14 June 2013

The soul of godly behavior

10th Week OT (F) 
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP 
St. Dominic, NOLA 

Though we have just heard the Gospel read aloud, it might be difficult for us to hear the Good News. All this talk of adultery, divorce, cutting off body parts, and getting thrown into Gehenna beg the question: what's so good about this Good News? If yesterday's and today's readings from Matthew were our only glimpse of Jesus, we could easily come away believing that our Lord is a sadistic busy-body bent on making our lives a scrupulous misery. Fortunately, we interpret scripture as a whole, within the whole of God's plan for our salvation and not just in slogan-size pieces. Jesus is doing more here than repeating the text of divine legislation. What's good about this evening's gospel is that our Lord is showing us the spirit of the Law. He's revealing to us the soul of godly behavior. It's one thing to act in a particularly godly way; it's quite another to act this way out of a godly motivation. Over time, it's how we think and feel about our behavior, how we come to decide to be godly people that will mark us as followers of Christ. 

True, as people who hope to follow Christ faithfully, we are obligated to imitate our Lord, but we must be more than good mimics of Jesus, holy mimes. There's no doubt that imitating Christ's behavior is vital to holiness, but physical imitation alone does little more than make us good actors not good Christians. To be a good Christian requires me to motivate my bodily actions with nothing other than a deeply-held desire to give glory to God. I can be secondarily motivated by compassion for the homeless, pity for the sick, sympathy for those in jail, but the motive that matters most is my desire to share in and share out that portion of God's glory that He shines into me. The reason that giving glory to God matters most is simple: my compassion, my pity, my sympathy too easily become mine alone and my motives can quickly turn selfish. Even though I am only able to be compassionate b/c God has shown me compassion, the human tendency to ego-boosting makes it almost impossible for me not to make my good works All About Me. So, to avoid making myself into my own idol, I do the good work I have vowed to do, but I do it only b/c I desire that God's Word, His glory, His mercy be better known to the world. 

When Jesus tells us that our motives for murder, adultery, divorce matter more than the behaviors themselves, he's not telling us that the behaviors are somehow OK. He's telling us that in the long-run, for the long-term benefit our souls, it's most important that we pay attention to why we behave as we do. A murderer who murders out of imitation is in much less danger of spiritual suicide than a alms-giver who gives out of his need for public attention. Why? Because the murderer can be shown that he is doing evil and brought to repentance, while the selfish alms-giver truly believes that b/c she is doing good her motives don't matter. To the world, her motives don't matter. To those who receive her alms, her motives don't matter. But to Christ—who loves her—her motives matter a great deal. It's the condition of her immortal soul that worries the Lord. So, he tells us all that it is better to rip out our eyes than it is to use that eye in a lustful way. Why? Because one act of adultery is far easier to repent of than a lifetime of using one's eyes to indulge a lusting heart. Here's the Good News: we are dead to sin. Paul says it perfectly: “We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. I would add that we are tempted, but not taken. There is no need for us to pluck anything out or to lop anything off. Lust, pride, envy, greed, all the deadly sins are deadly to us only if we ponder on them and deliberately choose to indulge in them. Therefore, choose to hear the Lord and bring your soul to godly behavior. 
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1 comment:

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed this homily. It felt very personal, as well as accessible - meaning, that what you are proposing we do is well within my capabilities. Not sayin' it's always easy, but certainly do-able.