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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Temptation and Strength – Notice that Jesus is tempted three times, after which the devil leaves him. In a certain way the spiritual life is like the physical life in that we grow stronger through repeated action. After lifting weights repeatedly, our physical strength increases and we are able to overcome increasingly difficult challenges. It is the same with the spiritual life. And old Gospel songs says, Yield not to temptation, for yielding is sin. Each victory will help you, some other to win. Scripture says, Resist the Devil and he will flee (James 4:7). We need not conclude here that Jesus needed to be strengthened (he did not) in order to understand that he is still teaching us what WE need to do. The battle against temptation is not a “one and you’re done” scenario, but an on-going battle wherein each victory makes us stronger and the devil more discouraged. Eventually he stops wasting his time tempting us in certain areas, as we grow stronger. At times, the battle may weary us but, in the long run, it strengthens us. Jesus illustrates this with his three-fold battle with Satan.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s look at this Gospel in three stages.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Clipart credit from Echoinghope.blogspot.com)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recall the words of Dr. Martin Luther King:

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

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

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

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

I. The first of the antitheses reads:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

III. Finally the Lord says,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Slideshow of Sanctity – A Meditation on the Gospel for the Sixth Sunday of the Year

In the Gospel for this Weekend’s Mass we are well into the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), and today we cover a good deal of Chapter 5. In a way the Lord is drawing a picture for us of the transformed human person. He is presenting a kind of slide show of what sanctity really is. In understanding this rather lengthy text we do well to reflect on it in three parts.

I.  The Power of New Life in Christ – We have discussed before that an important principle of the Christian moral vision is to understand that it is essentially received, not achieved. Holiness is a work of God. The human being acting out the power of his flesh alone cannot keep, and surely not fulfill, the Law. The experience of God’s people in the Old Testament bears this out. True holiness (and not mere ethical rule keeping) is possible only by and through God’s grace.

In this sense we must understand the moral vision given by Jesus as a description rather than a mere prescription. Notice what the text says here: I have come not to abolish but to fulfill [the Law]. It is Jesus who fulfills the Law. And we, who are more and more in him, and He in us do what He does. It is His work.

Thus, what Jesus is doing here is to describe what a transformed human being is like:

  • When Jesus Christ really begins to live his life in us (Gal 2:20),
  • When the power of His cross goes to work in us and puts sin to death (Rom 6:2),
  • When Jesus increases and we decrease (Jn 3:30),
  • When our old self is crucified with him so that sin will no longer master us (Rom 6:6-7),
  • When and as all this takes place we are transformed.

This is a work of God, the power is in the Blood and the cross. The power comes to us by grace. It is all a work of God.

Hence, Jesus, in today’s Gospel is not giving us a rigorous set of rules to follow (and they are rigorous) but, is describing what the transformed human person is like. Clearly his description is not some merely impossible ideal, but is set forth as the normal Christian life. The normal Christian is a transformed human person. The normal Christian, to use Jesus description from today’s Gospel, has authority over his anger and sexuality, loves his wife and family and is a man of his word. All this comes to him as the fruit of God’s grace.

It is very important to understand that this is a life offered to us by God. Otherwise we are simply left with moralism here: “Stop being so angry and unchaste, stop getting divorced, and stop lying.”  Rather, what is offered here is new life in Christ where, on account of an inner transformation by the power of grace, we see anger abate, unchastity diminish, the love of others increase, and we speak the truth in love. So the power to do this is not from our flesh, but from the Lord, through the power of his cross to put sin to death and bring forth new life in us.

II. The Principle of New Life in Christ – The key word in Jesus’ moral vision is that, by his grace we do not merely keep the Law, but fulfill it. The key word is “fulfill” and to fulfill means to fill something full, to meet more than what is minimally required and to enter into the full vision and meaning of the Law.

Thus, to use Jesus’ examples in today’s Gospel:

  • It is not enough to refrain from killing, true life in God means that vengeful hatred is removed from me and I love even my enemy and am reconciled with people I have wrongfully hurt or offended.
  • It is not enough merely to avoid adultery, true life in Christ means that I am chaste and pure even in my thoughts, that by God’s grace I have authority over what I am thinking and shun unchaste thoughts.
  • It is not enough to merely follow proper divorce law. True life in Christ means I don’t even want to divorce my wife. I actually love her, and my children. I am reconciled to her and accepting that she is not perfect and neither am I.
  • It is not enough to simply refrain from swearing false oaths. True life in Christ means speaking the truth in love, being a man of my words. The grace of God keeps me from being duplicitous and deceitful.

In all these ways the law is not merely kept, it is fulfilled. It is filled full in that all this implications are abundantly and joyfully lived as Jesus Christ transforms me. Christ came to fulfill the Law and in Christ, as our union with him grows more perfect we also fulfill the Law. For what Christ does we do, for we are in him and he is in us. As he says,  I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:5)

III.  The Picture of New Life in Christ. – The Lord then goes on to six pictures of what a transformed human being looks like. In the Gospel for today’s Mass we look at only four. These pictures are often called “antitheses” since they are all formulated as:  You have heard that it was said……but I say to you. But the key point is to see then as pictures of what happens to a person in whom Jesus Christ is really living. Let’s look at each.

A.  On Anger – The text begins: You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment. But I say to you, whoever is angry with brother will be liable to judgment; and whoever says to brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna. Thus the Lord teaches us that the commandment not to kill has a deeper meaning that must be filled full. For, what leads to murder? Is it not the furnace of anger, retribution, and hatred within us? We may all experience a flash of anger and it passes. Further there is such a thing as righteous anger which is caused by the perception of injustice and sin. The Lord himself exhibited this sort of anger a lot. These sorts of anger are not condemned. Rather the anger that is condemned is the anger that is born on hate and a desire for revenge, an anger that goes so far as to wish the other were dead and to deny that they possess any real human dignity. This is what leads to murder.

That the Lord has this sort of anger in mind is revealed in the examples he uses of the expression of this anger: Raqa and fool. These words express contempt and hatred. Raqa is untranslatable, but seems to have had the same impact as the “N-word” today. It is a very hurtful word expressing deep contempt. Now this has to go. It cannot remain in a person in whom the Lord authentically lives. And it will go, to the degree that we allow Christ to live in us. If that be the case then increasingly we cannot hate others, for the Lord is in us and he died for all out of love. How can I hate someone he loves?

The Lord makes it clear that if this doesn’t go, we are going to jail: Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court. Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge will hand you over to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny. Thus, either we allow the Lord to effect this reconciliation in us or we’re off to jail. Whether the jail is hell or purgatory (for it would seem there is release from this jail after the last penny is paid), jail it is. We are not going to heaven until and unless this matter is resolved. Why delay the issue? Let the Lord work it now. Don’t  go to jail because of your grudges and stubborn refusal to admit your own offenses.

B. On LustThe text begins: You have heard that it was said, You shall not commit adultery. But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. – Thus the Lord teaches us that the commandment against adultery has a deeper meaning beyond merely transgressing marriage bounds. To fill this Law full means to be chaste in all matters and in mind and heart.

It is wrong to engage in any illicit sexual union, but if one is looking at pornography, and fanaticizing about others, sexually, beyond the bounds of marriage, one is already in adultery. What the Lord is offering us here is a clean mind and pure heart. He is offering us authority over our sexuality and thoughts. To some in the world, such a promise seems impossible. But God is able to do and increasingly for those who are in Christ, self-mastery increases and purity of mind and heart become a greater reality. Our flesh alone cannot do this, but thanks be to God who gives us the victory in Christ. It is his work in us to give us these gifts.

The text goes on to say: If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into Gehenna. Therefore we have to be serious about these matters. The Lord is using hyperbole, but he is using it to make a firm point. It is to say that it is more serious to sin in this matter than to lose your eyesight, or limbs from your body.

Now, most moderns don’t think this way. They make light of sin, and sexual sin, in particular. But God does not make light of it. Jesus here teaches that it is worse to lose our soul than to lose parts of our body. If we were losing our eyesight or a limb to cancer we would probably be begging the Lord to deliver us. But why do we not think of sin in this way? Why are we not horrified by sexual sin in the same degree? We are clearly skewed in our thinking. Jesus is clear that these sorts of sins can land us in hell (which is here called Gehenna). Lustful thinking, pornography, masturbation, fornication, adultery, contraception and homosexual acts have to go. They are not part of life in Christ who wants to give us freedom and authority over our sexual passions.

Let’s be clear, a lot of people today are in some pretty serious bondage when it comes to sexuality. Jesus stands before us all and says, “Come let me live in you and give you the gift of sexual purity. It will be my gift to you, it will be my work in you to set you free from all disordered passion.”

C. On Divorce – The text says, It was also said, Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce. But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife – unless the marriage is unlawful – causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery – At the time of the Lord Jesus, divorce was permitted in Israel, but a man had to follow the rules. But the Lord says to fulfill marriage law is to love your wife, love your husband. He teaches that when He begins to live his life in us, love for our spouse will grow, love for our children will deepen. The thought of divorce won’t even occur! Who wants to divorce someone they love?

If the Lord can help us to love our enemy he can surely cause us to love our spouse. It is a true fact that some of the deepest hurts can occur in marriage. But the Lord can heal all wounds and help us to forget the painful things of the past.

Here too the Lord is blunt. He simply refuses to recognize all this little pieces of paper people run about with saying that some human judge approved their divorce. God is not impressed with the legal document and may well still consider the person married!

Here too the Lord says, “Come to me, bring me your broken marriage, your broken heart and let me bring healing. It is a true fact that sometimes one has a spouse who simply leaves or refuses to live in peace. Here too the Lord can heal by removing the loneliness and hurt that might drive one to a second marriage where (often) there is more trouble waiting. Let the Lord bring strength, healing and restore unity. He still works miracles, and sometimes that is what it is going to take.

D. On Oaths – The text says, Again you have heard that it was said to your ancestors, Do not take a false oath, but make good to the Lord all that you vow. But I say to you, do not swear at all; not by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is his footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Do not swear by your head, for you cannot make a single hair white or black. Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one. The people of Jesus’ time had lots of legalism associated with oaths and lots of tricky ways of watering down the truth. The Lord says, just cut it all out, and be a man or a woman of your word. When Jesus begins to live his life in us, we speak the truth in Love. When we make commitments we are faithful to them, we do not lie and we don’t play games with the truth. God is truth, and as he lives in us, we too become the truth, speak the truth and live the truth. This is the gift that Jesus offers us here.

So then, Here are four pictures of a transformed human being. Remember, the Sermon on the Mount is filled with promises more than prescriptions, descriptions more than prescriptions. The Lord is promising us here what he can and will do for us.

I am a witness to the transformative power of Jesus’ grace and love. And I promise you brethren, in the Lord Jesus Christ,  that everything he offers us here, he will do. It is already happening and taking deep root in my life. How about you? Are you a witness?

This song speaks of the power of Jesus to transform us and of our need for that grace. The text says:

You breathe in me, And I’m alive with the power of your holiness.
You breathe in me, And you revive feelings in my soul
That I have laid to rest
Chorus: So breathe in me, I need you now.
I’ve never felt so dead within, So breathe in me. Maybe somehow
You can breathe new life in me again
I used to be so sensitive to the light that leads to where you are
Now I’ve acquired these callouses with the darkness of a cold and jaded heart

Pass the Salt and Put on the Lights – A Meditation on the Gospel for the 5th Sunday of the Year

In the gospel today the Lord describes metaphorically (figuratively) what a Christian is and what He expects of us. Note five things about what He says.

I. The Definitiveness of his Proclamation – The Text says You are the Salt of the earth….You are the light of the World…..But if salt goes flat it is good for nothing…..No one lights a lamp and puts it under a basket.

The Lord is definitive in two ways. First he says, “You.” He is not talking to people long ago, or someone next to you. He is not merely talking to your pastor, or only to the Saints. He is talking to you, “YOU are salt, YOU are light.” You. It’s too easy to say, “Look what the Lord is saying to them, long ago, near the lakeside.” It’s not long ago, It’s now, it’s you.

The second way the Lord is definitive is that both images depend on us, and if we are not salt and light then no one else is around to be this and we have utterly voided our worth.

  1. Look at the metaphor of salt:You are either salt, or you are nothing, in fact, good for NOTHING. As Christians we have signed up to be specialists. We have signed up to be Christians. What this means is that if we go off and do anything else, we are nothing, and good for nothing. It’s a very all or nothing scenario. Jesus says, if you have decided to be my disciple your are either going to do that or be nothing. You may go on to be a doctor, lawyer, teacher, laborer, or social worker. But the Lord’s got plenty of those, (and so does the devil). Your first and only mission is to be a true and uncompromised Christian and everything else is commentary. You may be a great doctor, but if you don’t do it as a clear and visible Christian you are nothing. You may be a skilled social worker, but if you don’t do it as a Christian, you are good for nothing. Any non-believer can be socially useful as a doctor, sports hero, actor, lawyer, or social worker. But only a Christian can be a Christian. If you don’t do “job one” you are nothing. If you get your kids every good thing, send them off to college, paid in full, but do not bring them to Christ and be a Christian witness  to them,  you are good for nothing. Any parent can give their kids material things, but only a Christian can give them Christ. Got it? You’re either salt (a true Christian) or you are nothing.
  2. As for the light we can note something similar of this second definitiveness. The Lord says, you are THE light of the World, not merely A light. What this means is that if we do not shine, the world is darker. No one can take our place. If we don’t shine by living our faith and proclaiming it,  the world is in darkness. Buddha can’t help, Mohamed can’t pull it off, science and humanism can’t substitute. Either we are light, or there is none. Some may call this arrogant, but I just call it Scripture. The Lord said it,  not us. We are either light or the world is dark. And if the world is getting darker, whose fault is that? We need not go far. Too many Christians fulfill Isaiah 56:10 which says, Israel’s watchmen are blind, they all lack knowledge; they are all dumb dogs, they cannot bark; they lie around and dream, they love to sleep. You may be an exception, too many Christians are not.

Therefore notice the definitive pronouncement the Lord makes here. We Christians are either with the Lord or we’re nothing. We’re either light or the world is in darkness.

II. The Dynamics of Salt – When Jesus says You are the salt of the earth, what are some of the lessons we can learn from salt? Consider four things:

  1. Salt Seasons – Christians are called to add spice to life, to bring beauty, joy and hope to the world. Joy is the surest sign of a Christian. Even our keeping of the Commandments is a source of joy as we experience God’s power to put sin to death in us and bring forth order, self-discipline and holiness. Hope too ought to distinguish us from a world that is often cynical and thinks sin is inevitable. To this world we are not only to declare that the Commandments are possible and bring joy, but to demonstrate it in our very lives. We are to be zesty, passionate, alive and free from sin in Christ. Yet sadly,  we Christians are more known merely for what we are against. Too many Christians are not spicy, do not really add flavor, but are more like bored believers, depressed disciples, fearful faithful, and the frozen chosen. In our best moments though look what spicy things the faith has contributed: Art, music, churches, hospitals, universities, the scholastic and scientific methods, holidays (just a mispronunciation of Holy Days). Note how our  tradition and Scriptural teaching of justice mercy, love, and the dignity of the human person has blessed the world. Do you bring spice to other’s lives? Hope and joy? Scripture says, Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you. (1 Peter 3:15). Well that means that people notice a hope in you! Do they? How?
  2. Salt Preserves – Before refrigeration, people often used salt to cure or persevere meat. The salt killed the bacteria and other microorganisms that caused rot and decay. We as Christians are called to prevent further decay in this sin soaked world. The truth that we proclaim is meant to preserve people from the decay of sin and over-indulgence. Chastity, justice, generosity, the proclamation of the truth, and so forth,  are like a salt that preserves this world from decay. We must be salt, if we are not, nothing else is. YOU are the salt.
  3. Salt heals – In the ancient world salt was used on wounds. It helped stop bleeding, it killed bacteria and prevented further infection. So too the Christian faith. Through our doctrinal and moral teaching, and our living of it, we are called to bring healing to this world wounded by sin, strife, war, jealousy, anger, bitterness, retribution, promiscuity, unfaithfulness, greed, and countless errors. The Word of God and his plan is a healing medicine for what ails this world.
  4. Salt burns – Yes, salt stings when applied to wounds. We Christians aren’t just sugar and spice and everything nice. When salt is applied to wounds it burns and often causes loud protest. The truth stings,  and the truth of the Gospel can be irritating to a world that is wounded by sin. But, despite the protests of our world, the sting is a healing sting. It is driving out the bacteria and disease of the world and preventing further infection. Just because people protest the Church and howl in complaint at the truth of the Gospel, does not mean we have done anything wrong. The protests often mean we are doing exactly what we must.

III.  The Destination of Salt – Note that the Lord says you are the salt of the EARTH. He did not say you the salt of the Church. For salt to be effective it has to get out of the shaker! Too many Christians are bold in the pew but cowards in the world. They will speak of the faith in the relative security of the Church and among certain friends. But don’t ask them to preach to their spouse, co-worker, even children. That’s too scary. And don’t even think to ask them to knock on doors or to go to the local mall and witness, or stand in front of an abortion clinic.

But salt in the shaker is useless. It has to come out of the shaker to make any difference. You don’t salt salt. Witnessing to fellow Christians may have a limited benefit,  but it is not really the true destination of salt. The salt has to go forth. When the priest or deacon says the Mass is ended go in peace, he might as well be holding up a salt shaker and shaking it.

It’s long past time for the salt (you and me) to go forth. Consider:

  • In the last fifty years there has been a 560% increase in violent crime. It’s time for the salt to work.
  • There are 1.7 million abortions each year in this nation.
  • Since 1970 there has been a quadrupling of divorce rates. And if the overall number of divorces has declined recently it is due more to people not getting married in the first place. It’s time for the salt to work.
  • 43% of children today are no longer living with both their biological parents. That’s a tripling in the number of children living in single-parent homes since the 70s. It’s time for the salt to work.
  • As the family breaks down what happens to our young:
    • A quadrupling in juvenile arrests,
    • 400% increase in births outside of wedlock,
    • 1 million Teenage pregnancies annually,
    • three million teenagers are treated annually for sexually transmitted diseases.
    • 200% increase in the teenage suicide rate,
    • dropping in the average SAT scores,
    • 2/3rds of high school students have experimented with illegal drugs.
    • It’s time for the salt to work.
  • In the schools you cannot pray or mention religion, but condoms are freely available and all sorts of aberrant and alternative lifestyles and philosophies are openly promoted.
  • Parental consent is required for a child to go to the zoo or get an aspirin but in many states abortion referrals are made without parental consent.
  • Our neighborhoods are devastated by poverty, injustice, crime and despair.
  • All this has happened on our watch. It’s time for the salt to work.
  • This world needs for the salt to get out of the shaker and do it’s work of seasoning, purifying, and preserving.

IV. The Designation of Pure lightYou are the light of the world.A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house. – Here too, much that is similar can be said. You don’t light light. It is the darkness that needs the light. Light is meant to be seen.  But there are too many undercover Christians, secret agent saints, and hidden holy ones. Jesus didn’t light our light to have it hidden under a basket out of fear or secrecy. He wants the Church, he wants you and me,  to shine. He wants every Christian to be a light so that it’s like a city on a hill! He wants us to shine so that we can’t be hid.

V. The Details of light:  Jesus goes on to say,  Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.”Notice four things about this light:

  1. The CAUSE of the Light – See that little word: “Let.”  We are to yield to Christ, to allow him to shine through us. He is the cause of our light. Let your light shine. There’s an old Gospel song that says, When you see me trying to do good, trying to live as a Christian should, It’s just Jesus, Jesus in me.
  2. The COST of the light – The light is to shine,  but there is no shining without burning. To shine costs us something. It may be Christ’s light but he shines through us. This means sacrifice. It means letting him use you. It means not always sleeping when you want to, it means not just sitting at home and saying “Ain’t it awful.”  It means getting out and getting involved. It means being “out there” and risking a few things. It means being targeted, visible,  and identified with someone (Jesus) who is hated by many. And in a world that prefers the darkness to light (cf  John 3:19-21) it means being called harsh, out of touch, hateful,  etc. There is no shining without burning.
  3. The CONCRETENESS of the light –  Letting our light shine is no mere abstract thing. Jesus speaks of deeds. It involves concrete behavior. Your light shines by the way you live, the choices you make, the behavior you exhibit. It’s when Christians get married and stay married, stay faithful to their commitments and are people of their word. It’s when we tell the truth instead of lie, live chastely instead of fornicating, are courteous, and respectful. It’s when we respect life, stop reckless driving and all other reckless and risky behavior. Our light shines when we clean up our language, give to the poor and work for justice. Our Light shines when we refuse to purchase pornographic, violent or degrading materials. Our light shines when we love instead of hate, seek reconciliation, and pray for our enemies instead of seek vengeance. Our light shines when we walk uprightly and speak the truth in love, without compromise. That’s when the light begins to shine.
  4. The CONSEQUENCE of the Light– God is glorified when our light shine. We do not act or get involved merely to satisfy our own anger, or to fight for our own sake. We are light to glorify God. It is not about our winning, it is about God shining and being glorified. Too often when we do get involved we can get confused and merely seek to win an argument, rather than glorify God. We can seek for our own priase rather than to have God glorified. We need to pray for good intentions for it is possible to do the right things for the wrong reason. The desire result is God’s glory not our glory.

OK, Pass the salt and put on the lights!

Here’s another video from Fr. Francis Martin here in DC. As he spoke, I was shoutin a few Amens and saying “Make it plain preacher!”

Hat tip to Cynthia for sending me the link to this video. Try not to tap your toe too much:

Description more than Prescription – A Meditation on the Gospel of the Beatitudes from the 4th Sunday of the Year

The Gospel passage on Beatitudes is one of the most familiar of Scripture. Yet, though familiar, these Beatitudes remain difficult to understand. This is because they are very paradoxical.  The word paradox refers to a statement that goes against the common understanding or intuition. We do not usually call the poor blessed, but rather the well off. We do not usually call those who mourn blessed or happy, rather we call joy and laughter blessed. And so forth. So the Lord is presenting us with paradox and we may struggle to grasp the truth of what he says.

It helps to explore the notion of Beatitude for a moment and then apply it to each beatitude.

  1. To begin it is critical to understand that beatitude is not something we do, but something we receive. The beatitudes declare an objective reality as the result of a divine act. The indicative mood should be taken seriously, and not transformed into an imperative of exhortation, as though Jesus were saying, start being poor or meek, then God will bless you. Rather, he is saying that when the transformative power of the cross brings about in us a greater meekness, poverty of spirit  and so forth we will experience that we are being blessed. Beatitude is a work of God and results when we yield to his saving work in us. We are blessed when we accept and yield to the work that God alone can do. With this understanding we can see the beatitudes not as a prescription of what we must do per se, but as a description of what a human being is like who is being transformed by Jesus Christ.
  2. The Greek word is makarios and translates the Hebrew ashere. The Hebrew word is really more of an expression than just a word. It is an exclamation which might well be translated O the blessedness of…. In this sense the Hebrew ashere emphasizes that something is being described more than prescribed.
  3. In ancient Greek times, makarios  (blessed) referred especially to the happiness of the gods.  They had achieved a state of happiness and contentment in life that was beyond all cares, labors, and even death. They lived in some other world away from the cares and problems and worries of ordinary people. In taking up this term to translate the Hebrew ashere, the New Testament teaches on the stability of beatitude, if it is from God. It is, to a large degree a stable, deep and serene beatitude not sharply affected by the vicissitudes of this world. Since the world does not give it, the world cannot take it away.  There is an old saying,  Happiness is an inside job.  Too many people seek to locate their happiness in a world that is unstable and fickle. But the Lord wants to confer on us an inner  beatitude that is deeply rooted, stable, and not easily swept away by worldly conditions. This helps explain the paradox of some of the beatitudes. Thus, one is still blessed even when poor, mourning, and persecuted. Even more, they are confirmed in their blessedness by such realities,  since these things are reminders that we are not at home in this world and that God and His kingdom are our preoccupation and the source of our true beatitude.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, the kingdom of God is theirs – Who are the poor in spirit? They are those who, by God’s grace, shun  anything that would deprived of the joy of being totally dependent on God. Now, all of us are dependent on God, we just don’t know it. The poor in spirit are those who delight in the experience of dependence on God.Those in the flesh strongly resist any such sense of dependence or  lack of control. As such they acquire wealth, power, and resources to create the illusion that they are in control. But they are not and ultimately their whole system will fail. It is a recipe for frustration and unhappiness.

Further, control is like an addictive drug. The more we get, the more we need to feel less anxious. Our modern age illustrates this. Consider for example modern medicine through which we can control things we never could before. Fine, so now all our fears are gone right? Hmm… we have never lived so long and healthy, and yet, we have never been so anxious about our health. Worried doctors, health care professionals and pharmaceutical companies,  goaded and aided by the fear mongering media warn us of one threat after another.  Worried as never before our medicine cabinets fill will prescriptions and OTC  meds. And still we worry. Control is an illusion and an addiction all its own. Medicine is fine, but control is still an illusion and, in the end, it seems we can never have enough of it to feel “safe.”

But how blessed are those who delight to depend on God! Who realize that every beat of their heart is His gift, that everything they have is from God and belongs to God. They not only realize this, but delight in it. They are blessed because they are free of countless fears that flow from the illusion of control.

Now Matthew adds “in spirit” because it is evident that not all who are materially poor are thereby freed of the obsession with wealth, power and the need to control. To be poor is not merely a measure of what is in my wallet, but rather, what is in my heart.

However, to be sure, wealth is a very grave danger to inheriting the kingdom. And those who have it are far less likely to experience with delight their dependence on God. Rather, they will fear it. Let’s be clear, most of the saints were broke and the Son of Man, Jesus,  had nowhere to lay his head. And it makes sense that he did not for he thus had nothing to lose in terms of this world. Wealth on the other hand brings with it many fears and the strong tendency to compromise our faith. The wealthy have too much to lose and thus are filled with fears and an increasing obsession with control. This is a curse and an illusion, for the truth is the whole thing is sinking fast and no amount of temporary control is going to change that. This world is not the Kingdom, but heaven is. And how blessed are those delight to know and experience their utter poverty and dependence on God for, quite literally, everything. They already have the Kingdom by faith and that Kingdom is growing for them. The kingdom of this world however is passing away.

Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted – Who are those who mourn? They are those who, delighting in the Kingdom of heaven, see the awful state of most of God’s people. They see that so many do not know God, or why they were made. They see others locked in sin and darkness, often willfully. They see still others who are victims of the sins of injustice and oppression. And they mourn, and they moan, and they pray. Indeed, this beatitude is the basis of intercessory prayer and deepening love for sinners. Because I mourn I pray for the world.

Distinction – Note then the object of this beatitude is rooted in the Kingdom of God and its values, not the passing values of this world. If my Porsche is scratched, or if the stock market is down  and I mourn, that’s not a beatitude.

But oh how blessed are those who mourn over what really matters and who pray. God will console them, strengthen them and encourage them. To mourn is this way is to be blessed. It is a grief that “hurts so good” for we know that it brings abundant blessings for the world as it intensifies our prayer and our own commitment to God and his Kingdom.

Blessed are the meek,  for they shall inherit the earth  – Anger is a very difficult passion. It can sorely vex us but is also a necessary zeal for what is right. Aristotle spoke of meekness (praotes) as the proper balance between too much anger and not enough anger. For sometimes we merely vent our anger to excess. But at other times we fail to be angry enough, and evil and injustice go unaddressed and un-resisted.  But oh how blessed are those who, by God’s grace have authority over their anger. They do not unnecessarily or excessively vent their anger. But they also have the necessary zeal and courage to stand up for what is right and express righteous indignation at sin and injustice.

The meek have authority over their anger and other passions and thus will inherit the earth. How?  Because self control conserves resources and uses them appropriately. But unrestricted passions dissipate resources and squander the gifts of God.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied. – Many fight God and ridicule the values of God’s kingdom. Chastity, forgiveness, and mercy are especially ridiculed today. Many hunger for anything but God,  you name it:  wealth, power, popularity, the latest fad, anything but God. But Oh how blessed are those who hunger and thirst for the righteousness and justice of God and the values of his Kingdom. God will satisfy them with the joy of living under his law and they will rejoice to see the wisdom of His ways.  They hunger for God’s word and devour it when they find it. They rejoice to see God put sin to death in them and bring about virtue. They are excited and satisfied at what God is doing in their life. They are blessed indeed.

Blessed are the Merciful for they shall obtain mercy – We live in a world that often prizes revenge and the destruction of one’s enemies. But we ought to be very careful about this for Scripture teaches that the measure that we measure to others will be measured back to us (Matt 7:2). We are also taught that if we do not forgive, we will not be forgiven (Matt 6:15) and that merciless is the judgment on the one who has shown no mercy (James 2:12). It’s just simply misguided and a bad idea to go around condemning others and throwing the book at everyone. But how blessed are those, who by God’s grace, have experienced God’s mercy and are equipped to share that mercy with others. They are able to leave most vengeance to God and, though they correct the sinner, they do not need to avenge themselves. According to God’s promise they, by showing mercy, will also experience mercy from God. They are blessed indeed.

Blessed are the Pure of Heart for they shall see God – The Greek here is really better translated as “single hearted.” It is so easy for us to be torn asunder by many contrary drives and wishes. The Book of James says that the double minded mind is unstable in all his ways! (James 1:8). But Oh how blessed are those who can say with St. Paul: this one thing I do…I press on to the prize marked out for me in Christ Jesus (Phil 3:13), or to say with the psalmist: There is only one thing I ask of the Lord: to dwell in the courts of the Lord and behold his face!(Psalm 27:4). Oh how blessed to be single-hearted, to be centered on one thing, to have but one purpose, to be undivided and uncompromised. Oh how blessed!

Blessed are the Peacemakers for they shall be called the sons of God – Everyone loves peace, but only some are actually working for it. And true peace can only be based on the truth. Hence being a peacemaker is more than being a nice guy and overlooking stuff. True peacemakers announce the kingdom and bring souls to Christ. True peacemakers strive for righteousness and justice and announce its demands. How blessed are those whom God inspires with a dedication to such work. They are indeed sons of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake for theirs is the Kingdom of God.  In life we are going to suffer. It might as well be for something decent and noble. How blessed are those who, because they have loved God and his kingdom, are hated by this world. At least they share a common lot with Jesus. And they are blessed because they know that only false prophets are loved by all (Lk 6:26). There is a paradoxical serenity that comes from this sort of persecution for it is a sign that we are no longer of this world and that it has lost its hold on us and thus hates us (Jn15:19). Having forsaken this world and been hated by it, they are blessed because the Kingdom of God is theirs in abundance.

One of my mentors has been Fr. Francis Martin a great Scripture scholar, teacher at the Dominican House of Studies and many other places and author of many books and articles. He has also had a great ministry to priests over the years through the giving of retreats. Here are some reflections of his on today’s Gospel.

Come and Go With Me to My Father’s House: A Meditation on the Gospel for the 3rd Sunday of the Year

In these early weeks of “ordinary” time we are increasingly introduced to Jesus and to the beginnings of his public ministry. In Matthew’s Gospel today we hear described how Jesus began his public ministry in the wake of the arrest of John the Baptist. And Matthew tells us three things regarding this ministry of Jesus: it’s Context, its Content, and it’s call. Let’s look at each in turn.

1. CONTEXT of Jesus Ministry – The text says,  When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and went to live in Capernaum by the sea, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali, that what had been said through Isaiah the prophet might be fulfilled: Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death light has arisen.

The relocation of Jesus northward from Judea up to Galilee tells us some important truths. First, it tells us of the hostility of the southern regions to the message of John the Baptist and Jesus. The area in and around Judea which included, principally, Jerusalem was controlled by a sort of religious ruling class (the Sadducees especially, and to a lesser extent the Pharisees). Since they were in strong but often controverted leadership in these areas, they were far less open to ideas which in any way threatened their leadership or questioned the rituals related to the Temple. As we know, Jesus did not come to abolish the Law but he did come to fulfill it and this was threatening to those tied to the current status quo, most of whom did not distinguish fulfillment from abolition, and saw only threat. Further, the Herodian dynasty was also threatening especially in the south and had arrested John the Baptist.

Jesus thus, moves north to more fertile territory to begin his public ministry. The Jewish people in Galilee were less hostile. In fact the people of Jerusalem often looked down upon them for their more simple, agrarian ways and “rural accent.” But here was more fertile ground for Jesus to begin.

Now there is an important lesson for us in this. While we must carefully preserve Christian orthodoxy and only accept a development of doctrine that is organic and faithful to the received Apostolic Tradition, it is also true that we can sometimes stifle the Holy Spirit who will speak to us through unexpected people and in unexpected ways. The Pharisee leaders simply rejected the notion that any prophet could come from Galilee. Whne Nicodemus encouraged them to give jesus a hearing they scoffed:  Are you from Galilee too? Search and see that no prophet arises from Galilee (Jn 7:52).  It is possible for us to insist upon things where freedom is permitted the Christian. There are various degrees of expression permitted in the liturgy and there are often different schools of theological thought which the Church sanctions. Balance is required of us. There may be preferences that we have for Thomistic formulations, Carmelite spirituality, charismatic worship or traditional Latin Mass worship. Such things are legitimate matters for on-going discussion, but we can too easily be threatened by what the Church currently deems to be legitimate diversity. Discovering a the range and limits of diversity is an on-going matter for the Church but we ought not permit the field of our own soul to be hostile to Jesus and his ministry, which may come to us more diverse ways that we, of our self,  prefer.

How tragic it was for Judea that Jesus thought he had to move on to more fertile territory, and what a blessing it was for Galilee that he moved there. The fact is that unfounded stubbornness can be hinder the Word of God in us. Jesus moved on to a more accepting context wherein his ministry could bear the greatest fruit. St. Gregory the Great has this to say about the context for preaching and necessary fertility of the field:

For frequently the preacher’s tongue is bound fast on account of his own wickedness. as the psalmist says: But God asks the sinner: Why do you recite my commandments? (PS 50:16) On the other hand it sometimes happens that because of the people’s sins the word of preaching is withdrawn from those who preside over the assembly as the Lord tells Ezekiel: I will make your tongue cleave to the roof of your mouth, so that you shall be dumb and unable to reprove them, for they are a rebellious house. (Ez 3:26) He clearly means this: the word of preaching will be taken away for they are unworthy to hear the exhortation of truth. It is not easy to know for whose sinfulness the preacher’s word is withheld, but it is indisputable that the shepherd’s silence while often injurious to himself will always harm his flock. – (St. Gregory the Great Hom. 17,3, 14)

For Galilee there was this boon: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined (Is 9:2)  But for others, Jesus had only this to say, Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. (Matt 21:43)

2. The CONTENT of his MINISTRY – The text says, From that time on, Jesus began to preach and say, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

We have discussed before the careful balance of Jesus’ preaching. He is willing  to challenge and so say, Repent! But he also declares the good news that the kingdom of heaven is at hand! Accepting the ministry of Jesus requires that we avoid both presumption and despair.

To those who make light of sin and their condition as a sinner, Jesus says repent. It is wrong to presume that we do not need an on-going healing power from the Lord to overcome our sin. And perhaps our greatest sin is our blindness to our sin. Most human beings do not seem to comprehend how serious their condition is. The word translated here as “Repent!” is μετανοεῖτε (metanoeite) which means more literally to come to a new mind, or a new way of thinking. In our sin soaked world where sin is so pervasive as to almost be unnoticed, Jesus says, “Come to a new mind. Understand your condition and need for mercy and grace. Come to understand that without the rescue that only God can give, you are lost.” And hence we are told to reject presumption.

But we are also told to reject despair, for the Kingdom of God is at hand. In other words, the grace and mercy of God are now available to rescue us from this present evil age and from our carnal condition. Through Christ we are granted admittance to the Kingdom and the Spirit of God can overcome our carnal, sin nature and bring us true holiness.

The proper mean between presumption and despair is the theological virtue of Hope. By hope we confidently expect God’s help in attaining eternal life. By proper metanoia (repentance) we know that we need that help, and by hope confidently reach for it.

In our own proclamation of the kingdom we also need the proper balance exhibited by Jesus. Consider how, with children, that if all they hear is criticism they become discouraged (despair). But if all they hear is praise and are never corrected: they become spoiled and prideful and presume everything should be just as they want it. For the Church too, a balance is necessary. Too many expect the Church only to affirm and “be positive.” But this leads to a more selfish and incorrigible world and to a presumption that nothing matters (as we can plainly see). Thus the Church must announce the call to repentance. But the Church must also offer hope and mercy to sinners. She must offer grace though the Sacraments and by her preaching which, with God’s power, makes the Kingdom of God to be “at hand.”

3. The CALL of his Ministry The text says,  As he was walking by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon who is called Peter, and his brother Andrew, casting a net into the sea; they were fishermen. He said to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.” At once they left their nets and followed him. He walked along from there and saw two other brothers, James, the son of Zebedee, and his brother John. They were in a boat, with their father Zebedee, mending their nets. He called them, and immediately they left their boat and their father and followed him.

Jesus, in building his kingdom,  summons men to follow him. He will train them to be the leaders of his Church as Apostles. The Kingdom of God is not only about calling disciples but also about developing leaders to provide order and authority in the Church. Even the most “democratic” of organizations requires authority and leadership. Without these there is anarchy and a battle of wills. Hence the Lord calls not only disciples, in the early stages of his public ministry, he also grooms leaders. Consider three things about the Lord’s call here.

A. His ARTICULATENESS: He says to these apostles, Come Follow me! Notice that his announcement is unambiguous. Good leaders like the Lord are clear to make known what they ask, indeed, what is demanded. He is clear to set the course and point the way. And HE is that way.

B. His APPEAL – Jesus must have had a personal appeal and exuded an authority that was strong and reassuring. His appeal to them was personal: come follow ME. He did not merely say come and “learn my doctrine,” or “accept my vision.” He said, follow ME. So too, as we hand on the faith to our children and to others, we cannot simply say, here is a Catechism follow it. We must also take the next step and say follow the Lord with me. We cannot simply say what a book says, correct though that book is. Ultimately we must be able to say, I am a personal witness to the fact that God is real and that the truth he has given to the Church is authentic and is changing my life. Our appeal must include the personal testimony that what we proclaim is real and is changing our life: COme and go with me to my Father’s house.

C. His APPROACH – Note that the Lord builds on what they know: fishing. He starts with the familiar to draw them to the less familiar. In a way he is saying that the gifts they are currently using are just the gifts they can use as leaders in God’s Kingdom. Fishermen are:

  • Patient – Fishermen often wait long hours for the fish to bite. So too as Apostles and Bishops there must be a patience, a capacity to wait long periods before there is a catch for the Lord.
  • Perceptive – Fishermen learn to know the fish and their behavior and what attracts them. So too Apostles and clergy must learn of their people and what will attract them to Christ.
  • Persevering – Fishermen must often go out for many days with little catch. Only through perseverance is there real gain in fishing. So too with the Work of the clergy who may go long stretches with little to show. The gospel may go “out of season” even for decades in certain cultures (like our own). The good leader will persevere, will stay at the task.

3.  The COMPREHENSIVENESS of his Ministry – The text says, He went around all of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, and curing every disease and illness among the people.

Therefore note that all of Galilee was his mission field and he covered it comprehensively. He also cured of every disease and illness. And thus the Church is catholic and must also address every part of the world and provide a comprehensive vision for life. We may not have the power to simplistically cure every ailment and problem, but we can provide the vision of the Paschal mystery that sheds light and brings spiritual healing to every affliction. If we are suffering and dying, so to did Jesus but only to rise and be glorified on account of his fidelity and obedience. So too for the Church and for the Christian, the grace and the comprehensive answer to every affliction is that we are always carrying about in our bodies the dying of Christ so that the rising of Christ may also be manifest in us (2 Cor 4:10). We seek to bring healing to everyone we can, and where physical remedies are not possible, the truth of the Gospel reassures that every Friday, faithfully endured, brings forth, by God’s grace an Easter Sunday.

Here then are three crucial insights to the beginning of Jesus public ministry. They remain for the Church and for all of us who would follow in Jesus’ footsteps important insights for us to acknowledge and imitate.

Now journey with me back to 1971, a year of funny hair to be sure, but here is the old Classic “Come and God With Me to My Father’s House”