Fourth Sunday Year (C)
In the second reading today, People of God, we heard one of the most famous, the most important, and one of the most beautiful, texts of the New Testament: a text that is famous among Christians above all because of its fundamental importance, whilst among unbelievers and nominal Christians it is famous because of its beauty.
We who are disciples of Jesus know well that the Devil delights to turn good into evil by cloaking evil with a pseudo-righteousness; and today, many in our modern consumer society -- including not a few formerly faithful but now lapsed Christians – show themselves his willing disciples in this respect when, still being able to remember those words of St. Paul about the supreme worth and beauty of charity (they prefer to call it “love”), they will at times -- despite years of absence from, or almost total ignorance of, devout Church life and authentic Catholic Faith -- tell you in a triumphant tone and with crushing emphasis, that “love” is what Christianity should be all about, not religion. And of course, though using the words of Scripture -- “love” is the word used in our popular bible translations today -- they twist the meaning of those words; for, when using the word “love” they mean, at best, “being nice”, “never hurting” “agreeing with people”, or, at the very least, “never being disagreeable to people”. On the other hand, religion -- which for the true Christian is the God-given means and channel for the expression of and growth in, that supreme love which is charity towards God – is, to their way of thinking, more or less worthless, being concerned with merely public ritual and rites, individual pomp and posturing.
Let us, however, who want to be whole-hearted, obedient, disciples of Jesus and children of Mother Church, never mix up our apostolic faith and practice with such ‘fashionable’ objections to Catholic Christianity. The Apostle Peter himself, did once speak in such a worldly way to Jesus, and, we are told, Jesus turned on him immediately saying:
Get behind Me, Satan! For you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men. (Mark 8:33)
Now, what do you think: was that a “nice” thing to say? Don’t many of our modern pseudo-Christians assure us that true Christianity is all about loving people, “not hurting” anyone? Do you think those words of Jesus “hurt” Peter? Of course they did, because they were meant to hurt him, in order to heal and protect him. The fact is, however, that those modern humanists who use Christian words do not really care about Jesus or His teaching: they don’t seek, first and foremost, to be His true disciples; above all, they want to be at ease with the world, personally popular and successful. And so, when they use the words of Jesus, they do so only in such a way as to promote their own ends and gain public approval, not to proclaim the saving truth for which Jesus died.
Therefore, let us now turn to our Scripture readings for today and try to learn more about Jesus: His teaching, His attitudes, and His purposes.
We are told that, after reading from the Scriptures on the Sabbath in His local synagogue at Nazareth:
He began to say to them, "Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." So all bore witness to Him, and marvelled at the gracious words which proceeded out of His mouth. And they said, "Is this not Joseph's son?"
But then, Jesus immediately continued, as you heard:
You will surely say this proverb to Me, 'Physician, heal yourself! Whatever we have heard done in Capernaum, do also here in Your country.' Then He said, "Assuredly, I say to you, no prophet is accepted in his own country.
And that was only a beginning, for He then went on to quote examples from the Scriptures where Israel had been judged unworthy of a miracle, with the result that:
All the people in the synagogue were filled with rage as they heard these things.
How deep was their indignation, how wild their rage! We are told that they even went so far as to:
rise up and thrust Him out of the city; and they led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw Him down over the cliff.
There Jesus had been speaking to His own townspeople just as He would later speak to Peter: being quite deliberately ‘not nice’ in order to guide them along the right path and predispose them towards God’s saving truth.
People of God, one of the greatest failings today in our Western society, which formerly was proud to call itself Christian, is hypocrisy: today Western society seeks to portray itself as being good without God, multi-cultural but impervious to any serious religious convictions, committed to ostentatiously excessive human rights but indifferent to their social dimensions and consequences. Many, indeed, still like to take up vaguely remembered Christian concepts and teachings, but these they then -- as we have seen -- attempt to twist into conformity with the atheistic and secular prejudices of surrounding society: they quote Jesus, but seek the esteem of men; they obsequiously bend the knee to political correctness but will not bow their head in faith or accept the yoke of obedience to the Word of God.
We, however, who want to be true disciples of Jesus, must always remember the words of St. Paul heard in our second reading as he taught and intended them:
(Brethren) earnestly desire the best gifts. And yet I show you a more excellent way.
That greatest gift, that more excellent way, as you all know, is at the heart of our Christian faith; it is the way of that love which is charity: it is not niceness, charm, or agreeableness, nor is it sexually-accommodating: it is a unique participation in, and sharing of, God’s own love, serving His eternal purposes and expressing His unfailing goodness; and for that reason it is most properly called charity.
Christian charity has its source in the eternal love which is the bond of unity in the Holy Trinity between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and it is, more immediately, a sharing in Jesus’ own love for the Father Who sent Him, and for the whole of mankind created in His image and likeness; in us, it is a love of God and of our neighbour ever seeking to help our neighbour in the ways of God. Indeed, Christian charity is love of God even, at times, to the total forgetfulness of self: a love that would lead us to humbly set aside all earthly aspirations and confidently scorn all worldly threats and fears.
St. Paul assures us that, we can take with us from this changing world only what will abide to eternity, that is:
Faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.
Let us, therefore, consider closely what he recommends and what he warns us against:
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.
All the gifts Paul mentions there are sublime gifts of themselves, and the Corinthians were desirous of such wonderful blessings: such prophecy, such understanding, such faith …. indeed, you might go on to say, such love as to bestow all one’s good to the poor (like St. Anthony and many other great saints), such charity as to give one’s body to be burnt (like St. Lawrence). However, in aspiring to such gifts and graces, the Corinthians were unduly motivated by personal pride: wanting to be noticed, praised, esteemed and honoured in the Church, they were not truly seeking to love God supremely.
Paul therefore tries to turn them in the right direction:
Earnestly desire the best gifts. I show you a more excellent way.
He guides them to charity. But here notice that, because of their penchant for pride, he recommends the lesser expression of charity first: the charity demanded by the second great commandment: love of neighbour; a derivative form, indeed, but an authentic and essential expression of charity towards God Himself:
Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Then, once a foundation of humility has been established through such love, Paul risks apparent self-contradiction by immediately going on to recommend what formerly the Corinthians had appreciated wrongly and aspired to from pride, and what he, only a few lines before, had felt it necessary to warn them against:
I wish you all spoke with tongues, but even more that you prophesied; for he who prophesies is greater than he who speaks with tongues, unless indeed he interprets, that the church may receive edification. (1 Corinthians 14:5)
People of God, we are all called to be witnesses for Christian and Catholic truth. Therefore, for the love of God, and with love for our neighbour, that is, in the fullness of Christian charity, let us ‘put on the whole armour of God’ as St. Paul recommends, since the enemies of Christ … and many ‘nice’ and ‘respectable’ people are indeed enemies of Christ … are virulent in their attacks on Jesus and His Church in our times; and let us recall and take to heart God’s words to Jeremiah, the great prophet who most closely foreshadowed Jesus in the contradictions and contempt he had to endure in order to remain faithful to God and help save his people:
My people have forsaken Me; therefore, prepare yourself and arise and speak to them all that I command you. Do not be dismayed before their faces, lest I dismay you before them; for behold, I have made you this day a fortified city and an iron pillar, and bronze walls against the whole land (and) against the people of the land. They will fight against you, but they shall not prevail against you, for I am with you to deliver you.