Today I’d like to reflect further on the Gospel reading from today’s Mass (Thursday of the 13th week of the year). It tells the story of the paralyzed man whom Jesus tells to have courage because his sins are forgiven.
In one sense this is a rather peculiar response to a paralyzed man: Jesus looks at him and says, “Courage, child, your sins are forgiven.” Now we might be tempted to tap Jesus on the shoulder and say, “Excuse me, Lord, but this man is paralyzed. His problem is paralysis; that’s what he needs healing for!” (The Pharisees and scribes get all worked up for a different reason: they don’t think that Jesus has the authority to forgive sins.)
Of course, Jesus is neither blind nor lacking in intelligence. Unlike us, however, when Jesus looks at the man he does not consider paralysis to be the most serious problem. To Jesus, the man’s biggest issue is his sin.
Living as we do in this world, most of us have the world’s priorities. The Lord sees something more serious than paralysis, while we wonder what could possibly be more serious than paralysis! But not as man sees does God see. For God, the most serious problem we have is our sin. We don’t think like this even if we are told we should think like this.
Influenced by the flesh as we are, most of us are far more devastated by the thought of losing our health, or our money, or our job, than we are by the fact that we have sin. Threaten our health, well-being, or finances, and we’re on our knees begging God for help. Yet most people are far less concerned for their spiritual well-being. Most of us are not nearly so devastated by our sin (which can deprive us of eternal life) as we are by the loss of our health or some worldly possession.
Even many of us who have some sense of the spiritual life still struggle with this obtuseness and with misplaced priorities. Even in our so-called spiritual life, our prayers are often dominated by requests that God fix our health, improve our finances, or help us to find a job. It is not wrong to pray for these things, but how often do we pray to be freed of our sins? Do we earnestly pray to grow in holiness and to be prepared to see God face-to-face? Sometimes it almost sounds as if we are asking God to make this world more comfortable so that we can just stay here forever. This attitude is an affront to the truer gifts that God offers us.
So it is that Jesus, looking at the paralyzed man, says to him, Your sins are forgiven. In so doing, Jesus addresses the man’s most serious problem first. Only secondarily does He speak to the man’s paralysis, which He almost seems to have overlooked in comparison to the issue of his sin.
We have much to learn about how God sees and about what are the most crucial issues in our life.
Joseph and Mary were told to call the child “Jesus” because He would save the people from their sins. In his book Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, Pope Benedict XVI writes,
… Joseph is entrusted with a further task: “Mary will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). … On the one hand, a lofty theological task is assigned to the child, for only God can forgive sins. So this child is immediately associated with God, directly linked with God’s holy and saving power. On the other hand, though, this definition of the Messiah’s mission could appear disappointing. The prevailing expectations of salvation were primarily focused upon Israel’s concrete sufferings—on the reestablishment of the kingdom of David, on Israel’s freedom and independence, and naturally that included material prosperity for this largely impoverished people. The promise of forgiveness of sins seems both too little and too much: too much, because it trespasses upon God’s exclusive sphere; too little, because there seems to be no thought of Israel’s concrete suffering or its true need for salvation.
Benedict then cites the story of the paralytic and comments,
Jesus responded [to the presence of the paralyzed man] in a way that was quite contrary to the expectation of the bearers and the sick man himself, saying: “My son, your sins are forgiven” (Mark 2:5). This was the last thing anyone was expecting; this was the last thing they were concerned about.
The Pope Emeritus concludes,
Man is a relational being. And if his first, fundamental relationship is disturbed—his relationship with God—then nothing else can be truly in order. This is where the priority lies in Jesus’ message and ministry: before all else he wants to point man toward the essence of his malady.
Yes, God sees things rather differently than we do. There is much to ponder about the fact that Jesus said to the paralyzed man, Your sins are forgiven.
One of the great illusions under which we labor is that if we only get just one more thing from this world, then we will be happy. Perhaps we think that if we just had a little more money, or a better job, or the latest iPhone, or if we were married to so-and-so, or if we lived in a better neighborhood, then we would be satisfied and content at last. But “at last” never seems to come even if we do get some of the things on our list. As Ecclesiastes puts it, The eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing (Ecc 1:8). Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income (Ecc. 5:8).
Although we realize this deep down, we continue to fall for the lie again and again. We think that just one more thing will do the trick. So we lay out the money and spend the time—and then the delight lasts twenty minutes at most! The world just can’t close the deal.
There is a joke (a parable, in my mind) that illustrates the endless treadmill the world has us on and how it continually seduces us into wanting just one more thing. In the end, this leads us to neglect the one thing most necessary.
There was a lonely man who thought that perhaps buying pet would ease his loneliness. So he went to the pet store and looked at many animals. He found himself drawn to one in particular. The sign over the cage read, “Talking Parrot: Guaranteed to talk.” Thinking that this would surely solve his problem, the man brought the cage up to the merchant at the counter.
“That’ll be $250, please.”
A week later the man returned, disappointed.
“This parrot isn’t talking!”
“You mean to say that he didn’t climb the ladder and talk?”
“Ladder? You didn’t tell me about a ladder!” “Oh, sorry. The ladder is $10.”
So the man bought the ladder, brought it home, and put it in the cage. Another week went by and the man returned to the pet store.
“This parrot still isn’t talking!”
“You mean to say that he didn’t climb the ladder, look in the mirror, and talk?”
“Mirror? You didn’t mention anything about a mirror!”
“Oh, sorry. It’ll be $10 for the mirror.”
So the man bought the mirror, brought it home, and put it in the cage along with the ladder. Another week went by and the man returned to the pet store again.
“This parrot still isn’t talking!”
“You mean to say that he didn’t climb the ladder, look in the mirror, peck the bell, and talk?”
“Bell? You didn’t say anything about a bell!”
“Oh, sorry. The bell is $10.”
So the man bought the bell, brought it home, and put it in the cage along with the ladder and the mirror. Yet another week went by and the man returned to the pet store.
“This parrot still isn’t talking!”
“You mean to say that he didn’t climb the ladder, look in the mirror, peck the bell, jump on the swing, and talk?”
“Swing? You didn’t tell me about a swing!”
“Oh, sorry. It’ll be $10 for the swing.”
So the man bought the swing, brought it home, and put it in the cage along with the ladder, the mirror, and the bell. One more week went by and the man returned to the pet store again.
“How’s your parrot?”
“Dead? Did he ever talk before he died?”
“Yes, he did finally talk.”
“What did he say?”
“He said, ‘Don’t they sell any birdseed at that store?’”
Lesson 1: Promises, Promises
The world and the “prince of this world” are always promising results, yet when those results aren’t forthcoming there are only more demands. First the bird, then the ladder, the bell, the mirror, and the swing. There is always just one more thing that’s needed before the perfect result comes! But it’s a lie. The lie comes in many forms: you just need one more accessory, or the upgraded version of the app, or just one more drink, or a newer car, or a bigger house, or a face lift, or bariatric surgery. Yes, you just need one more thing and then you’ll be there. Happiness is always just past the next purchase.
In speaking to the woman at the well, Jesus said, Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again (Jn 4:13). And that is the sober truth about this world: it cannot finally quench our thirst, which is a thirst for God and Heaven. But time and time again we go back to the world and listen to the same lie, thinking that this time it will be different.
Surely it is sensible to make use of the things of this world to aid us in accomplishing our basic duties, but they are not the answer to our deeper needs. The big lie is that they are the answer. And when they fail to satisfy us, the lie just gets bigger, declaring that just a little more of it will surely close the deal.
Lesson 2: The One Thing Most Necessary
In buying the ladder, mirror, bell, and swing, the man neglected the most important thing: food. So, too, for us. We seek to accumulate worldly toys and trinkets that are passing, while neglecting eternal and lasting realities. We seem to find time for TV, sports, shopping, etc., but neglect or completely forget about prayer, Scripture, the Sacraments, the Liturgy, worship, and the development of any kind of relationship with the Lord. We are staring into the mirror focused on our own self. The enticements of this world summon us to endless things, mostly trivial in the long run. We are climbing the ladder of success without regard as to what is at the top of that ladder.
All of these less important matters divert us from the one thing necessary: feeding our souls on the Lord. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him…the one who feeds on me will live because of me (Jn 6:56-58).
Ah, but there’s no time for all that. Getting to Mass, praying, receiving Holy Communion? No time! I hear a bell summoning me to just one more diversion, one more meeting. I’m too busy climbing the ladder of success. I’m too busy looking at myself in the mirror to make sure that I fit in, and that everyone likes me.
“Dead? Did he ever talk before he died?”
“Yes, he did finally talk.”
“What did he say?”
“He said, ‘Don’t they sell any birdseed at that store?’”
Just a little parable on the lies of the devil and the empty promises of this world.
The Gospel for Sunday contains lots of interesting juxtapositions: hatred for Jesus but grudging respect, real questions vs. rhetorical ones, politics and faith, duties to Caesar and duties to God. The word “juxtaposition” comes from the Latin juxta, meaning “near” and positio, meaning “place” or “position”. Juxtaposition is the placing of two things near to each other, usually in order to see how they are similar yet different. Most often the differences are emphasized more than the similarities.
Let’s look at the juxtapositions in today’s Gospel, concentrating most of our attention on our duties to God as compared to our duties to “Caesar.”
I. The Plotting of the Peculiar Partners – The Gospel begins by describing an extremely unlikely set of “bedfellows.” The text says, The Pharisees went off and plotted how they might entrap Jesus in speech. They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians. A very unlikely set of allies indeed. The Pharisees hated the Herodians. It was a combination of political and racial hatred, just about as poisonous as you could get in the ancient world, yet they both agreed that this Jesus fellow had to go.
Here is an important teaching: if you’re going to be a true Christian, the world will hate you. Too many Christians think that some segment of the world will agree to live in peace with us and so we strive to forge allegiances with it. In the modern American milieu, some think that the Republicans or the Democrats are natural allies, but we really don’t fit well into either party nor any worldly “club.”
Catholicism is an “equal-opportunity offender” in its unabridged form. Issue by issue We may appeal to one political party or another on a particular issue, but on the whole we’re a nuisance: we’re pro-life, traditional family values, immigrants’ rights, and affordable housing. We both please and annoy, which is another way of saying we don’t fit neatly into the world’s categories; everyone has some reason to hate us.
Welcome to Jesus’ world, in which groups who seemed to agree on nothing were aligned when it came to hating Jesus.
II. The Praise that is actually a Perilous Provocation – In their opening remarks to Jesus, His enemies give Him grudging respect. They do so not to praise Him, however, but rather to provoke Him. They say, Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone’s opinion, for you do not regard a person’s status. Tell us, then, what is your opinion … Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?
The praise is largely a pretext that is used to provoke. In effect, they think they can they can force a definition on Jesus: “You’re ‘the Man.’ You’re the prophet. You’re the only one around here who tells the truth no matter what.” Now none of these things are false and they bespeak a grudging respect for Jesus.
However, they are only using this to draw Jesus into a worldly debate that is well “below his pay grade.” They want Jesus to take sides in a silly human debate over politics and worldly power. They want him to get arrested and killed over something that is not worth dying for.
Prophets die for the truth revealed by God not for who the “big cheese” should be in human affairs. They want Jesus to opine as if He were some sort of talking head on TV rather than the prophet and Lord that He is. A question of this sort is not worthy of Jesus’ attention. Ask this of the local senator or mayor but leave God out of human political distinctions and camps; do not expect Him to take sides. He is beyond our distinctions and will not be confined by party lines, national boundaries, or political philosophies.
We may well contend that certain systems of government better reflect the Kingdom than others, but in the end, God cannot be reduced to being a Republican, a Democrat, or for that matter an American. He is God and He transcends our endless debates and camps. He is not a talking head; He is God.
Generally speaking, rhetorical questions are statements or arguments posed in the form of a question. If I say to you, “Are you crazy?” I’m not really looking for an answer; I’m making statement that I think you are crazy. This is what takes place in today’s Gospel. The questioners already have their own opinions and aren’t change their minds no matter how Jesus answers. They don’t really want an answer; they want something to use against Him.
If Jesus says, “Yes, pay the taxes,” it will make Him unpopular with the crowds. If He says “No, don’t pay the taxes,” He will be arrested and likely executed.
In the end, Jesus calls them what they are: hypocrites, a Greek word meaning “actor.” And that is what they are. This whole thing is an act. This is not about discovering the truth; it is about setting a trap.
But Jesus will have none of it. He will not be reduced to human distinctions and categories. The truth He proclaims transcends the passing political order and any human power struggles. He will not be drawn into choosing sides. Rather, He will apply the rule of truth evenly to all.
Jesus is reality in the face of rhetoric, perfection in the face of politics, divinity in the face of division.
III. The Protesting of their Pretext and Pretense – Knowing their malice, Jesus said, “Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?” Not everyone who engages us is truly looking for an answer or for the truth. We cannot always know things, but Jesus surely could. Often, when engaged in a discussion about the truth of the Gospel, one discovers that authentic dialogue is not actually taking place. In that case it is permissible to merely proclaim the truth firmly, clearly, and with due charity, and then end the conversation. Jesus called them on their pretense and authoritatively announced the principle with the goal of ending the conversation and sending them away to think.
IV. The Pointed Proclamation of the Principle – Jesus says, simply, and in a way that transcends worldly “all-or-nothing” scenarios, Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.
Such an answer elicits in us a desire for elaboration, but in our demands for more detail, we too often seek to conceal the fact that we really know the answer. We also betray the need of the flesh to specify everything so as to control and limit its impact.
If we really need a list, we might include some of the following things we ought to do in order “repay” to Caesar:
1. Obey all just laws. 2. Pay legally assessed taxes. 3. Pray for our country and its leaders. 4. Participate in the common defense based on our abilities and state in life. 5. Take an active and informed role in the political process. 6. Engage in movements for necessary reform. 7. Contribute to the common good through work (domestic or market-based) and through the sharing of our abilities and talents with others. 8. Maintain strong family ties and raise disciplined children who are well-prepared to contribute to the common good and to the good order of society. 9. Encourage patriotic love of our country. 10. Strive for unity and love rooted in Truth.
Here are some things we might include in a list of what we owe to God:
1. Adoration, love, and gratitude 2. Obedience to His Word and His Law 3. Worship 4. Repentance 5. Support of His Church by attendance at sacred worship, financial support, and sharing of our gifts and talents 6. Proclamation of his Word both verbally and by witness 7. Devoted reception of the sacraments 8. Raising our children in His truth and in reverence of Him 9. Evangelization (making disciples) 10. Preparing for death and judgment through a holy and reverent sojourn in this world.
A glance at these lists reveals that there is some overlap. One would expect this with God because He defies our human categories and distinctions. In the overlap, we see a setting forth of the great commandment of Love: that we should love the Lord our God with all our soul, strength, and mind, and our neighbor as our self (e.g., Matt 22:37). For while God is not Caesar and Caesar is not God, love unites both categories.
To love our country is to love our neighbor. To work for, support, and be involved in the common good is to love our neighbor. And to love our neighbor, whom we see, is to begin to love God, whom we do not see. Further, to seek to reform our land, secure justice, and ensure unity rooted in truth is to help usher in the Kingdom of God. To be rooted in God’s law, walk in His truth, and raise our children as strong and disciplined disciples of the Lord is to bless this country. To obey God and to walk in sobriety, love, and self-discipline is not only to render to God but also to be a good citizen.
However, it must be clear that God is and must be our supreme love. Jesus is not setting forth an equivalence here. This world is often at odds with God and thus we who would be His disciples must accept the fact that we will often be seen by this world as though we are aliens from another planet. Neither Jesus nor we should expect to fit precisely into any worldly category or club. We will be an equal-opportunity irritant to any large group. If we are going to be faithful Catholics then we must expect to be outsiders, outliers, and outcasts.
Rendering to God comes first. Too many people today, however, are more passionate about their politics than their faith. They tuck their faith underneath their politics and worldview. They are more inclined to agree with their party than with the Church or even the Scriptures. If you point that out, though, they’re likely to accuse you of violating the separation of Church and State (a phrase that does not appear in the Constitution, by the way) or tell you that unless something is infallibly defined (as they determine it) they are free to ignore the teaching of the bishops, the Pope, and/or the Catechism.
Here is the question we must ask ourselves: Do we really put God first? Is His Word really the foundation of our thoughts and views or are we just playing games? Loving this world and working for the common good are not at odds with our love for God, but submitting to worldly categories and human divisions and permitting them to drive our views is most often opposed to God, who will not simply be conformed to human political movements.
God has set forth the Catholic Church to speak for Him but He has not anointed any political movement or worldly organization to do so. No Catholic should surrender to artificial and passing distinctions or to organizations. No Catholic should permit worldly allegiances to trump what Scripture and the Church clearly proclaim. Sadly, today many seem far more willing to render to some version of “Caesar” than to render obedience and allegiance to God and to the Church, which speaks for Him. The Church is an object of faith; a political party is not. Render to God what is God’s.
This song in the video below says that God and God alone is fit to take the universe’s throne.
There is an interesting, albeit at times concerning, article over at Marketwatch.com that reports the simple fact that being a member of a believing community “costs” you something. And while the article is directed to a Jewish context, its implications reach all of us who believe and belong to the Church.
Underlying the article and those it interviews is a not so subtle premise that it is somehow wrong for faith to “cost” much. Never mind that just about anything in life costs something, involves tradeoffs and that the things we value are often where we chose to spend more. Somehow the implication of the article is that faith should be free, or less demanding financially.
With the onset of Yom Kippur this evening, Jews will begin a day of fasting, prayer and reflection — all key parts of this holiest of holy days on the religion’s calendar. But this Day of Atonement often comes with another ritual of sorts — namely, a pitch from synagogue leaders for contributions….[It] may strike some as distasteful, but it underscores the reality that faith of any kind — Judaism, Christianity, Islam — often has a literal price. Houses of worship solicit donations in order to pay the bills…..
True enough, there are real costs to maintaining buildings and staffs related to houses of worship. But why should it be any more “distasteful” that a house of worship has costs and bills than say, a public school, a local recreation facility or city stadium, such that we are taxed to pay for their upkeep? The simple fact is that things we value have costs that need to be covered, churches are no different except that we are not forced to pay for them like the government does with taxes.
Beyond such fees, various religious practices, from adhering to certain dietary laws to avoiding certain types of investments, also have costs associated with them….The Jewish practice of keeping kosher — that is, adhering to a way of eating in which meats have been butchered and prepared a certain way, among other dietary matters — can translate into a 20% increase in a family’s food costs, according to one study….Some of the faithful say the financial burden has become harder to bear, especially in light of the slumping economy of late.
But again, it also costs money to go to a football game (often a LOT of money). And that money could be spent elsewhere too. But for people who value football, it is (apparently) a price they are willing to pay, along the the “privileges” of standing in long lines, sitting out in the cold rain on some game days, and paying 15 dollars for a tiny beer and hotdog. But people line up for it.
It’s about what people value. If I value my faith I accept that there are going to be some costs and inconveniences associated with it. If I want to keep my beautiful church open and in good repair, I accept that I will be asked to contribute to that, and will not have that money to spend on a movie or something else. If I want to be a true Christian, I am going to be generous to the poor and needy, and that means I can’t spend my money of some other things.
But If I love God, I value what he values and I want to do it. It’s called tradeoffs, and most people make them everyday for things they value. For Jewish people Kosher is important, and like anything important, it has some costs and tradeoffs associated with it. Welcome to life, filled with tradeoffs and with the need to decide what you value most. You can’t have it all, and almost none of it is free.
“I wish it wasn’t so expensive,” says Judy Safern, a Jewish resident of Dallas who runs a strategic consulting firm. In the past couple of years, Safern has cut back on what might be dubbed her “religion budget,” pulling her two children out of a Jewish day school in favor of a public one (a savings of $16,000) and foregoing membership to her local synagogue (a savings of $1,800). Safern’s hope is that she can maintain her faith without emptying her pocketbook. “I refuse to continue to be squeezed,” she adds.
While it is true that all of us might “wish” that things weren’t expensive, insisting on such wishes is not really a sign of maturity. A football fan might wish that the tickets in the nosebleed section behind the pillar weren’t $450 a piece, but (mysteriously) that is what the market will bear and he has to decide to pay it or not, whatever he wishes were not the case.
It is a worthy consideration, as Ms. Safern implies, to ponder if every expense is necessary. But at the end of the day faith does have costs in time, treasure, and tradeoffs. Does she value her faith so as to bear this cost…or not? From her remarks it seems doubtful that she values her faith much, since the “cost” is not worth it.
Regardless of the religion, Safern is far from alone in expressing such sentiments….A 2012 study by the Barna Group, a market research firm, found that 33% of Protestants and 41% of Catholics had reduced their contributions to churches or religious centers because of the economy….. Actually, Barna Group Vice President Clint Jenkin says it may be more than just the economy at play. He argues that a new generation of the faithful sees religion in an entirely different — and decidedly isolationist — way. “Faith is becoming much more something you do privately rather than something at an institution,” he says.
Exactly. Money and other resources are ultimately about what we value and what we do not value. The complaint about cost is not really all that much about money, it is about faith, it is about what we value. Many have devalued faith and decided that it isn’t “worth” much.
And, as the article suggests, one can try and reinvent the faith into a “private” matter. But at the end of the day it is clear that the driving force behind most theological syncretism and designer religion is not deep faith at all. It is about making faith less demanding, less costly, more convenient, more about “me” and what pleases me.
A few concluding thoughts. At one level, faith need not cost much at all. We could just meet in a local park on Sundays, expect that clergy be volunteer, and that very few implements such as books, bread and wine, candles, etc be used. But of course such an attitude seems foreign to people who value their faith more than that.
Traditionally it has been the instinct of the faithful to honor their belief with substantial buildings, and dignified implements. Further, since the faith is something weighty, the faithful do not simply depend on rookies or volunteer clergy for the most central matters of teaching the faith and leading the faithful in worship and governance. Rather, given the respect due to Holy Faith, clergy are expected by the faithful to be well trained. (I spent five years of post graduate and attained to two Master’s Degrees, then spent almost ten years in the internship of being a vicar rather than a pastor). This is par for the course and, yes, its costs money. But this is the instinct of the faithful.
So, faith, just like everything else we value does cost. And while there are legitimate discussions to be had about whether every cost is necessary, at the end of the day it is going to cost. If you want to find out what people value, find out what they spend their money and time on. In our increasingly secular and faithless world, many (including some believers) lament what faith “costs” even as we spend exorbitantly on many other things.
As I write this, it is a Sunday afternoon and quite literally billions of dollars and millions of hours have been spent today in an obsession known as “football,” a game having to do with the movement of a bag full of air on a field. Some fans (short for fanatic) spend as much as four to eight hours glued to the screen, or in loud uncomfortable stadiums. Hundreds of dollars are spent on tickets or parties. And yet many of these same people scoff at the “cost” of a Mass that lasts more than an hour, and would, if they went at all, consider themselves generous contributors if they put five or ten dollars in the basket.
Yes, Sunday is a day of great contrast.
What should faith cost? It is clear that the answer to this is for us to decide.
In the end however, the “lament” of the cost of faith reported in the article above is not about the money. It is about faith and what we really value. Everything “costs” it’s just what you decide to spend your money on that reveals what you most value. Do you value the faith? You decide, and you show it by what you are willing to pay. Where a person’s money and time is, there is their heart.
Video: the immigrants to this country were poor. But they combined nickels and dimes to build beautiful churches. Why? I suspect because they valued their faith and thought the cost to be worth it. Here are a couple of videos I put together of their gifts to us:
One of the great challenges in life is to learn what is really most important. I remember as a child being told at Christmas that Jesus was the real reason for the season and that toys were secondary. But I was a child and although I heard what should be most important in actual fact what really was most important to me was what was under the tree. “Thanks Jesus for gettin’ born, now what did Santa leave!?”
This little childhood scenario recasts itself differently as we get older but the basic challenge is the same: learning to really accept and experience that the most important things in life aren’t things. St. Paul states well what is really most important:
But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him… (Phil 3:7-9)
The psalms too express what is most valuable:
The fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever. The ordinances of the LORD are sure and altogether righteous. They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb. By them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward. (Psalm 19:9-11).
The Lord also goes on to teach us that we should value the people in our lives above the things in our lives. Consider this example.
Someone in the crowd said to him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” Jesus replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” Then he said to them, “Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” (Lk 12:13-15)
Among the teachings contained here is that the brothers should be more important to each other than the wealth that divides them. But too often our desire for passing things takes precedence over the people in our lives. Both brothers sin against each other over money, one through greed the other through injustice.
So I want to ask you (and me) a few questions and I want you t be careful how you answer them. Often when we are asked questions of a moral nature we answer the question the way we should answer the question instead of responding with the actual truth. So as I ask these questions let’s consider supplying the truest answer rather than the “required” answer.
Do you really love God above all things and above all people?
Do you really love the people in your life more than the things in your life?
Do you really believe that you life does not consist in an abundance of possessions?
And as you and I answer these questions consider what the evidence states. The best evidence in a question like this is not merely our feelings but even more what we spend our money and time on. Truth be told a lot of us struggle to love God most. We are told to worship God, love people and use things but too often worship things, use people and forget about God. The fact is a lot of us can still be stuck on that old childhood scene where we knew Jesus is the reason for the season but in the end we also knew he really had very little to do with the season, either in the culture or in our hearts.
The steps to making progress in this difficulty are fourfold:
Honesty – Honestly answering questions like the ones the Lord asks us above has go to be the starting point. Perhaps some of you who read this are way ahead of the rest and God really is first. But for the rest of us, the first step is to honestly realize that we’re messed up and that we prefer passing things to God.
Prayer – The second step is to get on our knees and say, “Lord have mercy! I am messed up. My priorities are wrong. I love things more than people and people more than you. I’m surrounded by idols and I ascribe greater worth to the dust of this earth than to you or to my loved ones. Help me Lord!”
Looking at the Deeper Drives – Part of regular confession is to learn to focus on the deeper issues of our life. Too often we only look at our behaviors but not to the deeper drives of sins that lead to this bad behavior. Some of the deeper drives of sin that affect this particular matter are: greed, lust, idolatry, ego-centric attitudes, pettiness, worldliness, sloth, and ingratitude. Preparing for confession looks not only to symptoms such as outer behaviors but to causes which are the deeper drives of sin. In a future blog I will write more on the “deeper drives” of sin.
Cultivate gratitude – Gratitude is a way that we discipline our mind to count our blessings and then thank the Lord for them. In particular we ought to discipline our minds to thank God for the gift that He is to us. Also the gift that others are to us. Granted some folks are gifts to us “in strange packages.” But even the difficult people in our lives teach us things like being patient, kind and more forgiving, These are blessings, even though in strange packages.
Only with God’s help can we begin to realize that “The Most important things in life aren’t things” is more than a slogan. Only with God’s help and a lifetime of grace can we ever hope to really appreciate this insight and absolutely true.
Now a little humor and laughing at ourselves doesn’t hurt either. In this very funny video some priests send out a brother priest for beer. Upon his return there is a mishap and both beer and priest are in jeopardy. Guess which gets rescued!
One of the great lies of the world is that we “can have it all!” We live in the age of great and seemingly endless possibilities and the fact is we want too many conflicting things. We want to be popular but we want to stand for something. We want our kids to be raised well but we want double incomes. We want good health but we want to eat rich foods and avoid exercise. We want God but we want the world too.
The fact is we cannot have everything and we must make choices. In choosing certain things we preclude other things.
But the real key in life is to learn to do just one thing, to want just one thing. This theme of unicity, of doing and wanting one thing is a consistent theme of Scripture. Lets look at some passages and see what they have to tell us.
This one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. Let us therefore, be thus minded…(Phil 3:13)
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41)
One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in his temple. ( Ps 27:4)
A double minded man is unstable in all his ways (James 1:8 )
Jesus replied, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the regin of God (Lk 9:62)
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)
Elijah went before the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.” But the people said nothing (1 Kings 18:21)
O adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God (James 4:4)
And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way, walk in it,” when you would turn to the right or to the left. (Isaiah 30:21)
Well, you get the point. We have a decision to make. We are to choose God and thereby forsake the world. But the problem is that most of us want both. And if most are honest there will be an admission that the world is actually desired more than God.
But true serenity can only be found by seeking God, alone and above every desire. Our hearts were made for God. He has written his name on our heart and He alone can fulfill us. Yet, we waver, we want everything. And, frankly these endless desires torture us. They are in conflict with each other and ultimately they are never satisfied anyway.
The grace for which to pray is to be single-hearted, to want only one thing, to want only God. The beatitude for which to pray is: Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God (Matt 5:8) Most people miss the inner meaning of this beatitude. The Greek word in this passage, καθαροὶ (katharoi) is usually and properly translated as clean or pure in the usual sense. But a more extended meaning refers to something that is pure in the sense of being unmixed with anything foreign, unalloyed. Hence there is the concept here of being single-hearted, having a pure and single motive, the desire to see God. This is a very great blessing and God can give it to us. Psalm 86:11 says, Give me an undivided heart O Lord, that I may fear your name. The Latin Vulgate renders this verse as simplex fac cor meum. This is a great gift for which to pray: a simple, undivided heart. A heart that desires only God and what would lead me to him.
And by this one desire every other decision and desire is subsumed. This is what Paul means when he says, this one thing I do. He does not mean that he does not go here and there, or eat, or sleep. He simply means that everything he does is focused on, and supports the one thing: his goal to be with God forever.
A man journeying from Washington to New York would be on a fool’s errand if he took a road heading south. His destination is north. He may pull aside to get gas, or rest his eyes, but these things are only done to help him toward his goal.
A marathon runner does not stop to talk with friends, or step into a local bookstore to browse. He does one thing, he runs, he pursues the goal. Perhaps he will accept water offered. He might stop for brief moment to tie his shoe, but he only does these things because they help him to his goal.
But too many Christians who say heaven is their goal are heading south and stepping out of the race on fool’s errands.
The gift to be sought from the Lord is to be single-hearted, to have an undivided heart, the gift to do just one thing. Otherwise we are compromised, double-minded and just plain tired.
Impossible you say? With God, nothing is impossible.
OK, here’s one of the stranger videos I have posted to illustrate a point. But consider it. Its object is wrong, but its message is right. In the video there is a man who is so focused on just one thing that nothing else matters. He doesn’t even notice anything else. It’s just the one thing, that’s all he sees, that’s all that matters. Again, the object is wrong, but the idea is right, it’s all about one thing.
UPDATE – Thanks to a couple of readers who called my attention also to this movie clip from City Slickers (a movie I saw years ago but had forogtten). Please note there is one bad word in the clip but it “helps” make the point –
It has been said that if we want to discover what we really value most we need to look honestly at what we spend our time and money on. Most Christians, if asked what they value most will answer, “God.” But that is the expected answer. The truest answer can be found by looking at our calendars and spending habits.
Disclaimer – The text that follows makes use of the collective “we.” The use of this collective pronoun is not to be interpreted as the “absolute” as in “Every single one of us does this without exception.” Rather the collective “we” bespeaks a general human tendency that will, in fact vary from person to person. Hence not all of what you read may apply to you. Nothing should be taken personally. There is a saying, “If the shoe fits wear it. Otherwise, let it pass over you.” With this disclaimer in mind let’s look at how “we” make use of money and time and what this might saying about what we truly values and what our priorities truly are.
If we look to our spending habits we discover that, at least in the modern American setting, our greatest love is creature comforts and entertainment. Even the necessities we purchase like food, clothing and shelter are riddled with comfort. For example we buy a lot of food that soothes and merely appeals to taste but is otherwise junk. We buy homes that do far more than shelter us, but feature vast entertainment areas, widescreen TVs, large open kitchens, great rooms, cathedral ceilings, pools and patios. Our clothes too must come in every variety, matching shoes and ensembles. Even our cars have plush and adjustable seats, and have entertainment centers installed to include: fine Bose sound, mp3 players, Satellite radio, even flat screen TVs that play movies. All of this adds a hefty price tag to our increasingly high and comfortable standard of living, and we pay it! It goes a long way to show how highly we value comfort and entertainment.
But as for God, he too easily gets the financial leftovers. We may spend hundreds of dollars at a fine restaurant, 20 to 30 dollars going to the movies, hundreds more to go to a cold wet stadium and watch football and eat over-priced hotdogs. We will plop down large amounts for video games and Wii accessories, and yet feel like a hero if we drop $10 in the collection plate instead of our usual $5. Never mind that Scripture says that God is to get the first 10% of our income (e.g. Malachi 3:8-12), the fact is, he usually gets the leftovers. After the mortgage, car note, cable bill, magazine subscription and credit card bill are paid, after all the impulse spending, we figure out what, if anything is left and from that give to God. But truth be told He doesn’t get paid upfront like the like Mr. Walmart, God gets the leftovers.
For things we really like, money is no object, Charge it! But giving to the Archbishop’s Lenten Appeal, or increasing our offertory to afford the new parish education building is considered an odious imposition and our soul cries out, “Not again?!” Catholic School education has surely gone up in price and that is a factor in the dropping enrollment but many Catholic families still manage to afford some pretty nice stuff.
The fact is we just don’t value God and the things of God like we value comfort and entertainment. It may be a hard truth but it’s right there in our spending habits, plain as day. At the end of the day our priorities are pretty plain.
And as for our time – here too the overall portrait is pretty bleak. The vast majority of Catholics give NO time to God at all. 3/4 s don’t even go to Mass. Quite certainly they don’t pray either on any regular basis, if at all. As for the 20-25% who do go to Mass God gets 45 – 60 minutes a week. But beyond that, how much does the average Catholic pray each day? How much time do they spend with Scripture or the study of their faith. To be fair, many Catholics do attend bible studies, adult ed and/or other Church activities, but many do none of this.
Time for everything else – Now, of course, everyone is busy in these stress filled times. But we find time for everything else. We find time to sleep and eat, time to watch our favorite shows. We find time for vacations and other diversions. Many people can spend hours shopping, watching sports games, movies and the like. But when it comes to prayer, study of the faith, teaching the faith to children, reading Scripture, or helping the poor…., well, you know, “I’m just so busy.”
At the football game everyone is excited when it goes into overtime. But if Mass runs long, there is irritation. Football is about a bag full of air being pitched around a field. But Mass is about eternal verities and soul-saving grace. But never mind, five hours on football is reasonable, but a Mass longer than 45 minutes is unreasonable.
The truth, as told by time, is that many value leisure and worldly activities far more than God or the faith. We may wish to doubt this but it is written right into our calendars and the balance isn’t even close. For most people God gets nothing of their time, for some he gets an hour a week, only a very small percentage give more.
Disclaimer 2 – It is a true fact that we cannot spend all day in a chapel or give all our money to God. Most people have significant and serious obligations they must meet financially and temporally toward others. Meeting obligations IS part of our holiness. Yet most of us do have disposable income and leisure time. It is how we make use of these resources that we must most look to discover how highly God really ranks in our world.
Telling the truth by time and money remains very instructive for us. Very instructive indeed.
I have lamented with you before on this blog that few speak much of heaven today but focus more on earthly creature comforts as the goal and measure of their happiness. Further, even when heaven is discussed, the description contains everything but the “one thing necessary.” Often when describing heaven one will hear of happiness that that never ends, mansions, gold streets, “purly” gates, and being able to “play all the golf I want.” Others will describe being reunited with loved ones or of being free of suffering. All this is fine and largely true. But what is striking, is the omission of any mention of God. God after all is the “one thing necessary” to make heaven be heaven.
Martha, Martha: This expression, “the one thing necessary” comes from Luke 10:42 where Jesus gently rebukes Martha for missing the main point of life: which is union with God. Martha busies herself with many things, even things that will serve the Lord, but in the end she misses the Lord! To put it in the terms of a modern euphemism: “Fail!”
The “obedient son” in the Prodigal Son story also got it wrong when he angrily tells his father, “You never even gave me a kid goat to celebrate with my friends!” (Lk 15:29). But of course the goal in life is not celebrate with your friends. It is to celebrate with the Father, God the Father. Hence the Father stands outside and pleads for him to enter the feast and celebrate with him.
The people at the lakeside also missed the one thing necessary. In John 6, Jesus had multiplied the loaves. And later, when they came looking for more free bread, Jesus warned them that getting their bellies filled with worldly food was not the point. They should seek the food the which the Son of Man would given them. When Jesus went on to describe that he himself was that bread, they left him. Thus they would no longer follow in his company and forfeited the one thing necessary.
Well you get the point, namely that God is the point. To consider heaven without including God is a remarkable oversight. It is like describing the ocean without mentioning water. An old song says, God and God alone, will be the joy of our eternal home. He will be our one desire, Our hearts will never tire, of God and God alone!
This leads me to a remarkable description of Hell that I recently rediscovered when reading Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s Book: Three to Get Married. We often think of the sufferings of Hell as terrible things like fire, where the worm dies not, wrath, and wailing and grinding of teeth. None of these are per se wrong, they are mentioned in Scripture! But Hell’s deepest suffering is the lack of “the one thing necessary.” Sheen repeats the following joke in his Book:
There is not a golfer in America who has not heard the story, which is theologically sound, about the golfer who went to hell and asked to play golf. The Devil showed him a 36-hole course with a beautiful clubhouse, long fairways, perfectly placed hazards, rolling hills, and velvety greens. Next the Devil gave him a set of clubs so well balanced that the golfer felt he had been swinging them all his life. Out to the first tee they stepped, ready for a game. The golfer said: “What a course! Give me the ball.” The Devil answered: “Sorry….we have no balls. That’s the hell of it!” (Three to Get Married, Kindle Edition, Loc. 851-57).
Wow! Ouch! That IS the hell of it! To have all that, and lack the one thing necessary! Nothing else really works, or matters much, without the one thing necessary. In the joke everything is in place and wonderfully set forth on the golf course, except the one thing necessary, the ball! The golf course becomes a golf curse.
In my last parish I lived in a rectory with a long hall. I used to putt a golf ball up and down the hall. I had an executive putt-putt set with obstacles, and golf goals with automatic returns, etc. But in the end, all I really needed was a ball to have fun. I didn’t even need a club, I could use a long umbrella if I had to, or even just kick the ball. My cat would also love to chase the ball up the hall and pounce. But all the other gizmos and gadgets I had meant nothing without the ball, they were useless. Without the ball even the cat wouldn’t show up.
The heart of Heaven is to be with God. Scripture says, Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these other things will be added unto you. (Matt 6:33)
The heart of Hell is to lack God, to lack the one thing necessary. God is the sine qua non, the absolute requirement for every other joy or pleasure to make any sense or be operative. The heart of Hell is to have rejected God permanently, and to discover that the absolute and final rejection of Him is to experience the withdrawal of every other pleasure. Only in God will my soul be at rest! (Ps 62:5)
In fact, like the golf course in Hell, those pleasures look back at the denizens of Hell and mock them, make the suffering more intense. Because, though the pleasures are near at hand, they may as well be ten thousand miles away. They are useless and their nearness only intensifies the pain and the frustration. This is possibly worse than any hell-fire and may well explain the wailing and grinding of teeth by the hell-bound described in Scripture.
In life, don’t miss the one thing necessary, which is not a thing at all, but is God himself. The Father, in the prodigal son parable came out and begged his second son to enter the feast and celebrate with him. The Heavenly Father does the same now….What is your answer?