06 March 2011

A Shocking Declaration

9th Sunday OT
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Joseph Church, Ponchatula

You have spent all your years in the Church. You sang in the choir. Served on the parish council. Usher, communion minister, Monday morning collection counter. Worked every year at the capital fund-raising fair. Once a week at confession, daily Mass. Never missed an Ash Wednesday and said your rosary even before the first cup of coffee. Fasted, abstained, and always did your penance. You were absolutely faithful in your marriage, raised the kids in the Church, sent them to good Catholic grade schools and then to a faithful Catholic university. You volunteered for every mission trip that came around. Exhausted yourself helping with LifeTeen. Now, here you are, at the edge of death. Everyone knows that you are the best Catholic, the most sincere Christian, and that you will go straight to the throne of God. And this is very likely exactly what will happen. But we have one caution from Jesus, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Kingdom of heaven. . .Many will say to me on that day. . .'Lord, did we not do mighty deeds in your name? [Did I not help at the homeless shelter, protest at the abortion clinic, donate to Catholic Charities, pray novenas to St Jude, visit the grieving, give lots of money to the Dominicans!?] Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?' Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.’” Never knew me!? Evildoer!? Is Jesus trying to give us a heart attack? Why does he make such a shocking declaration? He is doing nothing more than telling us the truth.

Moses is telling us the truth as well when he says, “Take these words of mine into your heart and soul. Bind them at your wrist as a sign, and let them be a pendant on your forehead. I set before you here, this day, a blessing and a curse: a blessing for obeying the commandments of the Lord. . .a curse if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord.” If you place God’s wisdom in your heart and in your soul, you become wise; that is, just being here is an act of wisdom. If you bind your hands and your mind with God’s wisdom, then every act, every job, every thought, your imagination itself is a sign of God’s presence, a flag marking you as His. This is what Jesus teaches us in Matthew’s gospel this morning/evening: it is not enough to think good thoughts about the Lord; it is not enough to do good deeds in his name. We must obey: listen and act in one move—hearing the Word/doing the Word, hearing God’s wisdom/doing God’s wisdom. If we want to be faithful, then we must place His wisdom in our hearts, our minds, and we must bind our hands and bind our minds to His will. Under the Old Covenant established between God and Moses, this feat of obedience was accomplished by following the rules and regulations of the Law—dietary restrictions, ritual sacrifices, etc. You showed your faithfulness by behaving within the precepts of the Law. Ideally, strictly following the Law would lead you to an internal conversion, what God Himself calls “the sacrifice of a contrite heart.” All too often, however, you ended up scrupulously obsessing over legal technicalities. So, how do we faithfully obey God's commandments and find ourselves counted among the blessed?

Paul helps us out. He writes to the Romans, “Now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, though testified to by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.” Let me break that down a bit: in the older covenant, as we've already noted, God’s righteousness—His rightness, His justice—were made known to us primarily through the Law and the prophets. Obey the Law, heed the prophets and God's justice is done. What Paul is saying here is that the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ now manifests God’s righteousness apart from the Law and prophets, meaning that we now have access to the fullness of God’s righteousness through Christ “apart from the Law.” Remember: Christ came not to abolish the Law but to fulfill it, to make the Law and the witness of the prophets complete. The Law and the prophets are witnesses to the Law—they are legitimate testimonies to His commandments. However, Christ is God Himself. God reveals Himself in the person of Christ. Christ's revelation is not a second-hand account of who and what God is, but rather a perfect and unique unveiling of God to us. So, Paul teaches us that we come to the righteousness of God Himself when we believe in Christ b/c believing in Christ is believing in God. 

What does it mean to believe in Christ? Believing is a human act. But believing is not merely human. By the gift of the Father we are made to desire Him, made to want Him, created in His likeness and image to be seduced by His love for us! In other words, we are able to believe in Christ precisely because God engineered us—genetically programmed us—to seek Him out. Even when we are lost in sin we yearn for His perfection. Paul writes, “[All] are justified freely by his grace through the redemption in Christ Jesus. . .” We are made just because Christ freely gave his life for us. Fully God, fully Man, Jesus bridged the gap between the human and the divine, and in dying sacrificially, made it possible for us to become God with God's help. We believe because it is our deepest need, our most profound urge. Greater than hunger, thirst, the drive to reproduce, greater even than the will to live, the imperative to partake in God's goodness comes first. When we mistake the temporary goodness of food, drink, sex, and wealth for the eternal goodness of God, we set our sights too low, aiming for the passing things of this world rather than the life of the world to come. Our target is the Beatific Vision, seeing God face to face. How we live our lives daily is exactly how we take aim at the target. When we pray fervently and do good works we believe that we are aiming true. . .but are we?

Jesus surprises his disciples and us when he declares, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven. . .” The logical question arises: who will enter the kingdom of heaven? Jesus answers: “. . .only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” But aren't we doing the will of the Father when we pray and do good works? Yes and no. Certainly, it is God's will that we pray and do good works, but praying and doing good works is not all that the Father wills us to do or to be. Christ—who reveals God Himself to us—died for us so that we might become Christ for others. This same Christ says to his disciples (and us), “Everyone who listens [obeys] to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock.” No rain or wind or quake will shake the foundations of house constructed on the rock of the God’s will. No pain or turmoil or doubt can threaten the integrity of a life built on hearing and doing the will of the Father in heaven. However, a house built on sand, a life constructed on the vagaries of human wisdom, human intelligence, human will will collapse and be completely ruined. It is not enough that we cry out “Lord, Lord!” It is not enough to manage an occasional good deed. It is not enough that we live our gifted lives as lukewarm but inactive believers, as tepid but untrusting doers. God's love and wisdom must be the foundation of our lives—not just the interior decoration or the pretty landscape—but the immovable rock upon which all else is built. 

On the last day, when God looks into your face, will he see a long, honorable tradition of good works? Will he see a fervent prayer life, a life faithful to the sacraments and scripture. Will he look into your face and see there reflected his own face: a life strengthened by the Spirit, rooted and grounded in love, a life of length, height and depth, measured on all sides by the immeasurable fullness of God who dwells within you? Will our God Who Is Love on the last day see the face of Christ in you, a single will to will just one thing? His Love. If so, you will enter kingdom on the last day. And you will feel perfectly at home because you have been there all along.

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