Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time: 2-26-17
Peace be with You,
Today is the last Sunday of Ordinary Time which we will celebrate prior to beginning the Season of Lent this coming Wednesday with the celebration of Ash Wednesday. The Season of Lent is traditionally a time of fasting, almsgiving and increased prayer, the aim of which is to provide us with the opportunity to have a more intense encounter with Jesus Christ in order that we might deepen our union with him and thereby make serious strides in perfecting our identities as children of God. In short, this coming Wednesday we will begin a journey that will at times test our resolve and commitment as Christians; for though the question may never explicitly be asked, implicitly, the quality of our love will be interrogated in order that we may realize for ourselves just how much we are willing to give out of love for the one whom we follow on his journey to Calvary. Of course, the irony of all of this is that, should we attend Mass we will, as it were, be “forced” to take this journey by mandate of the liturgical calendar; God does not force us to participate, any more than he does any other Sunday, or day of the year for that matter. Therefore, it will take an act of freedom in order to participate in said journey, and the extent to which we are truly free will determine the intensity of our experience.
Last weekend, in taking a closer look at the six antitheses of the Sermon on the Mount, we noted that in calling us to perfection, Jesus is calling us to live in more perfect imitation of him, adding that the teaching of Jesus (in words and actions) flows directly out of his person. Put differently, if Jesus is true God and true man, the life he lives exemplifies what it means for a human person to live life in perfect harmony with God and therefore the teaching is a description of said life. For this reason we noted that in the school of life, we have but one Teacher, Jesus Christ. However, there was an underlying theme in our discussion last weekend that did not get direct attention in order that we might leave it for today. And, in order to explore that theme more directly today, we might make use of similar imagery.
Anyone who has been involved in or watched sports played by individuals of various ages will immediately recall to mind how different the game looks when played at different levels. For instance, a game of basketball played by a group of 4th or 5th graders will look quite different than the very same game played by college athletes. There are several reasons for this. By the time the athlete reaches the collegiate level they have spent countless more hours in training, spent hours reviewing game film, etc. But one very important reason for why the game looks so much different that we may not immediately consider are the officials.
An individual officiating or refereeing a game of basketball played by 4th graders will not enforce the rules of the game with the same scrutiny that they will if they are officiating a game played by college athletes. For instance, they will allow much more travelling to take place, more illegal screens, allow kids to stand “in the lane” for more than 3 seconds, and not be so concerned should a child “carry” the basketball when dribbling. In contrast, all of these rules will be enforced with much greater scrutiny at the collegiate level; so much so that instead of one or two officials there will now be three officials on the floor, one at the scorers’ tables and of course the instant replay camera, all of these things working to ensure that the game gets played according to the rules. And yet, who could argue that the athletes involved in a college game are more perfect basketball players, or that they game they play does not have increased beauty? The officials have much to do with this. For by officiating the game correctly, they implicitly demand that the game be played more perfectly, and in turn, give the freedom to the athletes to operate more freely as basketball players. This becomes more apparent, of course, if the officials don’t do their job. Anyone who has gone to a game where there were a lot of fouls or violations will recall thinking, ‘that was an ugly game to watch.’ In fact sometimes it gets so bad you may hear someone in the stands say, ‘that’s not basketball!’ And yet, they would never say these things if they were sitting in the same seat watching 4th graders.
This is a good analogy of how God has related to the human family over the course of centuries. Last weekend we saw how God had been increasingly revealing the Law to the human family until its perfection was revealed in the Person of Jesus Christ, from which his life and teachings flow. And his teaching, the Law he proclaims in his very Person, is ultimately about freedom, the freedom to live fully human lives. Created in the image and likeness of God, the human person is endowed with free will; i.e. the ability to choose how they will live.
As St. Irenaeus read it, though the human person had been endowed with this freedom from the moment of their creation, they did not know how to exercise it well, were thereby open to the trickery of the Serpent, and thus, the Fall happened, eliminating the perfect communion with God they had been created for (Against the Heresies, Bk. 3.25.5). Therefore, God began to intimately instruct the human family according to their ability, beginning with the Law of the Old Testament, which was in turn fulfilled and perfected by Christ, in order that we might see “that the more extensive operation of liberty implies that a more complete subjection and affection towards our Liberator had been implanted within us” (ibid., Bk. 4.13.3). Notice please the relationship of obedience to God and freedom. It is the reverse of what we might expect it to be. This is because of our nature, i.e. it is because of the way we have been created. As Irenaeus explains, “For as much as God is in want of nothing, so much does man stand in need of fellowship with God. For this is the glory of man, to continue and to remain permanently in God’s service” (ibid., Bk. 4.14.2). To remain in God’s service is to be completely dependent upon him, and to be completely dependent upon him in a metaphysical sense is what it means to be human, and thus what it means to be truly free. You see, this is precisely what our first parents did not understand and what we continue to struggle with today; we simply have no existence on our own or of our own volition. Instead, we are continually held up in existence by God, and therefore once we submit to this with all our heart, mind, soul and strength, we experience true freedom.
Yet this is not a simple psychological disposition, instead, our dependence and obedience to God must be manifest in the whole of our being, and the exemplar par excellence of what this looks like in an existential way is, of course, Jesus Christ, who as we saw last weekend embodies the perfection of the Law, which as we saw two weekends ago, is really another word for the pronouncement of how things have been sewn together by God at creation; put differently, it is a proclamation of the way things are created to work. For this reason, the Sermon on the Mount as Jesus Christ’s treatise on the Happy Life, includes such a radical call to perfection (as we saw last weekend), a perfection which is characterized by complete dependence upon God, a dependence which Jesus calls us to today.
Notice, how Jesus begins with the words, “No one can serve two masters…” (Matt. 6:24). “Serve” here, should be understood the way Irenaeus understood it, and not in a pejorative sense. Moreover, because Jesus understands more perfectly than anyone else, he immediately proceeds to focus that dependency upon our Creator, who as revealed in Jesus, is a loving Father. In his words, Jesus calls us to resign ourselves to this dependence precisely because it is the only way we can live fully free and truly human lives. For this reason he repeatedly tells us not to worry, always alerting us to the fact that no matter what we do, we cannot assume control over our lives in the only way that really matters (Matt. 6:25, 27, 30-31 & 34); and that is on an ontological and metaphysical level, i.e. the level of basic existence. Thus, he indicates that faith must be what shapes our outlook, because if we look around it certainly seems as though we control our existence; however, faith allows us to understand the true reality of things (Matt. 6:30). And all the while, Jesus focuses our attention to the beauty of the world around us; the birds of the air (v.26) and the lilies of the field (v. 28), indicating the freedom they have to flourish and to fly all because they don’t for a minute question their dependence upon their Creator who cares for them (v. 26 & 28). And yet for all their splendor, Jesus reminds us, they do not possess the value and beauty of the human person (v. 26 & 29), who possesses the image of the Creator, and thus is created to share in his beauty and glory, which he suggests when he writes that we will be clothed more splendidly than even the lilies (v. 30), for we were made to be clothed in the mantle of God’s glory.
My friends, the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ treatise on the nature of the human person, who God created for perfect happiness which can only be found in perfectly loving communion with him. It is the apex of God’s Law, which as we see culminates in lovingly-reckless abandon of self into the heart of the Love that created us. This is what God desired for us from the moment of our genesis, that we should have the freedom to live as sons and daughters of our God and it is he who is the at once the cause and patron of that freedom, and therefore, apart from him, we are destined to the chains of mortality. This is important to keep in mind as we make our way through the Season of Lent, for though the journey will be difficult, it can only end in one place, Calvary, where in Christ, the human family will experience the joy of radical dependence on the Life that loved us into existence, and that joy will be the joy of true freedom.
Your servant in Christ,