08 February 2022

Jesus goes hard

5th Week OT (T)

Fr. Philip Neri Powell OP

St. Dominic Priory, NOLA

Instead of reading the Pharisees' questions to Jesus as a Gotcha Moment, we can choose to read them “against the grain,” as legitimate. That is, we can assume that they are genuinely curious about why Jesus and his disciples aren't performing basic purification rites. This makes Jesus' response sound a bit harsh. But he's in a teaching moment and sometimes harsh lessons stick better than subtle ones. The not so subtle lesson here is simple: God wants a contrite heart. Not religiousy pantomime. Religious theater is all well and good. . .if the heart and mind performing the script is sincerely contrite and ready for genuine sacrifice. Maybe the Pharisees see in Jesus and his followers something missing from their own spiritual practice. Maybe they see the spots in their lives where the missing pieces go and want to know how Jesus and his disciples fill them. A subtle lesson on integrating word and deed, heart and mind might not overcome centuries of religious vice. So, Jesus goes hard, calling them hypocrites and accusing them of replacing God's law with mere human tradition. To the publicly popular Pharisees this must've been a wet smack in the face. But a necessary one. At the root of tradition is a long forgotten response to God. Only a sincerely contrite and sacrificial heart can retrieve from history what God was asking of us back then. Such a heart would know that He is always asking of us the same thing: come to me and be at peace. Tradition is always our answer. But it is never the source of our peace.   

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06 February 2022

The Secret to a Big Haul

5th Sunday OT

Fr. Philip Neri Powell OP


While Simon Peter grouses about his empty nets, Jesus just points to the water and says, “Try again.” When the nets come up bursting at the seams with fish, Peter and his helpers are astonished. Peter is so astonished that he falls to his knees and confesses his sinfulness! He doesn't praise Jesus or thank him or pepper him with questions about how he worked this miracle. He confesses. And what exactly is he confessing? Laziness? Pride? Anger? Matthew doesn't name Peter's sin, but we can work it out that Peter is confessing to the sin of anxiety, the sin of faithlessness. He complies with Jesus' command to throw his nets once more, but he doesn't truly obey; that is, he doesn't throw his nets b/c he deeply loves his teacher. He does it more like “sure, whatever you say.” Peter's disobedience isn't apparent to his helpers, but it's sounding like a fog horn in his own heart and mind. So, he drops to his knees and confesses. Christ reveals to Peter and to us that when we, as Christians, work w/o Christ, we fail. Even if the work gets done, we fail. With Christ, however, our work is always complete and fruitful. Even if at first it appears we have failed.

We know this gospel scene is about Christ making his apostles “fishers of men,” those sent out to catch and haul in the souls of men and women who have seen and heard the Word. But underneath this scene, animating it from behind-the-scenes is a larger, deeper theological revelation, one the story itself both reveals and occludes. The story tells us that when we obey Christ – truly obey, not merely comply with – our work is abundantly blessed. The evidence is right there on the shore of the sea – nets bursting with fish when earlier there were no fish to be found. The story also tells us that our failures – in ministry, in marriage, in family life, at work – are almost always rooted in some sin, some species of disobedience. In Peter's case, his sin is a failure to fully trust the Lord's word. He complies, but he does so with a kind of despair. Peter believes that his next attempt to catch some fish will be exactly like all of his previous attempts – empty. He discounts Christ's presence and his commanding word. Lastly, the story tells us that we belong to Christ. When we remember him, when we work along side him, in his name and for his glory, our work is abundantly fruitful. Why? B/c it is Christ who does the real work.

And this is the truth the story hides. Not hides per se but blurs. Jesus doesn't cast out or haul in the nets. He doesn't row the boat or mend the nets. Or, if he does, Matthew leaves that part out! Christ's work isn't hands-on. In this scene, Jesus is a presence, a teaching presence. He's there to reveal and instruct. He is a physical reminder to the fishermen, a prompt that nudges these men to ask: the Lord is always with me – there he is right now! – but am I always with the Lord? NB. Peter and his fellow fishermen catch nothing before the Lord arrives. After he arrives and commands another attempt, they catch more fish than they can handle. Peter is repentant b/c he doubted the Lord's word. But he is also aware that he had forgotten the Lord's promise that he would always be his brothers and sisters. Even in his absence, he is present. Where two or more are gathered in my name, I am with you always. True. But am I always with the Lord? As followers of Christ, heirs to the Kingdom, brothers and sisters in the Spirit, every word we speak, every thought we think, every deed we do, is abundantly blessed when we speak, think, and do, knowing he is with us and we with him.

So, how do we always stay with the Lord? How do we remain always in his presence? First, we make it a foundational act of faith that he is always with us. Not just here in church. Not just when we call his name. Not just when we might need him. Always. Second, remember Scripture: we live, move, and have our being in Him. We are b/c He is. Practice noticing your being; that is, make a habit of noting that you are alive. Driving, working, exercising, eating – give Him thanks and praise for your existence. Third, give Him thanks and praise for the existence of others in your life. Start a circle: immediate family, then friends, then co-workers, and so on. Name them and give God thanks for them. Fourth, no work you and I can do is done outside Christ. We belong to Christ, so everything we do belongs to Christ. Dedicate your work to his glory. File papers in his name. Grade exams in his name. Deliver packages in his name. Stock shelves, teach kids, count money, bag groceries, collect garbage, nurse the sick, change sheets, wash the dishes in his name and for his glory. Christ never forgets us. He is with us always. The secret to hauling in nets bursting with fish is to discipline ourselves in the art of keeping ourselves always with him.   

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