Becoming Worthy of our Christian Calling, 21st Monday (II), August 25, 2014

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Monday of the 21st Week in Ordinary Time, Year II
Memorial of St. Louis, King of France
August 25, 2014
2 Thes 1:1-5.11-2, Ps 96, Mt 23:13-22

To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click below: 

 

 

The following points were attempted in the homily: 

  • In today’s readings we encounter two totally different visions of the religious life, one that the Lord very much wants of us and the other that the Lord very powerfully condemns. They help us not only to examine our own approach to our Christian life but also to grasp what made St. Louis of France whom we celebrate today so great both on earth and now in heaven.
  • We begin with what God doesn’t want. Today Jesus begins with a serious of seven very forceful denunciations of the religious habits of the Scribes and the Pharisees. When someone is meek and humble of heart, when someone is seldom angry, when he does go ballistic it’s all the more powerful. When we see Jesus get as indignant as he does in the 23rd chapter of St. Matthew as he presents seven “woes” against the Jewish religious leaders of his day (he gives us three today, two tomorrow and two Wednesday) we need to take them even more seriously and make sure that we don’t imitate any of the habits of what he forcefully and out of salvific love condemns. To grasp better what he says, we should know a little bit more about the scribes and pharisees. The scribes were the class of scholars of the law who arose after the Jews returned from the Babylonian exile and under Ezra and Nehemiah the Jewish people made a national commitment to live by the law of God, recognizing that their failure to do so had led to their captivity. The scribes were the experts on the law who studied what God had given and then developed a whole series of intricate derivative laws and practices to help live by the Lord’s law. Eventually their regulations filled fifty large volumes. The scribes were the ones, for example, who took the third commandment about keeping holy the Lord’s day and developed the lengthy list of regulations as to what types of exertions would be considered work that would violate the sabbath, whether it was picking a head of grain, or walking a certain amount of steps, or even lighting a lamp. The Pharisees were the ones who arose during the rise of the Syrian leader Antioches Epiphanes — who was trying to extirpate the Jewish religion — to dedicate themselves totally to keeping all the scribal legislation of God’s law. The name Pharisees refers to their being “separated ones,” separated not only from the sins of idolatry but also separated frankly from normal human life, as they gave all their attention to living by the 50 volumes of regulations. Over the course of time, for the Scribes and Pharisees, these regulations became just as important — in some ways, even more important — than the actual law of God. Pleasing God became a thing of how one used egg shells ritually to wash their hands and other types of ablutions, how meat was prepared, how one avoided activity, including charitable activity, on the sabbath, and so forth. This whole approach was suffocating what real religion is meant to be, not a neurotic observation of minutiae, but a loving communion with God that overflows into God-like loving communion among others.
  • In the first two “woes” today, Jesus describes how the Scribes and the Pharisees are “hypocrites” — literally, actors — for obsessing on externals, on how they look before others by their outward deeds and appearances while their hearts are far from God and often full of thoughts that are totally ungodly. By this approach, Jesus says, they’re not only not entering the Kingdom Jesus had come from heaven to establish, but serving as impediments for others to enter. When they make a convert, he says, they make him a “child of Gehenna twice as much as yourselves,” because they form their proselyte to think that religious is all about scribal regulations rather than truly loving God and others as God wants and teaches. Their whole living of their religion was a scandal rather than a bridge for people to come to God and enter his kingdom. What does Jesus’ condemnation of their approach have to do with us? Quite a bit. One of the things that Pope Francis has been working very much to reform in the Church is the way many of us look at the Christian faith as fundamentally the fulfillment of a whole bunch of commandments and rules, what he describes as a “disjointed multitude of doctrines,” rather than the proclamation and living out of the good news that Jesus loves us, came into the world to save us, seeks to walk with us each day, wants to form us to love like him, and entrusts his mission of salvation to us so that we might all fully enter his kingdom here and forever. Pope Francis is not saying here that the commandments, that Christian moral life, isn’t important — it certainly is! — but many times the way we live the faith and the way we talk about it to others begins with a whole series of do’s and don’ts rather than with God and his merciful love. What Jesus wants and expects of us is that we will fully enter into the Kingdom by living in loving communion with the King and then becoming means for others to follow our example and joyfully enter into that kingdom, too.
  • The third “woe” Jesus describes is the Scribes’ and Pharisees’ whole system of lying while pretending to tell the truth. They taught and believes that if one bound oneself by an oath to God that one had to keep it, but they also believed that only a “binding oath” was obligatory. A binding oath, they said, made God explicitly one of the parties of the oath. Any other oath that didn’t explicitly engage God could be broken, and so often, they’d make false oaths, pretending that they were committing themselves to something only to be intending to break it. Jesus exposed their duplicity when they would pretend as if oaths made by the temple, or by the altar, or by heaven were not binding but oaths made by the gold of the temple, or the gift of the altar, or by the throne of God were. They were pretending to be faithful, while intending to lie. Jesus reminded them that when we swear an oath we’re committing ourselves to have God ensure that we’re telling the truth, and any of the objects mentioned are in relationship to God, just as others to whom they would be planning to lie, were. For us as Christians, we need to be aware of the same tendency to keep the outward appearances that we’re Christian and truthful while at the same time trying to deceive others. I was just in Italy and — I’ll save the multiple examples — I was reminded of the fact that many Italian Catholics, including clergy and nuns, in practice lie regularly such that oaths even in court cases are not taken seriously and the word of an American priest wouldn’t be considered trustworthy. Here in the US, we have a greater cultural honesty overall, but we are masters in the culture of the half-truths of spin, of the white lie, and even of the calculated perjury of court trials. Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount says he doesn’t even want us to take oaths because he wants us to live in a way that our yes means yes and our no means no and that anything short of truthfulness comes from the evil one. He doesn’t want us to be actors, pretending one thing and thinking or doing another. He wants us to live the truth that sets us free, which is essential for entering the Kingdom and helping others to enter it, something that the Scribes and Pharisees were not doing.
  • Before his conversion, St. Paul had been a Pharisee and had excelled beyond his peers in observing all the minutiae of the law. But after the Lord met him on the road to Damascus, he realized that we were not saved by our own efforts and certainly not by the rigid observance of all of the man-made scribal traditions, but that we’re saved by God, more specifically by grace (our participation in God’s very life) through faith (our committed response to God) in Jesus Christ. In his Second Letter to the Thessalonians, in contrast to Jesus’ woes today, St. Paul gives three specific reasons to praise the true religion of the first Christians in Thessalonika who were under attack and persecution. He praised them for their flourishing faith, their growing mutual love and their endurance (hupomone) in all persecutions and afflictions. The Christian life is meant to be a life of flourishing faith, a true in God and in what he says that beautifully overflows into a consistent life of faith, not externalist pretensions. The most important flower in the garden of faith is love of God and love of neighbor; a faith that doesn’t lead to love is a defective faith. St. Paul praised the Thessalonians for precisely that type of love that existed among them and from them for Christians elsewhere and for those who were persecuting them. The other crucial flower of faith is perseverance in faith under duress, which is what the Thessalonians were likewise doing, remaining true to God even and especially when they were needing to suffer for him who suffered everything for us.St. Paul said that this flourishing faith, overflowing mutual love and constancy were the means by which they would become “worthy” of their Christian calling to the Kingdom. Their faith and love under affliction was what would “bring to fulfillment every good purpose and every effort of faith” and would lead to the glorification of God’s name and their own holy glorification by the radiance of Christ’s life shining through their own.
  • These virtues of flourishing faith, mutual charity and faithful endurance are likewise the pathway for us to become worthy of our calling, to enter the kingdom, and to help draw others to enter the kingdom with us. They were the path for the great saint we celebrate today, a path that he tried to transmit to all those entrusted to him during his reign from 1226-1270.
  • St. Louis, King of France, had a flourishing faith. Faith was the most important thing of his life. When he would sign documents, he would also sign them “Louis of Poissy” precisely to emphasize that it was in Poissy, his hometown, that he was baptized, and that that was far more important than his writing “King of France.” He was a person who prayed sincerely, who prioritized the liturgy, who built monasteries, churches and theological academies and basically made France a flourishing garden in which so much so much fruit was produced. He was a man of great charity. He always sacrificed for the poor and even kept a private list of the poor people he had met so that, rather than waiting for them to come to him to beg alms again, he would seek them out to see how they were doing since their last visit. He was also a man of the charity of mercy, seeking to be as generous and as fair as he possibly could to those who had previously been his enemies. He was also a man of great Christian perseverance, living his faith under the duress of a tough imprisonment during the first of two crusades he had led to try to free the Holy Land from the Muslims. In all of these things, he was one who recognized that the Kingdom of God was far more important than the Kingdom of France and he was willing readily to sacrifice the latter for the former.
  • He also sought to make it easier for everyone else to enter the Kingdom. He sought to have his people formed in authentically Christian virtues, he strove to reform the clergy so that their example would facilitate rather than frustrate people’s growth in faith, and in a special way tried to form his children in the virtues for which St. Paul praised the Thessalonians. His deathbed letter to his son is one of the great testimonies of any saint.
  • He sought to have his son put faith first in his life, starting the whole letter by declaring: “My dearest son, my first instruction is that you should love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your strength. Without this there is no salvation.” He urged him to pray often and sincerely: “Listen to the divine office with pleasure and devotion. As long as you are in church, be careful not to let your eyes wander and not to speak empty words, but pray to the Lord devoutly, either aloud or with the interior prayer of the heart.” He wanted him to pass on that faith to others and to eliminate sources of confusion and scandal. “Be devout and obedient to our mother the Church of Rome and the Supreme Pontiff as your spiritual father. Work to remove all sin from your land, particularly blasphemies and heresies.” And he powerfully urged him to live in moral communion with him and avoid all sin. “Keep yourself, my son,” he continued, ” from everything that you know displeases God, that is to say, from every mortal sin. You should permit yourself to be tormented by every kind of martyrdom before you would allow yourself to commit a mortal sin.”  That type of uncompromising faith would lead to charity and to patient endurance.  With regard to charity, he instructed his son, “Be kindhearted to the poor, the unfortunate and the afflicted. Give them as much help and consolation as you can.” He told them to give them a preferential care because they’re so often manipulated: “Always side with the poor rather that with the rich, until you are certain of the truth.” And On the subject of the constancy of faith, he said, “If the Lord has permitted you to have some trial, bear it willingly and with gratitude, considering that it has happened for your good and that perhaps you well deserved it.” All of this would help his son to prove himself worthy of his Christian calling, make it possible for him to glorify God and allow God to glorify him forever in heaven. He finished his letter summarizing all of this and saying, “May the Lord give you the grace to do his will so that he may be served and honored through you, that in the next life we may together come to see him, love him and praise him unceasingly. Amen.” 
  • As we come forward to worship God devoutly on his feast day, we ask him to pray for us that we might, like he did, avoid all of the hypocrisy of the scribes and pharisees and learn, rather, how to imitate his flourishing faith, abounding charity and courageous perseverance so that, together with the holy Thessalonians, St. Paul, St. Louis, St. Bernadette and all the saints we may glorify God, be glorified by him and in this world and in the next come together to love and praise God unceasingly.

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1
2 THES 1:1-5, 11-12

Paul, Silvanus, and Timothy to the Church of the Thessalonians
in God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ:
grace to you and peace from God our Father
and the Lord Jesus Christ.We ought to thank God always for you, brothers and sisters,
as is fitting, because your faith flourishes ever more,
and the love of every one of you for one another grows ever greater.
Accordingly, we ourselves boast of you in the churches of God
regarding your endurance and faith in all your persecutions
and the afflictions you endure.This is evidence of the just judgment of God,
so that you may be considered worthy of the Kingdom of God
for which you are suffering.We always pray for you,
that our God may make you worthy of his calling
and powerfully bring to fulfillment every good purpose
and every effort of faith,
that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you,
and you in him,
in accord with the grace of our God and Lord Jesus Christ.

Responsorial Psalm
PS 96:1-2A, 2B-3, 4-5

R. (3) Proclaim God’s marvelous deeds to all the nations.
Sing to the LORD a new song;
sing to the LORD, all you lands.
Sing to the LORD; bless his name.
R. Proclaim God’s marvelous deeds to all the nations.
Announce his salvation, day after day.
Tell his glory among the nations;
among all peoples, his wondrous deeds.
R. Proclaim God’s marvelous deeds to all the nations.
For great is the LORD and highly to be praised;
awesome is he, beyond all gods.
For all the gods of the nations are things of nought,
but the LORD made the heavens.
R. Proclaim God’s marvelous deeds to all the nations.

Gospel
MT 23:13-22

Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites.
You lock the Kingdom of heaven before men.
You do not enter yourselves,
nor do you allow entrance to those trying to enter.“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites.
You traverse sea and land to make one convert,
and when that happens you make him a child of Gehenna
twice as much as yourselves.“Woe to you, blind guides, who say,
‘If one swears by the temple, it means nothing,
but if one swears by the gold of the temple, one is obligated.’
Blind fools, which is greater, the gold,
or the temple that made the gold sacred?
And you say, ‘If one swears by the altar, it means nothing,
but if one swears by the gift on the altar, one is obligated.’
You blind ones, which is greater, the gift,
or the altar that makes the gift sacred?
One who swears by the altar swears by it and all that is upon it;
one who swears by the temple swears by it
and by him who dwells in it;
one who swears by heaven swears by the throne of God
and by him who is seated on it.”