Spirituality Matters 2019: July 4th - July 10th
“Why do you harbor evil thoughts?”
In his Introduction to the Devout Life, Francis de Sales claimed that impugning the motives of others is a primary source of much of the sin and iniquity with which our world is plagued.
We witness slander when someone falsely imputes crimes and sins toward another person. We see slander when someone reveals others’ secret faults or exaggerates faults that are already obvious to everyone. We hear slander when someone ascribes evil motives to the good deeds that another does or attempts to minimize - or deny them - all together.
In today’s Gospel we see such slander in action. Perhaps slander in thought only, but slander, nonetheless.
After forgiving the sins of a paralyzed man, Jesus is palpably aware of what was going through the minds of the scribes – they secretly assumed that such action made Jesus guilty of blasphemy, that is, of usurping the power and authority of God. They were determined to turn any good that Jesus did into something bad. Jesus response is swift and twofold – he calls them out for their secret, distorted thinking and then powerfully proves by what power and authority he forgives sins by healing the same man of his physical paralysis.
Would that Jesus could have healed the attitudinal paralysis of the scribes so easily, a paralysis stemming from the slanderous manner with which they viewed Jesus because when they weren’t falsely accusing him of assorted crimes and sins, they attempted to minimize – or discredit entirely – the good that he accomplished and the healings that he performed.
What is the moral is this Gospel? When it comes to our thoughts, feelings, attitudes and actions there are far worse ways of being incurably paralyzed than being physically unable to walk.
“I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”
In today’s Gospel, we are considering two related – but remarkably different – notions of what it means to be God-like. We are considering two related – but remarkably different – models for growing in holiness.
The tension between mercy and sacrifice is not something invented by Jesus, but it is as old as the Hebrew community itself. Actually, it is as old as the human family itself (Cain and Abel – Abraham and Isaac). But Jesus does make this issue front and center in his ongoing struggle with the Scribes and Pharisees.
Under the paradigm of SACRIFICE, holiness is all about proving my fidelity to God. It is all about showing God that I love God enough to go without food for a day, to slaughter a bull, to walk so many miles in my bare feet or to donate $5 million to my church’s capital campaign. Mind you, none of these things are wrong per se, but when holiness is understood almost exclusively as sacrifice, the danger is that it may ultimately lead to loving God to the exclusion of loving my neighbor.
The ancient Israelite prophets frequently criticized their people for somehow attempting to pit the love of God against the love of neighbor. In the prophet Isaiah, we hear:
“The multitude of your sacrifices – what are they to me?’ says the Lord. ‘I have more than enough burnt offerings, or rams and the fat of fattened animals. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed.” (1: 11 – 17)
By contrast, the MERCY paradigm of holiness emphasizes the need to integrate the two components of Jesus’ Great Commandment exemplified in the words of 1 John 4:12:
“No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and love is made complete in us.”
Not to put too fine a point on it, but loving God and loving neighbor can never be separated. They are indeed two indispensable sides of the very same coin. The goal of holiness that we pursue in praying, fasting, singing songs of praise, donating blood making meals for the homeless and every other act of piety and mercy is not to prove anything to God but to give God complete influence over our hearts.
Sacrifice can be extremely beneficial when it is a means for submitting ourselves more completely to God’s mercy and not a substitute for it. For example, fasting can teach us to be aware of our own hungers and our need for God to feed us as a remedy for the pride of self-sufficiency. However, if God indeed desires mercy over sacrifice, the commands that God gives us are not intended to be tests of our loyalty to God but rather a pathway for allowing His reign of mercy to reign in our hearts - a reign expressed through our exercise of mercy toward one another.
“Why do we and the Pharisees fast much, but your disciples do not fast?”
In his Introduction to the Devout Life, Francis de Sales observed:
“If you can stand fasting, you will do well to fast on certain days in addition to those prescribed by the Church. Besides the usual effects of fasting, namely, elevating our spirits, keeping the body in submission, practicing virtue and gaining greater reward in heaven, it is valuable for restraining gluttony and keeping our sensual appetites and body subject to the law of the spirit.” (IDL, Part III, Chapter 23, p. 185)
From a Salesian perspective, there is a place for fasting in the spiritual life. However, fasting is not the only method for “elevating our spirits, keeping the body in submission, practicing virtue and gaining greater reward in heaven.” So is work!
“Both fasting and labor mortify and subdue the flesh. If your work is necessary for you to contribute to God’s glory, I prefer that you endure the pains of work rather than that of fasting. Such is the mind of the Church…One man finds it difficult to fast, while another is called to care for the sick, visit prisoners, hear confessions, preach, comfort the afflicted, pray and perform similar tasks. These latter disciplines are of greater value than the first: besides subduing the body, they produce much more desirable fruits.” (Ibid, pp. 185 – 186)
Why didn’t Jesus’ disciples fast? It seems they were too busy contributing to God’s glory by serving the needs of others.
There are two ways of contributing to God’s glory: fasting (doing without) and laboring (doing).
Which way will you pursue today?
“For neither does circumcision mean anything, nor does uncircumcision, but only a new creation.”
On any given day, most of us spend the bulk of our time, talent and energy dealing with and trying to balance all the things in life that are the most pressing: keeping appointments, making deadlines, surviving the daily commute, driving to/from soccer games, paying bills, shopping for food, managing the household, monitoring homework, eating, sleeping, etc., etc., etc.
Where are we supposed to find the time to do “what really matters - to be created anew?”
Pursuing things in life that really matter does not mean that we turn our backs on those things that are most pressing - quite the contrary! Francis de Sales said: “Be careful and attentive to all the matters God has committed to your care: since God has entrusted them to you, God wishes that you have great care for them.” You know, things like keeping appointments, making deadlines, surviving the daily commute, driving to/from soccer games, paying bills, shopping for food, managing the household, monitoring homework, eating, sleeping, etc., etc., etc.
Keeping in mind the things that really matter means keeping in perspective all the things that keep us busy: “Do not be worried, that is, don't exert yourself over them with uneasiness, anxiety and forwardness,” observed Francis de Sales. “Don't be worried about them, for worry disturbs reason and good judgment and prevents us from doing well the very things about which we are worried in the first place.”
Living a happy, healthy and holy life isn't about having to choose between fulfilling our commitments and responsibilities or pursuing that which is most important. It is not an either/or proposition. In the Salesian tradition, it is only when we keep before our eyes what really matters – “that we be created anew” - that we can truly do justice to all the things that we find on our plates each day.
The most important thing for Jesus was to proclaim the power and the promise of the Good News of salvation, redemption, life and love. However, as today's Gospel clearly demonstrates, pursuing the things that really matter can generate more than a few “to-do” lists for us, just as it did for Jesus and his disciples.
And so then, throughout each day try to keep in mind and heart the things that really matter. Stay grounded in God's desire for you to be created anew. Keep before your eyes the image of the gentle, humble Christ who walks with you throughout every moment of each day. Recall God's invitation to you to embody the Good News in ways appropriate for the stage and circumstances of life in which you find yourself.
But don't take too much time. After all, we've got a lot of stuff – some new and others – all-too-familiar - on our plates today!
“Truly the Lord is in this spot, although I did not know it...”
In Introduction to the Devout Life, Francis de Sales wrote:
“God is in all things and in all places. There is no place in this world where God is not truly present. Just as wherever birds fly, they always encounter the air, so also wherever we go or wherever we are we find God present.”(IDL, Part II, Chapter 2, p. 84)
Do we always find God wherever we go or wherever we are? Not according to Francis de Sales, when he added this comment to the above:
“Everyone knows this truth but not everyone manages to bring it home to themselves.”(IDL, Part II, Chapter 2, p. 84) In other words, we know it intellectually, but we don’t translate that knowledge into practice. The result is that we frequently forget that God is always ‘in the spot’ in which we find ourselves. Even worse, we sometimes draw the conclusion that not only is God not present, but we believe that He has forgotten about us altogether.
Of course, we all know from our own experiences that often when we do recognize God’s presence in a person, a place or a situation, it is only after the fact – it is only in hindsight that we recognize how God was truly – and actively – present in this or that spot, moment or circumstance.
One might say that God frequently is hidden ‘in plain sight.’ What steps might we take this day to improve our ability to see, hear, feel and sense the presence of a God who is always with us?
Including at this very moment!
"At the sight of the crowds his heart was moved…”
In commenting upon the Beatitude, “Blessed are those who mourn…” William Barclay wrote: “It is first of all to be noted about this beatitude that the Greek word for to mourn – used here – is the strongest word for mourning in the Greek language. It is the mourning that is used for mourning for the dead, for the passionate lament for one who was loved…it is defined as the kind of grief that takes such a hold on a man that it cannot be hidden. It is not only the sorrow which brings an ache to the heart; it is the sorrow which brings the unrestrained tear to the eyes…” (The Daily Study Bible: The Gospel of Matthew, Volume 1, p. 93)
In the case of Jesus, it is this sorrow that moves his heart and releases miraculous power!
In his Introduction to the Devout Life, Francis de Sales cites one of two virtues associated with mourning or sadness: “Compassion.” (IDL, Part IV, Chapter 12, p. 253) At the sight of the man with a dead daughter and the woman with a chronic illness in yesterday’s Gospel, Jesus’ heart was deeply moved: the woman was cured, and the girl was raised. In today’s Gospel Jesus’ heart was deeply moved as He taught in synagogues, proclaimed the Gospel of the Kingdom and cured every disease and illness. At the sight of the crowds, Jesus’ heart was moved. Feeling overwhelmed by the sheer size and scale of the neediness that He himself was encountering in others, Jesus asked His disciples to pray that God send more laborers for His harvest. In tomorrow’s Gospel, Jesus’ heart will move Him to go a step further with this request: He himself will commission his disciples to be those very laborers.
Whenever Jesus’ heart was moved by the sight of others’ needs, power was released in Him: the people were taught, the sick were healed, the possessed were freed, the lost were found and the dead were raised. These actions are the heart of compassion, because it’s not enough merely to feel sorry for someone else’s plight. Compassion requires that we do something to address another’s plight. Compassion is more than just feeling; compassion is more about doing.
Are we willing to take our rightful place as laborers for God’s harvest today?
At the sight of other people’s needs, will our hearts – like the heart of Jesus himself – be moved to meet their needs?
"Let your mercy be on us...”
In his Treatise on the Love of God, Francis de Sales wrote:
“God acts in our works, and we co-operate in God’s action. God leaves for our part all the merit and profit of our services and good works; we leave God all the honor and praise thereof, acknowledging that the growth, the progress, and the end of all the good we do depends on God’s mercy, finishing what God began. O God, how merciful is God’s goodness to us in thus distributing his bounty!”(TLG, Book XI, Chapter 6, Chapter 29, p. 212)
When we pray using the words from today’s responsorial psalm, we are not engaging in wishful thinking. We aren’t asking for something that has not yet occurred. God’s mercy is on us! God’s generosity rains down upon us! God’s love is always with and within us.
Today, how can we be instruments of that same divine mercy, generosity and love in the lives of others?