15th Sunday OT (Fr. Sean R. DeWitt's First Mass)
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Martin d. Porres, Austin, TX
The lawyer starts by asking Jesus a religious question: “What do I have to do to get heaven?” Jesus asks him a lawyer's question, “What does the law say?” The lawyer gives Jesus a religious answer by quoting from several different books of the Old Testament, concluding with “you shall love your neighbor as yourself." Jesus says, “Good job. You know your stuff. Do all that and you'll get to heaven.” Seemingly puzzled, the lawyer finally asks a lawyer's question, “Um, exactly who is my neighbor?” In other words: define your terms! Kids do it to parents. Students do it to teachers. Workers do it to bosses. And we, the children of our Father, do it to Him. “Define your terms, please.” We do it for a lot of reasons. Some good, some not so good. If we make the demand to better understand – truly understand – what's required of us, then we're probably on the good side. However, if we demand better definitions in order to look for loopholes, then we're definitely not on the good side. In fact, we are probably wanting to do what our lawyer friend is trying to do: to justify our weak love.
So, let's define our terms! What is “weak love”? Our Lord answers with a parable. Weak love is the sort of love we have for those for whom it is safe to love. The sort of love that costs nothing; never puts us in danger; always produces immediate reward; the sort of love that the world expects, even demands from us; the sort of love that marks us as “good people” in the eyes of those who watch us for signs of hypocrisy and deceit. Weak love also walks on by in fear, disgust, and self-righteousness. In other words, weak love is not love at all; it requires no sacrifice and yields no spiritual fruit. In order to justify his own weak love, to make right his own unwillingness to love as he ought, our lawyer friend asks our Lord to define his terms – who is my neighbor? Our Lord answers with a parable. Who is your neighbor? Anyone who needs your sacrifice. Anyone who requires your compassion. We can imagine that our lawyer friend is not happy with this answer. He wants to ask, “What do you mean by 'sacrifice'?” and “Can you define 'compassion'?” When you say, “go and do likewise,” do you mean that I can get into heaven by helping a robbery victim with medical care? Does that include follow-up doctors' appointments? I've done it. Maybe you've done it. Weak love compels us to ask these kinds of questions. Sacrificial love compels us to be merciful.
And we are commanded to love sacrificially. As cruel and unjust as it may seem, our Lord commands us to love as he loves us. He loved us all the way to his death on to the Cross. And he loves us still in the Eucharist. If we were left to love as we ought all on our own, we could rightly charge Christ with cruelty. As imperfect creatures incapable of doing anything good w/o him, we would necessarily fail again and again to obey his command to love as he loves us. We would forever be the priest and the Levite who rush past the robbery victim, looking back in fear, disgust, and self-righteousness. We would forever be the testing-lawyer who looks for loopholes in order to justify our weak love. If Christ is not being cruel by demanding the impossible from us, how do we love sacrificially as he commands? How do we show mercy when it seems that we are so irretrievably tied to Self? Here's the Good News: our weaknesses, our failures to love, our lapses in showing mercy – all of it – is made perfect in Christ Jesus.
Paul teaches the Colossians that Christ is “the image of the invisible God.” Therefore, Christ is “the firstborn of all creation [and] all things were created through him and for him.” Himself uncreated, Christ comes before creation, and in him the fullness of divinity, all that God Is, is pleased to dwell, and so, “ in him all things hold together…” and through him all things are reconciled for him. We were created through Christ and for Christ. We were redeemed through Christ and for Christ. We are being perfected in our creatureliness through Christ and for Christ. And we will come to thrive in the fullness of God through Christ and for Christ. But we must love! We must love sacrificially. This is not a matter of weepy sentiment or mooshy affection. All things are held together in Christ, and Christ is love for us. Without the passionate divine willing of the Good for us, we simply cease to exist. So, whatever failures we cultivate, whatever lapses we tolerate, whatever targets we miss, all of it is made perfect in Christ Jesus. And if we receive his love – his sacrifice for us – if we receive his sacrifice, and if we take his sacrifice and make it our own – if we own it! – and put it to work for the glory of God and the salvation of man, then we participate in his perfection and grow and grow and grow in holiness. And we approach the supernatural end God set for us at our creation: we become Christs for one another.
Now, you may have heard me say that we shouldn't ask God for clarity; or that we shouldn't think too hard about what Christ requires of us. I'm a Dominican friar. Defining terms and making distinctions comes as naturally to me as breathing. We are all rational animals. Our reason is what makes us most like our Creator. Our reason is the “image and likeness of God” in which we are created. Our questions to God are not only not a problem, they are a necessity for our growth in holiness. Doubts, fears, questions, failures – all of it – are made perfect in Christ. When you need clarity for the sake of loving more perfectly, ask for clarity. When you need a distinction for the sake of serving God's people more zealously, ask for that distinction. However, if – like our lawyer friend – your doubts and questions are a test for God, or an attempt to justify your weak love, keep silent and show mercy to someone who needs mercy. That's your answer. Show mercy and wait for Christ to make your mercy perfect. Because you – none of us – can do anything good w/o him.
When Sean wrote to me in February of this year and asked me to vest him at his priestly ordination and to preach his first Mass, I rushed to the mirror and counted my gray hairs. . .in my beard. One of my U.D. freshmen was being ordained a priest! I first met Sean in 2007. He took Literary Traditions I & II with me at U.D. I left U.D. in 2008 and moved to Rome for advanced studies and missed out on teaching him theology. Though I was not part of Sean's formal seminary formation, I like to imagine that I had some part of play in his intellectual formation, meaning, of course, that I hope I managed to plant a Dominican seed in his head. . .one that will grow to fruition for the good of the Church. I visited with Sean only a few times in Rome while he was there. And I saw in him then a young man with a sharp mind, a faithful heart, a passion for serving the Church, and a zeal for the Gospel. Please don't tell Bishop Vasquez, but I worked overtime to lure him into the Order of Preachers. Bagging a vocation like Sean would have earned me three toasters and a shiny new habit rosary. Despite my best efforts, which I am ashamed to admit, included massive amounts of begging and bribery, Sean chose to return to home and serve you. Yesterday, Bishop Vasquez charged him with preaching the Gospel, teaching the faith, and celebrating the sacraments. Today, as the fisherman who let the Big One get away, I take this opportunity to make my own charges. Fr. Sean, I charge with the duty to bear up under both the burden and the privilege of bringing the apostolic truth to God's people in season and out, whether you or they like it or not. I charge you with the burden and privilege of hearing and listening to God's people as their spiritual father, always compassionate yet never wavering in teaching the apostolic faith. I charge you with the burden and privilege of throwing yourself on the mercy of God when you fail – and you will – and asking for forgiveness from those you offend. And lastly, I charge you with the task of growing in humility through thanksgiving and praise to God. You have been set aside for a holy purpose. Never forget that you are an instrument. You are not the Carpenter. You are his tool. And so are we all.
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