Eighth Sunday: To Call Jesus Lord

A student recently asked me about St. Francis of Assisi.  Are we all called to be like him?  Or is that just a crazy vocation for one strange person in a strange, distant time?

Cimabue’s St. Francis

Well, the first thing to say is what another former student recently wrote to me: I am not called to be St. Francis, I am called to be St. ____.  In that sense, no, we are not called to be like Francis.  But we are called to be saints.

Vatican II declared the “universal call to holiness” just about the time that the American church was drifting into assimilated suburban comfort.  In that context, the call got sort of retranslated into a “universal proclamation of holiness,” as if Vatican II said everything is fine, whatever.  Actually, Vatican II said the exact opposite – and the tendency of our culture to ignore that call of the Council shows how important it was.  You and I are called not to assimilated suburban comfort, but to sanctity – yes, as radical as St. Francis.


Last Sunday we finished our reading of every verse in Matthew 5, the first chapter of the Sermon on the Mount.  The Lectionary finishes the Sermon by reading just the final verses of chapters 6 and 7, one Sunday for each.  With the location of Ash Wednesday this year, we won’t get to chapter seven until after Pentecost.

But the reading from chapter 6 is perfect for this last Sunday before Lent.  The first half of Matthew 6 is about almsgiving, prayer (with the Our Father), and fasting, the three practices of Lent; several of those verses are the annual reading for Ash Wednesday.  But the second half of the chapter explains the point of those practices, with six verses on laying up treasures in heaven and ten verses on worry.  The Lectionary’s summary of this chapter gives us the last verse on treasures in heaven and all the verses on worry, in a way that perfectly shows how the whole chapter hangs together.


“No one can serve two masters,” says Jesus, at the beginning of our reading.  The key is in lordship: it’s not that money is evil, it’s that money is an evil master.

He adds a line that can be overlooked as dull repetition: “He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despire the other.”  The point is, sometimes you actively hate the thing that isn’t your

Crucified with Christ

master – sometimes, if money is your master, you hate God – but sometimes you just “despise,” or under-value, the one who isn’t your master.  Sometimes, that is, it’s more insidious than hate: we might not hate God, but our love of money can make us treat him with contempt.  Be careful.

This verse introduces the verses about worry, with their famously Franciscan lines about the birds in the sky and the wild flowers.  Jesus says God cares for them, and we should have confidence that God will care for us.  I am sure I’m not the only one who has had a priest directly contradict these verses, directly tell me that we shouldn’t be like crazy St. Francis and just assume God will take care of us, we have to be hard-nosed and worry about money.

Friends, I think this tendency to reject the direct teaching of Jesus is a disease, a heresy that threatens the American church to its core.


Now, Jesus doesn’t say you shouldn’t work for a living – even Francis went out begging.  But he does say you should be careful who your “master” is, and what you “worry” about.  He doesn’t say you shouldn’t seek your meal, but he does say, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.”

The chapter (and our reading) ends with a verse that seems out of character, after all this happy stuff about lilies of the field: “sufficient for a day is its own evil.”  This verse has a clue for how to read the whole chapter.  This “evil” really is the word for evil, not just deprivation, like a couple weeks ago.  Each day has evil to be battled.


What is the evil?  It is the very real temptation to make money our master, to worry more about food and clothes than about God and righteousness, to think that if we don’t outright hate God, then we don’t need to worry about despising, or undervaluing, him.

We don’t worry about this temptation enough.  But Jesus sees it as a major threat, and he hits it hard, here and elsewhere.  Every day, make sure you are more worried about calling Jesus Lord than about how much money is in your bank account.  That’s why we have Lent, with its threefold call to prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.


Our short reading from Isaiah reminds us that God is our Father.  Seek his kingdom and his righteousness, and you really will have everything.  The secret of St. Francis was his trust in the providence of God the Father.

Nothing but Jesus

Our reading from First Corinthians puts the same thing in more dire terms.  Our job in this world is not to lay up treasure on earth, but to steward our goods for Christ – and we should worry, above all, about

how Jesus will judge us on his return (he says it will be how we feed the hungry, not how big a house we owned).

Seek first the kingdom, and take seriously how easily our American values can get in the way of the Lordship of Jesus.

What part of your life demands clearer priorities?



Seventh Sunday: Perfect Love

This Sunday we complete Matthew 5, the first chapter of the Sermon on the Mount.  Although the Lectionary will only give us parts of the next two chapters, we get every verse of Matthew 5.  It is exquisite.

Searching the Scriptures

Our readings start with God saying in Leviticus, “Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.”  Our Gospel concludes, “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  The key is in our second reading, where St. Paul says, “Do you not know that you are the temple of God?”  God dwells in us, and so we share in his holiness.


It is important to see the continuity between Leviticus and the Gospel.  Last week Jesus said, “I have come not to abolish the law or the prophets . . . but to fulfill.”  This week we are tempted to doubt that claim.

Our reading begins, “You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”  The second half begins, “You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.”  We get the idea that the Old Testament is all about vengeance, and Jesus has come to abolish it.

To the contrary, the Old Testament took us half way.  Eye for an eye was not an encouragement to poke people’s eyes out.  It meant, if someone pokes out your eye, you’re not allowed to kill his whole family in retaliation; and if no one has poked your eye out, you oughtn’t to poke out anyone else’s.  These laws from Leviticus are not an encouragement to retaliation, but a restraint on it.

So too, this week’s reading from Leviticus reminds us that the main teaching of the Old Law was “love your neighbor” – it just didn’t extend that love to the enemy.  “Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against any of your people,” we will hear.  “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”


But Jesus goes much further: “turn the other cheek.”  He goes so far that we are tempted to think he is

Crucified with Christ

merely exaggerating.

The heart of the matter is in his first response: “But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.”  Can he really mean that?

Now, Greek has three words for evil.  One is inherent wickedness.  The second is degeneracy – falling into inherent wickedness.  But the word here focuses not on the evil of the person himself, but on his effect.  Jesus does not say, “Let the wicked person be wicked.”  What he says is, “when someone, or even some thing, deprives you, let it go.”

The same word appears two other important places in the Sermon on the Mount.  It is at the end of the Beatitudes (thus returning us again to that fundamental teaching): Blessed are you when they say all depriving words against you, when their words strip you.

But it is also at the end of the Lord’s Prayer: deliver us from being deprived.  Throughout the Beatitudes, why are we blessed?  Because the one thing the deprivers cannot take from us is God.  And if we have him, we have everything.


Jesus’s commentary on this “do not resist the depriver” nicely focuses on doubling.  In an eye for an eye, there is balance: his eye, your eye.  But in Jesus, instead of taking his eye, you give him your other one.  If they slap one cheek, let them slap the other.  If they sue you for your tunic, give them your cloak.  If they demand one mile, go two.  Doubling.

And the final doubling: “You have heard it said, You shall love your neighbor . . . .  But I say to you, love your enemies.”  The Old Law took us half way, Jesus takes us all the way.

That’s the real meaning of the last words, “Be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  The Greek word for “perfect” means “all the way to the end.”  Don’t go half way into love.  Go all the way – as God goes all the way.


And that’s the reason we can go all the way: because God goes all the way.

We always doubt the prudence of what Jesus says.  I’m going to have no cloak!

To lose all and have Jesus

But in this week’s reading from First Corinthians, St. Paul warns us against “the wisdom of this world.”  Hanging on to your cloak won’t get you so far.

The wisdom of God is that “everything belongs to you . . . and you to Christ, and Christ to God.”  We are “the temple of God, and . . . the Spirit of God dwells in you.”  If you have God, why are you fighting over the cloak?  Go all the way, love to the end, let God be your all.

Where do you fight for worldly goods and forget the presence of God?  How do you live the wisdom of this age?


Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time: Greater than the Pharisees

I wonder if what really makes conservative Catholics angry at Pope Francis is that he refuses to pat us on the back.  It’s what liberals love about him, too.  It’s not that he’s nice to them – it’s that he’s tough on us.

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

Similarly, lately it seems to me like almost the central theme of the Gospel, almost more than the identity of Jesus, is his criticism of the Pharisees.

That’s the heart of this Sunday’s next section from the Sermon on the Mount.


It’s the passage on the fulfilling of the Law: you have heard it said, but I say to you.  Jesus goes through the fifth, sixth, and seventh commandments, and says that beyond not murdering, committing adultery, and breaking our oaths, we should overcome anger, lust, and any kind of untruth.  Ouch.  That’s a tough standard.

But perhaps the heart of the reading is not the fulfilling of the Law but the scourging of the Pharisees: “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”  On the one hand, it sounds like they are pretty righteous.  On the other hand, it sure implies that they’re going to Hell.


The second part of this reading, about adultery, is the most arresting but also the easiest to understand.  Jesus says two things: he condemns divorce, even pleasant, upright, Pharisee divorce.  And he condemns lust.  Ouch.

But that’s not all Jesus opposes.  We could be totally opposed to divorce and still be on the Pharisee side of this debate.

Jesus opposes anger, too.  There’s a sign of how shocking Jesus’s words are in the manuscript tradition.  A long line of Greek texts – including the ones the King James Version used – added the word “idly.”  If you’re angry for no good reason.  But that’s not what it says.

If your brother has something against you and you are bringing your gift to the altar – don’t bother.  Go be reconciled.  The Greek word is tough: not just “smooth it over,” but “change things completely,” before you come back to the Temple.  Ouch.

If you are on your way to court, make a settlement, don’t fight for your rights.  “Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard,” etc., “until you have paid the last penny.”

Maybe the best way to understand that text is in John’s Gospel.  (John is always recasting these sayings, to take us deeper.)  With the women caught in adultery, Jesus says, “he who is without sin, let him cast the first stone.”

If you want to think of yourself as righteous, go ahead.  But you will stand before the judge, too.  Jesus is not commending adultery.  (Nor is Francis.)  Rather, he is telling us that we need a deeper righteousness than the Pharisees and the stone throwers.

Jesus gives us no high fives, doesn’t tell us we Christians are awesome, unlike those other people.  He tells us to live love all the way to the end.  That means living the commandments, and a lot more besides – he’s not making things easier, he’s making them much harder.  We have to go all the way.


This week’s reading from First Corinthians reminds us that we live by a higher wisdom, “God’s wisdom, mysterious, hidden.”  It is a wisdom, on the one hand, “for our glory.”  And it is a wisdom, on the other hand, without which “they crucified the Lord of glory.”

Jesus reveals to us his face, his face of righteousness and mercy, his face of the Beatitudes, his face hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, foreign, and imprisoned.  He calls us to take on that face, to put on his wisdom – and most of the time, like Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, we would rather crucify him than follow that path.  We want a God who pats us on the back, not a God who calls us to glory.

The first reading, from Sirach, presents a simple choice.  “If you choose you can keep the commandments.”  Well!  That sounds Pelagian – but then he says, “If you trust in God, you too shall live.”

Jesus waits to make us holy, to clothe us in his righteousness and mercy.  The awesome challenge of the Sermon on the Mount, to be without anger and lust and untruth, is possible, if only we accept his grace.  But we have to receive it from him, and we can’t be self-righteous Pharisees.

The choice, says Sirach, is fire and water, life and death, good and evil.  Jesus is not messing around.  We can have all – or nothing.  But we must accept the way of the Beatitudes, the fulfillment of the commandments, the whole awesome love of Christ, and him crucified.

At what points do you find yourself stopping to throw stones, instead of following the Beatitudes of Christ?


Fifth Sunday: Becoming Christ

This Sunday we continue our reading of the Sermon on the Mount.  It continues from weeks four to nine of this year of Matthew: almost an eighth of the year, and more than a sixth of Ordinary Time.  This Sermon is central to Matthew’s Gospel, and the Lectionary makes it central to our Matthean years.

St. Dominic, Fra Angelico

We don’t get to read all of the Sermon, but this week we read the verses that immediately follow last week’s Beatitudes: “You are the salt of the earth.”


The preaching of Jesus often uses multiple metaphors to bring out different aspects of the same thing.  Here the metaphors are salt of the earth, city on a hill, light of the world.  As so often happens with the Gospel (this is the challenge of the new evangelization), these words are so familiar that they can seem less challenging than they are.

The three metaphors all obviously point to mission.  But more deeply, they point to identity.  Paired with the Beatitudes, they seem to say: if you profess to follow Christ, you’d better look like it.

The first metaphor, salt of the earth, is arresting.  “If salt loses its taste” is absurd: there is nothing to salt but its taste.  “It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot”: salt losing its taste is so impossible that the metaphor doesn’t make sense.  Salt never gets thrown out.

But that’s the point: so too, a Christian who does not follow the Beatitudes, a Christian who is not imbued with the full radicalism of the image of Christ, is not just disappointing or kind of bad, it’s

Sermon on the Mount, Fra Angelico

absurd.  The Beatitudes are not nice suggestions or side issues.  They are essential.  Poor, sorrowing, meek, just, merciful, pure, and peacemaking – or nothing

“Loses its taste” is hard to translate.  The verb is literally, “becomes a moron” – its primary meaning is about stupidity; it only refers to flavor by extension.  These are not nice words.  Jesus knows how moronic our Christianity will become.


“A city set on a mountain.”   The reference is obviously Jerusalem.  “Set” is a good translation.  The city is “sitting” on the hill because someone has “set” it there.  He made you this city.

The city brings out a collective angle.  We are each individually salt – but we are all together the city, and all together the salt.  Leave the city – leave the Church – and you become tasteless, pointless, moronic.

The city “cannot” by hidden.  The verb is forceful.  Partly it means “must not,” “dare not,” “you’d better not.”  But partly, again, it means, “it’s just a contradiction”: if you don’t taste like the Beatitudes, you’re not just a bad Church, you are no Church at all.

In the second and third third metaphors, Jesus does not repeat the “trampled under foot” part, from the salt metaphor – but it stays implicit.  If you do not look like, taste like, show forth the Beatitudes – you are nothing.  The call of Jesus is radical.


And last, the lamp.  Again, note the verb: “nor do they light a lamp.”  Actually, the lamp is “set on fire.”  It doesn’t say who sets it on fire, but obviously it is Jesus himself who must set us aflame.

The Beatitudes are not just a moral teaching.  They are the face of Christ.  Christ wants to take root in us, to transform us into himself.  He wants to set us aflame, “set” us on the hill, transform us into salt.  He wants to be not just our teacher, but our identity, the one who makes us what we are, so that we are poor with his poverty, weep with his tears, bring his peace to the world.

Only in that way, in the last words of our reading, does his Father become “your heavenly Father.”


Our first reading, from Isaiah, brilliantly illumines the Gospel.  “Then,” it says, “your light shall break forth.”  When?  When we feed the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless, clothe the naked.  Isaiah twice repeats these ideas.

Sound familiar?  How brilliantly the reading from Isaiah ties together the first and the last words of Jesus’s preaching in Matthew’s Gospel.  We have been talking about the Beatitudes – but Jesus’s final words are feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, visit the sick and the imprisoned; or else, the threat is his, not mine, go to Hell.

The preaching of Pope Francis on this essential passage in Matthew 25 takes us to the heart of the teaching.  First, he points to how practical these words are.  At the end of his preaching, as at the beginning, in the Beatitudes, Jesus doesn’t call us to stand back and profess doctrine, as if Catholicism were a political party or a favorite sports team with these ski masks being inmense fans.  He calls us to take on his own face, to touch others with

Pope Francis and Our Friend Dominic Gondreau

his own touch.  Doctrine matters – when it becomes our very life.

Second, note that clothing the naked is a bit odd.  Naked?  This is more than dropping clothes off at Goodwill.  We clothe the naked, Francis says, when we cover the humiliation of others’ poverty.  When we become the radical love of Jesus Christ.

“Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer.”  “Then your light shall break forth.”  “Then light shall rise for you.”  When Christ becomes our very life, our prayers will be answered: we will see him, and make him seen.


And so again, in our reading from First Corinthians, we look not for “sublimity of words or of wisdom.”  We look for, and put on, nothing but “Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”  We come not in strength but “in weakness and fear and much trembling,” and we long only for “a demonstration of Spirit and power”: the Spirit who can make us like Jesus.

Nothing but Jesus.

Where is Jesus calling you to become more radical?