The Coherent Christian Life, Seventh Thursday (II), February 27, 2014

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Bernadette Parish, Fall River, MA
Thursday of the Seventh Week in Ordinary Time, Year II
February 27, 2014
Jas 5:1-6, Ps 49, Mk 9:41-50

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

 

The following points were attempted in the homily: 

  • Today Jesus speaks to us very powerfully in the Gospel about the coherence, the integrity, the correspondence between what we believe and how we behave, we’re supposed to have in our life. This is a coherence that’s supposed to be found in not just the big things of our life but the little things. He begins by saying that anyone who gives a cup of cold water to another because of the person’s relationship to Christ will surely not lose his reward. Christian coherence doesn’t involve only fidelity when threatened with martyrdom, but fidelity in looking out with the eyes and the heart to care for the needs of anyone who is thirsty, aware that Christ identifies with everyone who is thirsty and longs to say to us, “When I was thirsty, you gave me to drink.”
  • But then Christ pivots to talk about incoherence and the scandal that it gives. With very graphic language, he says, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” It’s bad enough that we sin, but Jesus says it’s infinitely worse when we lead others to sin, especially those with a child-like faith who look with love to Jesus and expect us to represent Him and live what he asks of us. One of the most frightening ways people were put to death in the ancient world was by drowning them. Their hands would be tied behind their back securely and a rope would be tied around their neck and attached to heavy weights — occasionally a millstone — and they would be drawn like an anchor straight to the bottom of the river or lake or sea. Jesus was saying that having that happen to you would be better than what will happen to those who cause scandal. Jesus is infinitely merciful with individual sinners who with repentance approach him for forgiveness, but here he can’t be more brutal in describing how severe he is, and he wants us to be, with conduct that leads to sin and scandal, because it not only will lead us to death but it’s also spiritually homicidal.
  • So he tells us, “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. … And if your foot causes you to sin, cut if off.  … And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.” The reason is because “it is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands [or two feet or two eyes] to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire.” At first this seems savage but it’s basic human wisdom. Just yesterday many of you probably saw the news about Miles O’Brien, the Science Reporter for PBS NewsHour who used to be one of the news anchors for Channel 7 in Boston. When he was filing stories about the aftermath of the tsunamis in Japan and in the Philippines, he injured his arm when a heavy crate of video equipment fell on it. A couple of days later he went in for surgery to fix the problem, but while they were operating the situation got much worse and the doctors had no choice but to amputate his arm about the elbow. He broke the news yesterday on his blog, which he typed out with one-hand. He described it was literally a choice “between life and limb.” He’s been suffering a lot of phantom pain and some of the difficulties associated now with having only one hand, but, he said, “I am alive and I’m grateful for that.” That’s the decision any of us who is sane would make, that when it comes down to a choice between life and limb, between dying with both arms or continuing to live with one — when there’s no longer any choice to continue living with both arms — then we, like Miles O’Brien and his doctor would choose life over limb. Jesus is telling us to live spiritually by the same wisdom. If there’s something leading us to sin and through our incoherent life leading others to sin, we need to be brutal in surgically excising it from our life. Jesus isn’t really talking about physical amputations here, but spiritual amputations. And he says it’s a matter of life and death. If we don’t amputate these scandal-inducing sins from our life, we’ll have a worse fate than being drowned with a millstone tied around our neck. The question is, Are we as prudent spiritually as O’Brien and his doctor were medically? Or do we think we can continue to live just fine with eyes, hands, feet, and hearts that lead us, and through us others, to evil?
  • St. James in the first reading today spoke about one particular type of evil that we need to be brutal in excising from our life: the selfish hoarding of possessions while others are in need. He was writing his letter to Christians and he said that many of them were preparing themselves for slaughter by “killing the righteous one.” He was essentially calling them Christ-murderers by their failure to use the blessings God had given them for others. His words are just as graphic as Jesus’ in the Gospel.
  • There were three main sources of wealth in the ancient world. Today it would be in houses and land, but in the ancient world it was mainly food (stored corn and grained), clothing (especially luxurious garments made by hand, not by machine) and precious metals everyone valued (gold and silver). St. James told the Christians who were hoarding the material blessings God had given them that none of this wealth would last, but not only would it be corroded, but they would be corroded because of their grasping on to it. “Come now, you rich, weep and wail over your impending miseries. Your wealth [corn and grain] has rotted away, your clothes have become moth-eaten, your gold and silver have corroded, and that corrosion will be a testimony against you; it will devour your flesh like a fire.” How does grain rot away? By being stored too long in a grain bin when others are starving. How do clothes get eaten by moths? By remaining in closets and chests while others don’t have adequate clothes to wear. How do gold and silver corrode? They really don’t, which is why St. James’ image is so powerful: he says it corrodes almost like flesh-eating bacteria when we all the oils in our hand eat it away by our never giving it to others, for example, when we, as St. James says, withhold wages from day workers who needed their money to survive and support their families. He declares that while “you have lived on earth in luxury and pleasure, you have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter.” He says that such a lifestyle is similar to do to ourselves what ranchers do to fatten the calves that are going to be destined for the slaughter house: we’re preparing ourselves for eternal death. We make ourselves spiritually obese. And the end result is that by such behavior “you have murdered the righteous one” who “offers you no resistance.” That righteous one is Christ, who identifies with all those who suffered as a result of omission or commission.
  • Today St. James is saying, “If your grain and corn bins are leading you to the slaughtered, be brutal and rip the food out of the bins and give it away. If your clothing is causing you to sin, share it with the poor who have no fabrics at all not to mention finely embroidered ones. If your gold and your silver is rotting away your flesh, put it into the hands of those who could use it to survive, especially those who have earned it. Better for you to enter into life with smaller grain bins, smaller closets, and little money left than as a rich man to be slaughtered for the worms in Gehenna. Jesus said in the Gospel that it is easier for a camel to fit through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. It’s not that he can’t fit, but his possessions can’t fit, and if he continues to hold on to his possessions, he’ll never be able to make it. He must give them away in charity to those who need them, and there are so many who do.
  • A Christian who fails to be as generous with his possessions as God has been in giving him those possessions is living an incoherent life. As we hear these words about the rich, it’s tempting for us to think about the superrich, but what we need to grasp is that even those on welfare or on Social Security in the United States are among the upper echelons of wealth in the world. Thanks be to God, most often we don’t need to worry whether we’re going to eat today, or have a place to stay, or have cold clean water to drink. Most of us have cars and have enough to put gas in the car. We have ways to stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer. We have access to schools and hospitals. By no means are we living in luxury compared to those in Newport or Greenwich or Monaco, but compared to those living in South Sudan or North Korea, or compared to those who lived in previous ages, we are living in luxury. We may not have as many shoes as Imelda Marcos had, but we may have more than we need while others are in need. We may not be needing to build bigger pantries to store our imperishables, but we often have so many things in our pantries that some food expires. We may not be wearing designers suits or dresses that will gain the attention of red carpet gawkers, but we often have to buy more and more hangers to hang up more clothes. St. James is calling us to concentrate not on other people’s wealth but on our own and make sure we’re living truly coherent lives.
  • At the end of the Gospel today, Jesus says something very important to help us to stay coherent, so that instead of scandalizing people we draw them to the Lord. “Keep salt in yourselves,” he states, “and you will have peace with one another.” The principal purpose of salt in the ancient world was as a preservative, to keep things from being corrupted. Rather than grasping onto things and wealth, rather than treasuring the things of the world in our hearts, we need to keep our heart salted, preserved from that type of idolatry. He reminds us that our salt can lose its flavor and be fit for nothing, so he wants us to constantly be pouring preservative salt on our heart. And he teaches us that “everyone will be salted with fire.” That’s an allusion to Old Covenant sacrifices when the lamb or ox or other animal, after it had been slaughtered in the temple, would be salted before it would be put on the fire and offered to God. We need regularly to be salting ourselves for that sacrifice and the more we do, the more we will give ourselves and our things in sacrifice to others.
  • As we come here to offer our bodies as a holy and acceptable sacrifice to God, our spiritual worship (Rom 12:1-2), to offer our salted hearts and souls, we know that Jesus wants to convert us here so that we may, with him, go out and offer our body and blood, our grain, our clothes, our money for the salvation of others. That’s the type of transformation he always seeks to bring about. He seeks to bring us into total communion, total coherence, with his own life. When this happens, not only will we not scandalize others, but we will bring them to experience the same gift he has given us. Pope Francis talked about the coherent life at the end of his homily this morning in the Vatican in a way that, I think, totally sums up the entire thrust of his papacy that shows the Gospel before it teaches the Gospel because he knows that that Christian example is worth far more than millions of words. Listen to him: “Imagine that you find yourself in front of an atheist and he tells you he doesn’t believe in God. You can read him a whole library, where it says that God exists and even proves that God exists, and he will not have faith. But if in the presence of this atheist you bear coherent witness of Christian life, something will begin to work in his heart. It will be your witness that that he will bring this restlessness on which the Holy Spirit works. It’s a grace that we all, the whole Church must ask for: ‘Lord, [grant] that we might be coherent.’” That’s the grace we ask for now!

The readings for this Mass were: 

Reading 1
JAS 5:1-6

Come now, you rich, weep and wail over your impending miseries.
Your wealth has rotted away, your clothes have become moth-eaten,
your gold and silver have corroded,
and that corrosion will be a testimony against you;
it will devour your flesh like a fire.
You have stored up treasure for the last days.
Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers
who harvested your fields are crying aloud;
and the cries of the harvesters
have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.
You have lived on earth in luxury and pleasure;
you have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter.
You have condemned;
you have murdered the righteous one;
he offers you no resistance.

Responsorial Psalm
PS 49:14-15AB, 15CD-16, 17-18, 19-20

R. (Matthew 5:3) Blessed are the poor in spirit; the Kingdom of heaven is theirs!
This is the way of those whose trust is folly,
the end of those contented with their lot:
Like sheep they are herded into the nether world;
death is their shepherd and the upright rule over them.
R. Blessed are the poor in spirit; the Kingdom of heaven is theirs!
Quickly their form is consumed;
the nether world is their palace.
But God will redeem me
from the power of the nether world by receiving me.
R. Blessed are the poor in spirit; the Kingdom of heaven is theirs!
Fear not when a man grows rich,
when the wealth of his house becomes great,
For when he dies, he shall take none of it;
his wealth shall not follow him down.
R. Blessed are the poor in spirit; the Kingdom of heaven is theirs!
Though in his lifetime he counted himself blessed,
“They will praise you for doing well for yourself,”
He shall join the circle of his forebears
who shall never more see light.
R. Blessed are the poor in spirit; the Kingdom of heaven is theirs!

Gospel
MK 9:41-50

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink
because you belong to Christ,
amen, I say to you, will surely not lose his reward.“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,
it would be better for him if a great millstone
were put around his neck
and he were thrown into the sea.
If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.
It is better for you to enter into life maimed
than with two hands to go into Gehenna,
into the unquenchable fire.
And if your foot causes you to sin, cut if off.
It is better for you to enter into life crippled
than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna.
And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.
Better for you to enter into the Kingdom of God with one eye
than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna,
where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.“Everyone will be salted with fire.
Salt is good, but if salt becomes insipid,
with what will you restore its flavor?
Keep salt in yourselves and you will have peace with one another.”