed by relatives and friends, ridicule of Catholicism in the media, or even those internal voices that make us question our faith. But, in what ever form, persecution has a way of making us face the questions, and refine our understanding. Our vision gets clearer as we meet the challenges.

Notice the man’s progress up till now. He HAS been baptized and is now able to see. But he still knows little of Jesus calling only “the man called Jesus,” and not really knowing where Jesus is. But, he is about to grow, and he does so in several stages.

In stage one of his post-baptismal growth we that his neighbors turn on him and bring him to the Pharisees who interrogate him because Jesus had healed him on a sabbath. The text says,

They brought the one who was once blind to the Pharisees. Now Jesus had made clay and opened his eyes on a Sabbath. So then, the Pharisees also asked him how he was able to see. He said to them, “He put clay on my eyes, and I washed, and now I can see.” So some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, because he does not keep the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a sinful man do such signs?” And there was a division among them. So they said to the blind man again, “What do you have to say about him, since he opened your eyes?” He said, “He is a prophet.”

Thus notice what this persecution does for him. As he is challenged to say something about Jesus he moves beyond calling him “the man called Jesus” and describes Jesus as a “prophet.” He has gained some insight here. A prophet speaks for God and, Jesus is the Word, made flesh.

In Stage two of his post-baptismal growth we see that the Pharisees doubt his story and broaden their persecution to interrogate and threaten his fearful parents, and then they call him back and put him under oath and declare Jesus to be a sinner. The text says:

Now the Jews did not believe that he had been blind and gained his sight until they summoned the parents of the one who had gained his sight. They asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How does he now see?” his parents answered and said, “We know that this is our son and that he was born blind. We do not know how he sees now, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him, he is of age; he can speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that if anyone acknowledged him as the Christ, he would be expelled from the synagogue. For this reason his parents said, “He is of age; question him.”

In stage three of his post-baptismal growth we note that the continuing persecution seems to make him grow even stronger and more able to withstand his opponents. Note his determination and fearlessness in the second interrogation he faces which includes ridiculing him and placing him under oath:

So a second time they called the man who had been blind and said to him, “Give God the praise! We know that this man is a sinner.” He replied, “If he is a sinner, I do not know. One thing I do know is that I was blind and now I see.” So they said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples, too?” They ridiculed him and said, “You are that man’s disciple; we are disciples of Moses! We know that God spoke to Moses, but we do not know where this one is from.” The man answered and said to them, “This is what is so amazing, that you do not know where he is from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if one is devout and does his will, he listens to him. It is unheard of that anyone ever opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he would not be able to do anything.” They answered and said to him, “You were born totally in sin, and are you trying to teach us?” Then they threw him out.

The result of this is to further deepen his vision of Jesus. For, at first, he saw him only as “the man called Jesus,” then he sees him as a prophet, now he goes further and sees him as “from God.” He’s progressing from sight to insight. His ability to see, given him in baptism is now resulting in even clearer vision.

This then, leads us to the final end of this gospel and this man’s journey.

V.Perfection that is Portrayed – He has been thrown out of the synagogue, as many early Christians were. He has endured the hatred of the world, and the loss of many things. Now, cast aside, and hated by the world, the Lord approaches him. The text says:

When Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, he found him and said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered and said, “Who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, the one speaking with you is he.”He said, “I do believe, Lord, ” and he worshiped him.

Now his vision is plain. After all this, he finally sees. He sees, not only Jesus, but Who Jesus is. First he saw him only as “the man called Jesus.” Next a prophet. Next, he says, he is from God. But this final stage is the best of all. He actually sees Jesus and falls down to worship Him, Jesus is not only from God, he IS God. Christ has fully enlightened this man.

This is our journey, moving in stages to more perfectly know Jesus. One day we will see him face to face. But even before that time we are called to grow in faith by stages so that we see Jesus for who he is.

Where are you on this journey? Our vision is daily getting better if we are faithful but it is not yet complete. Scripture says

  1. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood. (1 Cor 13:12)
  2. Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is (1 John 3:2)
  3. My soul is thirsting for God, the God of my life; when can I enter and see the face of God? (Psalm 42:2)

For now, make this journey. Journey in stages. Come to know who Jesus is.

I have it on the best of authority that the man, on his journey to Jesus, sang this song: Walk in the Light, beautiful light. Come where the dew-drops of mercy shine bright. Walk all around us by day and by night, O Jesus the Light of the World!


Just a Little Talk With Jesus Makes it Right – A Meditation on the Gospel of The Third Week of Lent

As we examine the Gospel for this weekend’s Mass we do well to understand that is fundamentally a gospel about our desires and how the Lord reaches us through them. Prior to looking at the text, consider a few things:

  1. What it is that really makes you happy? There are endless ways this question could be answered. We desire so many things: food, water, shelter, clothing and creature comforts. We long for a sense of belonging, affection, & peace. Sometimes we hope for stability and simplicity, at other times we yearn for change and variety. Our hearts are a sea of desires, wishes and longings. The gospel today says that a woman went to the well to draw water. She is each one of us and her desire for water is a symbol of all our desires.
  2. Have you ever considered that your desires are in fact infinite? Can you even think of a time that you were ever entirely satisfied, a time when you needed absolutely nothing? Even if you can imagine such a time, it didn’t last did it? In fact our desires are infinite, without limit.
  3. The well in today’s gospel symbolizes this world. Jesus says to the woman and to us: “Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again.” The world cannot really provide what are looking for. No matter how much this world offers us, it will never ultimately satisfy us, for the world is finite and 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, for someone, who is infinite, who alone can satisfy us. We were made for God.
  4. The Water offered is the Holy Spirit – Jesus says 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).
  6. Scripture too speaks to us 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). Or again, Only in God will my soul be at rest, he is my hope, my salvation (Psalm 62:1,5) St. Augustine wrote classic words to describe our hearts’ truest longing: Thou hast made us for Thyself O Lord and our hearts are restless till the rest in Thee. (Confessions 1,1).

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

Rendezvous – Notice that the initiative here is Jesus’ 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 anything that the world gives. Here desire has brought her face to face with Jesus, a holy and fortunate rendezvous, if you will. 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 we 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 say yes. This request of Jesus initiates a discussion, a dialogue of two hearts. As we shall see, the woman, like most of us, struggles with this dialogue. It is, to be sure a delicate, even painful process for us to accept the invitation to self-giving the Lord makes. Something in us draws 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 fear to relate to God because they think their freedom will be lost, or too many changes will be required. Others loathe the commandments, or fear they cannot keep them. Still others are angry at the unexpected twists and turns of this life and do not want to trust a God who doesn’t always play by their rules. The woman’s anger, in particular, is based on the prejudices of the day. Her anger is not really at Jesus, it is at “the Jews” to whom Samaritans are hostile. This is sometimes the case with God as well. It is not always the Lord Jesus, or God the Father, that people hate or distrust, it is Christians. For it remains true, some have been hurt by the Church, or by Christians. Others have prejudiced opinions influenced by a hostile media and world. But, praise, God, Jesus is willing to stay in the conversation, and so we next see:

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. 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, then he changed it to his blood. And, despite our often harsh rejection of God, he keeps the dialogue open and 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. But here too the Lord is patient and continues on.

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 twenty minutes later we are thirsty again. The world is the gift that keeps on taking, it takes our money, our loyalty, our freedom, our time, and gives us only transitory, 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 we saw 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 in Jesus’ direction. She has warmed to his offer and so 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 want to give this gift, but first he must help her make room for it. For the truth is, she has unrepented sin. A glass that is filled with sand cannot be filled with water. The sand must be emptied first and then the cup cleansed. Only then can the water flow. 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 what mountain to worship on. Jesus is patient with her and answers her, but ultimately draws her back to the subject, which is her heart and what her desires are really all about.

Reconciliation – Now here the conversation gets private, we are not permitted to listen in. It is just between Jesus and her. But whatever it was, she in elated and will later declare: “He told me everything I ever did.” And 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. And 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.

Rejoicing – The 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. The very thing she was depending on to collect the things of the world is left behind. 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. And 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 she is joyfully empowered to leave this enslaving water jar behind. Now, 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!

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

(Photo Credit above Martin Howard via Creative Commons)

The mp3 version of this homily is here: Just a Little Talk With Jesus

I have it on the best of authority that as she joyfully journeyed to town she was in fact singing this old Gospel song:

And Every Round Goes Higher, Higher! – A Meditation on the Gospel for the Second Sunday of Lent

The second Sunday of Lent always features the transfiguration. This is done in the first place because we are following the Lord on his final journey to Jerusalem and this journey up Mt Tabor was one of the stops Jesus himself made 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 which says, Sometimes I up, sometimes I’m down, sometimes I’m almost on the ground…..but see what the end shall be.  And 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.

There also seems a purpose in placing this account here in that it helps describe the pattern of the Christian life which is the paschal mystery. For 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, in the climb, and rising,  in the glory of the mountaintop. Then it is back down the mountain again, only to climb another mountain, (Golgotha) and through it find another glory (Easter Sunday). Here is the pattern of the Christian life: the paschal mystery. Let’s look a little closer at the Gospel in three stages.

I. The Purpose of Trials. The text says – Jesus took Peter, James, and John and led them up a high mountain apart by themselves. Now we often pass over this fact, that they had to climb that mountain. And the climb was no easy task. Any one who has been to the sight of Tabor knows what high mountain it is. The climb was almost 2000 feet, high and steep. It may have taken the better part of a day and probably had its dangers. Once at the top it is like looking from an airplane window out on the Jezreel Valley (a.k.a. Megiddo or Armageddon).

So here is a symbol of the cross and of struggle. A climb was up the rough side of the mountain: exhausting, difficult, testing their strength.

I have it on the best of authority that as they climbed they were singing gospel songs: I’m comin’ up on the rough side of the mountain, and I’m doin’ my best to carry on! Another songs 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.

Now, this climb reminds us of our life. For often we have had to climb, to endure and have our strength tested. Perhaps it was the climb of getting a college degree. Perhaps it was the climb of raising children, or building a career. What do you have that you really value that did not come at the price of a climb….of effort and struggle?

And most of us know that, though the climb is difficult, there is glory at  the top is we but endure and push through. Life’s difficulties are often the prelude to success and greater strength.

Though we might wish that life had no struggles, it would seem that the  Lord intends the climb 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:

  1. God uses problems to DIRECT us. Sometimes God must light a fire under you to get you moving. Problems often point us in a 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 of 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. Sad but true, God sometimes needs to use problems to direct our steps to him.
  2. 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 and testings. There is a test in every testimony and trials have a way of  purifying and strengthening our faith as well as inspecting our faith to see whether it is really 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.
  3. God uses problems to CORRECT us. Some lessons we learn only through pain and failure. It’s likely that as a child your parents told you not to touch a hot stove. But you probably learned by being burned. Sometimes we only learn the value of something  health, money, a relationship by losing it. Scripture says in Psalm 119:71-72 It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees and also in Psalm 119:67  it says Before I was afflicted, I strayed. But now I keep you word.
  4. God uses problems to PROTECT us. A problem can be a blessing in disguise if it prevents you from being harmed by something more serious. A man was fired for refusing to do something unethical that his boss had asked him to do. His unemployment was a problem-but it saved him from being convicted and sent to prison a year later when management’s actions were eventually discovered. Scripture says in Genesis 50:20 as 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.”
  5. God uses problems to PERFECT us. Problems, when responded to correctly, 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. And 1 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. Let’s look at stage two:

II. The Productiveness of Trials. The text says, 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 or endurance and struggle. Are you enjoying any the fruits of your crosses now? If we think about it, our crosses, if they were carried in faith have 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!

  1. The other night I went over to the Church and played the pipe organ. It was most enjoyable and the fruit of years of hard work.
  2. And not only have my own crosses brought me life, but the crosses of others have also blessed me and brought me life. See the trials do produce. Enjoy it!
  3. St. Paul says, that this momentary affliction is producing for us a weight of glory beyond all compare (2 Cor 4:14). He also says 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).
  4. An old gospel song says, By and by, when the morning comes, and all the saints of God are gathered home, we’ll tell the story, of how we’ve overcome. And we’ll understand it better, by and by.

So then, here is the glory that comes after the climb. Here is the life that comes from the cross. Here is the paschal mystery: Always carrying about in our selves the dying of Christ so also that the life of Christ may be manifest in us (2 Cor 4:10).

III. The Pattern of Trials – The text says, 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.

Notice that, although Peter wanted  to stay, Jesus makes it clear that they must go down the mountain for now 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 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 a final and lasting glory. This is our life too. The paschal mystery, the pattern and rhythm of our life.

This Homily was recorded and is availbale in mp3 here:  http://frpope.com/audio/2%20Lent%20A%202011.mp3

Here is an excerpt from the Song We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder. The Text says that every round goes higher, higher! Almost as if imagining a spiral staircase even as the rounds get pitched higher musically. For this is the pattern of our life that we die with Christ so as to live with him. And 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.

Tackle Temptation or Risk Ruination – A Reflection on the Gospel for the First Sunday of Lent

The Gospel today says that Jesus was tempted by the Devil in the desert. Hebrews 4:15  also affirms: For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.

How exactly a divine person, with a sinless human nature, experiences temptation is somewhat mysterious to us. And yet the text affirms that He does experience it. A Lenten antiphon from the Breviary teaches that he did this, or allowed this for our sake: Come, let us worship Christ the Lord, who for our sake endured temptation and suffering (Invitatory Antiphon for Lent). Hence, even without pondering too deeply the mystery of how he was tempted or experienced it, we can still learn what Jesus teaches us about how to endure temptation and be victorious over it. (More on the question of how Christ was tempted HERE).

Before we look at each temptation we might learn a few general aspects of what the Lord teaches us in electing to endure temptation.

 1. Temptation and Sin – The fact that the Lord is tempted, but did not sin tells us that there is a distinction to be made between temptation and sin. Too often the very experience of temptation makes us feel sinful, makes us feel that we have already sinned. But that is not necessarily the case. For Jesus, who never sinned, experienced temptation. Therefore experiencing temptation is not simply to be equated with sin. One of the tactics of the Devil is to discourage us into thinking that the mere experience of temptation is already sin. It may be true that some of our past sins influence the amount and degree to which we feel tempted, but, of itself, we need not conclude that we have already sinned, or newly sinned, merely because we are tempted. Rather than to feel shame and run from God, we ought to run to him with confidence and seek his help. But do not conclude you have sinned merely because you are tempted.

2. Temptation and Scripture – Notice how, to every temptation, Jesus responds with Scripture. This is not to be merely equated with proof texting, or pronouncing biblical slogans. Rather we ought to see it as indicative of the fact that Jesus was deeply rooted in Scripture, in the wisdom of the Biblical vision. In rebuking temptation in this way, Jesus is teach us to do the same. It will not be enough for us to know a few biblical sayings. But, to the degree that we are deeply rooted in the wisdom of God’s truth available to us through Scripture, and the teachings of the Church, we are able to strongly rebuke unholy, worldly or fleshly thinking. Half the battle to defeating temptation is to know instinctively its erroneous vision and stupidity. Having our minds transformed by the teachings of Scripture and the Church is an essential weapon in fighting temptation. Scripture says, 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 (Romans 12:2). Ephesian 6:17 also speaks of the Word of God as “the sword of the Spirit”  with which we are properly armed for spiritual warfare. Thus, we are taught here by the Lord to be deeply rooted in his Word.

3. Temptation and Strength – Notice that Jesus is tempted three times, after which the devil leaves him. In a certain way 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 are able to overcome increasingly difficult challenges. It is the same with the spiritual life. And old Gospel songs 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). We need not conclude here that Jesus needed to be strengthened (he did not) in order to understand that he is still teaching us what WE need to do. The battle against temptation is not a “one and you’re done” scenario, but an on-going battle wherein each victory makes us stronger and the devil more discouraged. Eventually he stops wasting his time tempting us in certain areas, as we grow stronger. At times, the battle may weary us but, in the long run, it strengthens us. Jesus illustrates this with his three-fold battle with Satan.

Having review a few general principles, let’s look at the three temptation scenes.

Scene I: The Temptation of Passions. The text says. At that time Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.  He fasted for forty days and forty nights,  and afterwards he was hungry.  The tempter approached and said to him,  “If you are the Son of God,  command that these stones become loaves of bread.” He said in reply, “It is written: One does not live on bread alone,  but on every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.”

Hunger, as a desire, is a passion.  It is not evil per se, for without it we would perish. The same is true with other natural desires for things like: life, drink, and propagation (sexuality). Others sorts of passion also exist in us such as: anger and love, joy, aversion, hatred, hope, despair, fear, courage and so forth. Of themselves these passions are neither good nor bad in themselves, but become so only in relation to their object, or insofar as we allow them to become inordinate.

Hence there is nothing wrong with Jesus as he experiences hunger. What the devil tries to do it to draw Jesus into sin by yielding to his hunger and to use his power inappropriately. Remember, Jesus had been led into the desert to fast and pray by the Spirit. This is his call. His hunger is real and without sin, but now he is tempted to set aside his call, and to yield to his hunger in an inappropriate way, by rejecting his call to fast. He is tempted to serve himself. Now he has the power to do this, to turn stones into bread, and so a second aspect of the temptation is to use his power inappropriately, not to glorify His Father, but to gratify and serve himself.

What about us? We too have passions. And they are not wrong in themselves. But what can happen is that we freely allow them to become inordinate, or we can gratify them in unlawful ways. Remember we, like Jesus, are called to fast. Our fast is from things like: sin, injustice, unrighteousness, sexual impurity, and unlawful pleasures, excessive indulgence,  and so forth. And we too have it have it in our power to choose to reject our fast and to gratify our desires by rejecting our call to serve God. And the devil says: reject your call and use your power to gratify your passions: lie, cheat, steal, vent your anger, fornicate, be gluttonous, greedy… and so forth.

But notice how Jesus has recourse to God’s Word: Man does not live on bread alone, but on every Word that comes from the mouth of God. Jesus says to Satan that He would rather live and be sustained by the Word. That his food is to do the will of his Father.

What about us? Can we say with Job: Neither have I gone back from the commandment of his lips; I have esteemed the words of his mouth more than my necessary food (Job 23:12). Can we, like Jesus, say that God’s Word is more to me than my desires for: satisfaction, sex, self preservation, popularity, worldly joys, power, prestige, or possessions. My strongest desire is for God and things waiting for me in heaven and I will gladly forsake all I have for it.

Scene II. The Temptation of Presumption – The text says, Then the devil took him to the holy city, and made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down. For it is written:  He will command his angels concerning you and with their hands they will support you, lest you dash your foot against a stone.”  Jesus answered him, “Again it is written, You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.”

There is a value in trusting God, but this is not an invitation to act recklessly. There will come a time when Jesus will throw himself down on the Cross in complete assurance that the Father will raise him. He has this command from his Father. But now is not that time and he must act to preserve and protect his life so as to accomplish his full mission.

For us, too there is no sin in trusting in God’s care for us. But that is not a license to act recklessly. Presumption is a terrible problem today. Too many people think that they can go on sinning and there will be, or should be, no consequences. This is true in worldly ways and in spiritual ways as well. Too many people engage in risky and ruinous behavior and figure, “I’ll be OK….I’ll escape….I won’t be a statistic….I won’t get caught….I won’t lose my job. Many say, “I can use drugs and not get addicted, I can have evil friends and still stay good and live morally,  I can skip school and still get good grades and get into college, I can be promiscuous and won’t get STD’s or AIDS….I won’t get pregnant. They think, I can drive recklessly and won’t have an accident or kill someone…I can be disrespectful and still be treated with respect.” In all this people are simply crusin’ for a brusin’

And regarding the moral presumptiveness of thinking that no matter what I or others do, heaven will still be the result, the Lord warns:

  1. Sirach 5:4 Say not I have sinned, yet what has befallen me? For the Lord bides his time. But of forgiveness be not overconfident adding sin upon sin. …Delay not your conversion to the Lord, put it not off from day to day for mercy and justice are alike with him.
  2. Gal 6:7  Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.  For he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.  And let us not grow weary in well‑doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we do not lose heart.
  3. Hosea 8:7  For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.
  4. Psalm 81:11  “But my people would not listen to me; Israel would not submit to me.  So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts to follow their own devices.  “If my people would but listen to me, if Israel would follow my ways,   how quickly would I subdue their enemies and turn my hand against their foes!

God is clear to warn us that sin sets us on a path that hardens our heart and makes our final conversion increasingly unlikely. He is pleading with us in this Lenten season to be serious about sin and its consequences. Sin renders us not only unfit for heaven, but simply incapable of entering it.

Bad idea – Simply presuming that everything will be fine is not only a poor strategy, it is a temptation and snare of the devil who seeks to cloud our mind with false hope and unreasonable expectations. Jesus has a very clear message for the devil and for any of us who would engage in presumption (a VERY common sin today): “Don’t you dare put the Lord your God to the test in this way. Obey him out of love, but do not put Him to the test.” Presumption is a very bad and foolish idea.

Scene III. The Temptation of Possessions – The text says, Then the devil took him up to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence, and he said to him, “All these I shall give to you, if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.”  At this, Jesus said to him, “Get away, Satan!  It is written:  The Lord, your God, shall you worship and him alone shall you serve.” 

 There is here the obvious temptation of worldly possessions. Everything, EVERYTHING, is offered to Jesus in exchange for a little worship of the devil. Now, it may seem strong to us that having an abundance of things would be linked to worshiping the devil and forsaking God. But scripture attests to the connection elsewhere:

  1. Adulterous people!  Do you not know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Whoever therefore wants to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. (James 4:4)
  2. Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. (1 John 2:15)
  3. No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money (Matt 6:24)

All pretty blunt. We want to have both but the Lord is clear in rebuking the temptation by insisting that we have to serve God alone, adore God alone. The inordinate love of this world causes us to hate God more and more and to bow before Satan in order to get it. Don’t kid yourself. If this seems extreme then we are calling God an extremist. The Lord is warning us that there is a major conflict here that steals our heart. For where a man’s treasure is, there is his heart (Matt 6:21). It is not wrong to desire what we really need to live, but it is our wants that get us into trouble. And the desire for riches ruins us and makes God seem as a thief, rather than a savior. This is a very severe temptation and Jesus rebukes it forcefully. Him ALONE shall you serve.

We need to beg God for a single-hearted devotion of him. The Book of Proverbs has a nice prayer in this regard: Give me neither poverty nor riches, lest in my poverty I steal or in my riches I say “Who is the Lord?” (Prov 30:8-9 gloss).

In the end, temptations are real and we either accept God’s grace to fight them or we are going down. The Lord wants to teach us today about the reality of temptation and how to fight it, by his grace. Remember, the battle is the Lord’s and no weapon waged against us will prosper if we cling to God’s grace. But in the end, the choice is clear: either Tackle temptation (by God’s grace) or risk ruination (by Satan’s “ministrations”).

(Photo credit above right: Evolutionary Times (right click on photo for URL))

This song says, Yield not  to temptation, for yielding is sin. Each victory will help you, some other to win. Fight valiantly onward. Evil passions subdue. Look ever to Jesus, He will carry you through. Ask the Savior to help you, comfort strengthen and keep you; he is willing to aid you, He will carry you through.

There’s Just No Other Way….A Meditation on the Gospel for the Ninth Week of the Year

This week brings an end to our six week meditation on the Sermon on The Mount of Jesus (Matt 5-7). We do well to remember some basic fundamentals about this wonderful sermon of our Lord:

  1. The Lord is not merely reciting moralisms. The word moralism tends to refer to the mere recitation of rules and norms more as slogans than as deep truths that emerge from a vision of life.
  2.  The Lord is describing more than he is prescribing. In effect he is painting a picture of what the transformed human being is like. What happens to a human person whom the Lord, through his indwelling Holy Spirit, is transforming?  We will review some of this picture below.
  3. This transformation is a work of God, not of the flesh. It is the Lord who works this in us by living his life in us. As we enter more deeply into a life-changing and transformative relationship with Jesus this is what begins to happen in us and what begins to grow.
  4. This concept of a life changing and transformative relationship will be important to remember in today’s Gospel passage when the Lord declares rather solemnly that he does not “know” some of us.

In today’s Gospel we come face to face with the ultimate necessity of allowing the Lord to transform us. The Lord, in the Sermon on the Mount , is offering us a whole new life and we must choose to accept it and see our life change, based on it, or we will simply be unfit to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

Our flesh hates these sort of “all or nothing” scenarios. We prefer things to be vague and fuzzy. We prefer a “many paths to God” scenario. But in the end our preferences do not change the reality which the Lord sets before us: we are going to spend eternity either with God or apart from him. There is heaven or there is hell. Tertium non datur (no third way is given). The Lord chooses to finish this sermon with an urgent call: Either come to know me by faith and let me transform you or be unfit to enter the reign of God. You and I must choose.

Let’s look at this Gospel in three stages.

I. The Discipleship that must be seen – The text says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. There is a strong tendency in our flesh to be intentional but not actual, and then to think that is enough. It is very easy for our flesh to make commitments but then not keep them. To be verbally supportive, but not be willing to make the sacrifices necessary to be actually supportive. And too often we tell ourselves that this is enough.

But at some point we have to realize that it is not enough to mean well. We actually have to do well. Scripture says elsewhere: If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. (1 John 3:17-18).

To illustrate another way, if you give me directions to get to your home, I actually have to follow them to get there. I cannot, a certain intersection, say, “Well I don’t feel like turning here,” and then think I am going to arrive at your home. Likewise, I cannot be negligent in the details, just breezing through intersections and only half paying attention, and think I will arrive at the destination. I have to actually follow the directions. Vaguely following them is not enough, and explicitly ignoring or violating them will send me to the wrong end of town. Now, God has told us how to get home to heaven. Yet too often we want to think that we can carelessly navigate through life and still end up at the proper destination. Others think that they can outright disobey one or more of the directions and still get home. It just doesn’t work that way. The only way home is to obey the directions given us.

It is true that the Lord allows us U-turns and permits us, when we get lost, to make a cell phone call (repentance and confession) to clarify directions and redirect. But in the end, the critical point is, we simply have to obey. There is just no other way. Saying Jesus is Lord is not enough. He actually has to be Lord. The term “Lord” refers to one who has authority, who has ownership. And so Jesus says elsewhere: Why do you call me “Lord” and not do what I tell you? (Luke 6:46). The Lord wants to be clear with us: it is simply not possible to enter the kingdom of heaven unless we obey.

Our flesh wants to water this down and think that merely intending to obey, merely meaning well and having positive thoughts about God is enough, or that following some of the time, or most of the time is enough. It is not. Obedience, actually following the directions is also necessary.

Only Jesus himself perfectly obeys the Father. That is why it is necessary for us to allow Jesus to live his life in us. Only knowing the Lord and allowing him to transform us in the ways he has described in previous weeks will enable us to reach our destination. Only Jesus living in us can bring about saving obedience.

But note, this obedience has to be real. The transformation that Jesus offers us is not an abstraction. It is about a real change in our life. Merely saying I have given my life to the Lord is not salvation. The real proof that we have actually given our life over to God, not just saying we have, is to be actually experiencing the transformation he has promised. This alone can get us home.

Ok, so the Lord is being very clear with us here. Actual obedience is the only way home. There just isn’t any other way.

II. The Disclosure that is sure – The text says: Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’ Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.’ There is a sure and certain Day of Judgment looming for each one of us. Scripture says elsewhere: For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Cor 5:10). The day is fixed and it is certain when our true disposition with be disclosed. Are we true disciples or just actors? Is Jesus really our Lord or just somewhere on our list of friends? Have we really obeyed or just played fast and easy occasionally “checking off the God-box?”

But here is the key question. Do we know the Lord and does he know us? Notice how Jesus says to them, “I never knew you.” We studied before that to “know” in the Bible almost always means more than mere intellectual knowing. To “know” in biblical terms means to have deep, intimate, personal experience of the thing or person known. Notice how deeply relational knowing is, in this sense. It is one thing to know about God and something far deeper to KNOW God. And Lord invites us to this sort of relationship:

  • * That we know him and are known by him.
  • * That our relationship with him is not merely having some intellectual impression, or a command of certain fact, but rather, that we have a deep experience of him,
  • * That we be in living, conscious contact with him,
  • * That we be in a transformative relationship with him,
  • * That we become increasingly one with him.
  • * That we know him, and allow him to know us.

And thus the Lord declares here to them that he does not know them. That they have not agreed to, or permitted the knowing relationship which is at the heart of heaven, and which would have prepared them for heaven. They insist that they “know” Jesus but their description highlights a mere intellectual knowing and a kind of “using” of the Name of Jesus. They “used” his name but did not really call on His name. They knew of  him but they did not KNOW him. It is very possible for priests, religious and other religious leaders to announce Jesus but not to hear him calling them. Any Christian can fall into this trap. They love to discuss religion but do not really have true faith. They will argue for and about God, but refuse to be transformed by Him. They will consider God, but only on their own terms.

What does it mean to be known by God? In the end, the only way into heaven is to know God and be known by him. To be in a transformative relationship with Jesus Christ that is living and conscious and very real. The evidence of this relationship is not just that we say we have it, but that we are experiencing the real fruits of it. And the fruits of this relationship are what Jesus is offering to do for us and has been describing all along in the Sermon on the Mount:

  1. That we are poor in spirit, meek, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, merciful, single-hearted, and peaceful (Mat 5:3-11)
  2. That we are salt and light (Matt 5:13-16)
  3. That we have authority over our anger and are respectful of and reconciled to our brethren (Matt 5:21-26)
  4. That we have authority over our sexuality, have pure minds and hearts, free from lust and sexual exploitation (Matt 5:27-30)
  5. That we love our spouse and family members, are faithful to our marital commitments and hold marriage in high esteem (Matt 5:31-32)
  6. That we are true to our word, faithful to our commitments and speak the truth in love (Matt 5:33-37)
  7. That we feel no need to retaliate and are generous in serving and toward the poor and needy (Matt 5:38-42)
  8. That we love our enemies and persecutors. That we develop a compassion and understanding of the troubled people we meet and want only that which is good for them (Matt 5:43-48)
  9. That we have a deep affection for the heavenly Father and a trusting relationship that drives out fear and anxiety of what others think or what may happen. (Matt 6)

To truly know the Lord Jesus and be in a knowing relationship with him is to experience this sort of transformation and more. Lip service does not yield this sort of radical transformation. Only knowing and being known by the Lord can bring forth this sort of fruit. And only this sort of transformation can make heaven possible for us. Jesus says,

I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned…..This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. (John 15:5-10)

Thus, our obedience, the keeping of the commandments, is a chief sign that we are actually in this transformative relationship that alone can prepare us for heaven. Notice that the keeping of the commandments is the fruit of love, not the cause or it. It is the fruit of our relationship with Jesus, not the cause of it. It is the fruit, of the vine, not the cause of the vine. To remain in Jesus is to know him and be known by him. This alone is the way to heaven. There just isn’t any other way. And the day that will disclose our choice is looming for each of us.

III. The Designation that is Supplied – The text says, Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock. And everyone who listens to these words of mine but does not act on them will be like a fool who built his house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. And it collapsed and was completely ruined.

A pretty simple parable in essence. Either you are going to be among the wise in heaven or the fools in hell. Either we will listen to Christ and build on the solid rock of his teachings and thus withstand the storm that is coming, or we will foolish refuse to listen and not withstand the coming storm.

Make no mistake, the storm is coming. It will surely come for us on the day of judgment.

But it is also possible to see this parable applied to everyday life. Some people live foolishly. Perhaps it starts when they are young. They goof off in school, get bad grades, join gangs, have an arrest record before 15. Others smoke dope, drink excessively, fornicate and so forth. And before you know it their whole house is close to collapsing: no job, no income, pregnant at 15, full of STDs, addicted, going nowhere. Or divorced, remarried, divorced again, had a baby by a third woman. All their income going to alimony and child support, complicated visitation rights, and one big mess for a life, not anyone’s Father, just some baby’s daddy. Life gets complicated pretty fast when we foolishly indulge in sin! And the storms multiply and the house eventually collapses. A ruined, foolish life already experiencing hell.

But others live wisely. Perhaps as youngsters they studied hard, went to Church, obeyed their elders, learned self-control and were careful about the company they kept. And sure enough, doors opened: College, then a good job. A carefully discerned marriage to one spouse, a marriage marked by fruitfulness and fidelity. In the end their children too were a blessing. Such a life is not trouble free but it is a LOT simpler and the storms are less frequent. And when the storms do come, the house of their life does not collapse for is to set on the solid foundation of God’s teaching. He here is the life of the wise, fruitful and heavenly bound.

In the end, there’s just no other way. Either be wise: know Christ and be known by him, or be a fool. Let Christ find you. Know him and be known by him. Let him transform you and prepare you for heaven. There’s just no other way.

(Clipart credit from Echoinghope.blogspot.com)

Three Aspects of Anxiety And How to Overcome Them – A Meditation on the Gospel for the 8th Sunday of the Year

When we read today’s Gospel we must be careful not to misinterpret its basic vision.  Jesus is not telling us what to do, but offering us something to receive.  The wrong way to interpret this gospel is to simply hear Jesus say, “Stop worrying.”  We all get this advice from people every day and it isn’t very helpful.  This is not what Jesus is saying.  For, remember, in the Sermon of the Mount which we are reading, Jesus is describing what a transformed human person is like.  And what he is teaching us here is that, as He begins to live his life in us many of our anxieties will diminish and go away.

The transformed human person trusts God,  and is even able to see God’s hand in the difficulties of life.  It is this trust growing in us by God’s grace that ultimately diminishes and removes fear.  Trust God and fear diminishes.  This is the gift that Jesus offers in this Gospel.

We can distinguish three particular aspects of  anxiety that Jesus sets forth: The Problem of Possessions, the Problem of Paternity, and the Problem of Priority. Let’s look at each and see how the Lord want to free us from them.

1. The Problem of Possessions – The text says, No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. Mammon is variously understood as riches, greed, or possession. In an extended sense, it can refer to the agenda of the world which is focused essentially on material things and which ties our dignity only to those things.

Whose slave are you? The Lord is clear that we cannot serve mammon  if we wish to serve God. The Greek word translated here as “serve” is δουλεύειν (douleuein) which more specifically means to “serve as a slave.”  We tend to miss the strength of the text when we miss the slavery aspect. For it may happen in our culture that one serves in a job or some capacity yet, after work hours, goes home and is free of obligations. Hence we tend to figure we CAN serve God and mammon. But the Greek here speaks, not of a mere servant,  but a slave. And a slave is wholly given over to the will of another. The Greek thus is more intense than the English.

What the Lord is saying is, Look, you’re either going to be a slave of the Lord or you’re going to be a slave of the world.”  And the honest truth is that most people are a slave of the world, a slave of mammon, riches, greed and the agendas associated with it. These worldly things tend to completely overwhelm us and then, when we hear of some demand of God, we feel overwhelmed, even angry that something “more” is required of us. Our anger at God is a sign that we are a slave to mammon.

We are usually too proud to admit that we are slaves of the world, but the fact is most of us are, to a large extent. The world and its demands press on us, and take up nearly all the oxygen in our life. It is this terrible slavery that is a huge source of our anxiety and  from which the Lord offers to free us.  The Lord’s describes the anxieties that flow from slavery to Mammon, to the world, it’s riches and agenda:

I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink,  or about your body, what you will wear….. Why are you anxious about clothes? Do not worry and say, What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’

Still anxious! For us who live in the Western World, the anxieties about merely HAVING such things may have receded a bit. We are well supplied and may not worry IF we will have clothes, food etc. But even having them in abundance, still we obsessively worry them. For example, we worry if we have the right clothes, if they are in fashion, if they look good on us, etc. We worry that we eat too much salt, too much fat, indeed, many are quite obsessed about what they eat. We have never lived so long, and so healthy, and yet we have never been so anxious about our health! It’s amazing when you think of it, we have plenty of food and still we worry about food! Worry, worry, worry.  Anxiety about these things is a sign that we are slaves to them. Scripture says, but as for the rich, their abundance permits them no sleep. (Eccles 5:12)

What the Lord offers us here to live his life in us so that we will not be slaves to mammon, but slaves to him. We may not like the image of slavery, but I have news for you: We are so small and powerless, we are going to be slaves of someone. It might as well be the Lord. Being wholly devoted to the Lord and what pleases him breaks our obsession with the world, money, possessions, popularity, fashion and the like.

As the Lord’s life and His will begin  to replace our own life and will, our obsession with the world’s demands diminishes and it’s power is broken. As we grow in  to a deeper relationship with the Lord, our ties and concerns with worldly agendas fade. And as the ties are broken the anxiety diminishes.

You and I, in our flesh are not going to stop worrying. But the Lord, living his life in us, isn’t worried at all. And as His power and influence over us grows, the worries lessen,  the anxiety goes.

This is the gift the Lord is offering if we but let him take greater possession of our hearts. How do we do this? Through the medicine of prayer, sacraments, daily doses of scripture and spiritual reading. Gradually the Lord’s heart, mind, and will transform our heart, mind and will to be like his own.

2.  The Problem of Paternity  – The Lord Jesus wants to draw us to deeper relationship with his Father. It remains a common spiritual problem that, even those who develop something of a relationship with Jesus, still find the Eternal Father to be distant or remote. To many, the Father is a stranger. They have surely heard of Him and read of Him in the Scriptures. But he is stranger. Some even have a sort of fear of him. There are Old Testament texts that may come to mind, or perhaps some people struggle because their earthly Father was either stern or remote. Whatever the problem, the Lord Jesus want to lead to us His Father. Note that the phrase, “your heavenly Father” occurs twice in this passage and four times in Chapter 6 overall. There are two other references to the Father as “God” in today’s gospel, and,  it is in Chapter 6 of Matthew, that Jesus teaches us the “Our Father.”

Now all of these references to the Father, in close proximity to the invitation, “do not worry,” cannot be overlooked. There is a to be seen here an antidote to anxiety in having a closer relationship with the Heavenly Father. Our Heavenly Father knows what we need.  He cares for birds and flowers and countless other things, and thus he is able and willing to care for us. To embrace and experience His love for us is to experience a lessening in anxiety.

Perhaps an illustration will help. When I was six years old, I had something of a fear that someone would break in to our home, or that perhaps something bad would happen in the night. But when my Father was home I did not have these fears. In 1968 he left for Vietnam and was gone a year. In that year I had an extended bout of on-going fear that something bad might happen in the night. Daddy was gone and I felt unsafe. But in 1969 he returned and my fears went away. I did not cause them to go away. It was not an act of the will on my part, that was able to dismiss my fears. It was simply this, Daddy was home.

And thus, you and I may not simply be able to dismiss our fears and anxieties by a simple act of the will. But, to the degree that our “Daddy-God” is near, and we feel his presence, our fears just go away.

Here is a critical gift that Jesus wants to give us: a deep, personal experience of, and love for his Father. It is our perceived distance from the Father that causes our anxiety. But when we experience that our Heavenly Father “knows what we need,” we experience our fears melting away.

Seek this gift from Jesus that his Father will be known and loved by you, that His presence will be close at hand. And then, watch your fears melt away. The Lord Jesus can do this for us.  Take time and slowly read the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15), and realize that the parable is really about the Father, more than the sons. Jesus is saying, “This is what my Father is like.”

3.  The Problem of Priority. The Text says,  But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides. One of our greatest struggles is to have proper priorities and, in the end, to do just one thing. This third matter is not unlike the first but it is more about choices and directions rather than things and allegiances.

The simple truth is that we have a lot of trouble deciding what is most important and how to make good decisions. This causes a lot of grief and anxiety for us. We want too many things. We want to please too many people. We are too easily distracted from our goal. In many ways we have not even fully clarified our goal.

What is it that you want? What is the one thing that really guides every other thing you do? Now be honest! You may say “God.” You may say “the world” or “the career.”  But the fact is, a lot of people don’t really have a clear answer as to what the one thing they want is. The fact is they want a lot of things,  and have never really sat down and reflectively determined the one, over-arching goal of their life. And thus they run about, chasing butterflies and experiencing lots of anxiety.

Imagine a man driving north to New York from Philadelphia. And he knows this is his destination. Along the way he sees lots of signs but is able to quickly determine which ones pertain to his journey, and which ones are to be ignored. If he sees a sign that says, 95 South Baltimore, he is able to simply ignore the sign and experiences no anxiety about it at all.

But now imagine another man who is not sure where he is going. It may be New York, or maybe somewhere else. He just isn’t all that sure. Frankly, he hasn’t thought about it all that much and just sort of lets life happen. Now HE sees the sign 95 South Richmond and struggles to know if he should take it or not. The sign makes him anxious. It is a fork in the road and he is not sure what to do. Should he take it, or not? And even if he does finally make a choice, he wonders if he did the right thing. His choice only heightens his anxiety. He made a choice but keeps looking back, second-guessing and wondering. Yes, he is anxious, for he has not sought first to determine his real destination.

Many live this way today. They have no real priority, no definite choice.  And even if they have some vague direction (e.g. “I want to be happy”) they have little idea what it really takes to get there. And frankly, they don’t want to know the specifics all that much. Commitments and decisions are eschewed. But, strangely, in trying to avoid a decision or commitment, they are not less anxious, they are more anxious. Every intersection is bewildering: “What should I do?”

Now the Lord wants to save us all this anxiety and thus offers us the grace to become clear about what we want and where we are going. As He begins to live his life more fully in us, our mind gets clearer, our heart desires with greater clarity.  When Jesus’ own life begins to replace our own, we want what He wants. And he wants the Kingdom and its values. He loves his Father and everyone and everything His Father loves.

And so do we. By grace and by degrees the Lord begins to change us, to clarify things for us and increasingly our life becomes about only one thing: “That I want to die and leave this world loving God and his kingdom….That I want to be him forever.”

Received, not achieved – In all three of these areas please remember that the Lord is not merely saying to us that,  by our own flesh power, we must serve only God, experience Him as Father (Abba), and seek first the Kingdom of God. If it depends on us, it will last twenty minutes (max).

No, what the Lord is doing here is painting a picture of the transformed human person, and what we will increasingly experience if we let him live his life in us and transform us by stages. This work begins in us and continues when we get on our knees and beg the Lord to do it. It begins and continues when we are serious about having a steady diet of prayer, scripture, Church teaching, Sacraments, Holy Mass and holy fellowship.

Now if you want to just stay anxious and fretful, fine, you can have all my turns. But, if you seek serenity, then ask the Lord into your life, re-invite him every day. Stay faithful to spiritual practices. And if you do, I promise you (I am a witness), you will see anxieties lessen, fears abate, serenity grow and confidence strengthen. The choice is yours.

This video illustrates the Scripture: but as for the rich, their abundance permits them no sleep. (Eccles 5:12)

And this Video speaks of the doing just one thing (pardon the slight profanity):

The Cycle of Violence and Retribution Ends With Me – A Meditation on the Gospel for the 7th Sunday of the Year

In today’s Gospel the Lord is teaching us, by his grace, to break the cycle of retribution and hatred. When someone harms me I may well experience anger. And in my anger I may well seek to get back at the offender. If I do that, then Satan has two victories and brought the anger and retribution to a new level. And most likely the one who originally harmed me will take exception to my retribution and inflict more harm on me. And so the cycle continues and escalates. Satan loves this.

Break the Cycle – But the Lord has dispatched us on to the field to turn the game around and break the cycle of retribution and hatred. In effect the “play” he wants us to execute is the “it ends with me” play.

Don’t Play on Satan’s Team – To simply hate those who hate me and get back at those who harm me is to work for Satan, to play on his team. Why do that?

To advance the ball for Jesus is to break the cycle of retribution and hatred by taking the hit and not returning it. By loving our enemy, we break the cycle of hate. By refusing retribution, we rob Satan of a double victory.

Recall the words of Dr. Martin Luther King:

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction….The chain reaction of evil – hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars – must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation. (From Strength to Love, 1963)

Christ, living in us, wants to break the cycle.

The Necessity of Grace – Recall as well a point made in last Sunday’s reflection that these  antitheses are pictures of the transformed human person. Jesus is describing here what happens to a person in whom he has begun to live, through his Holy Spirit. As such the verses that follow are a description before they are prescription. Jesus is not merely saying, “Stop being so thin-skinned, so easily offended, and so retaliatory. Stop hating people.”  If that were the case we could easily be discouraged by these verses or merely write them off as some impossible ideal. No, the Lord is doing something far greater than giving us moralisms. He is describing what will increasingly happen to us as his grace transforms us.

With this in mind, let’s look at the particulars in Three Sections.

I. The first of the antitheses reads:

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on the  right cheek, turn the other one to him as well. If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles. Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.

Behind this text is the gift from the Lord of a generous heart. Ps 118:32 says In the ways of your precepts I run O Lord for you have enlarged my heart. It takes a large heart not retaliate, to go the extra mile, to give alms. The transformed mind and heart which Jesus gives is like this. It is a large heart, able to endure personal slights, and attacks, to refuse to retaliate. A large heart that easily lets go of personal possessions in pursuit of a higher goal. This is the essential vision of this antithesis.

That said, there are surely many questions that arise out of these sayings of Jesus. Most of these questions, however, emerge from seeing the Sermon as legal prescription rather than a descriptive example. Nevertheless, these are important questions.

  1. What does it mean to offer no resistance to injury?
  2. Does this mean that there is no place for a criminal justice system?
  3. Should police forces be banned?
  4. It there no place for national defense? An Armed Forces?
  5. Should all punishment be banned?
  6. Should bad behavior never be rebuked?
  7. Am I required to let go of anything anyone asks for?
  8. Do I always have to give away my money to beggars?
  9. Is it always wise to give someone whatever they ask for?
  10. Is it wise for me always to agree to help in every task that is asked of me?

To answer some of these questions, we do well to recall that the Lord is speaking to us as individuals. Therefore, the State, which has an obligation to protect the innocent from foes within and without, may be required to use force to repel threats. Further, the State has an obligation to secure basic justice and may therefore be required to assign punishment for crimes committed. This has been the most common Catholic understanding of this text.

Pacifists, however, differ with the traditional approach and see in this antithesis of Jesus a prohibition of all restraint of evil through any physical repulsion. This would preclude, for most of them,  any recourse to the use of military and any use of armed police.

In answer to this, it will be noted that Scripture does not condemn military service in any explicit sense. Nor does it deny the right of the State to confer punishment. Consider some of the following New Testament references:

  1. Luke 3:14  – Soldiers also asked him (John the Baptist), “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.” – Note that John does not tell them to leave the military.
  2. Roman soldiers often interacted with Jesus, New Testament texts often mention them (Mat 8, 27, Mark 15, Luke 7, 23, Acts 10 inter alia ) In no place are they condemned or is their military service called into question by Jesus.
  3. In John’s gospel Jesus acknowledges Pilate’s authority (even though he exercises it wrongly). Pilate therefore said to him, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” Jesus answered him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above; therefore he who delivered me to you has the greater sin.” (Jn 19:11)
  4. Paul acknowledges the power and right of the state to punish criminals even with capital punishment: Rom13:1ff  – Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of him who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.

Hence the New Testament does seem to accept that the state does have punitive powers for the common good.

But don’t miss the main point of Jesus – The more likely understanding of this antithesis is that Jesus speaks to us as individuals and testifies that, to the degree that we are transformed, we will not seek to retaliate or avenge personal injuries. Rather, due to our relationship with God the Father we will be content to leave such matters to God. As scripture testifies: Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Rom 12:19) Further and even more importantly, to the degree that Jesus lives in us we will simply be less easily offended at all. This is because our sense of our dignity is rooted in him, not what some mere mortal thinks, says or does.

Jesus goes on to give four examples of what he means by us becoming less vengeful and retaliatory:

  1. When someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other one to him as well. – Being struck with the back of the hand was in ancient times (even now) a sign of disrespect. There is an intended humiliation when one strikes us on the cheek. But take note what Jesus does here! In the ancient world one struck with the left hand and this meant that being struck on one’s right cheek was to be struck with the inside of the hand. But, in turning the other cheek one would then be struck with the outside of the hand of the striker. This was an even worse indignity in the ancient world!  But for the Christian in whom Christ is really living: who can really dishonor me? God is the source of my dignity, and no one can take it from me. By this grace I can let it pass since I have not, in fact, been stripped of my dignity. The world did not give me my dignity and the world cannot take it away. From this perspective Jesus is not offering us merely the grace to endure indignity, but the grace not to suffer or expereince indignity at all.
  2. If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well. – It was forbidden in ancient times to take the tunic of a person in pledge for a loan. Thus Jesus would seem to be using this example as a symbol for our rights. There are some people who are forever standing on their rights to this or that. They clutch their privileges and will not let them go even if the common good would require it. They will militantly go to law rather than suffer any infringement upon them. The true Christian thinks more of duties than rights, more of responsibilities than privileges. All this personal honor stuff etc. is unimportant when Christ lives in us. There are, to be sure, some rights necessary for the completion of our duties or for meeting our basic needs. It is unlikely Jesus has this in mind to forbid. But, as a general rule, Jesus is indicating that we can be freed of our obsession over “my rights,” “my dignity,” and also  “my stuff.” We can be increasingly freed of anger when someone might even think to touch anything that is “mine.” The more we are detached from earthly possessions the less we get anxious or angry when these mere things are somehow threatened or used without our permission, or when our highly refined and dainty sense of our rights are trampled upon.
  3. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles. – It was legal for a Roman solider to press a person into service for one mile to carry things etc. Here too, some might be bent out of shape over such indignities. Jesus offers us a generous heart that will go the extra mile. Jesus came as the servant of all and as one who came to serve rather than be served. To the degree that he lives in us, we will willingly serve and not feel slighted that someone might have asked us to do something. Neither will we cop the “why me” attitude that commonly afflicts the ungenerous soul. The key gift here is a generous heart even when others do not always justly assign us our work or appreciate our efforts. This is of little concern for us since we work for God.
  4. Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow. – Here too many questions arise related to indiscriminate giving. In some cases it may not be the wise thing to give money simply because someone asks. But don’t miss the main point here. The bottom line is that, when Jesus lives in us, we will be more generous. We will give cheerfully and assist others gladly. We will not be bent out of shape that someone has asked us for help. We may not always be able to help but our generous heart will not begrudge the beggar and we will remain cheerful in his presence and treat him or her with respect.

Here then is a description of a  transformation of the mind and heart. We will view things differently. Not be so easily bent out of shape, retaliatory, vengeful. We will be more patient, more generous, less grasping, more giving. This is what happens when we live in a transformative relationship with Jesus.

II. The next antithesis is perhaps the most radical of all:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same?

Here is the acid test, the hallmark of a true Christian: the love of one’s enemy. Note that Lord links this to being a true child of God. Why? Because God loves everyone and gives gifts of sun and rain to all. If then we are a “chip off the old block,” we will do the same. Anybody loves those who love them. But a Christian is fulfilling the Law and exceeding it.

If Christ lives in us then we will love even our enemy. Recall that Jesus loved us even when we hated him and killed him: And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:34) Further: While we were his enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son (Rom 5:10)

We should be careful not to make love an abstraction. The Lord is talking about a real transformation of our hearts here. Sometimes we say dopey things like, “You don’t have to like everyone but you have to love them.” This turns love into something of an abstraction. God doesn’t just love me, he even likes me. The Lord is talking about a deep love that wills good things for the enemy. And more than willing good things, even works toward them.

We are called to have a compassion, understanding, even affection for those who hate us and will us evil. We may wonder how this can happen in us. How can we have affection for those who hate us?! Yet it can be so when Christ lives his life in us. We will good and do good to them who hate us just as Jesus did.

It is also important not to sentimentalize this love. Jesus loved his enemies (us) but did not coddle us. He spoke the truth to the Scribes and Pharisees of his day often forcefully and uncompromisingly. We are called to a strong love which wants the truth for everyone. Yet this testimony is also given with understanding and true (not false) compassion.

III. Finally the Lord says,

So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Here is the fundamental summary: God-like perfection! Nothing less will do. How could there be anything less when Christ lives his life in us? To the degree that he lives in us and the old Adam dies, we become perfect. This is the state of the Saints in Heaven: they have been made perfect. Christ’s work in them is complete. The Greek word here is τέλειός (Teleios) which means complete or perfect. Thus, the emphasis here is on the completion of a work in us more than a mere excellence in performance. Hence Paul writes to the Philippians: And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. (Phil 1:6)

This sentence also serves as an open-ended conclusion to the antitheses. Almost as if Jesus says, These have only been a few examples I have given you. The point is to be perfect, complete in every way, totally transformed in your mind, heart and behavior.

And thus we return to the original theme, It ends with me. In these final two antitheses the Lord wants to break the cycle of anger, retribution and violence. He wants the downward spiral of hatred and vengeance to end with me. When, on account of his grace I do not retaliate, I break the cycle. When I do not escalate the bitterness or return spite, when I refuse to allow hate to take possession of me, the cycle ends with me. Only God can do this for me.

But He does do it. I promise you in the Lord Jesus Christ that the Lord can deliver usfrom anger, wrath, vengefulness, pettiness and the like. I promise you because he is doing it in me. I do not boast, I am only saying what the Lord has done. I have been largely delivered from my anger which once was a major struggle. It is not any longer. I did not deliver myself. Jesus did. The promise the Lord here is true. Only God can do it. And He has said it, and he will do it, if we let him.

This song says,  I Look to you. After all my strength is gone, in you I can be strong. I look to you!