Spiritual zombies and the Divine Physician

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26th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B: Sept. 30, 2012
Num 11:25-29; Ps 19; James 5:1-6; Mark 9:38-48

The writer Ross Douthat, in his recent book on religion in America (Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, pp. 152-53), has observed that

Christianity is a paradoxical religion because the Jew of Nazareth is a paradoxical character. No figure in history or fiction contains as many multitudes as the New Testament’s Jesus.

And then he proceeds to list many pairs of paradoxical traits and actions that we see in our Lord Jesus. For example, he writes:

He can be egalitarian and hierarchical, gentle and impatient, extraordinarily charitable and extraordinarily judgmental. He sets impossible standards and then forgives the worst of sinners.

And he is correct in saying that orthodox Christianity has always been faithful to embracing and proclaiming the whole of Jesus; whereas the easy slide of heresy is to ignore and cross out those aspects of our Lord that seem uncomfortable or inconvenient, and so turn him into someone in our own image.

Surely you have heard it said that Jesus ate with tax collectors and prostitutes. And so he did. And on one of those occasions, when the Pharisees objected, he responded: “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.” (Mark 2:17) And so many will stop there and say: “See, Jesus was inclusive”—according to our current all-accepting idea of inclusivity. As if he would say: “A little prostitution, a little tax extortion—not that there’s anything wrong with that!”

But that oversimplification ignores the other side of the paradox. Jesus’ line about the physician wasn’t just a snappy comeback against the Pharisees: he meant it. He knew that sin is a terrible sickness, and he came to cure it. It wasn’t that he thought that tax collectors and prostitutes were okay; it was that he knew they weren’t, and that they needed his help. Jesus loved them just the way they were; and he loved them too much to let them stay that way.

It is certainly Jesus the divine physician that we hear speaking in today’s Gospel reading as he recommends amputation. “If your hand (your foot, your eye) causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two to be thrown into hell.Cut it off, he says. And probably you have heard many homilies over the years immediately add, “But of course he didn’t mean that literally.” Oh, I think he did. Because he knew that sin is that serious, that corrupting, that deadly—that if a body part caused you to sin, then you should cut it off and throw it away, in order to be saved from the gangrene of sin.

The thing is that none of our body parts cause us to sin. But other aspects of our lives do: relationships, possessions, habits, commitments that seem just as necessary to our lives as a body part, and just as fearful and painful to remove.

  • If your smartphone causes you to sin, throw it away.
  • If Facebook causes you to be unfaithful, cut it off.
  • If that soccer game causes you or your kids to miss Sunday Mass, walk away from it.
  • If your job or business involves doing harm to others, then leave it.
  • If that friendship pulls you into sin, then let it go.

It is better for you to enter into the kingdom of God having lost all these things, than with them to enter into hell.

In baptism each of us was cleansed of original sin and all our personal sins, and we were given a share in Christ’s own divine life: the beginning of eternal life now, to be brought to glorious fulfillment on the last day! He gave us life, his own life! But our sins work against that life: our small or venial sins sicken it and weigh it down; our serious or mortal sins kill it. How many zombie Catholics are there, walking around spiritually dead, without that share in the divine life that Christ gave them—because they have not gone to him to have that life restored? And the sins continue to eat away at them, growing, ravaging their heart and soul.

But our divine physician has given a remedy: the first of the two sacraments of healing, the sacrament of confession, of penance and reconciliation. There our Lord Jesus removes the gangrene of sin; there he brings the spiritually dead back to life. Please, if you have a mortal sin that you have not brought to confession, bring it to him. Indeed, you know that I always urge confession once a month for spiritual health and growth. Today is the last day of September: if you haven’t been to confession yet this month, why not go today?

And I do mean today! Did you know that here at St. Bart’s we have confession every Sunday morning? From 8 to 8:30, and from 11:30 to 12, every Sunday morning, the divine physician is at work, and he is waiting for you.

Because Jesus loves you just the way you are; and he loves you too much to let you stay that way. He wants you to be alive, with the life that he offers! “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10) Moses wished “that the Lord might bestow his spirit on them all“—and indeed that is what our Lord Jesus has done for us, giving us his Holy Spirit to dwell within us in baptism, sealing and strengthening us with the Holy Spirit in confirmation. He wants us to be filled with the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” (Gal 5:22-23) He wants us to be exercising the spiritual gifts, the charisms, that he has bestowed upon us—he wants you to be living out the special spiritual gifts that he has given to you, to be a blessing to others.

For when you are filled with his life, you impart that life to others. When you remove the disease of sin from your life, then you become a healthy, active body part of the Body of Christ, the Church. No longer a zombie Catholic, but living, Spirit-filled Catholic. And then the divine physician has truly done his work.

Jesus loves you just the way you are; and he loves you too much to let you stay that way! “I came so that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”

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