Fr. Roger J. Landry
Visitation Convent of the Sisters of Life, Manhattan
Thursday of the Tenth Week in Ordinary Time, Year II
Memorial of St. Ephrem, Deacon and Doctor of the Church
June 9, 2016
1 Kings 18:41-46, Ps 65, Mt 5:20-26
To listen to an audio recording of this homily, please click below:
The following points were attempted in the homily:
- Today in the Gospel, Jesus tells us something that should startle us, especially early in the morning: “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the Kingdom of heaven.” That’s a very tall order. The Scribes were the experts of Sacred Scripture in its every detail. They consecrated their whole life to knowing the Word of God. The Pharisees were the ones who sought to live the Word of God expounded by the Scribes to the letter. Many of the Scribes were Pharisees and vice versa. They prayed three times a day. The fasted not just the one time prescribed per year but twice a week. They tithed not only the various items that God had instructed but the tithed their whole income. By worldly, even by classically religious standards, their righteousness seemed to be almost unsurpassable.
- But they were missing something. Their righteousness was fundamentally based on their own efforts, their own study, their own will-power, their own sacrifices. It also featured an extrinsic understanding of being right with God: as long as they did the right things, everything was fine with God. As the converted Pharisee St. Paul would once say back to them, they thought that they were saved by their own works of the law, by their own external adhesion to the Mosaic law, and not by God, not by a faith-filled living relationship with God.
- When Jesus calls us to surpass the righteousness of the Pharisees, he’s not fundamentally calling us to surpass them in memorizing the New Testament along with the Old, in praying four times a day instead of three, in fasting three times a week instead of two, in giving twenty percent of all we have back to God instead of ten. He’s calling us to interiorize the law. He’s calling us to allow the Word of God to become enfleshed within. He’s summoning us to permit God to give us a new heart, to place his law within us. God had told us through the Prophet Jeremiah that one day he would write his law in our hearts, and that’s precisely what Jesus came to do.
- Today Jesus gives us two applications of what this looks like. The first is with regard to the fifth commandment. The Lord says, “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 his brother will be liable to judgment, and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.” Jesus wants to transform the way we relate to others so that we will love them as he has loved us. It’s not enough merely not to kill others. He doesn’t want us to insult them. He doesn’t want us to hate them. Jesus wants to teach us to love those whom others would be tempted even to murder, to love those who make us angry, to love those who are fools. And that’s the type of offering God wants us to give him when we come to worship him.
- That’s what we see in the second part of today’s Gospel. Jesus says, “Therefore,” linking both parts and this is key for us to grasp as we come here today to pray the Mass. He says, “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.” The type of offering God wants from us is the offering of love, of forgiveness and reconciliation, of kindness, toward his beloved sons and daughters who are our blood or spiritual brothers and sisters. If this is lacking, he says, our offering to God is in vain. We can’t come to receive the gift God wants to give us if we’ve closed our hearts to the way he wants us to live. Ultimately the offering God calls us to make when we come before him is our “logike latreia” (Rom 12:2), the only worship that makes sense, our bodies, our entire lives, as a holy and acceptable oblation. It’s to put ourselves at God’s total service. And if we refuse to reconcile, then we are not at God’s service. If we’re not loving our neighbor, we’re really not loving God. If we think we can just focus on God without reconciling with our neighbor, Jesus is telling us today the absolute opposite, and giving us a choice between the “kingdom of heaven” and a “prison” from which we will not be released until we have paid the last penny. This type of reconciliation with others, this type of fraternal, faithful love, was what many Scribes and Pharisees refused to do. They condescendingly disdained their neighbor who didn’t live as outwardly righteous lives as they did. They disparaged the Gentiles as if their entire bodies were meant just to be fuel for the fires of Gehenna. That’s why for many of them their worship was in vain because they refused to allow God to transform them into his loving, merciful image and likeness.
- Overcoming our tendency to judge our brother, to hate him, to refuse forgiveness, to insult him, isn’t easy. It’s a persevering challenge. God can change us on a dime if we give him permission, but normally he heals us gradually so that he can strengthen our will in the process. We see a sign of this in today’s first reading. After a year long drought and famine, Elijah prophecies to King Ahab, whose prophets of Ba’al he just annihilated, ” God up, eat and drink, for their is the sound of heaven rain.” That was an act of pure faith that the rain of God was coming. Elijah climbed to the top of Mt. Carmel to pray. He sent his servant a young boy to “climb up and look out to sea” for any sign of rain. The young man climbed up and looked and saw totally blue skies. He asked him to go a second time. Then a third. Then a fourth, fifth and sixth. Finally on the seventh time, the boy returned reporting to Elijah, “There is a cloud as small as a man’s hand rising from the sea.” And soon thereafter “the sky grew dark with clouds and wind and a heavy rain fell.” Many times God treats us the way Elijah treated his faithful servant. He promises us the rain of his grace. But he makes us wait for it, to go up and seek it, to trust that it will come, to believe in it even if all we’ve receive is a very small handful. But we need to persevere in the seeking, because it’s in that seeking that we’re transformed, that part of our healing is accomplished. And we need perseveringly to seek that grace of a righteousness surpassing the external justice of the Scribes and Pharisees, so that we might offer God true worship. For us as daily Mass goers, we come here every day with our prayers, to hear the Word of God, to be in the presence of the Word made flesh, to receive Him within. It may not seem that our lives are changing for the better, that we still hold grudges against our neighbor, that we still judge, that we still make excuses as to why it’s silly to seek reconciliation. But God tells us, “There is the sound of a heavy rain.” If we keep coming here seeking his help, if we keep battling to correspond, we will see more than a helping hand. He will strengthen us to put these words into practice and allow God’s word to take flesh in us just as the Word becomes flesh on this altar and enters into our lives.
- Today we remember the great fourth century Deacon and Doctor of the Church, St. Ephrem, from Syria. He was a prolific teacher in an age of terrible heresies against the divinity of Christ and the Holy Spirit. At the request of his bishop, he opened up a school in Nisibis to teach the faith aright and inoculate people against false teachings. But he also was an incredible poet and songwriter, putting the truths of the faith into more than 3,000 songs so that Christians could learn and pass on the faith through music. He was called the “Harp of the Holy Spirit” because not only did he teach clearly about the Holy Spirit but taught through the Holy Spirit who led him to some of the deepest insights about the truths of our faith in the history of the Church. And he expressed them not just in dry theological treatises but in poetry and in liturgical and sacred music, because as Pope Benedict XVI said several years ago in a Catechesis on what we can all learn from him, he always connected beauty and truth so that the truth could be prayed liturgically. There was a union between our worship and our way of life, just as Jesus was saying between our communion with him and communion with others.
- Among St. Ephrem’s most treasured and renowned mystical teachings were his writings on the Holy Eucharist. In one poem, St. Ephrem writes from the perspective of Jesus, “Take, eat, entertaining no doubt of faith, because this is My Body, and whoever eats it in belief eats in it Fire and Spirit.’” To enter into Communion with the Lord is to consume “Fire” and “Spirit,” a fire and a Holy Spirit that can burn away false notions of righteousness and help us to live according to what Jesus teaches us by inscribing the truth on our hearts with fire, so that we might love what he’s taught us and make it a part of our worship. So let us thank the Lord Jesus and the Holy Spirit as we come to present ourselves before the altar. And let us ask him for all the help he knows we need to have our righteousness, our holiness, be truly pleasing to God through our reconciling with others during this Jubilee of Mercy, so that we and others can join him not on Mt. Carmel but in the kingdom of heaven in the celestial Jerusalem.
The readings for today’s Mass were:
1 KGS 18:41-46
for there is the sound of a heavy rain.”
So Ahab went up to eat and drink,
while Elijah climbed to the top of Carmel,
crouched down to the earth,
and put his head between his knees.
“Climb up and look out to sea,” he directed his servant,
who went up and looked, but reported, “There is nothing.”
Seven times he said, “Go, look again!”
And the seventh time the youth reported,
“There is a cloud as small as a man’s hand rising from the sea.”
Elijah said, “Go and say to Ahab,
‘Harness up and leave the mountain before the rain stops you.’”
In a trice the sky grew dark with clouds and wind,
and a heavy rain fell.
Ahab mounted his chariot and made for Jezreel.
But the hand of the LORD was on Elijah,
who girded up his clothing and ran before Ahab
as far as the approaches to Jezreel.
PS 65:10, 11, 12-13
You have visited the land and watered it;
greatly have you enriched it.
God’s watercourses are filled;
you have prepared the grain.
R. It is right to praise you in Zion, O God.
Thus have you prepared the land:
drenching its furrows, breaking up its clods,
Softening it with showers,
blessing its yield.
R. It is right to praise you in Zion, O God.
You have crowned the year with your bounty,
and your paths overflow with a rich harvest;
The untilled meadows overflow with it,
and rejoicing clothes the hills.
R. It is right to praise you in Zion, O God.
“I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that
of the scribes and Pharisees,
you will not enter into the Kingdom of heaven.“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 his brother
will be liable to judgment,
and whoever says to his brother,
‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin,
and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna.
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 with him.
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.”