By His resurrection, Jesus has brought us from death to life. He has snatched us from this present evil age (Gal 1:4) and from the death-directed desires of our body (Rom 6:12), and made us into a new and living creation (2 Cor 5:17). As such, we have exchanged the tombstones that once indicated we were dead in our sins and have become living stones in the spiritual edifice that is the Body of Christ and also the Church.
In the Epistle for today’s Mass (1 Peter 2:4-9), we are summoned to this new life and told what some of its characteristics are. Let’s take a look at how we go from being tombstones to living stones by considering this text in three sections.
1. The Call of Salvation –Come to him, a living stone, rejected by human beings but chosen and precious in the sight of God, and, like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house.
Notice first the invitation that is made: Come to Him! Let yourself be built! The entire Christian life is based on our response to an invitation to accept Jesus Christ and to let Him transform our life. We are to say, “yes,” not only to Jesus, but also to what He can do for us. He will take our broken, crumbling lives and rebuild them. In what sense will He do this? Two images are offered:
Living Stones – A stone is an odd image for life. There doesn’t seem to be anything less living than a stone! What does it mean to be a “living stone”? First, it means to be alive, to be full of life! Second, it means that some of the better qualities of stone are to be ours. A stone is firm, weighty, not easily moved, and able to withstand a heavy load. Thus we too are to be strong and firm in our faith, not easily moved about by the currents of the world or tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes (Eph 4:14). Stable and firm, we are also able to carry the weight and bear the difficulties imposed by this world. We are able to support and carry others in their time of need, sharing their burdens. Yes, living stones—strong, firm, not easily moved, and alive, quite alive!
A Spiritual House – The image implies that in a spiritual sense, we as living stones make up the walls of the Church. We are fitted together like stones into a wall that is strong and sure. We are not saved merely unto ourselves, but also for the sake of others. By God’s grace, we depend upon one another, each of us carrying his share of the burden. Each stone in the wall does its part. Remove one stone and the whole wall is weakened. Only together is the wall solid and sure.
2. The Choice for Salvation – whoever believes in it shall not be put to shame. Therefore, its value is for you who have faith, but for those without faith: The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone, and a stone that will make people stumble, and a rock that will make them fall. They stumble by disobeying the word, as is their destiny.
Simply put, we have a choice to make. That choice will determine if Jesus is the cornerstone who supports us or a stumbling block over which we trip and fall. It is an interesting phenomenon that when a person is being rescued at sea, sometimes the victim will reach out and grab the life ring that is tossed to them, while others will resist attempts to save them, seeing it as something that will further endanger them.
What is meant by the “cornerstone”? It usually brings to mind a ceremonial stone with an inscription and possibly some historical things embedded. Here, though, it refers more to the stone at the bottom of an arch or the row of bricks that supports the whole arch. It had to be a very carefully crafted stone since all the other stones depended on its integrity and perfect shape to support them. This is Jesus Christ for us. We are all leaning on Him; He is the perfect stone who carries our weight.
But for those who reject Christ, He is a stone over which they trip and fall. Surely Jesus wants to save us all, but some reject Him and for them He becomes a stumbling block. We cannot remain neutral about Jesus. We must decide one way or the other about Him: yes means salvation; no means condemnation. He will either be a cornerstone or a stumbling block; there is no third way. To those who knowingly reject Him, He is a stumbling block. This image also explains some of the venomous attacks on Christ and Christianity from the world. When one trips over something and falls, one tends to curse what caused the fall.
The choice is ours. May it be Christ and may He be our cornerstone—the only One on whom we can lean and rely with certainty. Only this will take us from being tombstones to living stones.
3. The Characteristics of Salvation – You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people of his own, so that you may announce the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.
Notice four characteristics of those who are no longer tombstones, but are living stones:
Our Pedigree – The text calls us a “chosen race.” We’ve reflected on making Christ our choice, but here we are reminded that before we chose Him, He chose us. If we received an invitation to the White House, many of us would feel that we had “made it” and would proudly tell our friends of the great honor. Yet we take little notice that we are chosen by God and invited to the great Wedding Feast of the Lamb. Yes, we are chosen; we have a pedigree. We are of the household of God. This is greater than any worldly dignity and it is able to overcome any indignity that the world heaps upon us.
Our Priesthood – Each of us who is baptized into Christ Jesus is made priest, prophet, and king. This “royal” priesthood, while different from the ministerial priesthood, has this similarity: every priest is enabled to offer a sacrifice pleasing to God. In the Old Testament, priests offered up something distinct from them, usually an animal. But in the priesthood of Jesus Christ, the priest and the victim are one and the same. Jesus offered Himself. All of the baptized are equipped by God to offer the pleasing sacrifice of their very selves to God. Here is a very great dignity given to us by Jesus: to have a perfect right to stand in His Father’s presence, praise Him, and offer a fitting sacrifice. Only ministerial priests of the Church can bring us the sacraments, but all baptized believers share in the royal priesthood, wherein they freely offer themselves to God.
Our Place – The text calls us a “holy nation.” To be holy means to be set apart. Hence we are called out from among the many to be a people that is set apart for God. While all are invited to Christ, only those who accept the invitation receive the grace to be called a holy nation. As such, we should understand that our role is not to “fit in” with this sin-soaked world, but rather to stand apart from it, to be recognizably distinct from it. Our behavior, priorities, love, joy, and charity should be obvious to all. To be a holy nation is a great honor, but also a great responsibility. May this curse of Scripture never be said about us: As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Rom 2:24).
Our Proclamation – The text says that the Lord has acted in our life so that you may announce the praises of him, who called you out of darkness into his own, wonderful light. Yes, the Lord has been good to us and is changing our lives! If you are faithful, then you know what He has done for you and you have a testimony to give. Scripture says that we were made for the praise of his glory (Eph 1:6). Do people hear you praise the Lord? Have you glorified His name among the Gentiles? (Rom 15:9) Do people know of your gratitude? Have they heard of your witness to the Lord? Can you articulate how God has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light? You ought to be a witness for the Lord! This is a necessary characteristic of those who are no longer tombstones, but living stones.
As winter approaches and we approach the end of the liturgical year, we ponder the passing quality of this world and the fading of its glories. Jesus’ words in the gospel today must surely have shocked, even horrified, his Apostles. Let’s look at His stunning words and seek to apply them in our own life.
The Place of this Gospel – As we complete the liturgical year, we find Jesus standing just outside of Jerusalem. In the last two months we have followed Him on His final journey: leaving Galilee, heading south along the Jordan River, passing through Jericho, and now making the nearly 2000 foot ascent to Jerusalem.
In today’s gospel, Jesus is at the top of the Mount of Olives with His Apostles. From this vantage point, they look across the Kidron Valley to the magnificent Temple and all of Jerusalem spread out before them. The Apostles marvel at the glorious beauty of the Temple. Its large, perfectly carved, white ashlar stones, gilded in gold, gleam like the sun. Indeed, it was one of the wonders of the ancient world, so beautiful and majestic.
But Jesus challenges their admiration. He shocks them with the admonition that all the glory they see is soon to be destroyed, that not one stone will be left on another, that it will all be thrown down (Mk 13:2). Shocked, the Apostles ask Him when this will happen and what signs will precede this awful event.
In what has become known as “Mount Olivet discourse,” the Lord warns, in great detail, of the coming destruction of the Temple and indeed of all Jerusalem. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all contain similar descriptions of what Jesus said on the Mount of Olives, overlooking Jerusalem in her glorious heyday.
Jesus warns of wars and rumors of wars. He speaks of a time in the near future when nation will rise against nation and a terrible conflict will ensue. In effect, He warns His disciples and their followers to have nothing to do with the coming wars. He tells them that when they see Jerusalem being surrounded by an army they should know that her destruction is at hand. If someone is on his rooftop he should not to go back into the house to gather his possessions; he should get out while the getting is good. If someone is out in the field he must not reenter the city of Jerusalem, but must flee to the hills. Jerusalem is doomed for its lack of faith and zealots are picking up the war with the Romans that they are destined to lose (Luke 21, Matt 24, Mark 13).
All of this leads us to today’s gospel (from the Mount Olivet discourse), which picks up in the middle. Jesus warns of days of tribulation, when the sun will be darkened, the moon not give its light, and the stars will fall from the sky!
In reading a text like this, we must not fall prey to an overly literal interpretation. Jesus is using prophetic language, a way of speaking that is meaningful, but not to be understood scientifically or literally. Stars cannot actually fall from the sky.
If I were to say, “The world has been turned upside down,” you wouldn’t expect that if you looked back toward Earth from outer space you would actually see Australia at the top and North America at the bottom of your view. If I were to say, “It’s raining cats and dogs,” you wouldn’t expect to look out your window and see animals coming down from the sky and landing on the front lawn. Although I’m speaking figuratively, you understand what I mean.
And so it is with Jesus’ use of prophetic imagery. Speaking of the heavenly luminaries as being darkened or cast down is a prophetic way of saying that all the fixed points, all the ways in which we tell time, know the seasons, navigate, and find perspective will be lost to us! The world as the Jewish people know it, centered on the Temple and rooted in their liturgical calendar, is about to be swept away. To the ancient Jewish people, the Temple was like their “Big Ben.” It was both the clock of the liturgical cycle and the great visual center of all of Israel.
The Lord is teaching them that what they see as the central hub of all they do is about to be taken away. The Temple, with all of its rituals, its liturgical cycle, and its endless slaughter of animals in sacrifice for sin, is about to be replaced. These ancient rituals merely pointed to Jesus and all that He would do. Jesus is now the Temple; He is also the Lamb Sacrifice. All that the Temple pointed to is fulfilled in Jesus. Thus the Temple is at an end. Jesus is ushering in a New Covenant.
In the Mount Olivet discourse, Jesus prophesies the end of the Temple, which will take place in a biblical 40 years. Sure enough, 40 years later (in A.D. 70), the Roman Army, after having surrounded Jerusalem for a period of 3 1/2 months, breached the walls, poured into the city, and destroyed the Temple and all of Jerusalem. In this epic battle, according to Josephus, 1.2 million Jewish people lost their lives. As Jesus prophesied, not one stone was left on another. According to Josephus, so complete was the destruction of Jerusalem, that when the Romans had finished their work it was not clear that the city had ever existed.
So this is the place of this gospel, a place of epic significance in the ancient world. An era of 1000 years was coming to an end. The world as the Jewish people knew it was ending. The Temple has never been rebuilt; it has been replaced by a Judaism without sacrifice, a rabbinic, a synagogue system. In 2000 years, despite several attempts, the Jewish Temple has never been rebuilt. Everything Jesus predicted came to pass. This is the historical place and context of this gospel.
But what does all of this mean for us, some 2000 years later? Let’s consider three basic themes.
I. The Perspective of Passing – Toward the end of this gospel, the Lord says, Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. Note the definitiveness of this statement: this world will pass away. That is to say, all of the things that impress us at the current moment: the “biggie-wow” stuff of this world, the impressiveness of the powerful, the influence of the popular, the glory of all the glitterati; all of this will pass away.
Indeed, even now it is passing away; its destruction is at hand. Scripture says,
The world in its present form is passing away (1 Cor 7:31).
We have here, no lasting city (Heb 13:14).
Put not your trust in princes, in mortal men in whom there is no hope. Take their breath, they return to clay, and their plans that day come to nothing (Psalm 146:3-4).
Yes, all of the glory, even what seems beautiful and fair, is passing away. Don’t be so impressed with this world’s offerings. All of it—no matter how powerful, influential, or sturdy it may seem—is slated for destruction. It is already passing away.
Some years ago I was in a museum and in one of the exhibits saw a photograph of a family from about the 1880s. At the bottom of the photo was this inscription: “My family, as it appeared for a brief time last summer.” A poignant caption. I thought of the people in that photo and concluded that every one of them was now dead. I also knew that the house in front of which the photo was taken had long since been destroyed, replaced by an expanding city district of buildings. All is passing; nothing remains here for long.
Painful though this perspective may be, it is important and healing. It brings with it a kind of strange serenity. Like every truth, the truth that all things are passing sets us free. Internalizing the truth that, As for man, his days, or the flower of the field are like the grass. The wind blows, and he is gone, and his place never sees him anymore (Psalm 130:15-16), painful though it may be, brings a kind of strange serenity. In this truth we are reminded not to set down too many roots here so that we are not resentful when this world passes away.
II. The Permanence Proclaimed – The Lord tells us that His words will not pass away. So although the world will pass away, the truth and the Word of God will remain forever.
Too many people root their lives in passing, ephemeral things. The challenge for us is to root our lives in the Word of God, which remains forever. Worldly glories, power, access, and wealth—all these things fade and disappear. But God’s wisdom and His plan remain forever.
Consider, for a moment, the Church. The Lord has said that the forces of Hell would strive to prevail, overpower, and destroy the Church. But the Lord promised that such attempts would never be successful (Matt 16:18). The Church is indefectible, by God’s Word, by His promise. No weapons, no war waged against the Church, will prevail.
In all of this the Lord has been proven true. The Church has the Roman Empire, the Carolingian Empire, the British Empire, the Soviet Socialist Republic, and many others rise to power only to fade and disappear.
How many heresies, how many philosophies have come and gone in the age of the Church? How many have laughed at the Church, announcing that she was passé, that her day was over, and that they would bury her? The Church has buried every one of her undertakers, outlived every one of her critics. Despite every prediction of her demise, she has persevered until this very day. By God’s grace, she has a permanence that outlasts every one of her enemies. She has read the funeral rites over every single prophet of her doom. And she will continue to do so.
In recounting all of this we do not simply gloat that an institution known as the Church has survived. Rather, we announce that the Church is the Bride of Christ and also His Body. The Church cannot be destroyed not because of human ingenuity, but on account of the power and grace of God. She will endure even though at times she will suffer, be ridiculed, or be marginalized. She will outlive every enemy. She will emerge from every persecution. She will never be removed. For the Church is the Body of Christ, the living Word of God. Though the world will pass away, the Word of the Lord will remain forever!
III. The Priority Prescribed – If this world as we know it is passing away and the Lord, His Kingdom, His Church, and His Word will remain forever, what then should be our priority? The Lord says, in effect, that we know very well what our priority should be but we willfully ignore it.
Learn a lesson from the fig tree. When its branch becomes tender and sprouts leaves, you know that summer is near. In the same way, when you see these things happening, know that he is near, at the gates.
Yes, we know very well that the Day of Judgment is coming. Too easily, though, we dream on and do not follow the prescribed priority. Wealth, fame, and glory are all uncertain and clearly passing. But death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell are certain and remain forever. We too easy fiddle on with things that are uncertain and passing while neglecting what is certain and eternal. Such foolishness!
It would be foolish to book passage on a sinking ship. Similarly, it is foolish to make this world and its demands our fundamental priority. It is wise to set our sights on, and lay hold of, the Kingdom that lasts forever.
It is sad that so many spend people their time “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” of this world. It is tragic how much time, effort, and passion we spend on things that are pass through our fingers like sand. So much of our effort is expended on furthering our career, amassing wealth, and enlarging our homes. And so little is spent on improving our spiritual life.
Parents spend more time worrying about what college their children will attend than where they will spend eternity. If their child is failing math, they will go to great lengths to hire tutors to improve his test scores. But never mind that the child barely knows the four Gospels, the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament, or even who Adam and Eve were. Never mind all that; we need to make sure they understand polynomials! It is fine that parents care about math scores and college venues, but how sad it is that eternal things often go unattended.
The greatest duty of parents is to prepare their children for eternity. But far more time and effort is often spent preparing them for passing things like a career. While education and career are important, eternal life is far more so. A son or daughter may graduate from Harvard Law School and become a famous attorney yet still go to Hell!
What are our priorities? Frankly, most of our priorities are not things that matter to God. Even if we attain the passing things we strive for, they will all ultimately slip through our fingers. We obsess over passing things like our physical health while neglecting enduring things like our spiritual health. We should care for our bodies, but even more should we care for our souls. If we would expend as much effort looking for a place and time to pray as we do looking for a restaurant and making a reservation to eat, we would be spiritual heavyweights rather than physically overweight.
In today’s gospel the Lord stands before the Temple: an impressive building, a symbol of power and of worldly glories. But impressed though the Apostles are, the Lord is not impressed with passing things. He counsels us to get our priorities straight and to focus on things that last: His Word, which never passes away, and our ultimate destiny, where we will spend eternity.
We find time for everything else, why not prayer, Scripture, fellowship in the Church, and the sacraments?
What are your priorities? Be honest, now, be honest.
This world is passing away. Far more essential for us than power, prestige, money, possessions, worldly philosophies, and the latest trends, is the Word of the Lord, which never passes away.
The world will laugh and say that God’s word is out-of-date, old-fashioned, or even hateful, bigoted, and intolerant. But in the end, time will prove where wisdom is. Long after the current critics of the Church, those who scorn the teachings of the Lord in the Scriptures and the Church, have passed on, the Church will still be here preaching Christ and Him crucified.
None of this is meant to sound triumphalist. It is simply rooted in a Word of truth that the Lord spoke long ago on a hillside overlooking glorious buildings soon to be reduced to rubble and an age soon to pass away. He said simply this: Heaven and earth will pass away but my words will not pass away.
In the end, Jesus wins. I know because I checked the end of the story. You can look it up (Rev 20-23). Get on the winning team. Stop trying to amass a treasure here that you can’t keep anyway.
The first reading in today’s Mass, from 1st Kings, speaks to us of the paradox of poverty. And the paradox is this: it is often our poverty, our neediness, that provides a doorway for God to bless us with true riches. It is our emptiness that provides room for God to go to work.
Yes, in our riches we have “too much to lose.” To the rich and worldly minded, the Gospel seems too demanding. But in our poverty, emptiness, and detachment from this world, there comes a strange and unexpected freedom that makes it easier to step out in faith. And stepping out in faith is the only thing that can save us.
Yes, poverty brings a kind of freedom. You can’t steal from a man who owns nothing. You can’t threaten a woman who has nothing to lose. You can’t kill someone who has already died to this world.
Are you poor enough to be free? There’s a strange blessing in poverty. Let’s look at today’s first reading to see how poverty can usher in unexpected blessings.
I. The Desire Portrayed – In the first reading, the prophet Elijah encounters a widow at a city named Zarephath, a name that means “refining fire.” In those days, Elijah the prophet went to Zarephath. As he arrived at the entrance of the city, a widow was gathering sticks there; he called out to her.
Both Elijah and the woman are hungry, for there is famine in the land. But Elijah, as God’s prophet, speaks not only for himself, but also for God when he asks this very poor woman to share her meager food. For, truth be told, God has a desire, a hunger for us. The woman, too, as many desires, but her desires need to be purified in this place called “refining fire.”
Her hunger for earthly food must be seen as a symbol of a deeper hunger, a hunger for communion with God. At some point, our hunger must meet God’s hunger—and that point is Holy Communion. It is the place where our hunger for God and God’s hunger for us meet and we find serenity. Every other hunger only points to this deeper hunger; every other food is but a cruel and temporary morsel until this deeper hunger is satisfied.
Thus, two people meet at a place called “refining fire.” It is desire that has drawn them, a desire that is ultimately satisfied only in God.
II. The Dimensions of Poverty – When Elijah makes his request, the woman articulates her poverty: “Please bring me a small cupful of water to drink.” She left to get it, and he called out after her, “Please bring along a bit of bread.” She answered, “As the LORD, your God, lives, I have nothing baked; there is only a handful of flour in my jar and a little oil in my jug. Just now I was collecting a couple of sticks, to go in and prepare something for myself and my son; when we have eaten it, we shall die.”
We may wonder why God allows poverty and suffering. A partial answer is because there is such a grave risk in riches and comfort. The Lord is well aware of how hard it is for the wealthy and comfortable to enter the Kingdom of God. In riches we trust in ourselves, in poverty we can only trust God.
And it is only by trusting faith that we can ever be saved. And, as we have noted, there is a kind of freedom in poverty. The poor have less to lose. They can operate in wider dimensions and have a sort of freedom that the wealthy often lack.
Not only is it hard to steal from a poor man, but it also takes little to enrich him. A man who has lived in a great palace with cathedral ceilings and marble wainscoting may be discouraged with a humble domicile, whereas a poor man may be satisfied with a mere 8 x 10 room to call his own. A man who has had nothing to eat may appreciate sardines, whereas a well-fed man may need caviar to be grateful. The rich may miss many of life’s little blessings and suffer from boredom. The poor are less likely miss the brilliant color purple and delight even in small pleasures. The rich man’s world gets ever-smaller and less satisfying, while the poor man is more likely to have a wide appreciation for even the humblest things.
Here, again, is the paradox of poverty, wherein less is more, gratitude is easier to find, and losses are less painful. And, as we shall see in this passage, it is the woman’s poverty that opens her to lasting blessings. Having little to lose, she is free enough to accept the next stage of our story.
III. The Demand that is Prescribed – God’s prophet, Elijah, summons her to trusting faith: “Do not be afraid. Go and do as you propose. But first make me a little cake and bring it to me. Then you can prepare something for yourself and your son. For the LORD, the God of Israel, says, ‘The jar of flour shall not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry, until the day when the LORD sends rain upon the earth.’”
Elijah tells her not to be afraid to share. In effect, he teaches her that the Lord will not be outdone in generosity. On a merely human level, Elijah’s request may seem almost cruel. But from a spiritual perspective, Elijah is summoning her to the faith that alone can truly save her.
Notice that although she expresses a fear, it is easily overcome. Why? Again, because she has little to lose. So many of our fears boil down to a fear of loss. And the more we have, the more we have to be anxious about. We have grown quite wealthy in recent decades. And what are our chief problems these days? Fear and anxiety about loss, and the maintenance and protection of our “stuff.” Scripture says, The sleep of a laborer is sweet, whether he eats little or much, but the abundance of a rich man permits him no sleep (Eccl 5:12). The wealthier we have become, the more we spend on psychotherapy and psychotropic drugs. We are anxious about so many things that sleepiness and stress are common problems.
We have too much stuff, too much to lose. Upon hearing Elijah’s request, most of us would call him crazy, cruel, or both. It’s a funny thing, though, this woman is free enough to take him up on his offer. How about you? How about me?
We, too, must come to realize that looking after merely our own interests will only feed us for a day. Only in openness to God and others can we procure a superabundant food, that which will draw us to life eternal.
IV. The Deliverance Produced – Having little to lose, the woman trusts in God’s Word (through Elijah) and shares her food: She was able to eat for a year, and he and her son as well; the jar of flour did not go empty, nor the jug of oil run dry, as the LORD had foretold through Elijah.
If we learn to trust God, we come to discover that He never fails. Of course it takes faith, and faith involves risk. This is where poverty can have its advantages. The woman takes the risk and shares what little she has. For her, though the risk is immediate, it is ultimately lower since she has less to lose.
And so the woman is free enough to risk it all. Her only gamble is trusting God, and God does not fail. Scripture says,
Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days (Eccles 11:1).
Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you (Luke 6:38).
And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward (Matt 10:42).
Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously (2 Cor 9:6).
Give generously to him and do so without a grudging heart; then because of this the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in everything you put your hand to (Deut 15:10).
He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward him for what he has done (Prov 19:17).
A generous man will himself be blessed, for he shares his food with the poor (Prov 22:9).
He who gives to the poor will lack nothing, but he who closes his eyes to them receives many curses (Prov 28:27).
Do you believe all this? Or are these just slogans for someone else? Well, you don’t know until you try! And if you don’t think you can try, maybe you have too much to lose.
Consider this woman who was poor enough to be free, and free enough to try the Lord. And God did not fail. God never fails. I am a witness. How about you?
Here’s a fun song reminding us that too much “stuff” will wear us out.
Today is the Feast of All Saints. Some saints of the Church have a particular day on the calendar associated with them and are commonly recognized by name. Many more, though not as familiar to us, are still known by God and have been caught up with Him to glory. Today is their day, the day of the countless multitude who have made it home to glory by God’s grace and by their “Amen” to the gracious call of God. Let’s consider these saints under three headings, based on today’s readings.
I. Their Privileged Place: The first reading today, from Revelation, speaks to us of saints: from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands. They cry out in a loud voice, “Salvation comes from our God, who is seated on the throne, and from the Lamb.” … They prostrated themselves before the throne, worshiped God, and exclaimed, “Amen. Blessing and glory, wisdom and thanksgiving, honor, power, and might be to our God forever and ever. Amen.”
Note how liturgical the description is. In fact, the most common way that Heaven is described is in liturgical imagery. The liturgy is a kind of “dress rehearsal” for Heaven. To those who find Mass “boring,” this description can be challenging.
Indeed, many people today have rather egocentric notions of Heaven. Heaven is a place where I will be happy, where I will see my family, where I will take leisure. I will have my mansion; I will no longer get sick; I can play all the golf I want, etc. Heaven is a “better place.” But this better place is generally understood in very personal terms; it’s a kind of “designer Heaven.” But Heaven is what it is, not what we conceive it to be.
As for the real Heaven, the heart of it is being with God, looking upon His glorious face and thereby having all our inexpressible longings satisfied. In Heaven, the saints behold the glorious face of God and rejoice. It is their joy to praise Him and to rejoice in His truth, goodness, and beauty.
Note, too, both the sense of communion of the saints with God and with one another. The biblical portraits present a multitude, a vast crowd. The biblical way to understand the multitudes in Heaven is not to envision physical crowding but rather deep communion. In other words, the Communion of Saints is not just a lot of people standing around talking or moving about.
St Paul teaches, So we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members, one of another (Rom 12:5). And though we experience this imperfectly here on earth, we will experience it perfectly in Heaven. As members of one another, we will have deep communion, knowing and being known in a deep and rich way. Your memories, gifts, and insights will be mine, and mine will be yours. There will be profound understanding and appreciation, a rich love, and sense of how we all complete one another and are one in Christ.
Imagine the glory of billions of new thoughts, stories, and insights that will come from being perfectly members of Christ and of one another. Imagine the peace that will come from understanding and being understood. This is deep, satisfying, wonderful communion—not crowds of strangers.
St. Augustine had in mind the wonderful satisfaction of this deep communion with God and with one another in Christ when he described Heaven as Unus Christus amans seipsum (One Christ loving Himself). This is not some selfish Christ turned in on Himself. This is Christ, the Head, in deep communion with all the members of His body. This is all the members in Christ experiencing deep mystical communion with Him and one another, all swept up into the life of the Trinity. Again, as St. Paul says, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s (1 Cor 3:23).
II. TheirPrize of Perfection:The second reading, from the First Letter of John, says, Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we shall be has not yet been revealed. We do know that when it is revealed we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.
We cannot even imagine the glory of the saints in Heaven. The Heavenly Father once said to St. Catherine that if she were ever to see a saint in his or her transformed heavenly glory, she would fall down and worship because she would think she was looking at God.
This is our future, if we are faithful. We will reflect the glory of God and be transformed by the look of love and glory. Just one look, and oh, the glory we will reflect, God’s very own glory!
Gotta make a hundred; ninety-nine and a half won’t do. And when God is through with you and me, oh, the glory!
III. The Picture to Ponder:The Gospel today (the Matthean beatitudes) sets forth a kind of picture of what sanctity looks like. The beatitudes are the description of the transformed human person; they describe what happens to us as Jesus begins to live His life in us through the Holy Spirit.
This picture is not one that merely waits for Heaven, but one that is true of us even now as we grow into the likeness of Christ.
I have written more on the beatitudes HERE and HERE. For the purposes of today’s feast, we need to acknowledge that a beatitude is not something we do but rather something we receive. A beatitude declares an objective reality as the result of a divine act.
The present indicative mood of the beatitudes should be taken seriously and not transformed into an imperative of exhortation, as though Jesus were saying, “Start being poor or meek and then God will bless you.” Rather, He is saying that when the transformative power of the cross brings about in us a greater meekness, poverty of spirit, and so forth, we will experience that we are being blessed.
Beatitude is a work of God and results when we yield to His saving work in us. We are blessed when we accept and yield to the work that God alone can do. With this understanding, we see the beatitudes not as a prescription of what we must do per se, but as a description of what a human being is like whom Jesus Christ is transforming into a saint! And this transformation is a growing, stable, deep, and serene beatitude and holiness.
Therefore, today’s feast of all saints does not merely point to the completed saints in Heaven, but to us who would be saints, not just someday in the future but beginning now and in increasing degree.
At the end there will be saints and ain’ts. Which do you choose? As for me, ninety-nine and a half won’t do. I gotta make a hundred.
Today’s gospel features the well-known story of the healing of the blind man (Bartimaeus). As when listening to any familiar story, we are inclined, upon hearing its opening lines, to think, “Oh, that story,” and just sort of tune out. But if we do so, we may miss many important details. The story of Bartimaeus is also our story; we, too, must let the Lord heal our blindness and give us sight. One paradox of this gospel is that the man receives his sight as the result of hearing.
Let’s look at this gospel in six stages.
I. The Perception of the Problem
The text says, As Jesus was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a sizable crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind man, sat by the roadside begging.
Bartimaeus has troubles; he is both blind and poor. But although he is physically blind, he is not spiritually blind. For he knows he has troubles; he knows he is blind. Knowing our troubles, being in touch with our neediness, is an important spiritual insight that many lack.
We are all so poor and needy that we depend on God for every beat of our hearts.Some people, though, feel self-satisfied, unaware of how blind, pitiable, poor, and naked they really are before God (cf Rev 3:17). In their pride, those who are spiritually blind lose this insight. They fail to ask for help from the Lord; they fail to ask for grace. Jesus said to the Pharisees, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but since you claim you can see, your guilt remains” (John 9:41). In other words, physical blindness is not their problem, spiritual blindness is. And because they think themselves righteous on their own power, they think they do not need God and do not truly seek Him. Only humility and a true “vision” and experience of our poverty can help us to call out to God as we should.
But our blind man knows that he is blind, so he calls for help. As we shall see, however, his cries for help need some direction; they need to be properly specified and directed.
So we begin by noting that though Bartimaeus is blind he has spiritual insight.
Do we have this insight? Do we really understand how blind we are? We struggle to see God; we struggle to see and understand ourselves; we struggle to see others with compassion and understanding. Indeed, God is more present to us than is anything in this world. Yet somehow we can see all the things of this world, but struggle to see God. Neither do we see our own dignity, or the dignity and the gift of others, even our enemies. We do not see or understand how things work together, and we struggle to see and find meaning in the events of our day. We are also blind to our sin and seldom fully comprehend the harm our sin does.
Yes, we have a great deal of blindness; we struggle to see. But perhaps our worst blindness is that we do not even realize how blind we are. Like the Pharisees, we think that because we know a few things, we therefore know many things.
Consider the humility of the blind man: he knows he is blind; he knows he needs help, grace, and mercy. It is this humility that opens the door. Stage one in the journey must be the perception of the problem.
II. The Proclamation that is Prescribed
The text says, On being told it was Jesus of Nazareth who was passing by, he began to cry out and say, “Jesus son of David have pity on me.”
Note the subtle but important transition here. Up until this point, Bartimaeus has been calling upon anyone passing by for help. But no mere passerby, nor in fact anyone in this world, can ultimately help him with his real problem.
It is the same with us. Though we may turn to science, medicine, philosophy, economics, or politics, none of these can really help us. At best they can serve to specify what is wrong or to provide us with temporary medicines and passing comforts. But all these solutions will be rooted in this world, which is passing away.
True vision can only be granted by the Lord, who opens for us a vision of glory and who alone can draw us safely to that place where joys will never end and visions never cease.
When the blind man is told of the presence of Jesus, he directs his cry away from just any random passerby to the Lord, who alone can heal him: Jesus, son of David, have pity on me! The world, and passersby, can give him money or perhaps a meal, but only Jesus can give him meaning, the true vision that he really needs to see.
Do not miss the fact that his seeing comes, paradoxically, through hearing. For faith comes by hearing and hearing from the Word of God (cfRom 10:17). It is a truth that faith is about hearing, not seeing. We often doubt things that we see. Even if our eyes see a marvel, we tend to dismiss it, thinking, “Oh, they have a way of doing that.” No, the eye is never satisfied with seeing (cf Eccl. 1:8). Faith comes by hearing and faith is obedience to what is heard. We walk by faith, by an inner seeing, not by physical sight.
Thus, it is by hearing that the blind man will come to see Jesus, who can help him to see. Bartimaeus hears from others that Jesus is passing by and takes up the proclamation that is prescribed: “Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me!”
III. The Perseverance that Produces
The text says, And they rebuked him, telling him to be silent. Yet he kept calling all the more, “Son of David, have pity on me!” Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.” So they called the blind man saying to him, “Take courage; get up. Jesus is calling you.”
It is true that those of us who seek to put our trust in the Lord and call on Him will often experience rebuke, hostility, and ridicule from the world. Bartimaeus ignores all of this; and so should we. He has heard the Name above all names, who alone in Heaven and earth can save, and calls upon Him.
Yes, Jesus does delay, not answering him right away. But the blind man perseveres, calling out all the more. Eventually, Jesus stops and says, “Call him.”
Why does God delay? While this is a very deep mystery, it is clear that one of the effects of His delay is to test our faith and strengthen it. In the end, it is not an incantation that saves us, but faith. Simply shouting, “In the name of Jesus!” is not enough. The name of Jesus is not some incantation like, “Open sesame.” Rather, it is an announcement of faith, and faith is more than words. Ultimately, it is not words alone that save us, but the faith that must underlie the words “Jesus, save me!”
IV. The Priority that is Presented
The text says, He threw aside his cloak, sprang up, and came to Jesus.
Do not miss this important detail. Bartimaeus’ cloak is probably the most valuable thing he owns. In that very arid climate, the temperature drops rapidly after sunset and it gets quite cool. In fact, so critical was the cloak that Scripture forbade taking one as collateral for a loan: If a man is poor, do not go to sleep with his pledge in your possession. Return his cloak to him by sunset so that he may sleep in it (Deut 24:12-13).
But still, Bartimaeus casts aside his cloak and goes to Jesus. Thus, he leaves behind perhaps the most valuable and necessary thing for his survival in this world. Missing a meal might be inconvenient or uncomfortable but it would not kill him. But to spend one cold night without his cloak might well cause his death by hypothermia. In spite of this, Bartimaeus leaves everything behind and runs to the Lord.
What about us? What are we willing to leave behind in order to find Christ? An old gospel song says, “I’d rather have Jesus than silver and gold.” Another old hymn says, “There’s nothing between my soul and the Savior.” Is that true? Are you willing to leave it behind? Are you free enough to do so?
V. The Permission that is Procured
The text says, Jesus said to him in reply, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man replied to him, Master, I want to see!”
Why does Jesus ask this question? Can He not see what a blind man needs?
But being healed takes courage. In this life, most of us seek mere relief, not healing. Tue healing takes courage because it brings about change and new demands on us. If the blind man is healed, it will no longer be acceptable for him to sit and beg; more will be expected; his life will be irrevocably changed.
Yes, to be healed requires courage. Many of us wonder why the Lord delays in answering our prayers. Perhaps we should think about a question from last week’s gospel: “Do you have any idea what you are asking?” Often we do not.
Truth be told, most of us want relief more than we want healing; there is a big difference. And the Lord is in the healing business. Do not miss what the Lord is really saying here. In effect, he says (to the blind man and to us), “Are you sure you really want healing?” The Lord respects us and our free will. He wants our consent before going to work. Though many of us think we want healing, we often don’t really know what we are asking.
The Lord waits … until a request makes real sense. He knows that many times we are not really ready for what he offers. He asks us, and only when our yes becomes definitive does He go to work.
VI. The Path that is Pursued
The text says, Jesus told him, “Go your way; your faith has saved you.” Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus on the way.
As we have already seen, true healing brings forth radical change. The man who sat by the road begging now sees, but he is also up and walking about. And what is he doing? He is following Jesus. Faith has saved him. Faith not only gives sight but also summons us to obedience, an obedience that has us walk in the path of the Lord.
You see (pardon the pun), faith is more than an offer of relief. True faith instills real change: change in direction and change in the way we walk.
And thus today’s gospel speaks to us of a man who was blind, but, paradoxically, receives his sight and his faith by hearing. Bartimaeus heard of Jesus and then called on Him. Yes, his sight came from his hearing. And faith grants vision by hearing. True vision is seeing Christ, and having seen Him by hearing, following after Him.
I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light
1. I want to walk as a child of the light;
I want to follow Jesus.
God set the stars to give light to the world;
the star of my life is Jesus.
In him there is no darkness at all;
the night and the day are both alike.
The Lamb is the light of the city of God;
Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.
2. I want to see the brightness of God;
I want to look at Jesus.
Clear Sun of righteousness, shine on my path,
and show me the way to the Father.
3. I’m looking for the coming of Christ;
I want to be with Jesus.
When we have run with patience the race,
we shall know the joy of Jesus.
In today’s gospel, the Lord Jesus speaks of crosses and crowns. The apostles have only crowns in mind, but the Lord Jesus knows the price of that crown. And so He must teach them and us that crowns—the things that we value most—come only through the Cross.
It may help to remember the context of this gospel. Jesus is making His final journey to Jerusalem. He is on his way to the Cross, having already announced this to His disciples on two occasions. But throughout this final journey they prove unwilling and/or incapable of grasping what He is trying to teach them.
Today’s gospel is a perfect illustration of a common biblical theme known as the “inept response.” This refers to the common pattern in the gospels wherein Jesus presents a profound and important teaching, and within a matter of verses, or sometimes even just a few words, the apostles demonstrate that they have absolutely no understanding of what He just told them.
Today’s gospel illustrates the inept response. You may recall that on the previous two Sundays, the Lord gave two critically important teachings. Two weeks ago he stood a young child in their midst and spoke of the child as being truly great. He also warned that we must be able to receive the kingdom of God like a little child. Last week, He warned of the pernicious effects of wealth and spoke about how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of Heaven.
And yet as this gospel opens, on very heels of those teachings, James, John, and later all the apostles wish honors upon themselves. They want seats at the head of the table, high offices in the Kingdom, which they still conceive of in very worldly terms. Never mind that Jesus has taught them that the place of honor is not at the head of the table or even at the foot of the table; the honor is upon those who wait on tables.
And thus we see here the inept response. The apostles (and we) just don’t get it. No matter how clear Jesus is, no matter how often he repeats Himself, we just don’t get it.
Let’s look at this gospel in three specific stages.
I. Misplaced Priorities – The Gospel opens with James and John approaching the Lord with an inept question, even a demand. “Grant that in your glory, we may sit, one at your right, and the other at your left.”
As we have already seen, this is a misplaced priority. Their understanding of the place of honor is worldly. Further, they want to move right to the head of the table. They want the Lord to grant them this honor. Even in a worldly way of thinking, places of honor must usually be earned. While some are born into royalty, most attain leadership and honors only after years of effort. Thus, even from a worldly point of view, James and John are being utterly bold, exhibiting little understanding that prior to honors comes labor, comes the earning of those honors. Their priorities are misplaced. They want the crown but without the Cross.
II. Major Price– The Lord Jesus replies to them, “You do not know what you are asking! Can you drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”
Was Jesus astonished, was He amused, or was He sad? It is not easy to say. But the bottom line is clear: they had absolutely no idea what they were asking. And neither do we. So often we want blessings, honors, or seats in high places. But we give little thought to the crosses that are necessary both to get there and to stay there.
Those who finally do attain leadership often know what a cross it is. It can be lonely; there are many pressures; often there are many long hours and the heavy weight of responsibility. True leadership has its perks, but it is hard. Most leaders know also the consistent sting of criticism and isolation.
There is an old joke among bishops that goes something like this: “When a man becomes a bishop, two things are certain: he will never again have a bad meal, and he will never again hear the truth.” Leaders in many other walks of life know something very similar.
And thus the Lord Jesus wonders if James and John have any idea what they are really talking about, what they are really asking for. His question is also poignant, for He has been trying to teach them of the passion, the pain, the crucifixion that awaits Him, and which even He, the Lord of glory, must endure before entering into His glory. No, not only do they not know what they are asking, they just don’t get it.
And this must make the Lord very sad. Sometimes we underestimate the kind of suffering the Lord endured long before the garden of Gethsemane that fateful night, when the sufferings of His passion began in earnest. Prior to that evening, the Lord endured a kind of death by a thousand cuts: enemies trying to trap Him, crowds wanting medical miracles but no true healing, strident and judgmental Pharisees and other religious leaders, ridicule, and disciples who walked away from Him as he taught about the Eucharist. And even the Twelve, to whom He looked for friendship, seemed completely disconnected from what He was trying to teach them. He also knew that one would betray Him, another deny Him, and all but one would abandon Him, never making it to the foot of the Cross. Oh, the grief that they gave the Lord!
And, oh, the grief that we continue to offer up! How we continue to offend His external glory and be difficult cases for Him! How easy it is for us to be hardheaded and stubborn, to have necks of iron and foreheads of brass! No, we shouldn’t be so quick to scorn the apostles because we do the very same things.
The Lord can only remind them and us of the monumental price, the true cost. No Cross, no crown! Ultimately, Heaven costs everything, for we must leave this world behind to reach Heaven. The Easter Sunday of glory, whether in this world or in the world to come, is accessed only by a journey through Good Friday.
It is a major price, but it is a price that James and John seem to dismiss. They simply state, categorically, that they are able to drink the cup that the Lord drinks and to be baptized into His death. But they have no idea what they’re talking about, and neither do most of us.
III. Medicinal Prescription – The other apostles join in the inept response by becoming indignant that James and John are trying to get special dibs on the seats of honor. Their indignity simply shows that they also have no idea of anything that the Lord is talking about.
So the Lord tries to bring the big picture of the Cross more down to earth. He tries to make it plain. He says that the greatest in the kingdom is the servant of all, indeed, the slave of all. Is this straightforward enough? It is not those who sit at the head of the table, even those who sit at the foot of the table, nor at any place at the table who are the greatest; the greatest are those who wait on the table, who serve.
Do they get it? Probably not, and neither do we. It takes most of us a lifetime before we finally get it through our thick skulls that the point in life is not to have the corner office with the view. We have everything upside down, exactly backwards. We are not rich in what matters to God. We think of bank accounts, prestigious addresses, the square footage of our homes, big salaries, and impressive titles—not service.
We may be on our death beds before we finally realize that the greatest people in our lives are those with the ministry of care, those who feed us, perhaps change our bandages and give us basic care.
Like the apostles, we can be so foolish. At the end of the day, and at our final judgment, God will not care about the square footage of our house, our titles, or our worldly honors. What will capture His notice is the times when we served, when we gave a cup of cold water to the thirsty or food to the hungry, when we instructed the ignorant, prayed for the dying, or cared for needs of the poor. He will look for the calluses and the wounds of our service. He will listen for our proclamation of His kingdom. And He will tell us that what we did for the least of our brothers, we did for Him.
Don’t miss the point of this gospel. There is no crown without the Cross. In the Kingdom, honors and crowns are reserved for those who serve, who take up the cross of washing the feet of others, of going to the lowest of places.
In today’s gospel, the Lord speaks of crosses and crowns, and in that specific order. We will not, we cannot, gain any crown in His kingdom without being baptized into His death, into His Cross, into the humble servitude of dying for others in loving service.
Today’s gospel reading invites us to wrestle with fundamental, essential, and focal questions, “What does heaven cost?” and “Am I willing to pay it?”
I. Problematic Pondering – A man asks Jesus, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”
Though his question is a good one, it is problematic because he couches it in terms of his own personal power and achievement. He wonders what he himself must do to attain eternal life.
The problem is, none of us has the holiness, the spiritual wealth, or the power to attain Heaven based merely on what we do. The kind of righteousness we need can come only from God. The misguided question of the rich man betrays two common misunderstandings that people bring to the question of salvation and the need for redemption.
The first misunderstanding is rooted in a minimizing of how serious our condition is. We tend to think that we’re basically in good shape; perhaps we have a few flaws, but basically we mean well and are decent people. We suspect that a few sacraments, occasional prayers, and some spiritual push-ups will be sufficient. But any look to the Crucifix will belie our tendency to minimize. If it took the horrible death of the Son of God to rescue me, then my condition must be worse than I, with my darkened intellect, think.
Jesus once told the parable of a man who owed a huge debt—10,000 talents (cf Mt 18:24). The amount is so large as to be almost unimaginable. This man represents us. No man with such a debt is going to be able to work a little overtime or get a part-time job to pay it off. 10,000 talents is beyond the national debt. Do you get the point? We’re in trouble; we have absolutely no ability to rescue ourselves.
A second misunderstanding is that we tend to intellectualize and minimize what the law of God actually requires. Asking, “What must I do?” rather than “What must I become?” bespeaks a law-based approach that wants a manageable list of things to do in order to be saved, rather than an open-ended relationship with God. “Okay, so I’m not supposed to kill anyone. No problem, I don’t like the sight of blood anyway. I’ve got this commandment down!” But this thinking minimizes the commandment and what it is wholeheartedly asking of us. This point will be developed more fully below.
These two misunderstandings seem to undergird the problematic nature of the rich man’s question. In order to engage the man further, Jesus in effect plays along with the premise. And this leads us to the second point.
II. Playful Prescription – Jesus decides to engage the man’s premise, saying to him, You know the commandments: You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and your mother.
Jesus is being playful here in the sense that He continues with the flawed premise of the man: that he can attain to Heaven by something he does.
It is interesting to ponder why Jesus quotes only the Second Table of the Law, the part pertaining to our love of neighbor, omitting reference to the First Table of the Law, the commandments pertaining to the love of God. Perhaps it is because the Lord recognizes that the man does love God, for he is seeking the Kingdom of Heaven and how to enter into it. Thus, the Lord focuses on the Second Table of the Law, which is in evidence in this man’s life, at least in this interaction with the Lord. Further, as Scripture says elsewhere, “How can you say you love God whom you do not see, if you do not love your neighbor whom you do see?” (1 John 4:20). Hence, the Second Table of the Law, fleshes out the First Table of the Law.
Now, mind you, the Lord is not affirming here that the keeping of the commandments can save us or justify us. Even if we consider ourselves blameless, Scripture says, the just man sins seven times a day (Prov 24:16). We can affirm with Isaiah that, I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips (Is 6:5). And we must say with Paul, I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died for no purpose (Gal 2:21).
While it is true that the law gives us a necessary and clear frame of reference for what pleases God, its summons “Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev 19:22) is not attainable through mere human effort unaided by grace. Jesus makes it clear that when God says “Be holy” He does not have in mind any mere human holiness, for Jesus says, “Be perfect, as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
Thus Jesus is drawing out the problematic premise of the man. But as we next see, the rich man doesn’t take the hint.
III. Perceived Perfection – Strangely—and humorously to our mind—the man boldly says, Teacher, all of these I have observed from my youth.
Notice that his perfection is perceived; simply noting it in himself does not mean he actually has it in himself. Having heard Jesus quote the Second Table of the Law, he announces that he has observed all of these from his youth!
To be fair, his self-analysis was not uncommon for a Jewish man of his time. The Jewish people had a great reverence for the Law, a beautiful thing in itself. But they tended to understand it a fairly legalistic and perfunctory sense.
For example, in a conversation with Jesus, a scribe of the law asks Him, “And who is my neighbor:” (LK 10:29) It’s as if he is saying, “If I have to love my neighbor, and I acknowledge my duty to do so, how can I define ‘neighbor’ so that this is manageable?” In other words, I recognize that I have limits. If justice comes to the law, then the law must have limits, defined in such a way that the keeping of the law remains within my power.
Jesus sets aside such thinking in the Sermon on the Mount, (Matt 5-7), in which He calls for the law to be observed not in a minimalistic sense, but in a way that fills it to the full. Jesus says that it is not enough not to kill; we must also reject anything that ultimately leads to killing or wishing people were dead. The commandment not to kill requires not only that we not take life, but also that we banish from our heart and mind, by God’s grace, hateful anger, retribution, and revenge. The commandment not to commit adultery requires not merely that we avoid breaking our marital vows, but also that, by God’s grace, we banish from our heart and mind any lustful, impure, and unrighteous sexual thoughts.
Hence, the commandments and precepts of the law cannot, and should not, be understood in a minimalistic way. Jesus sets aside the usual manner of the people of His day to reduce the law to something manageable and then declare that they have kept it. God seeks more than perfunctory observance. His grace desires to accomplish within us wholehearted observance. We need grace in order to be saved, in order to qualify for anything that God calls holy.
So Jesus sets aside the rich man’s claims of righteousness and is now is ready to address the question, “What does Heaven cost?”
IV. Pricey Prescription – Yes, what does Heaven cost? The answer is, everything! Jesus, looking at the man with love, says to him, You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.
Ultimately, what Heaven costs is to leave this world and everything in it, to go and possess God and Heaven. To have Heaven, we must set aside this world; not only its life, but its pomp, its ephemeral glories, and its passing pleasures. You want heaven? Then you gotta leave here!
And though we know this, we often live in a way that seeks to postpone the inevitable and to ignore the joke that this world is ultimately playing on us. The world says, “You can have it all!” Yes, and then you die and lose everything. But we like to postpone facing that. We like to pretend that perhaps it ain’t necessarily so. We’re like the gambler who goes to the casino thinking he will be the exception to the general rule. But in the end, the house always wins. You can’t cheat life; whatever we have when we die, whatever we claim to have won, we lose.
In the end, there is only one way to attain the things of lasting value. Only what you do for Christ will last. The Lord says “Store up for yourselves treasure in heaven, that neither rust nor moths can corrode, nor thieves break in and steal” (Lk 12:33).
The Lord says that being generous to the needy and poor is a way of storing up treasure in Heaven. Sadly, most of us aren’t buying that, thinking that clinging to our “treasure” here is a way of keeping it. It isn’t. Whatever we have here is slipping through our fingers like so much sand. The only way to keep it unto life eternal is to give it away to the needy, to the poor, and to allow it to advance the kingdom of Heaven and its values.
Otherwise, wealth is not only not helpful it is actually harmful. There are many texts in the Scriptures that speak of the danger and the harm of wealth, how it compromises our souls and endangers our salvation:
1. Mk 10:23-25 “Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!” The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus said again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
2. 1 Tim 6:7 “for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world; 8 but if we have food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and hurtful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils; it is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced their hearts with many pangs.
3. Luke 16:13 “No servant 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.”
4. Luke 6:24-25 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort. Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.”
5. Mat 19:30 “But many that are first will be last, and the last first.”
6. James 2:5 “Listen, my beloved brethren. Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him?”
Thus, while the Lord’s claim that Heaven costs everything bewilders us, we cannot fail to see that it is true and that the world’s claims on us are rooted in a lie, in false declarations that somehow we can be secure in the passing glories the world. Yes, and then you die—end of glory. But because we like the lie, we entertain it. But in the end, we give everything back, because it was never ours to begin with, it only seemed that way.
How foolish we are, how blind! And speaking of blindness, note that the Lord looked at the man with love, yet the man went away sad. That look of love from the Lord never reached his soul. If it had, the result would surely have been different.
And this leads us to the final point.
V. Powerful Possibility – So shocking is this teaching that even the apostles, who had in fact left everything to follow the Lord, are shocked by it. They see, and are in touch with, how deep this wound is in the human heart, how deep our delusion that the world and its goods can satisfy us. They see and know how strong and numerous are the hooks that this world has in us. Thus, they cry out, “Then who can be saved?” And Jesus responds, “For man it is impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God.”
Thus, in the end, salvation must be God’s work. He alone can take these tortured hearts of ours, so rooted in passing things, and make them willing to forsake all things for the kingdom of Heaven. Only God can take our disordered love and direct it to its proper end: the love rooted in God and the things awaiting us in Heaven. Only God can remove our obsession with the Titanic and place us squarely in the Noah’s Ark that is the Church, the Barque of Peter.
Yes, God can give us a new heart, a properly ordered heart, a heart that desires first and foremost God’s love, a heart that can say, “You, O Lord, are enough,” a heart that can say, “I gratefully receive, Lord, what you give me, and I covet nothing more. Thank you, Lord. It is enough. You are enough.”
Don’t miss the look of love that Jesus gave the young man, the look that He gives you. In the end only a greater love, God’s love received, can replace the disordered love we have for this world.
St. Augustine says, Such, O my soul, are the miseries that attend on riches. They are gained with toil and kept with fear. They are enjoyed with danger, and lost with grief. It is hard to be saved if we have them; and impossible if we love them; and scarcely can we have them, but that we shall love them inordinately. Teach us, O Lord, this difficult lesson: to manage conscientiously the goods we possess and not covetously desire more than you give to us (Letter 203).
I prayed, and prudence was given me;
I pleaded, and the spirit of wisdom came to me.
I preferred her to scepter and throne,
and deemed riches nothing in comparison with her,
nor did I liken any priceless gem to her;
because all gold, in view of her, is a little sand,
and before her, silver is to be accounted mire.
Beyond health and comeliness I loved her,
and I chose to have her rather than the light,
because the splendor of her never yields to sleep.
Yet all good things together came to me in her company,
and countless riches at her hands (Wisdom 7:7-1).
Both today’s first reading and the gospel speak to us of the miracle of marriage. If your marriage is working even reasonably well, it is a miracle! We live in an age that is poisonous to marriage. Many people look for marriage to be ideal, and if there is any ordeal, they want a new deal. Our culture says, if it doesn’t work out, bail out. Thus, successful marriages today are a miracle. But marriages are also a miracle because they are, ultimately, a work of God.
Today’s readings bring before us some fundamental teachings on marriage. The following homily is not short. But many problems beset Holy Matrimony today and the vision of God must be set forth clearly and thoroughly. Let’s look at today’s gospel in five stages.
I Rejection – The gospel opens with the Pharisees approaching Jesus and asking, somewhat rhetorically, “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?” Jesus, aware of their hypocrisy (they do not really want an answer from Him on which to base their lives), asks them in return, “What did Moses command you?” They gleefully respond, in essence, that Moses permitted a husband to divorce his wife as long as he “filled out the paperwork.”
But Jesus will have none of it, telling them that Moses only permitted this very regrettable thing called “divorce” because of their hardened hearts.
Among the rabbis of Jesus’ time, there was the belief that this seemingly lax provision permitting divorce resulted because Moses had reasoned that if he were to say to the men of his day that marriage was until death then some of them might very well have arranged for the death of their wives. So, in order to prevent homicide, Moses permitted the lesser evil of divorce. But it was still an evil and still something deeply regrettable. God Himself says in the book of Malachi,
And this again you do. You cover the Lord’s altar with tears, with weeping and groaning because he no longer regards the offering … You ask, “Why does he not?” Because the Lord is witness to the covenant between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. Has not the one God made and sustained for us the spirit of life? And what does he desire? Godly offspring. So take heed to yourselves, and let none be faithless to the wife of his youth. For I hate divorce, says the Lord, the God of Israel, and covering one’s garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. Yes … take heed to yourselves, and do not be faithless” (Malachi 2:13–16).
Thus, in the opening lines of today’s gospel, Jesus spends time highlighting how the Pharisees and many other men of His time have rejected God’s fundamental teaching on marriage. Jesus is about to reiterate that teaching. For now, though, just note the rejection evidenced in the question of the Pharisees, a rejection that Jesus ascribes to hearts that have become hardened by sin, lack of forgiveness, and rejection of God’s plan.
God hates divorce not only because it intrinsically rejects what He has set forth, but also because it is symptomatic of human hardness and sinfulness.
II. Restoration– Jesus, having encountered their hardened hearts, announces a restoration, a return to God’s original plan for marriage. The Lord quotes the Book of Genesis, saying,
But from the beginning of creation God made them male and female. And for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother, and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate.
Note that Jesus begins with the phrase, “but from the beginning of creation.” In other words, anything that may have happened in the aftermath of Original Sin, any compromises or arrangements that have emerged during the reign of sin, are now to be done away with in the reign of grace that will come as the result of Jesus’ saving death and resurrection.
On account of the grace that will be bestowed, we are now able, and expected, to return to God’s original plan for marriage: one man and one woman in a lifelong, stable relationship that is fruitful, bringing forth godly children for God and His kingdom. This is God’s plan, a plan that has no room for divorce, contraception, or anything other than fruitful, faithful, stable love.
In today’s Western culture there have been many attempts to redefine God’s original and perfect plan for marriage, substituting something erroneous, something humanly defined. And while current endeavors to redefine marriage to include same-sex unions are a particularly egregious example, they are not the first or only way in which God’s plan for marriage has been attacked:
The first attempts happened in the 1950s, when divorce began to occur among celebrities in Hollywood (e.g., Ingrid Bergman, followed by many others). Many Americans, who seem to love and admire their Hollywood stars, began to justify divorce. “Don’t people deserve to be happy?” became the refrain. And thus marriage, which up to that point had as its essential focus what was best for children, began, subtly but clearly, to be centered on what was best for adults. The happiness of the adults, rather than the well-being of the children, began to take precedence in most people’s thinking about marriage.
During the 1950s and 1960s pressure began to build to make divorce easier. Until the late 1960s, divorces had been legally difficult to obtain in America; wealthier people often went to Mexico in order to secure them. In 1969, California Governor Ronald Reagan signed the first “no-fault” divorce law, making divorce a fairly easy thing to obtain. Within ten years, most of the fifty states had similar laws. As a result, divorce rates skyrocketed.
This was the first redefinition of marriage. No longer was a man to leave his father and mother and “cling to his wife.” Now, at the first sign of trouble, men and women could just sever their marriage vows. But this is in direct contradiction to God’s plan, which tells them to cling to each other. Thus we engaged in what amounts to a redefinition of marriage.
The second redefinition of marriage occurred when the contraceptive mentality seized America. It began in the late 1950s and continues to this day. Though God said to the first couple, Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth … (Genesis 1:28), children have become more of a way of “accessorizing” a marriage rather than an integral part and an expected fruit. Children are no longer seen as an essential purpose of marriage, but only an optional outcome based on the wishes of the adults. This, too, is a redefinition of marriage; it is in direct contradiction to God’s instruction to “be fruitful and multiply.” The happiness and will of the adults is now preeminent; children, rather than being an essential fruit, are only a possible outcome.
The third redefinition of marriage, the current rage, is the attempt to extend it to include same-sex unions. The absurdity of this proposal flows from the sinful conclusions of the first two redefinitions, which in effect state that marriage is simply about two adults being happy and doing whatever pleases them.
And if that is the case, there seems little basis in most people’s mind to protest same-sex couples getting “married,” or, frankly, any number of adults in any combination of sexes, getting “married.” (Polygamy and/or polyandry are surely coming next.)
We in the heterosexual community have misbehaved for over fifty year now, redefining essential aspects of marriage. And the latest absurdity—and it is an absurdity—of gay marriage flows from this flawed and sinful redefinition. We have sown the wind; now we are reaping the whirlwind.
In the end, Jesus will have none of this. He rejects the attempts of the men of His time to redefine marriage. And He, through His Church, His living voice in the world today, also rejects the sinful and absurd redefinitions that we in our culture propose, be it divorce, contraception, or homosexual “marriage.”
God has set forth that a man should leave his father and mother and cling to his wife, and that the two of them become one flesh. In making a suitable partner for Adam, God created Eve, not Steve. And hence homosexual unions are excluded. A man is not a suitable partner for a man; a woman is not a suitable partner for a woman. Further, in making a suitable partner for Adam, God did not make Eve and Ellen and Jane and Sue and Beth. Hence, polygamy, though mentioned and tolerated for a time in the Bible (but always a source of trouble) is also not part of God’s plan.
God intends one man, for one woman, in a relationship of clinging; that is, in a stable relationship that bears the fruit of godly offspring.
This is the Lord’s plan; the Lord Jesus does not entertain any notion from the people of His day that will alter or compromise His original design for marriage. He thus announces a restoration of God’s original plan for marriage, as set forth in the book of Genesis.
III. Reality – As is true today, Jesus’ reassertion of traditional, biblical marriage was met with controversy. In Matthew’s account, many of the disciples react with disdain, saying, If that is a case of a man and his wife, it is better never to marry! (Matt 19:10)
In today’s gospel we see that the disciples are somewhat troubled by what Jesus says and ask Him about it again later. But Jesus does not back down; He even intensifies His language, saying, Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.
There will be no apology from Jesus: divorce and remarriage is adultery. There may have been some in Jesus’ time (and today) who would hold up their divorce papers and say that they have a divorce decree. Jesus implies that He is not impressed with some papers signed by a human judge and is not bound by the decision of some secular authority. What God has joined together, no man must separate. In other words, Jesus once again establishes that once God has in fact joined a couple in Holy Matrimony, the bond which God has effected is to be respected by all, including the couple.
Marriage has a reality beyond what mere humans bring to it or say of it. Marriage is a work of God; it has a reality and an existence that flows from God’s work, not man’s. All of our attempts to redefine, obfuscate, or alter marriage as God has set it forth is sinful and is something that God does not recognize as a reality.
IV. Reemphasis – Now comes an interesting twist, which includes a reminder of one of the most essential purposes of marriage. The gospel text says,
And people were bringing their little children to Jesus that he might touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he became indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.”
This is not a new element to the story, neither have we gone into a separate pericope. Rather, Jesus’ remarks about children remind us of the essential reason why marriage is structured the way it is. Why should marriage be between two heterosexuals? Why should it be stable? Why should it include a father and a mother rather than two fathers, or two mothers, or just a mother, or just a father?
The fundamental answer is that the essential work of marriage is to procreate and then raise those children! Since children remain marriage’s most fundamental fruit, it makes sense that marriage should be structured based on what is best for them. And the fact is, children are best raised in a stable, lasting environment in which their parents have committed to one another in mutual support and partnership in raising them. Further, it makes sense psychologically that a child should be receiving influence from both father and mother, the male parent and the female parent. There are things that a father can teach a child that a mother cannot; there are things that a mother can teach a child that a father cannot. Psycho-social development is best achieved in the environment that God and nature have set forth: every child growing up with both a father and a mother; a male and a female influence.
Anything else amounts to something that is less than ideal. To the degree that we intentionally impose the less-than-ideal on children, we are guilty of doing them an injustice. Bringing children into the world prior to marriage or apart from it, such that they will be raised in a single-parent home, is an injustice. It is an even greater injustice that children conceived under these promiscuous circumstances are far more likely to be aborted. To kill a child through abortion is a horrific injustice; it is also an injustice to raise a child apart from a marriage situation.
This preference for stable, lasting, heterosexual unions clearly excludes homosexual ones. Same-sex “parents” are far from ideal for a child. To raise a child in such circumstances intentionally is an injustice, for it is to subject the child to that which is unnatural and far from ideal.
Catholics have every obligation both to uphold and insist upon traditional marriage as what is right and just, not only because it is God’s plan, but because it is clearly what is best for children. And marriage is fundamentally about children. It is not simply religious sensibility that should lead us to this position; it is a position deeply rooted in natural law, common sense, and what is best for children.
Traditional marriage should be encouraged in every way. Becoming more “fuzzy” about what marriage is, or “defining it down” does not help our culture to esteem traditional marriage. Traditional marriage has pride of place because it is focused on raising the next generation and is critical to the essential functioning of our society.
There is much talk today about the rights of people to do as they please. So-called gay “marriage” is presented within this framework. But, sadly, many who discuss rights only refer to the rights of adults; they seem to care less about what is really best for children. What is good and right for children needs to have a much higher priority in our culture today than it currently does.
Jesus reemphasizes the teaching on marriage by pointing to the young children before them and telling the disciples not to hinder the children. One of the clearest ways we hinder children from finding their way to God and to His kingdom is with our own bad behavior: promiscuous sexual acts (endangering children through abortion or single-parent households), divorce (placing children in divided situations and saddling them with confused loyalties), and insistence on adult rights over what is best for children. To emphasize all of this bad behavior, Jesus points out the young children to us and says, “Do not hinder them.” Our bad behavior does hinder them.
IV. Reassurance – To be sure, this teaching about marriage is to some degree “heavy weather.” Indeed, many in our culture have tried, and failed, to attain to the vision of marriage that the Lord teaches. There are complicated reasons, too many to note here, why so many people struggle to live this teaching today.
But whatever our own failures have been, we need to go to the Lord with a childlike trust, a trust that cries out for help. Thus, Jesus says at the conclusion of today’s gospel, Amen, I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.
Children often feel overwhelmed, but in the midst of that, they run to their parents and seek help. It is in this spirit that the Lord asked us to receive this teaching. Indeed, many may well have to run to God and say “Abba, God, I don’t know how to live this teaching. My marriage is in ruins, and I don’t know how to save it. I’ve tried, but my spouse is unwilling. I can’t go back and undo what I did years ago.”
But note how the Lord embraces the child in this gospel. He is willing to embrace us as well, in our failures and our difficulties. If we have failed, we should be like a young child and run to the Father. What we should most avoid is being relentlessly adult-like, digging in our heels and saying, “God is unreasonable; the Gospel is unreasonable!”
In the end, only God can accomplish strong marriages and strong families for us. We must run to Him as a Father and seek His help. If we have failed, we must not fail to tell the next generation what God teaches, even if we have not been able to live it perfectly.
God’s plan still remains His plan for everyone, whatever our personal failings. We have every obligation to run to Him, trust Him, and ask for His help. But even in the midst of our own personal failures, we can and must announce and celebrate the truth to others. In the end, God does not give us His teaching in order to burden us, or to accuse us, but rather to bless us. Our assurance must be in His mercy and His ability to write straight, even with the crooked lines of our lives.
If we in this generation have failed, and many of us have failed, we must still announce God’s plan for marriage to the next generation. We must not cease to hand on God’s perfect plan.