THE NOW WORD ON MASS READINGS
for September 5th, 2017
Sunday & Tuesday
of the Twenty-Second Week in Ordinary Time
Liturgical texts here
ST. Augustine once said, “Lord, make me pure, but not yet!”
He betrayed a common fear among believers and unbelievers alike: that being a follower of Jesus means having to forego earthly joys; that it is ultimately a call into suffering, deprivation, and pain on this earth; to mortification of the flesh, annihilation of the will, and rejection of pleasure. After all, in last Sunday’s readings, we heard St. Paul say, “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice” cf. Rom 12:1 and Jesus say:
Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. (Matt 16:24-26)
Yes, at first glance, Christianity seems a rather miserable path to take during the short course of one’s life. Jesus sounds more like a destroyer than a savior.
What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are — the Holy One of God! (Today’s Gospel)
But missing from this rather bleak assessment is the central truth of why Jesus came to earth, summarized in these three Bible passages:
…you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins… (Matt 1:21)
Amen, amen, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin. (John 8:34)
For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery. (Gal 5:1)
Jesus did not come to enslave us to misery, but precisely to liberate us from it! What makes us truly sad? Is it loving God with our whole heart, soul, and strength… or the guilt and shame we feel from our sin? The universal experience and honest answer to that question is simple:
The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom 6:23)
Here, the “rich and famous” of the world serve as a parable—how one can have everything (money, power, sex, drugs, fame, etc.)—and yet, still be a shipwreck inside. They have access to every temporal pleasure, but grasp blindly for lasting and eternal joys that constantly elude them.
And yet, why is it that we who are already Christians are still afraid that God wants to rob us of the little that we already have? We are afraid that if we give our full and total “yes” to Him, He will then, in turn, ask us to let go of that cottage on the lake, or that man or woman we love, or that new car you just bought, or the joy of good meals, sex, or a host of other pleasures. Like the young rich man in the Gospels, whenever we hear Jesus calling us higher, we walk away sadder.
If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions. (Matt 19:21-22)
I want to compare something in this passage to when Jesus asked Peter to also leave behind his fishing nets and follow Him. We know that Peter immediately followed Jesus… but, then, we read later on that Peter still had his boat and his nets. What happened?
In the case of the young rich man, Jesus saw that his possessions were an idol and that, to these things, his heart was devoted. And thus, it was necessary for the young man to “smash his idols” in order to be free, and thus, truly happy. For,
No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. (Matthew 6:24)
After all, the young man’s question to Jesus was, “What good must I do to gain eternal life?” Peter, on the other hand, was also called to renounce his possessions. But Jesus did not ask him to sell them. Why? Because Peter’s boat was evidently not an idol preventing him from completely giving himself to the Lord.
…they abandoned their nets and followed him. (Mark 1:17)
As it turns out, Peter’s boat became a very useful instrument in serving the Lord’s mission, whether it was transporting Jesus to various towns or facilitating several miracles that revealed Christ’s power and glory. Things and pleasure, in and of themselves, are not evils; it is how we use or seek them that can be. God’s creation was given to mankind so that we could find and love Him through truth, beauty, and goodness. That hasn’t changed.
Tell the rich in the present age not to be proud and not to rely on so uncertain a thing as wealth but rather on God, who richly provides us with all things for our enjoyment. Tell them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous, ready to share, thus accumulating as treasure a good foundation for the future, so as to win the life that is true life. (2 Tim 6:17-19)
So, Jesus turns to you and I today and He says, “Follow me.” What does that look like? Well, that is the wrong question. You see, already we’re thinking, “What do I have to give up?” Rather, the right question is “How can I (and what I possess) serve you Lord?” And Jesus replies…
I came that [you] may have life, and have it abundantly… whoever loses his life for my sake will find it… Give and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap… Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. (John 10:10; Matt 16:26; Luke 6:38; John 14:27)
What Jesus promises you and I is true freedom and joy, not as the world gives, but as the Creator intends. The Christian life is not about being deprived of the goodness of God’s creation, but of rejecting the distortion of it, what we call “sin”. And so, we cannot move forward “into the deep” of that freedom that belongs to us as sons and daughters of the Most High unless we reject the lies of those demons of fear who try to convince us that Christianity will simply destroy our happiness. No! What Jesus came to destroy is the power of sin in our lives, and put to death the “old self” that is a distortion of the image of God in whom we are created.
And thus, this death to self does indeed demand a rejection of the inordinate desires and cravings of our fallen human nature. For some of us, it will mean smashing these idols altogether and leaving the gods of these addictions as a relic of the past. For others, it will mean subordinating these passions so that they are obedient to Christ, and like Peter’s boat, serve the Lord, rather than ourselves. Either way, this involves a courageous renunciation of ourselves and a taking up of the cross of self-denial so that we can be Jesus’ disciple, and thus, a son or daughter on their way to true freedom.
For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to what is seen but to what is unseen; for what is seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Cor 4:17-18)
If we fix our eyes on the treasures of Heaven, then we can say with the Psalmist today: “I believe that I shall see the bounty of the Lord in the land of the living”—not just in Heaven. But it requires our fiat, our “yes” to God and a firm “no” to sin.
Wait for the Lord with courage; be stout-hearted, and wait for the Lord… The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom should I fear? The LORD is my life’s refuge; of whom should I be afraid? (Today’s Psalm)
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