Sunday, September 20, 2015

Be Good and Be Blessed?

Readings for Sunday, September 20/ 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time:
Wisdom 2:12, 17-20
Psalm 54
James 3:16-4:3
Mark 9:30-37

As the day nears for Pope Francis to arrive here in the U.S. I see more and more speculation about what he will say while he is here. While I don’t have mystical gift to see the future, I am willing to bet that while he will say many things that are encouraging and uplifting to us as a nation, but he’ll also say some things that upset people. This shouldn’t surprise us, though, since it seems his entire mission as Holy Father is to shake things up a bit. If he doesn’t ruffle our feathers a bit, it means we’re not listening to him enough! It’s striking if you think about it; the Vicar of Christ on Earth, the head of the Holy Catholic Church is a man that is loved by many but who also is the target of numerous slanderous words, hateful remarks, and violent intentions. It flies directly in the face of an idea that is not Christian but that has made its way into the mind of many Christians these days and it is the idea that if we are ‘good people’ or ‘good Christians’ that everything is going to be okay for us, that we’ll be ‘blessed’ in some concrete way.

The Jewish people had a clear nation that being good meant one would be blessed. We see it most clearly in Job, who is contrary to that idea. Job lost his wealth, his cattle, his children, and his wife all in a short period of time. His friends come to him and ask what he had done wrong. When he says he had done nothing wrong they are shocked because they thought ‘if you’re not blessed, you’re not in God’s good graces’. In like manner, there are numerous Christian sects that have trumpeted a ‘Gospel of prosperity’ that says if you live a good life God will bless you. That if you go to church on Sunday and put money in the collection plate that God will bless you. If you are kind to others, God will be kind to you. If you post a picture of Jesus on your Facebook wall, you will be blessed. All of these implicitly  treat the relationship with God as a contract – I do X and deserve Y in return and if I don’t receive Y then God has let me down.

The readings this weekend paint for us a different story. The Book of Wisdom clearly shows us that the wicked see the good as obnoxious and seek to bring them to a wicked end, to tear them down as much as possible and put them to a shameful death, all the while saying, “oh, but I thought your God was going to save you!” We see it fulfilled in its cruelest form with the Lord Jesus on the Cross as the passers-by shouted ‘He claimed to save us, let him save himself!’ and the like. Here the good person enjoys anything but worldly blessing. Instead, for his goodness he becomes a target of hatred, envy, and wrath. Quite a blessing there!

St. James takes things a step further for us and reminds us that it is not just a group of ‘wicked people’ who do wicked things. It can easily become the just who allow their passions to well up within them and issue forth in wrath, hatred, and harmful words. These two ideas came together for me quite clearly in the form of one of my brother seminarians. My friends and I were pretty comfortable in our spirituality and faith at the seminary; we did the things expected of us to grow in holiness – daily Mass & prayer, the rosary, joining in community prayer, retreats, and on. Then along came a new seminarian who was more pious than any of us. He would be found kneeling in the hallway staring out the window at the image of Mary in our courtyard and we’d remark ‘Doesn’t he know the hallway is for walking, not a chapel?’ or we’d see him arrive early for Mass and stay late afterward and remark ‘He’s always in the chapel, I wonder if he has time to shower.’ How quickly my heart turned from good to wicked when faced with someone that rubbed me the wrong way, that upset my norm, and challenged me to do more than what I was currently doing in the way of faith. My brother was obnoxious to me and I tried to kill him with my words.

This all comes together in the Gospel as we see the Lord give the clearest explanation of the Passion to that point – ‘We’re going to Jerusalem, I’ll be handed over, they’re going to kill me, and three days later I will rise from the dead.’ Seems pretty clear and yet the disciples don’t understand His words. Why? Because they were too busy focusing on themselves and their own blessings to be received shortly. Jockeying for first, you can imagine how they easily sought to increase their own value and decrease that of the others. How on may have said to Peter, ‘You can’t be #1 because you tried to walk on water and fell because of your lack of faith.’ And Peter responding, ‘Well, I didn’t see you get out of the boat in the first place, did I?’ and so on. So consumed are they with the blessings they’d get for being good disciples that they miss the message of their leader.

Pulling a child into the scene, Jesus illustrates to the crowd that true blessing consists in one not seeking oneself but rather in receiving others in the name of the Lord. It is a holy indifference about ourselves that desires rather to look to the other for love of Jesus. The end point is this: the Lord Jesus calls us to an ever-deepening relationship with Himself without seeking what we get out of the deal. If through the course of this life we are blessed to have good health, wealth, the joy of family and friends, and all goes well for us, God be praised! But if through the course of this life we must daily take up a cross of poverty, poor health, loneliness, and countless crosses til the day of our death, God be praised! More clearly put, this life can bring many things to us but ultimately we are simply passing through this life. Heavenly life awaits the faithful and there will be such joy there that the worst day of our life on this earth will seem as nothing at all, and the best day of our life on this earth will be the same. In that sense it is absolutely true that if we are good Christians we will be blessed, but simply being blessed with Heavenly joy isn't our goal since that's still self-centered. If we do our best to live each day in union with God in this life - whether it be full of blessings, crosses or both – we will know the joy of beholding our God, seeing Him face to face, and enjoying His embrace as the child enjoyed the embrace of Jesus for those few moments. But let us not go there alone, seeking only our salvation! Rather, let us make it our goal to suffer well the things of this life so as to bring many souls along with us, that all of us might together reign with our God, whose love is shown in such mysterious ways.