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.

We Fast in Order to Feast

Wedding banquets don’t usually come to mind when we fast during Lent; I’ve never seen fish sticks served at a reception, and I’ve been to more than a few!

Nevertheless, when Jesus was challenged about fasting in today’s gospel, he responded by calling himself a bridegroom, and by referring to us, his friends, as his wedding guests. Jesus was saying that our relationship with him, in many ways, is like a joyful wedding feast.

Jesus wants us to keep this joy in mind as we approach the discipline of fasting. We fast during Lent, not primarily to lose weight, not because it’s a Catholic cultural badge, and not because we need to prove our holiness to God or anyone else. As Catholics, we fast- from food or from anything else that can become a compulsion in our life- to help us grow in freedom, and thus bring us a little bit closer to Jesus. And anytime we grow a little bit closer to our Lord, the result is always joy. You might say, then, that we fast in order to feast- feast upon the new and abundant life that Jesus wishes to pour out on us, during this special season of grace.

Readings for today’s Mass: http://www.usccb.org/nab/031111.shtml

Photo courtesy of Renata Grzan/RenataPhotography.com Used with permission.

(Pictured is Archdiocese of Washington colleague Julia Chandler’s recent wedding reception. No fish sticks were served.)

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):

Understanding the Stages of Spiritual Starvation in the West

One of the ways of describing our longing for God is hunger. I suppose, in America and the affluent west most of us have never known real hunger. We may grumble when we miss a meal, or there is an occasional fast or diet. But we don’t know the real hunger. Imagine not actually knowing when or where your next meal would be. Most of us speak causally about “making room for dessert”  and “not spoiling our meal.”

It is a great embarrassment to me that I struggle with weight while others wonder if they will eat at all  tomorrow. I do not have simple solutions to this distribution problem.   It would seem we have enough food but getting to all the places needed seems adversely effected by war, corruption and poor infrastructure. It galls me that our government pays farmers NOT to plant and some have seen fit to turn corn into fuel for cars.  These are all complex issues, I know, but whatever the problem, it is a grief to me that some are hungry while I tip the scales. I can only strive to be more generous to the poor. (Now, as for my diet, that is a far more intractable problem! (Another blog on that, some day)).

But one form of starvation that is quite a problem here in the affluent West is spiritual starvation. It is a strange starvation to be sure, for it is largely self-inflicted. Further, it seems to be at an advanced stage. I am told that as starvation advances there comes a time when a kind of lethargy sets in and, though one knows he is hungry, he lacks the mental acuity or focus to want to do much about it. This seems the stage of spiritual starvation at which many Westerners are. Most people know they are spiritually hungry and long for something. But through a kind of lethargy and mental boredom they seem little inclined to do much about it.

I’d like to take a look at some of the stages of physical starvation and speak of their spiritual equivalent. From several medical sites it would seem that starvation unto death has some of the following stages. I will list the physical stage and them describe what I think is a spiritual component. Please understand when I use the shorthand “we” I am not necessarily talking about you. “We” here is a general term to indicate a large number in our culture, and perhaps a majority in our culture.

  1. Early signs of starvation include weakness– Surely in our time of spiritual starvation there is a great moral weakness that is evident. Simple manifestations of ordinary self control about sexuality, and general self discipline seem increasingly lacking  in our culture. Many are too weak to keep the commitments they have made to marriage, religious life and the priesthood. Addiction is a significant issue as well and is manifest not only in alcohol and drugs but includes addition to pornography, and addiction to greed as we are obsessed about more and more possessions,  and do not seem to be able to live without them.  Many increasingly declare that they are not responsible for what they do and/or cannot help themselves. There is a general attitude that it is unreasonable to expect people to live ordinary biblical morality, that it is unreasonable to have to suffer, or endure the cross. All of this manifests a kind of weakness and a lack of courage and strength as spiritual starvation sets in.
  2. Confusion– As spiritual starvation sets in, the mind gets cloudy and thinking becomes murky and distorted. There is thus, lots of confusion today about even the most basic moral issues. How could we get so confused as to think that killing pre-born babies is OK? Sexual confusion is also rampant so that what is contrary to nature (homosexual acts) is approved and what is destructive of the family through illicit heterosexual behavior is widely approved as well.  Confusion is also deep about how best to care for the poor, how to raise, properly train and discipline children, how to effectively educate children and so forth. Confusion is a second sign of spiritual starvation
  3. Irritability– As spiritual starvation progresses, a great deal of anger is directed at the Church whenever she addresses the malaise of our times. Beyond merely the Church there is an anger and resistance to lawful authority and respect for elders and tradition. St. Paul describes well the general irritability of a culture that has suppressed the truth about God and is spiritually starving:  They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. (Romans 1:29-31). Since we are starved spiritually of the common meal of God’s word and revealed truth and have rejected in the natural law, we have been reduced to shouting and power struggles. We no longer agree on the essentials that the “food” of God’s truth provides. We have refused this food and, starving, we have become irritable and strident in our culture.
  4. Immune deficiency– As our spiritual starvation grows we cannot ward off the increasing attacks of the disease of sin. We more easily give way to temptation. Deeper and deeper bondage is increasingly evident in a culture that is deeply mired in sin. Things once thought indecent are now done openly and even celebrated. Many easily give way to sin and consider any suggested resistance to it to be unreasonable and impossible.  Sin spreads more widely. STDs have rapidly spread, teenage pregnancy, abortion, Internet porn are becoming rampant. Divorce and cohabitation have spread widely. Sin, like a disease, spreads because, spiritually starving, we are less capable of fighting off the effects of spiritual disease.
  5. The middle stages of starvation occur after all the fat cells have been depleted and the body starts to feed on it’s own muscle tissue – And we too, as we spiritually starve start to feed on our very own. We kill our children in utero and use embryos for research. We euthanize our elderly. In gang violence young  people kill other young people. We see strife, power struggles and wars increase. In tight economic times we who have depleted the fat cells of public funds and amassed enormous debt, instead of reasonably restraining our spending and re-examining our priorities, we turn on one another for the scraps that are left and refuse to give an inch of our entitlements. Starving people can be desperate and often turn on others. But in the end, we as a body are consuming our self, A fifth symptom of spiritual starvation.
  6. After this point, your internal organs will shut down one at a time– In the spiritually starving west many of our institutions are becoming dysfunctional and shutting down. Our families are in a major crisis. Almost of half of children no longer live with both parents. Schools are in serious decline. Most public school systems have been a disgrace for years. America, once at the top of worldwide academic performance, is now way down the list at about 17 or 18.  Churches and parochial schools also struggle as Mass attendance has dropped in the self-inflicted spiritual starvation of our times. Government too is becoming increasingly dysfunctional as strident differences paralyze and scandals plague the public sector. Yes, as we go through the stages of starvation, important organs of our culture and nation are shutting down and becoming dysfunctional.
  7. The final stages of starvation will include: hallucinations, – St Paul spoke of the spiritually starved Gentiles of his day and said, their thinking became futile and their senseless minds were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools….Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind (Romans 1:21-22,28). Hence as we in the West become increasingly starved, spiritually, our thinking becomes increasingly bizarre, distorted, fanciful, silly, vain, and often, just plain stupid and lacking in any common sense. Since our soul is starved we hallucinate.
  8. Convulsions and  muscle spasms– Violence and turmoil run through our culture as basic social structures shut down and become dysfunctional. The breakdown of the family leads to many confused, incorrigible and violent children. And not just in the inner city. Violence, shootings and gangs have long been in the suburbs. Even non-violent children have short attention spans and are often difficult to control and discipline. ADHD may be over diagnosed but hyper stimulated children with short attention spans are a real problem for us. Adults too manifest a lot of convulsive and spasmatic behaviors, short attention spans and  mercurial temperaments. As we reach advanced stages of starvation in our culture, convulsive and spasmatic behavior are an increasing problem.
  9. An irregular heart beat– In the spiritually starving west, It is not as though we lack all goodness. Our heart still beats but it is irregular and inconsistent. We can manifest great compassion when natural disasters strike but still be coarse and insensitive at other times. We seem to have a concern to care for the poor but abort our babies and advocate killing our sick elderly. Our starving culture’s heartbeat is irregular and inconsistent to say the least.  Another sign of spiritual starvation
  10. A sleepy and comatose state–  Our starving culture is sleepy and often unreflective. The state of our terrible fall eludes many who seem to barely notice the deep symptoms of our spiritual starvation. St Paul says, So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled (1 Thes 5:6). He also says, And do this, understanding the present time. The hour has come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed (Rom 13:11). Jesus speaks of the starvation that leads to sleepiness in this way: Be careful, or your hearts will be weighed down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap (Luke 21:34)
  11. And then Death– Spiritual death is the final result of starvation. We become dead in our sins. The Pope recently said that the lights are going out in Europe. As Europe has forsaken its spiritual heritage and embarked on a self-imposed spiritual starvation its birthrates have dipped steeply. It is quite possible that, in the life time of some of the younger readers of this post, Europe as we have known it will, quite literally, cease to exist. Western liberal democracies that have starved themselves to death will be replaced by Muslim Theocratic states. But this is what happens when we starve. Death eventually comes. America’s fate at this time is less obvious. We do have many on a spiritual starvation diet, but many here still believe and there are signs of revival in the Church here. Pray God the reversal will continue!  Pray too that it is not too late for Europe.

Thus, while we know little of physical starvation in the affluent West, spiritual starvation and its symptoms are manifest.  Mother Teresa once spoke of the West as the poorest part of the world she encountered. That’s because she saw things spiritually, not materially. One of her sisters recently spoke to students from Christendom College who worked with her among the poor in Mexico. She had this to say as reported by Cassidy Bugos:

In the East [India], the soul is different. It is stronger, as she put it, and solid. Whether a person is Christian, or Hindu, or Muslim, or Buddhist, he is a solid Christian, a solid Hindu, Muslim, or Buddhist. He will not lose faith because he is hungry, or because he is well-fed. And in India, if people are hungry, they are still happy. The poorest people on the streets, she said, are the happiest. If they have food today, they are happy; they do not wonder if they will have food tomorrow. Their joy, she insisted, is something unlike anything you see on any face in the West….

Here in the West, she said, it is different. Here most poor people have enough [materially], even though they don’t understand how little “enough” is. But they are unhappy, she said…..They are unhappy, because they have no God. That is the real poverty. The farther North you go in America, she added, the more wealth you see, and the less joy you find. Those people….the depressed, and the sad people “with no God and a great big house”, are the poorest of the poor. That’s what Mother Teresa meant. It is hard, she added with a sigh, to find Christ in them. …We must put Him there. …

More than that, she wanted us to understand whom we were serving, when we served anyone’s spiritual or material needs. We were serving Christ. When one of “the Grandmas”, blind and deaf, cried out from her wheelchair, “Agua, por favor!”, on the wall over her head we were bound to see a crucifix and beside it the motto of the Missionaries of Charity, the two words, tengo sed. “I thirst.” [1]

The Lord want to feed us on his Body and Blood, and on a steady diet of his Word. Let the Lord feed you:

  1. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”  “Sir,” they said, “from now on give us this bread.” Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty…. I am the bread of life.  Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died.  But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die.  I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. (John 6:varia)
  2. Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'” (Matt 4:4)
  3. When your words came, I ate them; they were my joy and my heart’s delight, for I bear your name, O LORD God Almighty (Jer 15:16)
  4. The ordinances of the LORD are sure and altogether righteous.They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb (Psalm 19:11)

Be well fed spiritually! Spiritual starvation is an awful thing. It is the worst thing.

Now this post has been a bit heavy. So I hope you won’t mind a little humor in this video. The video, though humorous makes an important point: You’re not you when your hungry. Spiritual starvation can rob us of our identity as joyful children of God meant to be fully alive and fully functioning. Ultimately we are meant to be Christ, to become what we eat in Holy Communion. When we do not eat we are not “ourselves.” This video is trying sell snickers, but please understand I am talking about Jesus. And if you’re hungry, you’re not your self.

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!

What Are You Building? A Meditation on the Story of the Tower of Babel

The Story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, (which we read earlier today in the Mass), is a memorable story for most. And yet it has a strange angularity to it.

On the one hand it seems to be a retelling of what is described in Genesis 10 of the table nations who spread forth from Noah’s sons, filled the earth and began to speak different languages. Chapter 11 seems to want to re-tell what we already know, supplying us with the inner details.

Further, the reaction of God seems a bit strange, almost human. He (the text has God speak to himself in the Plural “us”  – Augustine sees the Trinity in this use of “us” (City of God 16.6)) seem almost to fear man becoming too powerful. Thus God does was seems antithetical to God, he divides the human family. We are more familiar with God wanting to unite us!

Let’s take a look at this odd little text and see what we can learn.

Now the whole earth had one language and few words.  And as men migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there.  And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.  Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”  And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built.  And the LORD said, If now, while they are one people, all speaking the same language,  they have started to do this, nothing will later stop them from doing whatever they presume to do. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”  So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.  Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth. (Gen 11:1-9)

One Language? Note that the text indicates that the human family originally spoke one language. Other ancient texts seem also to affirm this. For example a Sumerian tablet tells from an extra-biblical perspective the story of a time when all language were one on the earth. (cf, Samuel Noah Kramer, “The Babel of Tongues: A Sumerian Version,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 88, 108-111).

one language and few words – the Hebrew is, ‘echad saphah . . ‘echad dabar which is translated in other Bibles as “one language, and of one speech.” But the RSV (quoted here) seems to imply that concepts and thoughts were also expressed with fewer words. Later things become more complex even among those sharing the same language as words came to have nuances, shades of meaning. This can lead to greater precision but it also tends to set up debates. Often on this blog I will use words in their general analogical sense only to find objections come from highly trained theologians who prefer that I use words only in the strict theological sense. I, in turn, object that average people would be lost in such highly technical terms and insist on speaking in an ordinary sense. Precision is good, but there is also the danger of obscurity.  The debate continues dear readers! But it would appear that, at least from the standpoint of the ancient experience, concepts were shared with fewer words. Is this better or worse? You decide!

The Story takes place in Shinar – That is Sumer, the land of the Sumerians, The area later called Babylon, modern day Iraq.

They build a tower with its top in the heavens – Such towers or Ziggurats are a common archeological feature of this part of the world. They look like tall, stepped pyramids.

The Problem – The tower itself was not the problem. Thinking it could reach to God in Heaven was the sin involved. (St Augustine sees the pride in that they thought they could avoid a future flood (as if anything was too high for God! –  Tractates on John 6.10.2). The later verse calling this place Babel is significant. Babel is the Hebrew word meaning “gate of God” or by extension – “gate of (to) heaven.”  Hence what they really think to do is to try and ascend to heaven, and God, by their own strength. Bad idea here! Remember Adam and Eve had been barred from paradise because they could no longer endure the presence of God. NEVER think you can walk into God’s presence by your own unaided power. Only grace can do this. We cannot achieve heaven on our power. We do not have a ladder tall enough or a rocket ship powerful enough. They are committing a serious sin of pride here.

To make matters worse – they do this saying let us make a name for ourselves. So, they are not even seeking to enter heaven to be with God but, rather, to make a name for themselves. Now that’s pride with a capital P and the rhymes with T and that stands for Trouble. Yes, (to quote the Music Man) we’ve got trouble right here in river city (Mesopotamia = the land between the rivers).

A further insight into the pride comes from the concept of naming. Recall that, in Genesis 2,  Adam named all the animals and decided what to call them. But God named man (Gen 5:1). To name something or someone is to know something of its essence. Parents name their children. In the ancient world this was very significant. Today this is less so.  But ultimately, it is God who names us. In so doing it is he who declares our essence. It is pride, in this ancient sense, for man to try and “make a name” for himself.

Why did they do it? The stated purpose for this prideful act is that is must be done lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. Hence they act in this way to build the tower and make for themselves a name to preserve unity among themselves. But wait! Isn’t this good? Yes, but, though unity is precious to God, it is not a work of Man but must be based on God and his truth. Without God, unity can merely become a despotic source power that is abused. Consider atheistic Communism and secular socialism. Concentrated, centralized power can be a serious problem indeed, if God is not its center and source. Praying for unity is not wrong, but God alone must be its source. Otherwise you can be sure that despotism is on the way.

Comical! And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built – a humorous description. The great tower, so high as to reach to heaven, was really so puny that God had to come down to see what it was!

What is God Worried about?  The text says,  This is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. – God almost seems worried that man will become too powerful. It is true; as the text demonstrates, man thinks he has become godlike in his power. Had not Satan said, to tempt him, you will become like gods! (Gen 3:5).  But what God seems to be getting at is even more negative. In effect God says, if He does not intervene, the depths of our depravity will know no limits. Thus he intervenes and puts limits on us lest wickedness know no bounds. So God does two things:  He confuses their speech and He scatters them abroad.

Conclusion – Unity is good and to be sought for. But unity is not an absolute or shall we say, detached good. The greatest virtue in terms of our salvation is humility. Unity is a great good, but if it fuels our pride we’ll all just go to hell together. Hence, in this case God saw fit to humble us by scattering us and confusing our language. Unity in wickedness is best scattered. Only unity for good is praiseworthy. Of this St Jerome says,

Just as when holy men live together, it is a great grace and blessing; so likewise, that congregation is the worse kind when sinners dwell together. The more sinners there are at one time, the worse they are! Indeed, when the tower was being built up against God, those who were building it were disbanded for their own welfare. The conspiracy was evil. The dispersion was of true benefit even to those who were dispersed. (Homilies 21).

Bringing it close to home – I’d like to conclude with the rather remarkable words of St. John Chrysostom who makes this story a little more personal for us:

There are many people even today who in imitation of [the builders at Babel] want to be remembered for such achievements, by building splendid homes, baths, porches and drives. I mean, if you were to ask each one of them why they toil and labor and lay out such great expense to no good purpose, you would hear nothing but these very words [Let us make a name for ourselves]. They would be seeking to ensure that their memory survives in perpetuity and to have it said, “this house belonged to so-and-so,” “This is the property of so-and-so.”  This, on the contrary, is worthy not of commemoration but of condemnation. For hard upon those words come other remarks equivalent to countless accusations – “belonging to so-and-so, the grasping miser and despoiler of widows and orphans.” [Such behavior will] incite the tongues of on-lookers to calumny and condemnation of the person who amassed these goods. But if you are anxious to for undying reputation, I will show you the way to succeed in being remembered…along with an excellent name…in the age to come…If you give away these goods of yours into the hands of the poor, letting go of precious stones, magnificent homes, properties and baths. (Homilies on Genesis 30.7)

What are you and I  building? Careful. Babel might not be a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, after all.

In the article above I mentioned the song from music man “Trouble in River City” Just for fun, here it is:

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