As a priest and pastor I work very closely with others: clergy, religious, laity who work for the Church, and laity who volunteer. We all work for the Church because we love her and her people.
At times, though, there is disappointment, hurt, or even disillusionment. Perhaps these feelings result from issues in the wider Church: sexual abuse by clergy, the lack of courage and leadership from some bishops and priests, the scandal of dissent at the highest levels, questionable partnerships with anti-life and anti-Catholic organizations, the breakdown of discipline, and the strange severity of response to some infractions contrasted with the almost total laxity in the face of others. Perhaps they are the result of local problems found in any group of human beings: gossip, hurtful actions, hypocrisy, power struggles, misplaced priorities, favoritism, and injustice.
While these things happen everywhere, many hope that there will be fewer occurrences in the Church. Some who come to work for the Church begin by thinking, How wonderful it will be to work for the Church instead of out in the cutthroat business world! Maybe they envision a place where people pray together and support each other more. Perhaps they think the Church will be a place with less competition and strife.
Alas, such hopes are usually dashed quickly. We are, after all, running a hospital of sorts; and just as hospitals tend to attract the sick, so the Church attracts sinners and those who struggle. Jesus was often found in strange company, so much so that the Pharisees were scandalized. He rebuked them by saying, People who are well do not need a doctor, sick people do. I have come to call sinners, not the righteous (Mk 2:17).
Idealistic notions of working in and for the Church evaporate quickly when the phone rings with an impatient parishioner on the line, or when two group leaders argue over who gets to use the parish hall, or when the pastor is irritable and disorganized, or when the maintenance engineer is found to be drinking on the job, or when certain members of the choir are making anything but harmony, or when some favored parishioners get attention from and access to the old guard leaders while newcomers are resisted.
For all these sorts of situations that engender irritation, disappointment, or disillusionment, I keep a little prayer card near my desk. Sometimes I read it for my own benefit and sometimes I share it with those who feel discouraged at what happens (or doesn’t happen) in the Church. It is a beautiful mediation; it recalls that although great love often generates the deep disappointment, in the end love still abides.
Consider, then, the following words. They are perhaps over-the-top in places, but love has its excesses. Take these words as a kind of elixir that speaks to the pain that love can cause.
How baffling you are, Oh Church, and yet how I love you! How you have made me suffer, and yet how much I owe you! I would like to see you destroyed, and yet I need your presence.
You have given me so much scandal and yet you have made me understand what sanctity is. I have seen nothing in the world more devoted to obscurity, more compromised, more false, and yet I have touched nothing more pure, more generous, more beautiful. How often I have wanted to shut the doors of my soul in your face, and how often I have prayed to die in the safety of your arms.
No, I cannot free myself from you, because I am you, though not completely. And besides, where would I go?
Would I establish another? I would not be able to establish it without the same faults, for they are the same faults I carry in me. And if I did establish another, it would be my Church, not the Church of Christ.
In the Gospel this Sunday, we see the healing of a leper (this means you and me). In Scripture, leprosy describes more than just a physical affliction; it is a metaphor for sin as well. Obviously leprosy itself is not sin, but its effects are similar. Like leprosy, sin disfigures us; it deteriorates us; it distances us (lepers had to live apart from the community) and it brings death if left unchecked.
The following passage can be seen as comparing sin to leprosy:
There is no soundness in my flesh because of thy indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin. For my iniquities have gone over my head; they weigh like a burden too heavy for me. My wounds grow foul and fester because of my foolishness, I am utterly bowed down and prostrate; all the day I go about mourning … there is no soundness in my flesh … My friends and companions stand aloof from my plague, and my kinsmen stand far off (Psalm 38).
Perhaps a brief description of leprosy might be in order so that we can further appreciate both the physical disease and by analogy how sin gradually devastates us. I have compiled this description from several sources, among them, William Barclay’s Commentary on Mark.
Leprosy begins with an unaccountable lethargy and pains in the joints. Then there appear on the body, especially on the back, symmetrical discolored patches with pink and brown nodules and the skin becomes thickened. Gradually the symptoms move to the face and the nodules gather especially in the folds of the cheek, the nose, the lips, and the forehead. The whole appearance of the face is changed till a person loses his human appearance and looks more like a lion. The nodules grow larger and larger and they begin to ulcerate, and from them comes a foul discharge of pus. The eyebrows fall out and the eyes become staring. The voice becomes hoarse and the breath wheezes because of the ulceration of the vocal cords. Eventually the whole body becomes involved. Discolored patches and blisters appear everywhere. The muscles waste away; the tendons contract until the hands look more like claws. Next comes the progressive loss of fingers and toes until a whole hand or foot may drop off. It is a kind of a terrible and slow, progressive death of the body.
The disease may last from ten to thirty years and ends in mental decay, coma, then finally death.
Yet this was not all. The lepers had to bear not only the physical torment of the disease, but also the mental anguish and heartache of being completely banished from society. They were forced to live outside of town in leper areas. Everyone they knew and loved was lost to them and could only be seen from a distance.
In the middle ages, when people were diagnosed with leprosy, they were brought to the Church and the priest read the burial service over them, for in effect they were already dead, though still alive.
This description of leprosy shows how the illness develops, how it disfigures, deteriorates, and distances the leper. At that time, not every diagnosis of leprosy was accurate (there are many skin conditions that can resemble leprosy in its early stages). If the skin cleared up or at least did not deteriorate, the supposed leper could be readmitted to the community.
What about us spiritual lepers? How are we to find healing? Today’s Gospel suggests four steps to find healing from the spiritual leprosy of sin.
1. Admit the Reality– The text says, A leper came to Jesus, and kneeling down, begged him and said, “If you wish you can make me clean.” The man knows he is a leper; he knows he needs healing. He humbles himself and pleads for cleansing.
Do we know our sin? Do we know we need healing? Are we willing to ask for it? We live in times in which sin is often made light of; confessional lines are short. We often excuse our faults by blaming others or perhaps we point to some other sinner who is apparently “worse” than we are and think, “Well, at least I’m not as bad as he is.”
All of us are loaded with sin. We can be thin-skinned, egotistical, unforgiving, unloving, unkind, mean-spirited, selfish, greedy, stingy, lustful, jealous, envious, bitter, ungrateful, smug, superior, angry, vengeful, aggressive, unspiritual, and un-prayerful. Even if everything on that list doesn’t apply to you, certainly many of them do, at least at times. And that list isn’t even complete! We are sinners with a capital S and we need serious help.
Like the leper in the Gospel, we must start with step one: admitting the reality of our sin and humbly asking the Lord for help.
2. Accept the Relationship– Notice two things:
First, the leper calls on the Lord Jesus. In effect, he seeks a relationship with Jesus, knowing that it can heal him.
Second, note how the Lord responds. The text says that Jesus is moved with pity and touches him. The English word “pity,” though often considered condescending, comes from that Latin pietas, which refers to familial love. Jesus sees this man as a brother and reaches out to him in that way. Jesus’ touching of the leper was an unthinkable action at that time; no one would venture near a leper let alone touch one. Lepers were required to live outside of town, typically in nearby caves. But Jesus is God and He loves this man; in His humanity, He sees this leper as a brother. Scripture says,
For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified have all one origin. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying, “I will proclaim thy name to my brethren, in the midst of the congregation I will praise thee” (Heb 2:11).
It is in our relationship with the Lord, a relationship established by faith, that we are justified, transformed, healed, and ultimately saved. If we want to be free of the leprosy of our sin, we must accept the saving relationship with Jesus and let Him touch us.
3. Apply the Remedy– Having healed the leper, Jesus instructs him to follow through in the following manner: See that you tell no one anything, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer for your cleansing what Moses prescribed; that will be proof for them.
Among the ancient Jews it was the priests who were trained to recognize leprosy and distinguish it from ailments with similar symptoms. Priests were trained to observe and then make the final determination. A confirmed leper was banished from the community. Sometimes, out of an abundance of caution, a person was expelled on suspicion of leprosy, but the condition cleared up or remained stable. It was the priest who made the decision for the community as to whether the person should be readmitted.
Of course this is a metaphor for sacramental confession. What does the priest do in a sacramental confession? He assesses a person’s spiritual condition. If he sees God’s healing mercy at work in the person’s repentance, he reconciles him. In the case of a serious sinner who repents, the priest readmits him into the full communion of the Church. It is God who forgives, but He ministers through the priest.
To us spiritual lepers, the Lord gives the same instruction: go, show yourself to the priest …” In other words, “Go to confession.” The Lord tells us that we should offer for our cleansing what is prescribed. That is to say, we should offer our penance.
Why should the leper bother to do that? After all, the Lord has already healed him. To this we can only answer, “Do what Jesus says: show yourself to the priest and offer your penance.” It is true that God can forgive directly, but it is clear enough from this passage that confession is to be a part of the believer’s life, especially in the case of serious sin.
4. Announce the Result– When God heals you, you feel that you have to tell someone. There’s just something about joy that can’t be hidden—and people notice when you’ve been changed.
That said, there are aspects of this Gospel that are perplexing: Jesus warns the healed leper not to tell a soul other than the priest.
This (and other passages in which the Lord issues similar commands for silence) is puzzling. The reason is made clear later in the passage. Jesus did not want His mission turned into a magic show at which people gathered to watch miracles occur and see “signs and wonders.” This man’s inability to remain silent means that Jesus can no longer enter a town openly and that many will seek Him for secondary reasons.
That said, commands to remain silent cannot hold for us who have this standing order: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age (Matt 28:19).
Hence it is clear that we need to shout what the Lord has done for us and give Him all the glory. When God acts in your life, there is joy that cannot be hidden or suppressed. If our healing is real, we cannot remain silent. To quote Jesus at a later point (when the Temple leaders told Him to silence His disciples), I tell you, if they keep quiet, the very rocks will cry out (Lk 19:40).
The heart of evangelization is announcing what the Lord has done for us. An old gospel song says, “I thought I wasn’t gonna testify … but I couldn’t keep it to myself, what the Lord has done for me!”
Yes, tell someone what the Lord has done. If your healing is real, you can’t keep quiet about it.
In the pastoral guide of St. Gregory the Great, the opening line reads: “A spiritual guide should be silent when discretion requires and speak when words are of service.”
This is not easy. Indeed, self-mastery in speech is among the rarer gifts and usually comes later in life!
Some of the most common sins we commit are related to speech: gossip, idle chatter, lies, exaggerations, harsh attacks, and uncharitable remarks. With our tongue we can spread hatred, incite fear and maliciousness, spread misinformation, cause temptation, discourage, teach error, and ruin reputations. With a gift capable of bringing such good, we can surely cause great harm!
The Book of James says this:
We all stumble in many ways. Anyone who is never at fault in what he says is perfect, able to keep his whole body in check. When we put bits into the mouths of horses to make them obey us, and thus we can turn the whole animal. Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts.
Consider how a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.
All kinds of animals, birds, reptiles and sea creatures are being tamed and have been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be (James 3:2-18).
Yes, though by God’s grace one may conquer many sins, those associated with speech are usually among the last to be overcome. It almost seems as if there is a separate, baser part of our brain that controls our speech. We can be halfway through saying something before we even realize how stupid and sinful we are being. Scripture speaks very artistically of the sinful tongue. Here is a list of ten sins of the tongue from James Melton . Although the list is his, the commentary is mine. Beware of these!
The Lying Tongue – speaking false things with the intention to mislead
The LORD detests lying lips, but he delights in people who are trustworthy (Proverbs 12:22).
The Flattering Tongue – exaggerating the good qualities of others in order to ingratiate ourselves to them, a form of lying
May the Lord silence all flattering lips and every boastful tongue (Psalm 12:4).
The Proud Tongue – There is a saying that a proud tongue comes with two closed ears. The proud tongue is boastful and overly certain of what it says. Those of proud tongue are not easily corrected and do not qualify or distinguish their remarks as they should.
Those who say, By our tongues we will prevail; our own lips will defend us—who can lord it over us? (Psalm 12:5) are condemned.
The Overused Tongue – saying far too much, especially concerning things about which we know little
The Swift Tongue – speaking before we should, before we even have all of the information
Be not rash with your mouth, and let not your heart be hasty to utter anything before God (Ecclesiastes 5:1).
Everyone should be swift to hear and slow to speak (James 1:19).
The Backbiting Tongue – talking about others behind their backs, the secretive injuring of a person’s good name. Calumny is outright lying about another person. Detraction is calling unnecessary attention to the faults of others so as to harm their reputations.
As surely as a north wind brings rain, so a gossiping tongue causes anger (Proverbs 25:23).
The Tale-bearing Tongue – spreading unnecessary (often hurtful) information about others. Tale-bearers spread personal information about others that should not be shared.
He that goes about as a tale-bearer reveals secrets, therefore keep no company with one who opens his lips (Proverbs 20:19).
Thou shalt not go up and down as a tale-bearer among thy people (Leviticus 19:16).
The Cursing Tongue – wishing that harm come to others, usually that they be damned
He loved to pronounce a curse—may it come back on him. He found no pleasure in blessing—may it be far from him (Psalm 109:17).
The Piercing Tongue – speaking with unnecessary harshness and severity
Proclaim the message; persist in it in season and out of season; rebuke, correct, and encourage with great patience and teaching (2 Timothy 4:2).
Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity (1 Tim 5:1-2).
The Silent Tongue – not speaking up when we ought to warn people of sin, call them to the Kingdom, and announce the Truth of Jesus Christ. In our age, the triumph of evil and bad behavior has been assisted by our silence as a Christian people. Prophets are to speak God’s Word.
Israel’s watchmen are blind: they are all ignorant, they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark (Isaiah 56:10).
So our speech is riddled with what it should not have and devoid of what it should. How wretched indeed is our condition! Well, James did say, Anyone who is never at fault in what he says is perfect!
There are many cautions to be guided by when it comes to speech. Here is another list of Scripture passages concerning speech, most of them taken from the Wisdom Tradition. Read and heed!
Be swift to hear, but slow to answer. If you have the knowledge, answer your neighbor; if not, put your hand over your mouth. Honor and dishonor through talking! A man’s tongue can be his downfall. Be not called a detractor; use not your tongue for calumny (Sirach 5:13-16).
He who repeats an evil report has no sense. Never repeat gossip, and you will not be reviled. … Let anything you hear die within you; be assured it will not make you burst. But when a fool hears something, he is in labor, like a woman giving birth to a child. … Like an arrow lodged in a man’s thigh is gossip in the breast of a fool … every story you must not believe … who has not sinned with his tongue? (Sirach 19:5-14 varia)
Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few. … Do not let your mouth lead you into sin. … Much dreaming and many words are meaningless. Therefore fear God (Eccles 5:1-6).
In the end, people appreciate honest criticism far more than flattery (Proverbs 28:23 NLT).
Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses (Prov 27:6).
He who guards his mouth and his tongue keeps himself from calamity (Prov 21:23).
He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin (Prov 13:3).
A gossip betrays a confidence; so avoid a man who talks too much (Prov 20:19).
A false witness will not go unpunished, and he who pours out lies will perish (Prov 19:9).
A false witness will not go unpunished, and he who pours out lies will not go free (Prov 19:5).
A man of knowledge uses words with restraint, and a man of understanding is even-tempered. Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue (Prov 17:27-28).
When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise (Prov 10:19).
Fools’ words get them into constant quarrels; they are asking for a beating (Prov 18:6).
Drive out the mocker, and out goes strife; quarrels and insults are ended (Prov 22:10).
The LORD detests lying lips, but he delights in men who are truthful. A prudent man keeps his knowledge to himself, but the heart of fools blurts out folly (Prov 12:22-23).
The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouth of the fool gushes folly (Prov 15:2).
The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life, but a deceitful tongue crushes the spirit (Prov 15:4).
A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions (Prov 18:2).
Some people make cutting remarks, but the words of the wise bring healing (Prov 12:18).
A man who lacks judgment derides his neighbor, but a man of understanding holds his tongue. A gossip betrays a confidence, but a trustworthy man keeps a secret (Prov 11:12-13).
The lips of the righteous know what is fitting, but the mouth of the wicked only what is perverse (Prov 10:32).
The heart of the righteous weighs its answers, but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil (Prov 15:28).
The prudent man does not make a show of his knowledge, but fools broadcast their foolishness (Prov 12:23).
Set a guard over my mouth, O LORD; keep watch over the door of my lips (Psalm 141:3).
Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking lies (Psalm 34:13).
Help me, Lord. Keep your arm around my shoulder and your hand over my mouth! Put your Word in my heart so that when I do speak, it’s really you speaking.
At Thursday’s daily Mass (Thursday of the 18th week of the year) we read of the sin that excluded Moses from leading the people to the Promised Land. While there are some mysterious elements to it, one thing seems clear: the grumbling of the people got on Moses’ nerves. Indeed, grumbling often affects more than just the one doing the complaining. Through it, infectious negativity can be set loose. Even if only a small number are grousing, it can still incite discontent, anger, and/or fear in others. Yes, the people nearly wore him out. At a particularly low moment, when the people were complaining about the food, Moses lamented to God,
Why have you dealt ill with your servant? And why have I not found favor in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? Did I conceive all this people? Did I give them birth, that you should say to me, “Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a nursing child,” to the land that you swore to give their fathers? … I am not able to carry all this people alone; the burden is too heavy for me. If you will treat me like this, kill me at once, if I find favor in your sight, that I may not see my wretchedness (Numbers 11:11-12, 14-15).
Moses was so dispirited that he preferred to die rather than continue on in this way. In his weariness, he spoke rashly, and God excluded him from leading the people into the Promised Land:
Now there was no water for the congregation. And they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. And the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Would that we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord! Why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness, that we should die here, both we and our cattle? And why have you made us come up out of Egypt to bring us to this wretched place which has neither grain nor figs nor vines nor pomegranates? Here there is not even water to drink!” But Moses and Aaron went way from the assembly to the entrance of the meeting tent, where they fell prostrate.
Then the glory of the Lord appeared to them, and the Lord said to Moses, “Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle.”
And Moses took the staff from before the Lord, as he commanded him. He and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels! Are we to bring water for you out of this rock?” And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock.
But the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them” (Numbers 20:2-12).
Many have pondered the precise nature of Moses’ sin and why the punishment for it was so severe. A few different explanations have been posited:
Moses sinned by not following the Lord’s instruction. The Lord told Moses to take his staff in hand and bid the rock to bring forth water. He was told to speak to the rock, but instead he struck it—twice. The striking of the rock, while not specifically directed according to the passage in Numbers, does not seem particularly egregious; in fact, in another description of this event (see Exodus 17:6) God does tell Moses to strike it. The Fathers of the Church (e.g., St. Jerome) did not view this as sinful, even interpreting the striking of the rock twice as a sign of the two bars of the cross.
Moses exhibited sinful pride. Having assembled the people, Moses reviled them, saying, “Hear now, you rebels!” He then continued, perhaps pridefully, “Shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” Neither Moses nor Aaron can bring forth water, however; only God can do that. Some of the Fathers of the Church interpreted this not as pride on Moses’ part but rather as an indication of the wavering of his faith.
Moses sinned by speaking harshly and rashly. Psalm 106 seems to favor this interpretation. They angered the Lord at the waters of Meribah, and it went ill with Moses on their account, for they made his spirit bitter, and he spoke rashly with his lips (Psalm 106:32-33).
This third explanation leads us back to the heart of our meditation: grumbling causes harm to the ones who grumble and to others who hear it. Moses was worn out by their complaining; as Psalm 106 says, his spirit grew bitter. He spoke rashly and reviled the people; in a flash of anger, he may also have yielded to sinful pride.
Why God punished him so severely is somewhat mysterious. St. Basil the Great used it as an object lesson to us all: “If the just man is scarcely saved, where shall the ungodly and sinner appear?” (Preface on the Judgment of God).
Whatever the reason for the drastic punishment, behold what grumbling does. It fuels discontent and bitterness. Be careful, fellow Christians; we can all succumb to the temptation to draw others into our anger, doubts, dissatisfaction, and fears. After all, misery loves company. Sharing concerns with friends is good and necessary, but this must be tempered by the knowledge that too much can harm them and us. A steady diet of grumbling is not good for anyone.
Grumbling, grousing, and complaining seem to be all around us. In our relative affluence, we often expect or even demand comfort. We are very particular about the way we want things to be, and often expect that it be made so without much if any effort on our part.
Moses was worn down by the constant grumbling of the people. Be cognizant of the toll that such behavior takes on others. Practice gratitude, an important antidote to the poison spread by grumbling.
The first reading for daily Mass on Monday (18th week of the year) was taken from the Book of Numbers. It features the Israelites grumbling about the manna in the wilderness:
Would that we had meat for food! We remember the fish we used to eat without cost in Egypt, and the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. But now we are famished; we see nothing before us but this manna (Numbers 11:4-5).
While it is easy to be astonished at their insolence and ingratitude, the scene presented depicts very common human tendencies; it is not unique to these people once in the desert. Their complaints are too easily our own.
Let’s look at some of the issues raised and note that many of us today struggle in the same way.
I. They prefer the abundance of food and creature comforts that come along with slavery in Egypt, to the freedom of children of God and the chance to journey to the Promised Land.Too easily, this is our struggle as well. Jesus points to the cross, but we prefer the pillow. Heaven is a nice thought, but it is in the future and the journey is a long one.
It is easy for us to prefer our own version of “melons and leeks.” Perhaps it is possessions, or power, or popularity. Never mind that the price we pay for them is a kind of bondage to the world and its demands. When the world grants its blessings, we become enslaved by the fact that we have too much to lose. We are willing to compromise our freedom, which Christ died to purchase for us, and enter into bondage to sin. We will buy into lies, commit any number of sins, or perhaps suppress the truth—all in an attempt to stay popular and well-connected. Why? Because we have become so desperate for the world’s blessings that we will compromise our integrity or hurt other people just to get those things we think we can’t live without.
We don’t like to call it bondage, though. Instead, we call it being “relevant,” “modern,” “tolerant,” and “compassionate.” Yes, as we descend into deeper darkness and greater bondage to sin and our passions, we are pressured to call it “enlightenment,” “choice,” and “freedom.” Although we use different terminology, it is still bondage for the many who are afraid to break free from it.
We are in bondage to Egypt, enslaved to Pharaoh. We prefer that to the freedom of the desert, with its difficult journey to a Promised Land (Heaven) that we have not yet fully seen. The pleasures of the world, its melons and leeks, are displayed to us in the present and available for immediate enjoyment.
The cry still goes up: Give us melons; give us leeks; give us cucumbers and fleshpots! Away with the desert. Away with the cross. Away with the Promised Land, if it exists at all. It is too far off and too hard to reach. Melons and leeks, please. Give us meat; we are tired of manna!
II. They are bored with the manna.While its exact composition is not known, it would seem that manna could be collected, kneaded like dough, and baked like bread. As such, it was a fairly plain substance, meant more to sustain than to be enjoyed.
Remembering the melons, leeks, and fleshpots of Egypt, they were bored with this plain manna. Never mind that it was miraculously provided every day by God in just the right quantity. Even miracles can seem boring after a while. The Lord may show us miracles today but too easily do we demand even more tomorrow.
We are also somewhat like children who prefer brownies and cupcakes to more wholesome foods. Indeed, the Israelites’ boredom with and even repulsion to the miracle food from Heaven does not sound so different from the complaint of many Catholics today that Mass is boring.
While it is certainly true that we can work to ensure that the liturgy reflects the glory it offers, it is also true that God has a fairly stable and consistent diet for us. He exhorts us to stay faithful to the manna: the wholesome food of prayer, Scripture, the sacraments, and stable, faithful fellowship in union with the Church.
In our fickleness, many of us pursue the latest fads and movements. Many Catholics wonder why we can’t we be more like the mega-churches that have all the latest bells and whistles: a Starbucks, contemporary music, and a rock-star-like pastor delivering a sensitive, toned-down, multimedia sermon with many promises and few demands.
As an old spiritual says, “Some go to church for to sing and shout, before six months, they’s all turned out!” Yes, some will leave the Catholic Church and other traditional forms that feature the more routine but stable and steady manner, in favor of the latest and greatest. They often find that within six months they’re bored again.
While the Church is always in need of reform, there is a lot to be said for the slow and steady pace as she journeys through the desert relying on the less glamorous but more stable and sensible food: the manna of the Eucharist, the Word of God, the Sacred Liturgy, prayer, and fellowship.
III. Who feeds you?Beyond these liturgical preferences of many for melons and leeks over manna, there is also a manifest preference for the food of this world. There is a tragic tendency for many Catholics—even regular church-goers—to get most of their food not from the Lord, Scripture, and the Church, but from the Egypt of this world.
Most dine regularly at the banquet table of popular entertainment, secular news media, and talk radio. They seem to eat this food quite uncritically! The manna is complained about, but the melons and leeks are praised without qualification.
While Christians cannot wholly avoid all contact with the world or eschew all its food, when do the melons and leeks ever come up for criticism? When do Christians finally look closely and say, “That is not the mind of God!” When do they ever conclude that this food is inferior to what God offers? When do parents finally walk into the living room, turn off the television, and tell their children that what they have just seen and heard is not the mind of God?
Tragically, this is rare. The food of this world is eaten in amounts far surpassing the consumption of the food of God. The melons and leeks of the world are praised, while the manna of God is put on trial for not being like the food of this world.
For a Christian, of course, this is backwards. The world should be on trial based on the Word of God. Instead, even for most Catholics, the Word of God and the teachings of the Church are put on trial by the standards of the world.
The question is this: who is it that feeds you? Is it the world or the Lord? What proportion of your food comes from the world and what from the Lord? Which is more influential in your daily life and your thinking: the world or the Lord? Who is really feeding you, informing you, and influencing you? Is it the melons and leeks of this world or is it the faithful, stable, even miraculous manna of the Lord and His Church?
These are some probing questions for all of us, drawn from an ancient wilderness. Tired of the manna, God’s people harmed themselves and others. It is easy to blame others for the mess we’re in today, but there are too many Catholics who prefer the melons and leeks of this world and have failed to summon others to the manna given by the Lord.
Have mercy on us, Lord our God. Give us a deep desire for the manna you offer. And having given it to us in abundance, help us to share it as well!
I usually like to keep things light on Friday evening when I post. And the video at the bottom of the page is something of a spoof on drug commercials, treating sin like a drug. Wait till you hear the side-effects disclaimer at the end. 🙂
I also thought today of doing a little post on the sins that cry to heaven for vengeance since I was talking to a parishioner today, who is suffering because his employer has not paid him for three weeks. The employer, a government agency says this is due to “administrative difficulties” in the bureaucracy where he works. He was angry (rightfully so) and getting desperate. I reminded him that withholding wages was a sin that cried to heaven and that God was angry with him. The rest of our conversation I’ll keep private.
With that painful situation in mind and how the negligent sin of one affects another, it occurs to me offer a few lists of sins, that may prove as helpful reminders to all of us in our struggle against it. Sometimes it helps to see sin in categories and to be able to “name the demons,” as a help to combat them. These are just a few helpful lists. There are others and I invite you to add to them. For the sake of brevity, I do not fully develop them all.
In keeping with the video below, consider these lists a kind of “Sin on Sale” a clearance sale if you will. The lists below can be purchased separately or together in packages. But do beware of the potential and likely side-effects!
The sins that cry to heaven for vengeance: (CCC 1867)
Murder (Gn 4:10),
Sodomy (Gn 17:20-21),
Oppression of the poor (Ex 2:23),
Defrauding workers of their just wages (Jas 5:4).
Seven Deadly Sins
Sins against the Holy Spirit:
Obstinacy in sin,
Deliberate resistance to the known truth.
Sins against faith: (CCC 2088-2089)
Hesitating doubt – delaying the overcoming of doubts, difficulties, or objections due to indifference or laziness
Voluntary doubt – disregarding of the truth or on-going resistance to overcoming doubt.
Incredulity – willful refusal to assent to revealed truths of the faith.
Heresy – the choosing and over-emphasizing of certain truths of the faith to the exclusion of others.
Schism – Refusal of submission to the Pope or Catholic communion.
Apostasy – Total repudiation of the Christian faith.
Sins against God’s love: (CCC 2094)
Sloth – sorrow or aversion at the good things offers to the soul
Hatred of God – usually rooted in prideful notion that refuses to be second to God.
Sins against the Honor that is Due to God – (CCC 2111-2117)
Superstition – the elevation of certain practices such that they are regarded as more important or powerful than prayer or trust in God.
Idolatry – divinizing what is not God, false worship, holding creatures more precious than the one Creator who is God.
Divination – undertaking practices meant to disclose the future, e.g. horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, recourse to mediums etc.
Magic and spiritism – attempts to tame occult powers and place them at our service, or to have power over others in this way.
Sins of Irreligion: (CCC 2118-2128)
Tempting God – Putting God to the test
Sacrilege – stealing sacred things, profaning sacraments or liturgical actions, desecration or speaking irreverently of sacred persons, places or things that are blessed or consecrated to God.
Simony – Buying or selling spiritual things, seeking to profit on them merely because they are blessed.
Atheism – Denying the existence of God, to include the practical atheism of materialism and utopian notions that man can save himself.
Agnosticism – an indifference toward God that refrains form formally denying his existence.
Sins against the name of God: (CCC 2142-2155)
Promises – infidelity to promises or oaths made with God’s name
Profanity – using God’s name in vain ways that do not respect its sacred character, (e.g. empty expressions like “Oh my God!”
Blasphemy – to speak ill of God, trivialize, curse or ridicule him. By extension, to ridicule sacred things or the Saints.
Swearing – calling God to witness in matters that are trivial. Also swearing a false oath, committing perjury when under oath.
Cursing – using God’s name to curse or call down evil on others.
Sins against the Lord’s Day: (CCC 2185)
Refusing the worship owed God
Refusing the joy proper to the Lord’s day
Refusing the relaxation of mind and body commanded on the Lord’s day.
Refusing reasonable works of mercy proper to the Lord’s day.
Sins Against life: (CCC 2268-2283)
Intentional homicide – all unjust killing
Acting with reckless disregard for the safety and life of our self or others
Sins against Chastity: (CCC 2351-2357)
Lust – willfully entertaining inordinate or disordered desires for sexual pleasure
Sins of Injustice and theft: (CCC 2409ff)
Deliberately keeping lent things
Damaging the goods of others without restitution
Paying unjust wages
Forcing up prices
Refusing to pay debts
Work poorly done
Excessive and wasteful practices
Excessive and unnecessary exploitation of natural resources
Refusing our legitimate obligations to the community
Refusing our legitimate obligations to the poor
Just a few helpful lists drawn from the Catechism with reference also to the Catholic Source Book and other places.
So there it is a clearance sale on sin. Now here’s a word from our sponsor!
The well-known story of Lazarus and the rich man was read at Mass this morning (Thursday of the Second Week of Lent). On one level the message of the story seems plain enough: neglecting the poor is a damnable sin. However, there are other important teachings: about death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell. Those teachings are hidden in the details, but the subtlety is part of the story’s beauty. Let’s take a look at some of the teachings, beginning with the obvious one.
1. Neglect of the poor is a damnable sin – There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day. And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table. Dogs even used to come and lick his sores.
The vision of Lazarus’ poverty is dramatic indeed. The unnamed rich man (dubbed Dives by some because it means “rich” in Latin) does not so much act in an evil way toward Lazarus as he does commit a sin of neglect and omission. He seems undisturbed by and removed from Lazarus’ suffering. This neglect, this omission, this insensitivity, lands him in Hell. The rich man died and was buried, and from the netherworld, where he was in torment, he raised his eyes.
Care for the poor will be a central theme of our judgment, as is made clear in the Gospel of Matthew (25:31 ff), in which Jesus separates the sheep from the goats, the just from the unrighteous, based on whether they cared for the least of their brethren. To those who failed in this regard the Lord Jesus says, Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels (Matt 25:41).
How best to care for the poor is a matter of some dispute, but that we must care for them is clear. Hence, the rich man who neglected Lazarus is now in Hell. This is a call to sobriety about the reality of judgment; we must consider whether our care for the poor is what it should be.
2. Although he is in torment, the rich man has not changed– The rich man, in torment, raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. And he cried out, “Father Abraham, have pity on me. Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am suffering torment in these flames.”
Notice that the rich man still fails to see Lazarus’ dignity. In effect, he still sees Lazarus as an errand boy. Though he has to look up to see him, the rich man still looks down on Lazarus. He does not ask Abraham to send Lazarus to him so that he can apologize for his sinful neglect and seek his forgiveness. Rather he merely wants Lazarus to serve him. Even though he is in torment, the rich man is unrepentant. Although doesn’t like where he is, he does not reconcile with Lazarus or even realize that he should do so. This rich man is hardened in his sin. While Lazarus was alive, the rich man never recognized his dignity, and he remains blind to it.
Over time, sin hardens our heart. The more we remain in sin, the harder our hearts become, and the less likely it is that we will ever change. Why is Hell eternal? Look at the rich man: He cannot and will not change; his decision, character, and demeanor are forever fixed.
There is an old litany that goes like this: Sow a thought, reap a deed; sow a deed, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny. The mystery of the world to come is that our character is forever fixed. The Fathers of the Church described this mystery as being like clay on a potter’s wheel. As long as the clay is moist and on the wheel, the potter can shape and reshape it, but there comes a time when the clay form is placed in the kiln to be fired, fixing its shape forever. It is this way for us when we come before God, who judges us by fire (cf 1 Cor 3:12-15).
Fire will forever fix our character; this judgment through fire will either purify us or bring us condemnation. The fixed quality of the human person is illustrated in the rich man’s unchanged attitude.
3. The rich man does not ask to come to Heaven – It is very strange that the rich man does not ask that he might come to Heaven; rather, he asks that Lazarus be sent to Hell.
One of the saddest facts about the souls in Hell is that they would not be happy in Heaven anyway. After all, Heaven is about being with God. It is about justice, love of the poor, chastity, the heavenly liturgy, the celebration of the truth, the praise of God. God is at the center rather than us. The fact is, many show by the way that they live that they do not want many of these things. Why would someone who has disliked, even hated, these things will suddenly become enamored of them at the moment of death? Someone who ignores or disdains God and considers His faithful to be hypocrites would hardly be happy in Heaven.
The rich man demonstrates this by the fact that he does not ask to come to Heaven. He surely does not like where he is, but he shows no repentant desire for Heaven, either. The teaching, though subtle, seems clear enough: the souls in Hell have little interest in Heaven despite their dislike of Hell.
4. The Great Reversal– Abraham further indicates to the Rich Man and to us the “great reversal”: My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.
We spend a lot of time trying to be on top in this world. We want comfort, wealth, position, and power. The Lord warns here that we ought to beware the great reversal that is coming. Lazarus, who was poor, is now rich; and the rich man is now poor.
Jesus teaches this elsewhere: But many who are first will be last, and the last first (Mk 10:31). Mary remarked that He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down the mighty from their thrones but lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty (Lk 1:51-53).
This is the great reversal. We so want to be rich and comfortable in this world, running from any suffering or setback. But the Lord warns of riches, How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God (Mk 10:23). Yet still we want to be rich. He also says, Anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple (Luke 14:27) Yet still we run from the cross and suffering. In the great reversal, many who are first in this world will be last in the world to come.
We cannot assert a direct correlation between success here and loss in the world to come, but neither should we ignore the teaching that striving to “make it” in the world and “be somebody” can be a dangerous path. And if we have amounted to something, we’d better humble ourselves through generosity to the poor and associating with the humble. The goal of worldly success is a dangerous one, for the great reversal is coming. Better to be found among the humble and the poor, or at least well-associated with them, than to be mighty and high. Yes, beware the great reversal!
5. Refusing the truth of Revelation is a damnable sin – The rich man does not repent to God, nor does he seek to be reconciled with Lazarus; but he does have some concerns for his brothers, for his family. We need not assume that the souls in Hell have no affections whatsoever. However, their affections are not for God and what He esteems. And so the rich man, still viewing Lazarus only as an errand boy, asks Abraham to dispatch Lazarus to his family carrying a warning. Perhaps a vision from the grave will convince them!
But Abraham indicates quite clearly that they have the clear witness of God through Moses and the prophets. In other words, they have the Scriptures, the very Word of God, to warn them. The rich man insists, “Oh no, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.” Then Abraham said, “If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.”
The last point is dripping with irony, considering the fact that Jesus would rise from the dead. Abraham says clearly that there are many sinners who are so hardened in their sin that no matter what the Scriptures say or what the Church solemnly teaches, they will never be convinced. This is so very true today; many remain hardened in their sins. No amount of Scripture or Church teaching will convince them that they are wrong. This is what happens to us if we remain in unrepented sin: Our hearts are hardened, our minds are closed, and our necks are stiffened. In the end, this story teaches that such hardness is damnable.
These are five basic teachings from a well known parable. We do well to heed these lessons!
This song, “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham” amounts to a wish that we will find our way to glory. Heeding the lessons of this parable is surely one way to find our rest in God.
To say that something is “necessary” is to declare that it is so essential that to be without it causes grave if not deadly harm. The word comes from Latin: ne– (not) + cedere (to withdraw, go away, yield). The root sense is that what is necessary is something from which we cannot stray, something from which there is no withdrawal, something we cannot evade. There is an expression in Latin, sine qua non, which literally means “without which not.” Its fuller meaning expresses something so essential that without it, other required things cannot proceed.
Do you see prayer in this way, as necessary, as essential? Do you view at something without which other things cannot happen? Sadly, it would seem that many do not. Prayer is something easily postponed. It’s something to be done if the mood is just right, or if we have an urgent need. It is seldom scheduled and easily skipped in favor of almost any other activity. We seem to be able find time for everything else, but prayer is easily set aside—I’m busy; I’m tired; I forgot; something came up.
These sorts of issues arise because most people don’t really view prayer as necessary.
But prayer is necessary. St. Augustine said, “God who made us without us, will not save us without us.” Jesus stands at the door and knocks (see Rev 3:21), but we must open the door of our heart for him to enter and feed us. Prayer is our way answering, of opening the door. Little else will happen until we open the door each day to Him.
This brief column is not intended as an exhaustive exposition on prayer. Rather, it is intended to remind us that we should see prayer as a necessity. To that end, here are just a few quick thoughts underscoring the essential nature of prayer.
Jesus said, This sort of demon can only be driven out by prayer (Mk 9:29). Those who do not pray and are not prayed over may suffer intractable demonic attacks.
Jesus said, Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation (Matt 26:41). Deadly temptations will certainly assail us if we do not pray. How can we expect to avoid serious temptations and Hell if we do not pray?
Jesus said that we must always pray and not lose heart (Lk 18:1). We must pray, we mustnot give way to discouragement.
James said, You have not because you ask not (James 4:3). How many gifts are lacking for us and others because we do not pray? Some gifts are only unlocked and sent forth by prayer.
John Chrysostom said, “As the body without the soul is dead, so the soul is dead without prayer” (Homily lxxvii). We are dead without prayer!
Augustine said, “God gives, without prayer, the first graces such as the vocation to faith and to repentance; but all other graces, and particularly the gift of perseverance, he gives only to those who ask them” (De Dono Persev, xvi). Notice that it is only to those who ask!
Thomas Aquinas said, “Now after baptism man needs to pray continually, in order to enter heaven: for though sins are remitted through baptism, there still remain the fomes (tinder) of sin assailing us from within, and the world and the devils assailing us from without. And therefore it is said pointedly (Luke 3:21) that ‘Jesus being baptized and praying, heaven was opened’: because, to wit, the faithful after baptism stand in need of prayer” (Summa Theologica, III, q. 39 art. 5).
St Teresa of Avila reasoned, “Ask and you shall receive … then he who does not ask will not receive.” Now that is some straightforward wisdom!
Alphonsus said, “He who prays is certainly saved; he who does not pray is certainly lost” (Considerations on the Eternal Maxims 13.2). Prayer is necessary! It is the sinequanon.
Pray, my brethren; pray. Pray for the gift of prayer. Pray for the desire to pray. Pray! Prayer is necessary; it is essential.
We do not always know everything we should pray for; we do not always remember to pray for everything. God knows our weakness. But failing to pray as a general norm is deadly to our life and our salvation.