St. James states that every good gift comes from God. We are creatures; only he is creative in the strict sense of the word. (1:17) The man who is humble – and grateful – acknowledges those gifts: life, family, health. Everything we are and all we have comes ultimately from him, the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the roof which protects us, everything is his gift.
The first reading mentions a gift we do not always recognize as such, but it is truly great blessing – the law. Often we see the law as not a blessing, but a set of restrictions. When I go up to my brother’s place on Sunday afternoon, I want to arrive quickly. However, the law tells me not to drive 80 miles an hour. The Bible. though, does not present God’s law as series of burdens,* but as a just law which protects the weakest – for example the widow, the fatherless child and the immigrant.
Not everyone wants God’s law. Down in Alabama a judge placed in his courthouse a monument to the Ten Commandments. After some complaints, it was removed to keep church and state separate. OK, but this might indicate a deeper problem – a tendency to separate human law from its ultimate basis.
Many people, following the philosophy of Darwin, consider that humans are merely a bit more evolved animals. Well, this does not give us much foundation for law. If I have a group of monkeys in front of me and I throw out a banana, they are not going to divide it into equal pieces. Nor are they likely to ask who needs it most, perhaps one who is sick or pregnant or who hasn’t eaten in a while. You know who will get the banana – the monkey who is quickest and strongest. It’s called the law of the jungle. Take away morality – the law written on the human heart – and law becomes no more than an instrument for those who are strongest and most clever.**
In today’s Gospel jesus confronts a group of men who effectively negated the Commandments. For them what counted were things like washing their hands before eating and taking proper care of utensils. They had a way of passing over their own faults. Jesus gives them an examination of conscience:
Jesus called a spade a spade. However, we have a hard time hearing him. Like the Pharisees, we want to equivocate. Unchastity has become “lifestyle.” Deceit, “a few white lies,” or “face saving.” Greed, “retirement planning.” Murder...“reproductive rights,” or “compassion to the terminally ill.” And what Christians once considered the deadliest sin (pride - arrogance) has morphed into “self-esteem.”***
Abraham Lincoln reputedly said that you can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time. Unfortunately, the easiest person to fool all the time is ones own self. By plain talk Jesus attempts to break the illusion.
Self-deception has enormous consequences. In the case of the Pharisees, it shut them off from Christ, from salvation, from life. They became the walking dead.
Perhaps you saw the movie (or read the book) The Picture of Dorian Gray. A handsome young man, Dorian was noticed by an artist who asked to do his portrait. When Dorian saw the picture, he made a wish that he might remain always beautiful and instead the picture grow old. He embarked on a self-absorbed life, for example, deceiving a girl who later commits suicide. Dorian has no remorse. Beautiful on the outside, his heart had become stone. After many years he see the portrait. It had indeed aged – the face distorted and ugly. Dorian takes a knife to slash it. Then he falls dead. When found, his face and body are twisted, but the portrait is restored.
Like Dorian Gray, the person who denies the Commandments – or than inner voice of morality – can often maintain a good appearance. With a little bit of shuffling, the Pharisees did it. But Jesus saw through it. He also sees through our modern attempts replace his law with human respectability.
Let me hazard a current case. While in Peru, I mentioned to a priest what had happened in the U.S. Episcopal Church: that a man who abandoned his wife and two children for a gay lover was elected bishop. He mulled it over, asked a few questions, then said, “Well, we are in no position to thrown stones, but isn’t there something diabolical about trying to openly justify such behavior?”
The denial of sin eventually catches up. While we should do what we can to prevent things like “same sex marriage,” that is not our focus. God has his way of unmasking self-deception – including yours and mine. What we need to do is devote more time asking mercy for ourselves and others.
The author of Dorian Gray is himself a marvelous example of God’s mercy. Imprisoned for shameful crimes, Oscar Wilde was looked down upon his contemporaries. But in his heart he felt the attraction of Jesus. At the end, a priest baptized him and gave him the other sacraments. They had a conversation which convinced the priest of his deep sincerity. A notorious and despised sinner died as a member of our faith.
Jesus does not ask for a guilt trip, only honesty. The hardest thing any of us can do is admit our own fault. The Catechism describes it this way:
Interior repentance is a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed. At the same time it entails the desire and resolution to change one's life, with hope in God's mercy and trust in the help of his grace. This conversion of heart is accompanied by a salutary pain and sadness which the Fathers called animi cruciatus (affliction of spirit) and compunctio cordis (repentance of heart). 1431
For many of us this week marks the beginning of a new year. How about a fresh start in the relationship which matters above all others?
*For sure, human law with it bureaucracies and red tape is often a great nuisance and burden.
**Frederich Nietzsche followed Darwinism to its logical consequences. He rejected Christian morality which he caricatured as slave morality: "servile, fearful, and above all, resentful." In contrast he promoted what he called master morality which prizes "excellence, creativity, power and independence." Master morality says that because I stronger, more clever and less given to scruples I can do what I want. The fact that you are cringing, afraid and full of resentment confirms my superiority. This morality dominated the twentieth century. Not just the Nazis and Soviets, but the practice of eugenics, abortion and euthanasia.
***Concerning pride or self-conceit Lewis wrote, "everyone in the word loathes (it) when he sees it in someone else...hardly any people, except Christians, every imagine that they are guilty (of it) themselves...There is no fault which makes a man more unpopular, and no fault which we are more unconscious of in ourselves. And the more we have it, the more we dislike it in others." (See "The Great Sin," Mere Christianity) There is of course a laudable self-esteem based upon gratitude and desire to serve. But, how hard for us not to begin comparing ourselves with others!
From Archives (Homilies for 22nd Sunday, Year B):
Bulletin (Hospital & Jail Ministry, School Choice Debate)
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
1633 Letter Resolves the Legend About the Galileo Case, Says Vatican Aide
Pope Pius XII rebuked Nazis, '30s report says (Miami Herald)
Mark Shea on murder of ex-priest John Geoghan:
I feel only sadness at this wasted and ruined life and the many other lives he wounded. May God grant him pardon and peace and may he too be found in the company of the redeemed on the last day. God has made worse sinners into vessels of his glory. May his salvation extend to John Geoghan too.
Meanwhile, the question remains: "Where the heck are the guards who are supposed to keep things like this from happening?"
My opposition to the death penalty is not absolute. Like the Pope, I think that human life should be preserved wherever possible, but that if our prison technology is insufficient to keep murderers from murdering, they should be put to death. I find it difficulty to believe we are incapable of stopping crimes like this, but if we are, then Geoghan's killer should be executed for the safety of the rest of the prison population.
And from Domenico Bettenelli:
Because of a quirk in Massachusetts law, John Geoghan's conviction will be probably voided since he can't be present at his appeal. Fat lot of good that does him. But even so, victims groups are finding something else to be unhappy about.
David Clohessy of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests worried Geoghan's final legacy could have a detrimental effect on abuse victims. "It reinforces the notion that these guys always win," he said. "I worry that will make it harder for some victims report their abuse."Win?! The guy was strangled by a homicidal maniac in prison. I'd hate to see their definition of losing. Like I've said before, it's one thing to suffer the consequences of someone else's evil actions upon you, but at some point you have stop holding on to the pain and looking for ways to remain unhappy.
Adds Mark Shea:
Exhibit A in the "why unforgiveness is an eternal prison" display. Geoghan is a "winner" only in Clohessy's mind. But the mind can be a very effective prison until the bars are shattered by forgivenness and the abandonment of the demand for the Victimizer to be punished by unforgiveness. Geoghan will, paradoxically, continue to have power over every victim who imitates Clohessy's mindset. Poor souls.
Like I say, Christ's teachings on sex aren't the big scandal for most people. It's his teaching on mercy and forgiveness that really outrages us.