23 February 2014

Do not the pagans think, say, and do the same?

7th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA

Audio Link

It's not enough that we do good and avoid evil. Not enough that we cannot achieve good ends by evil means. Not enough that we show up at Mass and drop an envelope in the plate. We must do more. A lot more. Jesus commands, “. . .be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Why must we be perfect? Even the pagans feed their children, pay their taxes, and pray to their gods. When we do the same, how are we any different? When we love only those who love us, or do favors only for those who favor us, we're no different than our pagan neighbors. So, what are we testifying to when our witness to the world is indistinguishable from the daily lives of those who do not follow Christ? Our holiness has been a priority for God from the beginning. He gives Moses a message to deliver to His people, “Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.” He demands that we be better; He demands our best: “Bear no hatred for your brother or sister; seek no revenge; cherish no grudge; love your neighbor as you love yourself.” Our Lord sets a high bar for us to clear in our run toward holiness. When we consider our thoughts, words, and deeds, how we will witness in the world, we must ask ourselves, “Do not the pagans think, say, and do the same?”

Do we think, speak, and act like our pagan neighbors? Recent surveys show that Catholics think and act almost exactly like their non-Catholic neighbors on the hot-button issues of the day: contraception, abortion, same-sex marriage, and co-habitation before marriage. On hot-button issues internal to the Church – like obligatory clerical celibacy and the impossibility of ordaining women to the priesthood – Catholic attitudes differ very little from non-Catholics. Unfortunately, what this means is that on these issues, Catholics agree with their pagan neighbors. Now, we could say that these issues aren't indicative of our identity as Catholics; that is, disagreeing with the Church on three or four hot-button questions doesn't put us among the pagans. We are not rejecting God, Christ, or the Church just b/c we think contraception is OK, or that two guys in love should be able to marry. God tells Moses to prophesy, “Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy.” Jesus says, “. ..be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Can “be holy” and “be perfect” simply mean “be like your pagan neighbors.” Is holiness and spiritual perfection simply a matter of imitating those who do not follow Christ?

If our holiness is a matter of mimicking our neighbors, then we need to ignore God's admonition to Moses. You need to hate your brother and sister. Seek revenge. Cherish grudges. Refuse help to the poor and sick. Worship whatever god makes you feel good. That's what the pagans of Moses' day did. That's what the Romans did in Jesus' day. Both Moses and Jesus understood holiness to mean something like “setting yourself apart from the pagans.” Maybe in the 21st century, holiness means something like “don't imitate the collective suicidal impulses of those who are ruled by the world.” That's not all that holiness means for us, of course, but it's a start. Jesus starts with the Mosaic Law and then proceeds to fulfill that Law by revealing its soul. “You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' [that's the Mosaic Law] But I say to you, love your enemies.” [That's the Law of Love]. The soul of the Law is love. And we begin our run towards holiness by setting ourselves apart in Christ, by consecrating ourselves in his sacrifice. We cannot achieve the holiness God wills for us by imitating the fads and fashions of our pagan neighbors.

So, how do we set ourselves apart from the world short of fleeing to a monastery in Montana? How do we live and move in our pagan culture and at the same time resist its influence? Paul gives us a few hints in his letter to the Corinthians. He writes, “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” Did you know this? As baptized and confirmed followers of Christ, you are walking, talking temples of the Holy Spirit! Each one of us is a sacred location, a holy place and person housing the living spirit of the living God. In virtue of our baptism in Christ and our confirmation in the Spirit, we are – each one of us – a priest, a prophet, and a king, vowed to sacrifice, witness, and serve. And when we sacrifice, witness, and serve, we do so with the power and blessing of the Spirit Who dwells within us. As followers of Christ, we are not allowed to run and hide in the face of opposition or oppression, nor are we allowed to collapse under the pressure of our pagan culture. We are charged with being Christ – priest, prophet, and king – in the world, among the world. Sacrificing for, witnessing to, and serving the least among us. 
Jesus says that we are to be salt and leaven, the ingredients that nourish his Word and bring it to harvest. We cannot be salt and leaven and at the same time imitate the impulsive suicidal behavior of our secular culture. This isn't a political observation, or a talking-point in the on-going culture war. This is about our holiness, our growth toward the perfect that Christ expects of us. To achieve this holiness we must be in the world but not of it; meaning, we cannot run or hide from evil nor can we make friends with evil in exchange for just being left alone. Jesus teaches us not to resist evil, “turn the other cheek.” This isn't surrender or cooperation; it's a steadfast refusal to fight evil on its own terms. Return evil for evil? Jesus asks, “Do not the pagans do the same?” Kill unwanted children? “Do not the pagans do the same?” Reject the gift of life b/c another life might be expensive, inconvenient, or a disruption? “Do not the pagans do the same?” Believe that natural law can be altered by courts or legislatures? “Do not the pagans do the same?” To be holy and to witness to holiness for the sake of others, our yes to Christ must mean Yes! Our no to the world must mean NO! But that NO! does not mean that we enclose ourselves in self-righteousness, or prissy aloofness, or a self-satisfied certainty. It means that we mourn for the world and seek its rescue in Christ. 
As we rapidly approach Lent, it seems fitting to repeat Paul's warning to the corrupt church in Corinth: “Let no one deceive himself. If any one among you considers himself wise in this age, let him become a fool, so as to become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God. . .” Take that warning with this assurance: “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?” Christ fulfilled the Law by revealing the soul of the Law: divine love. He shows us the power of sacrificial love from the Cross, defeating sin and death by rising from the tomb, and bringing us all to the way of perfection. You are a living temple of the living God and your run toward holiness begins by following Christ. Not the dominant culture. Not your pagan neighbors. Not a political party. Christ. Follow Christ. And become a fool in the eyes of the world.

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