Christ overcomes the division between what we think we are and what we actually do

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15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C: July 11, 2010
Deut 30:10-14; Ps 69:14, 17, 30-31, 33-34, 36-37; Col 1:15-20; Luke 10:25-37

When God created the world, and it was good; and when he created human beings, and we were good in it; we were created with an original harmony. A harmony between ourselves and our God; a harmony between ourselves and each other; a harmony within ourselves. But original sin caused a division, and passed on to us a disharmony in all of these areas. And this tendency to make a division is then something we see in the human behavior described throughout the Scriptures, and which the Lord is constantly striving to help us to overcome.

Throughout the Old Testament, we see, from time to time, in the behavior of the People of Israel—who in some way are seeking to live in the covenant that the Lord gave them—that they would place a division between the love of God and the love of neighbor. That, from time to time, it would seem, as we read the words of the Prophets and others, that there were people who thought: All God really wants is sacrifice; he doesn’t care how I treat other people; or, if he does care, the sacrifice is what he wants most of all and he will be ready to overlook how I treat other people.

And so we see that the prophets were constantly bringing the word of the Lord to people to say: You cannot make this division. They would even put it hyperbolically: “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” [Hos 6:6; Matt 9:13, 12:7] But it was not that God did not desire sacrifice, but that they needed to be united, they needed to be joined. We needed to love God and love neighbor.

This is seen in the Ten Commandments, where the first three address our love of God, and then the other seven address our love of neighbor. And as we heard in the first reading, all of these commandments that God gave were then known to the People of Israel. They did not have to strive to find far away—as Moses says—as if up in the sky or across the sea, to find what it was: they had been told these commands. They simply had to carry them out. And yet it seems that doing these commandments was something that many of them struggled with, century after century.

Now by the time that we reach our gospel reading today, we find that the scholar of the law did not make this division in his answer to Jesus. For he had come to Jesus and he had said, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law?” And this scholar of the law replied, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” This scholar of the law took it all together. And Jesus told him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.”

Now the scholar of the law answered correctly; but not everyone at the time was yet joining these things together. By this point, things had changed; and, whereas previously, in earlier centuries, people might have thought, “A sacrifice is all God wants,” by Jesus’ time we see that there was a much greater emphasis on the purity laws. And so, within the story of the Good Samaritan that Jesus tells, we hear that both the priest and the Levite turned away from the man lying half-dead on the road. And probably a reason which everyone would have understood was that they knew that if they, as priest or Levite, were to come into contact with a dead body, they would be rendered ritually impure for a time, and therefore ineligible to carry out their Temple duties. And it, of course, was a good thing for a priest and a Levite to seek to remain ritually pure so that they could carry out those duties. But to show charity to another person was higher than that. And so, within Jesus’ story, the priest and the Levite made the wrong choice: they clung too tightly to a lesser commandment and violated a greater one. They placed too much emphasis on something that was good and important in loving God, and ignored the part that God really did want them to love their neighbor.

And as we come to today, it is possible that we see in others, or in ourselves, some tendency where we know that there is something that God wants of us, some particularly religious action, some sort of prayer, some sort of devotion, even our attendance at Mass; and it is an all-too-human temptation to think that, “Well, if I do this, God will overlook these other things.” Jesus calls us to wholeness and not to this division. He calls us to a full love of God in all these aspects of ourselves, and to a love of neighbor; and not to the same mistake that we have seen in different forms through all these centuries of God’s People.

However, I am not sure that this division is necessarily the one that is the greatest danger in our society today. There is another division that I see which is not what Jesus is addressing here directly; and yet, in his parable of the Good Samaritan, we nevertheless can find points that address this common division of ours as well. And the division that I am thinking of is a division between what we might call our values or beliefs or intentions or desires—which are all, if you will, inside—a division between that and what we do.

Now we notice that throughout this Gospel passage, this verb of doing comes up again and again. The scholar of the law says, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus’ reply, after he answers, is, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.” And then after the story of the Good Samaritan, when he asks, “Which of these three was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” he answers, “The one who treated him with mercy”—which is good English for the original Greek, which actually uses that same verb “to do.” And if we translate that in bad English, but literally: the one who did mercy to him. And Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” And so this theme of doing recurs all the way through. And Christ calls us also not to fall into our division between what we believe or intend or wish for, and what we actually do.

Within his own story we are told that the Samaritan traveler was moved with compassion. We don’t actually know whether the priest and the Levite in his story were also moved with compassion. Who knows? Perhaps they were. Who knows what they told themselves about what they were like; what they told themselves about what they believed and what they wanted; what they might have said to their family when they arrived home from this trip? But notice that the scholar’s answer was not, “the one who felt some sort of compassion”; it was, the one who did mercy to him.

This division can show up in our lives in at least two forms. The first form is the ordinary form that simply comes through not reflecting upon our lives sufficiently—so that, from time to time, somehow we need to look in a mirror and realize that, what we intend to do, we’re not actually doing.

When I was working in the corporate world before going to seminary, I was once sent to a seminar that was follow-up to the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. And in this seminar, they specifically were addressing how to reflect upon these things and how to overcome them. And without describing the method, just giving one example of how it could apply should pretty well illustrate what they recommended.

They recommended that each person at some point give some good reflection to what was really important to them, what they really wanted to live out. But then in order to make sure that these intentions got translated into action—because the danger was that they wouldn’t—they said: first of all, form some general goals of how you are going to live these things out. So, for someone who was a husband and a father, he might say, “One of the most important things to me is my family.” And so he would be challenged: well, then, how do you want to live that out? And he might say, “Well, I want to spend some time each week with my kids.” And then the method would say to him: all right then, at the beginning of the week, when you’re assessing the week that has passed and the week that is to come, look at your calendar and make some choices of how exactly you are going to do that in the next seven days. And so this particular father might say, “All right, in the seven days that are coming, I will attend this sports game that one child is in, and this sports game that one child is in.”

And thereby, if he carried these things out, he would have actually done some things to carry out this thing that he had said was so important to him. Whereas, if he did not do this concrete planning, it would be all too easy for the week to pass; and this thing, his family, that he said was so important to him—for him to have done nothing amidst the whirl of other activities and other temptations. He might have done nothing about this thing that he said was so important to him.

And so, from time to time, we have to look into a mirror—and other people can help us with this—to look into the mirror of God’s Word, of Church teaching, especially of moral teaching—and just to check: these things that I intend, am I living them out? Or am I, unconsciously, falling into division?

But if there is this first form of unconsciously falling into division, what may be a greater danger in our society today are different voices that direct us to make a division; that tell us to think and believe and value one thing within ourselves, and then to do something different and not to act out on those things. Where would we find these?

We might find it in the advertisements that surround us: where we might hear, “Be a unique individual,” while they are telling us to do so by buying a product, the same as millions of other people. They might tell us, “If you do this, you will be free,” when in fact what they are trying to get us to do is to make ourselves dependent or enslaved to them and their product.

We also hear it when it comes to politics. We certainly hear it in certain politicians who might say something like: “I personally am opposed to abortion, but I will not do a single thing to give legal protection to the lives of unborn children.” But we definitely will hear it from almost all politicians at one time or another, when they say to us, in effect, “It is so wonderful that you have these beliefs and values. I commend you. And I urge you to do nothing about them and instead to vote for me, or to allow my program to proceed. It is wonderful that you have these; do what I want anyway.”

A third place that we might hear this said is when it comes to business and to employment; when an employer may say, “It’s great that you have these beliefs and these values in your personal life; but business is business. It doesn’t matter. Do what I say anyway. Do anything; morality does not constrain business.” And if that happens in business generally, it may be happening increasingly in certain areas related to work in medicine, in which so many employers—especially the government—may be, more and more, trying to force individual workers to ignore what they know to be right, and to carry out actions and procedures that they are being ordered to do. And they are being told: make this division.

But perhaps the most pervasive voice in our society that urges this division is the voice that sometimes calls itself “Spiritual but not Religious.” Now this may take various forms; but I believe that often what underlies this label is precisely this: that if I believe, if I desire, if I want the right things—if I tell myself that I am this sort of person—then I don’t really ever have to live it out.

A couple months ago, I was reading about an interview that Oprah had had with a particular woman who had been involved in a longterm adulterous affair with a political figure. And her inconsistency was then revealed for everyone to see, as she explained many times in this interview how she was very spiritual, how she was very much for integrity, for authenticity and truth. And yet, throughout this story that was being told, it was very clear that she and this politician had lived a life of lies, of falsehood. Everything about it was false. And eventually Oprah couldn’t take it, and she said, “Why did you, ‘Miss Spirituality in Alignment with the Truth,’ go along with this?” But this woman couldn’t see it. She couldn’t see that what she was calling authenticity was in fact leading to a life thoroughly characterized by lies, that was utterly false.

It’s like a form of hypocrisy, but the person who is deceived is not people around the hypocrite; it’s the person themselves.

900 years ago, St. Bernard of Clairvaux said, “Hell is full of good intentions or desires.” And almost 2000 years ago, St. James wrote in his letter [1:22-25]:

Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his own face in a mirror. He sees himself, then goes off and promptly forgets what he looked like. But the one who peers into the perfect law of freedom and perseveres, and is not a hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, such a one shall be blessed in what he does.

Pope John Paul II, commenting on these words of St. James, said:

These are very serious, very severe, statements; a Christian should always be genuine, should never be content with words alone.

And yet, the Holy Father went on to acknowledge, to live out a life without this division, a life of genuine integrity, in which the things we believe or desire or aspire to, we live out in our lives, is not easy. The Pope said:

The Christian … discovers he has to swim against the tide; he has to bear witness to truths that are absolute, yet invisible; he has to lose his earthly life in order to gain eternity; he needs to feel responsible not just for himself but also for his neighbor.

But Christ came to give us the grace that we need to heal this division, to bring us into wholeness, so that we truly may love the Lord our God with all our heart, with all our being, with all our strength, with all our mind, and our neighbor as ourselves.

There is no greater example of one who lived out everything that he believed and valued than our Lord. There is no greater example of someone who was not a hypocrite, and was not self-deceived; but who lived everything he intended. He brought that life of perfect integrity to completion in the sacrifice of the cross; and he will make himself, in that sacrifice of perfect integrity, present to us right here. And he once again will invite us to join ourselves to him in sacrifice, and to receive his own Body and Blood; so that he can give us grace to overcome that division, and to live out that holy integrity in our lives.

To the scholar of the law, Jesus said, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.”

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Published in: on July 11, 2010 at 6:22 pm  Leave a Comment  

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