This year is the latest calendar-date that Easter can be, and so this is the farthest into Ordinary time we can go before Ash Wednesday and the readings switch over to Lent. So these readings today for the Eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time in Year C, haven’t been used in 18 years.
This Sunday we finish Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain in the Gospel of Luke.
In the first week, we reflected on the blessings and curses. The worldly values of the Kingdom of Man are upside down from the values of the Kingdom of God. When we acknowledge that the earthly life that gets us to heaven—the life that follows the example of Jesus—is the only truly good life, then we embrace and find joy in the suffering, rejection, and virtues which most unite us with Jesus. And we reject, or are at least very wary of, the treasures and pleasures of this life, as they dull our desire for heaven, or distract us from that which leads us toward heaven.
In the second week—last week—we reflected on living out this upside-down example Jesus gives us, compared to how we naturally see things in this world. We naturally love our friends and hate our enemies; Jesus teaches us we must love our enemies, and pray for those who mistreat us. We naturally lend to those who will pay us back; Jesus teaches us to give sacrificially, especially to those who can’t pay us back. We naturally promote ourselves as right and good, and others as wrong and bad (especially those who make us feel bad); Jesus teaches us not to judge, not to seek revenge, but to have mercy, and we will be shown mercy, for the measure we use for others, God will use for us.
In the third week and final week—our Gospel reading for today—Jesus teaches us how to spread the Gospel, in our words and our actions, by our example. “Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit?’ No disciple is superior to the teacher; but when fully trained, every disciple will be like his teacher.” The martial arts, like kung fu, have a long series of moves, which a student must learn by imitating his teacher. It takes much practice to perfect each move, and a long time of discipleship to learn the entire series of moves. But a teacher can only teach as far as he himself knows, and he can only teach his disciples as well as he himself knows. A poor teacher is unlikely to make excellent disciples of the art, but he can make excellent disciples of himself, who, like himself, would then be poor disciples of the art. Be careful whose disciple you become, whose teaching and example you’re following. If they’re not leading you to virtue and holiness, they are a blind guide at best, and you will both fall into the pit, at worst. That’s also a point to ponder for those who have people they are teaching and giving example to, such as children. Don’t be a blind teacher, failing to lead to virtue and holiness, or you and they may both fall into the pit.
The blind guide is not only one who does not know the way, but one who does not know himself, his sins, faults, and blind spots. Ignorance of one’s sins is a source of false pride. It is this blindness and false pride that leads one to commit the sins Jesus talked about earlier: judging and condemning others with a harsh measure. One of the best weapons against this ignorance is frequent use of an Examination of Conscience and the Sacrament of Confession. The Examination of Conscience forces us to look more critically at our conduct in the light of the moral guide of Church teaching. The frequent use of the Sacrament of Confession sharpens our awareness of our actions, and helps us to be more attentive to the promptings of conscience and grace.
You might ask, “How can a celibate priest give me guidance in marriage and raising children, or on other moral matters of which he has little or no experience?” On the human level, the priest has two sources of such guidance. First, priests are not locked in the church between Sundays. Priests have families, friends, and other relationships and experiences that they bring to their ministry. Second, priests have more than their own personal experience, but also the body of experience of Catholic Tradition. The counseling wisdom of the Church has been amassed over centuries of developing moral guidance in light of human experience, difficulties, weakness, and relationships. Third, a priest encounters hundreds or thousands of people in his priestly ministry, and if the priest is wise, each one has many things to teach him about different personal challenges, approaches, and successes. And then on the spiritual level, it is not just the priest who is providing guidance. The ultimate spiritual guide is our Lord, who himself is the way, the truth, and the life. He works through the priest to minister to his people. That’s why it’s so important to choose not just an old wise priest, but more importantly, a holy priest. The old wise priest may be aided by lot of human experience, but a holy priest is aided by being open to the divine wisdom being poured through him to bring wisdom and counsel to the people he serves.
“Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own?” Jesus is not saying that we should not correct one another, or that we must be sinless before we correct one another. This is the intentionally-impossible measure set by secular society (who, ironically, does not hesitate to criticize and judge), because people do not like to be told that what they want, what they find pleasurable, is sinful, and destructive of their human nature, goodness, and salvation. Jesus is not saying that we should let sinners just ignorantly embrace sin. We are called to speak God’s truth, because it sets us free… even when it is unpopular. But Jesus is saying that our own example should not be scandalous. (“Scandalous” comes from the Greek word “skandalon,” which was an obstacle, a stumbling block. Our example should not be an obstacle or stumbling block for those seeking Christ and an example of the Christian life.) And we should be very delicate in correcting sins where we are struggling ourselves. We don’t want to come across as a hypocrite. We want to come across as a humble, struggling sinner helping another struggling sinner, in an area where the wisdom we’ve gained might be of use to them. It’s humble, honest, and inspired by love. If someone is not receptive to your help, it might be because you’re not the person they want to receive correction from in that area, or they’re not ready to accept correction in that area. In that case, pray that God will bring them the wisdom they need. Continue to love them, and maybe there will be another opportunity to help them.
“A good tree does not bear rotten fruit, nor does a rotten tree bear good fruit. For every tree is known by its own fruit.” “A good person out of the store of goodness in his heart produces good, but an evil person out of a store of evil produces evil; for from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.” The good tree is a good person, and the good fruit are holiness and virtue. The bad tree is a bad person, and the rotten fruit are poor choices and vice. It’s not that good people are perfectly good and bad people are perfectly bad. It’s that to be an effective messenger of Christ, you can’t have a scandalous moral life, in flagrant contradiction to what the Christian Church and the Christian scriptures teach. That’s the blind, by bad example, misleading the blind, who are looking to them for guidance. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Who you are speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you’re saying.” Certainly we need to be conscientious about our words, because they reveal the content of our hearts. But even more so we need to patiently and consistently build a moral life of integrity, truth, and virtue, because our actions are more convincing than our words.
The 7th century monk “The Venerable” Bede, teaches us: “Do you want to know which are the bad trees and what are the bad fruits? The apostle [St. Paul] teaches us: “fornication, impurity, self-indulgence, idolatry, sorcery, malice, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, conflict, factions, envy, murder, drunkenness, arousing, and things of this sort” (Gal 5:19-21). He subsequently lists the fruits of a good tree. He says, “The fruit, however, of the Spirit, is charity, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faith, gentleness, self-control” (Gal 5:22-23).” Often, like the one linked above, an Examination of Conscience is based on the Ten Commandments. But this list from St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians is another option. Certainly we can have characteristics from time to time from both lists, and we need to wage war against those characteristics of ours on the first list. But we should be very concerned when people associate us more with the first list. That would mean that, at least to those people (however accurate their opinion might be), our example is a scandal of what the Christian life is.
In our first reading, from the Old Testament book of Sirach, we get a series of short images, like we heard from Jesus in the Gospel. These images are about testing a man’s character by what he says, especially in times of difficulty. “When a sieve is shaken, the husks appear; so do one’s faults when one speaks.” When the wheat crops are brought in, they’re sifted. The good wheat falls through the sieve, and what’s left is the bad stuff left over. When a man is stressed, his guard is down and what’s truly in his heart is revealed. Remember the courtroom scene from “A Few Good Men,” and Tom Cruise’s character succeeded in getting Jack Nicholson’s character to get enraged and speak his mind, and “You want the truth!? You can’t handle the truth!”
The second example: “As the test of what the potter molds is in the furnace, so in tribulation is the test of the just.” If a work of pottery is poorly crafted, when it’s put into to the kiln, it explodes in the fire. The same with a person who lacks the character to keep it together under fire. He explodes… at others, blasting them with the shrapnel of his temper… which can cause scandal.
The third image is the connection to the Gospel: “The fruit of a tree shows the care it has had; so too does one’s speech disclose the bent of one’s mind.” If someone who grew sycamore trees, for example, carefully poked a hole in the fruit as it’s growing, it grows bigger and is much juicier. The fruit shows the care taken in developing it. Likewise, the fruit of one’s speech and actions reveal the care taken in developing one’s mind and heart.
The psalm for today shows the other side of the coin. “It is good to give thanks to the LORD … They that are planted in the house of the LORD … They shall bear fruit even in old age; vigorous and sturdy shall they be …” The way to purify our heart is to practice piety, gratitude, and the other virtues, which are given by the Holy Spirit. Our words show what is in our hearts, but the reverse is also true: the heart and words don’t just go from inside out; it can also go from outside-in. We can develop our hearts by using our words to praise God and letting him mold our hearts (to be like His own Sacred Heart!).
We become like those we spend time with. If we spend a lot of time with blind guides and rotten trees, who don’t lead us to holiness and virtue, we suffer the rotten fruit of that influence. When we spend time with good guides and good trees, then we cultivate better fruit. We learn better how to respond when the heat rises, when our guard is compromised, when our heart is revealed. It will reveal integrity and virtue, and we will be a good example of following Christ, for those who look to us, and those who listen to our words.
St. Paul, in our second reading, is continuing to teach us about the resurrection of the faithful, after the example of Christ, and how we will share also in the resurrected body. And when the faithful, the Mystical Body of Christ, are reassembled in heaven with it’s Head, who is Christ Himself, Satan, Sin, and Death will be finally defeated and vanquished.
In the midst of our reading, St. Paul says, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.” Death is being portrayed as a poisonous stinging creature of the dangerous wilderness, like a scorpion. And Death kills us by successfully tempting us to sin. Sin is what causes our separation from God, who is the source of life. So like a scorpion stings its victims with its poison and kills them, Death stings its victims with the poison of sin, which kills them.
The Law (given through Israel’s Holy Scriptures) is what God has provided humanity about what is good and evil. The Law in a sense is written into Creation. What is good and evil is not because it is written in the Scriptures; but the Scriptures reveal to us what is true of (the Law of) all Creation. St. John Chrysostom wrote, “Without the law sin was weak. It existed, to be sure, but it did not have the power to condemn, because although evil occurred, it was not clearly pointed out. Thus it was no small change which the law brought about. First, it caused us to know sin better, and then it increased the punishment.” So it is the written Law of the Holy Scriptures, now known to humanity, that increases sin, because now what is evil is clearly known and yet freely chosen. So “the power of sin” to condemn humanity is the law given to us and to which we are held accountable.
And so this is why we as Christians, who have the fullness of revelation of Truth in Jesus Christ Our Lord, must, out of love for God and our neighbor, give good witness (and not scandal) by our example, our words, and our actions. Even though not all of humanity knows (or accepts the truth of) the law, the evil we do still harms us, and distorts us, away from the image we need to have, if we are to recognize our sins, humbly call on God’s mercy, and be granted everlasting salvation.
In the Church’s ordination rite, the Bishop exhorts the man being ordained, “Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and practice what you teach.” The same applies to us: With diligence and prayer read the scriptures, with love and patience share scriptures, and with discipline and integrity, live the scriptures.
So our discussion of the Sermon on the Plain ends as it began, with our call to serve as God’s prophetic people: to speak and live God’s Word of guidance, correction, and encouragement; to share His Word in season and out of season, in truth and love; to give example of the apparently upside-down wisdom of the Kingdom of God, embracing humility, simplicity, and suffering as Jesus, the Word of God, did; and to deny ourselves, pick up our cross, and follow Him.
Next week, the first Sunday of Lent. God bless you!