Thirty-Third Sunday: The Lord’s Work

I am sorry I missed writing a post on last week’s amazing readings.  Part of it is my own laziness.  Part of it is that  this year I have been trying to read the Gospel readings more carefully – and it’s overwhelming.  I get started and can’t imagine paring things down to 800 words.  There is too much there, I had no idea the Gospels were so rich.

But notice how laziness and failure to receive the Lord’s goodness go together.  This week’s readings, in fact, speak right to me.

Searching the Scriptures

The first reading, from Proverbs, talks about the “worthy wife.”  She works hard.  When it says, “charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting; the woman who fears the Lord is to be praised,” it’s telling us something important about women.  But the main point, the reason it’s paired with this Gospel, is to teach us that we’re all called to work.

The bigger context is in our reading from First Thessalonians: “the day of the Lord will come like a thief at night.”  At the end of the Church’s year and the end of the Gospel – these last three Sundays, we are reading every word of Matthew 25, Jesus’s last words before he goes to be crucified – the theme is preparing for the end of time and the second coming of Christ.  “Therefore, let us not sleep as the rest do, but let us stay alert and sober.”  Let’s get to work.

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First Thessalonians’ discussion of the end – especially the parts the Sunday Lectionary does not give us – is scary.  So too Proverbs talks about the woman who “fears the Lord” and our Psalm refrain is, “Blessed are those who fear the Lord” (which the Psalm again ties to the health of the family).

File:Pantocrator from Gavshinka (1200s, Rublev's museum).jpgThe three readings from Matthew 25, meanwhile, are a crescendo of threats.  At the end of last week’s reading, the Bridegroom locks the foolish virgins out, telling them, “I do not know you.”  At the end of this week’s reading, the parable of the talents, the Lord says, “throw the unprofitable servant into outer darkness; where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth” (that is, both sorrow and anger).  And at the end of next week’s Gospel, the very last words of Jesus’ preaching are, “Truly I say to you, Inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.  And these shall go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into everlasting life.”

People think that the Old Testament is scary and the Gospels are nice.  That is because people haven’t read either one.  The most terrifying threats in Scripture come from the mouth of Jesus.

But what is the point of this fear?  In this week’s parable of the talents, the one who had received the one talent says, “Master, I knew you were a demanding person, harvesting where you did not plant and gathering where you did not scatter; so out of fear I went off and buried your talent in the ground.  Here it is back.”

But that was foolish.  As the Master responds, if you are afraid, you should work hard.  Jesus is demanding.  He wants more from us.  The Gospel is not about being fleeing responsibility, it is about being filled with the vigor of Jesus.

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The beginning of our parable is important.  Our translation says, “A man going on a journey.”  The Greek word means, “going away from his people.”  It is a powerful word at the end of Jesus’ preaching, as he goes, first to the Cross and then to the Ascension.

He “called in his servants and entrusted his possessions to them.”  The Greek for possessions is “things under his authority.”  And notice the two uses of “his.”  The things are his – but the Greek uses a deeper word for saying the servants are his.

The last words of Matthew’s Gospel will be, “Behold, I am with you all the days until the end of the world.  Amen.”  He goes away – but he sends us with his authority, because we are his.

So notice too the words of reward.  “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”  We are called to be his servants, doing his work – as in the next and final parable we will be called to welcome him in the poor.  The word for Master in this parable is Kurios, as in Kyrie eleison, Lord!  The words we want to hear are that we have been good and faithful servants, that he has been our Lord.

Then he says, “since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great” – possessions? no – “responsibilities.”  Literally, “I will put you over much.”

“Come, share your master’s joy.”  But your Lord’s joy is in the care he gives, the work he does, the love he bestows, and pours into our hearts, by the Holy Spirit.

How perfect that the other readings tie this commission to family.  Our joy is not in being relieved of responsibility, but in entering into our Lord’s work.

What’s an important place in your life where you think you will find joy by fleeing the work the Lord has given you?

Thirty-First Sunday: We’re All Priests

This year, I have been making an effort to study the Gospels, especially this year’s Gospel, Matthew, better than I have before.  What has most struck me is the centrality of the Pharisees.  But one of my favorite things about the Pharisees is how accusations of Phariseeism boomerang.  Jesus manages to accuse them without becoming one himself, but every time I point out Phariseeism, I find myself committing it.

In this week’s Gospel we find Jesus saying, “They will not lift a finger” to help people carry the burdens they lay, and, “They preach but they do not practice.”

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But the readings start with the minor prophet Malachi cursing the priests of Israel: “You have caused many to falter by your instruction.”  His particular accusation is “you show partiality in your decisions.”  The Hebrew for that is something like, “You look up,” looking at whom they are judging instead of, like our blindfolded Lady Justice, looking only at the case itself.

Thus he ends, “Have we not all the one father?   Has not the one God created us?  Why then do we break faith with one another, violating the covenant of our fathers?”  Instead of angling for whom we can benefit from, we should treat others right, because they are our equals and because they belong to God.  So too – looking back to our Gospel – we should help others carry their loads instead of trying to gain honors.

But one thing that’s fun about this juxtaposition of texts is that the Pharisees are the opposite of the people Malachi is blaming.  Malachi is talking to the Levites, the ones who serve in the temple.  But in Jesus’s day, that was the Sadducees, the enemy of the Pharisees.  The Pharisees thought the Sadduccees, who were worried only about temple observance were – something like what we would call liberals, not tough enough on how people behave outside of church.

In short, both sides of the argument are, in the broad sense, “Pharisees.”  Both sides are failing to practice what they preach.  There is plenty of blame to go around.

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There is plenty in today’s Gospel that we can use to accuse the priests – or the blamers of priests – of our day.  It is true that they tie up heavy burdens hard to carry, but will not lift a finger to move them.   It is true that they sit in the chair of Moses, teaching with authority, so that we should observe all the things they tell us – but often we should not follow their example.  It is true that they often seem to love places of honor at banquets, seats of honor in synagogues, greetings in marketplaces, and the salutation ‘Father.’  Some may disagree, but I don’t think we get anywhere denying that there is much about our clergy that is less than inspiring.

And it’s true, as Malachi says, that they ought to have greater respect for the people whom they serve.  The priesthood doesn’t make you the one special member of the congregation.  It makes you a servant of all, because we are all part of the priestly people, all called to holiness.  I think priests would behave better if they remembered the dignity of the Christian people.  So would the people who blame priests.

Fine.  But here’s my point: we are a priestly people in another sense, too.  We are all guilty of the sins of the priests, all guilty of what Malachi blames the Levites for, and Jesus blames the Pharisees for.  We all need Jesus to tell us, “The greatest among you must be your servant.  Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

Whatever we accuse others of, the accusation comes back to ourselves.  Whatever gripes you have with other Christians, whatever you think many clergy are guilty of (whether you think they’re too strict or too lazy) – look to yourself.  It’s not so much that we shouldn’t judge others, as that we should judge ourselves.

In all these passages about the Pharisees, Jesus teaches us to judge ourselves.  Perhaps we start by seeing Phariseeism in others, but always the accusation boomerangs to us.

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Instead, as Paul says of himself, let us be “gentle” with one another, “as a nursing mother cares for her children.”  Let us share “the gospel of God, but our very selves as well, so dearly beloved” may we see others.

In that way, and only in that way, we can make sure that “receiving the word of God from hearing us,” they may receive “not a human word, but, as it truly is, the word of God, which is now at work in you who believe.”

Who in the Church do you tend to judge?  How are you guilty of the same things?

 

The Ladder of the Beatitudes

I was thinking during All Saints Mass, in our university chapel, of a nice hokey homily one could give.  All Saints celebrates, among other things, the unnamed, uncelebrated saints.  The marvelous reading from Revelation says, “from every nation, race, people, and tongue.”  We could add, from every walk of life: unnoticed stay-at-home moms, grandmothers, homeless men, garbage men, mailmen, and accountants.

And then, with the reading of the Beatitudes, you could say, here are various kinds of sanctity.  Wherever there is true poverty of spirit, there lies a hidden saint.  Wherever there is Christian mourning, genuine meekness, deep hunger and thirst for justice, authentic mercy – those are saints.  The pure of heart and the peacemakers: two more kinds of saints.

That would be a nice little homily to help those struggling with the idea of sanctity to consider that saints live not only among the statues, but in real virtues in real life.  That would be a helpful homily, and true, and rich.

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But I’d like to take advantage of today’s reading of the Beatitudes to go a step deeper.  Because, although they show various faces of sanctity, they are not just a disjointed list.  The tradition sees in them a united whole: though it might be helpful to think of them as different faces of sanctity, in truth, there is never one without the others.  Even more, they are an ordered whole, building from bottom to top in a ladder of sanctity.

This post is going to be too long, and I’m only going to be able to hint at this ladder.  But I hope I can give you something to meditate on.

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There is something funny about the structure of the Beatitudes.  Eight times, Jesus speaks in the third person: “Blessed are they.”  But then at the end, he says, “Blessed are you.”  The setting is, “His disciples came to him.  He began to teach them.”  They might be interested in what he has to say about some other “they” who are blessed – but most of all, they want him to address them as “you.”  When are we, your disciples, blessed?  Bless me, Lord!

All those other eight build up and culminate when he finally says, “Blessed are you”: “Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me.”  Before that last moment, he has not said, “you” and “me,” but here is the summit.

Our reading from Revelation today said, about all the saints, “These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress; they have washed their robes and made them white in the Blood of the Lamb.”  Somehow, it all comes to a head in being persecuted because of him, being united to his cross, bathing in the Blood of the Lamb by passing through the time of distress.

Sanctity can only be union with Jesus, can only be motivated by our desire for identification with him.  And it only comes to perfection when that identification with him comes to suffering.  There is no true sanctity, no final beatitude, apart from being persecuted “because of me,” being bathed in the blood of the Lamb.  That’s the top of the ladder, the peak of sanctity.  Everything is there, in a nutshell.  This is the only beatitude addressed to “you,” his disciples.  We need to long for that persecution, which will come, one way or another.

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BUT – we had better be careful, because not all persecution is “because of me.”  If you are hated because you use Christianity as an excuse to be a jerk, that is not the peak of sanctity.  It is not sanctity at all, just a cheap imitation.  And this is where the rest of the ladder comes in.

You can’t reach that top of the ladder without climbing the step before it: “Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness.”  That sounds almost the same, but it isn’t.  The perfect blessing is to be persecuted for the sake of him – but it is not for the sake of him unless it is also for the sake of righteousness.  Are you being a good person?  Only if you are can you claim that you are being persecuted for the sake of him, and not rightly slapped down for being a jerk.

But what is righteousness?  There is, of course, false righteousness, too.  You can’t reach that step of the ladder without the one before: “Blessed are the peacemakers.”  If you face conflict because you are causing conflict, there is no blessing in that.  But if you are making peace, bringing the peace of Jesus, then perhaps your persecution is for the sake of righteousness, and for the sake of him.  Jesus was crucified for being a peacemaker, not a jerk.

And what is peacemaking?  The step before is “blessed are the pure of heart.”  There are a lot of false kinds of peace, cheap imitations of the peace of Christ.  To make real peace – a positive thing – requires clearing away all the dross in your heart.  You cannot be a true peacemaker without first being pure of heart.

But purity of heart, too, can be false.  There are many kinds of purity – Nietzsche is scathing on this – defined more by our isolation from others than by real Christianity. To be pure by standing aloof is Phariseeism, not the way of Christ.  To be persecuted for that kind of holier-than-thou attitude is not persecution for righteousness or persecution for Christ, and it can’t make real peace.  No, to have true purity of heart, we need first to climb the step before: “Blessed are the merciful.”

And of course there is false mercy, as well – parallel to spoiling children, which gives them what they want not for love of them but in hopes that they will leave you alone.  That’s not mercy, that’s a cheap imitation.  Real mercy, too, requires the step before: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.”  Benedict XVI has a nice line about this: don’t say you are giving to others from what is yours unless you first give them what is theirs; love and mercy are greater than justice, but don’t tell me you love me if you won’t be just to me.  Only a passion for justice, a real desire to set things right, results in true mercy.

Ah, but justice – well, the problem with this step might be the most obvious of all.  Because we know crusaders for justice are often inhuman.  St. James says, “The wrath of man does not work out the righteousness of God.”  Most of our claims to be fighting for justice or righteousness are rooted not in righteousness, but in our demand for our own rights, and our desire to fight.  And so the previous step is necessary: Blessed are the meek.  Until we have conquered our anger with meekness, our claims to be hungering and thirsting for justice are bogus.

And how can I be meek?  First I must be aware of my sin: “Blessed are those who mourn.”  Before I can heal the problem, I need to see the problem.  I have to be pierced by the unrighteousness of men, by the tragedy of my sin and the sin of others.  Without that mourning, I might be mousy or conflict-averse, but I am not meek.

And – this is the bottom rung of the ladder – I cannot mourn as a Christian until I abandon earthly splendor: “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” which (says St. Thomas, quoting Augustine and Ambrose) says either means the renuncation of pride or the spiritual renunciation of worldly goods.  Until I have abandoned worldliness, in either or both of those ways, I will always be mourning for the wrong things, for the loss of earthly goods instead of the loss of my soul.

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Well, this post is too long.  But the point is, if you memorize the Beatitudes – or just take a Bible with you to prayer – you can meditate on how they fit together.  There is not one without the others.  Each one guarantees the truth of the others.  And there is a ladder, climbing from our renunciation of earthly goods in poverty of spirit all the way to being persecuted, not for our own stupidity or meanness, but for Jesus himself.