20 August 2012

What to do with Jesus' crazy teachings?

St Bernard of Clairvaux
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St Dominic Church, NOLA

Driving back from vacation in MS, I hit a Radio Dead Zone just south of Jackson. My choices: local farm report, community college jazz, or screaming Redneck Fundamentalist Preacher. I chose silence. After about two minutes of that, I turned the radio back on and found a station broadcasting a show about Evangelical missionaries in India. The host started by asking a good question, “What do Christians do with Jesus' more radical teachings?” He gave a few examples. One of these happens to be from today's gospel reading. What are we to make of Jesus' instructions to the Rich Guy who asks about gaining eternal life? The missionary told several harrowing stories about preaching in India. He fell into a sewage ditch. The platform he was preaching on collapsed. He and his interpreter got stuck on a mountain pass behind an old man and his bull. Between stories and commercials, the host took calls from listeners who tried to answer his original question about Jesus' radical teachings. They all suggested we do one of three things: 1) take them literally and follow them exactly; 2) put them in historical context and interpret them with a modern spin; or 3) give them a spiritual interpretation. What should we do with Jesus' instructions to the Rich Guy? 

Obviously, we can't just ignore them. Taking them literally and following them exactly is certainly a legit option. Difficult but doable. The other options are OK too, if a bit wimpy. Here's a fourth option, a Dominican option: read the text carefully and make the right distinctions. Note well: the Rich Guy already knows how to gain eternal life. Jesus tests him and his passes. He follows the Commandments already. Then Jesus adds another dimension to the original question, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor. . .Then come, follow me.” So, there's eternal life and there's being perfect. Eternal life comes after death. Being perfect in this life requires something more than following the Commandments. The genius of Catholic moral teaching is our tradition of upholding impossibly high ideals and at the same time freely confessing our failure to live up to those ideals. We absolutely, resolutely refuse to compromise our principles simply b/c we can't or won't succeed each time we're tempted to violate them. The point is not to win each and every moral battle. The point is to celebrate the victory Christ has already won for us by keeping ourselves sharply focused on where he's taking us: perfection in this life (if we will follow) and our eternal lives to come. 

The Rich Guy is a moral coward b/c he settles for eternal life. Sure, he follows the Commandments, and that's no easy thing, but he doesn't even attempt to live perfectly in this life. Instead, he walks away sad b/c he owns too many things. Or, rather, too many things own him! Who's he going to disappoint by attempting to live perfectly by following Christ? His cattle? His jugs of olive oil? His sacks of gold? Had he ears to hear and eyes to see, he would've heard and seen that Jesus' radical, far-fetched instructions were really an invitation to live for an ideal, an incorrigible principle rather than a set of rules. The one Commandment the Rich Guy could not live perfectly is the First Commandment: love God first and always b/c He loves you first and always. Cattle, jugs of oil, cars, houses, IRA's—none of these loves you, none of these can love you. And b/c they cannot love, they cannot save you or perfect you. Love the One you want to become. Perfection follows. 
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7 comments:

  1. Welcome home! Glad the Redneck Squirrels set you loose.

    Reading the Gospel this morning, was the first time I had caught the word "perfect". I considered that this story was a question of faith - do we have the faith to do what God asks us to do when He asks us to do it? Perfectly living the 1st commandment is extraordinarily challenging. I try living up to that high ideal, find that I continually fail at it, but wake up each day with intentions to "live the Love" - nothing like "training for perfection" but living with reality.

    Perfectly OK homily :-). As usual, the take home point was clear and you set out a challenge to live more authentically a Christian.

    Oh, off the subject: Thomas Aquinas has very recently piqued my interest -- somehow I thought you might have a book suggestion or two with which I can get started. I realize this may be difficult to narrow down, but if you could just recommend a starting place that would be helpful. There's a lot out there from which to choose!

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    1. I always recommend the same book as a first step in reading Thomas, "Thomas Aquinas: Spiritual Master," Fr. Robert Barron. His biblio in this one is also excellent for beginners. And don't forget: read the Summa. Even if you don't "get it" initially, just read it. You'll be surprised.

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    2. Shelly

      Haven't read it (yet...) myself, but perhaps you would like his famous biography by Chesterton, of which the French medieval historian Etienne Gilson reportedly said that not even him, who studied St. Thomas all his life could have come up with a better biography...just two cents.

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    3. BIG thumbs up to this suggestion!

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    4. Thanks, Father. Thanks Matheus. I found Fr. Barron's book in my "unread" stack (did I actually buy that? hmmm...), read some of the Summa in Philosophy of Religion (and I think used it as a reference for my final paper on God's existence), and just put the biography by Chesterton on my wishlist...now, if only Amazon sold extra hours in the day :-).

      Thanks, guys. Have a great day!

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  2. Gregg the Obscure6:28 AM

    Thanks, especially for the second paragraph. It's easy for me to remember "The genius of Catholic moral teaching is our tradition of upholding impossibly high ideals and at the same time freely confessing our failure to live up to those ideals. We absolutely, resolutely refuse to compromise our principles simply b/c we can't or won't succeed each time we're tempted to violate them." but much harder for me to remember "The point is not to win each and every moral battle. The point is to celebrate the victory Christ has already won for us by keeping ourselves sharply focused on where he's taking us: perfection in this life (if we will follow) and our eternal lives to come."

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    1. Gregg, been there, doing that too! :-)

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