Jesus would often incur suspicion by reaching out to prostitutes and tax collectors. It strikes us as a little bit odd that these two professions are so often joined together in the New Testament. What was so bad about collecting taxes that the profession was put on the same level as prostitution?
Scripture scholars can tell us about the complex reality between the Roman government and the Jewish people, and between Roman pagan culture and Jewish culture, but that is not the purpose of the gospel. The purpose of the gospel is not to explore the political, economic and religious tensions between the Jews and the Romans, but to proclaim the good news of the salvation of Jesus Christ.
St. Matthew the apostle sensed the nearness of that salvation. He was a tax collector sitting at his toll booth when he heard Jesus call him: “Follow me.” And St. Matthew got up and followed him. The gospel records the calling of St. Matthew to inspire us to do what he did: to hear Jesus, and to get up and follow Him, and to leave all other things, good or bad, to the care of His providence.
Our configuration to Christ makes us more and more like Him. St. Paul, for example, had a strong desire to visit the people in various churches. “I hope to visit you soon,” he wrote in 1 Timothy. The desire to be with more and more people is a key feature of the missionary vocation, and is a hallmark of the missionary’s configuration to Christ. Did not God desire to reconcile the world to Himself? And was it not on account of this desire that He sent His only Son to us? God wants to be with us, and the missionary shares in God’s desire to be with more and more people. Insofar as the missionary possesses this desire, he or she is like God.
What about the anchorites, the monks and nuns who seek God alone in solitude, and who flee from populated areas? Christian anchorites, it seems to me, do not reject human companionship entirely, but rather they seek to elevate it to a higher level, where we become closer to each other by becoming closer to God.
Fellowship with the saints, then, should be something that every Christian desires, and that desire is a hallmark of our configuration to Christ. Whether we desire fellowship with saints on Earth or in Heaven, we must not tire of seeking them out.
Jesus healed the only son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7:11-17). The corpse was being carried out of the city on a stretcher to be buried. Jesus saw the funeral procession and the widow and had pity on them, and he said to the widow: “Do not weep.” And to the dead man he said “Young man, I tell you, arise!”
As you read the gospel passage, you get the impression that the people of Nain had no idea what was about to happen. There is no mention of the widow asking Jesus for help, nor is there any dialogue between Jesus and the people of the town. He was simply approaching the town with his disciples when he saw the funeral procession, and felt pity, and performed a stupefying miracle.
For those of us who have active prayer lives, the passage is sobering. We spend countless hours before our God in prayer, and yet we receive favors of lesser distinction. Yet this woman, this widow of Nain, as far as we know, was more or less oblivious to Jesus and everything he stood for. It remains God’s prerogative to help whom He pleases in the manner He pleases. It is not God’s job to please us. It is our job to please him. Yes, God wants us to be happy with Him, however, our happiness comes more from seeking His glory than having his favors.
Do you read the newspaper? Or watch the news on TV? Or follow current events on the internet or social media? Why? What are you looking for there? Does it bring you pleasure to be informed, or do you feel somehow obliged to keep up with everything? I ask you this because I know that the obligation to be well-informed may not be as strict as we sometimes imagine, and the pleasure that comes from knowledge of current events can lead us along on a hopeless quest for contentment apart from God. This is why St. Ignatius wanted the people who made his spiritual exercises to withdraw themselves from the hustle and bustle of the news cycle.
St. Paul, in his first letter to Timothy, asked that, “first of all, supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity. This is good and pleasing to God our savior.” We may count St. Paul’s request as at least one reason to keep abreast of current events. We should be praying for all in authority, not just political authorities, but also cultural and professional authorities. As you survey the news, then, don’t forget to pray.
“Wrath and anger are hateful things, yet the sinner hugs them tight” (Sir 27:30). Why is it so hard for us to let go of our own wrath and anger, even though we know they bring us living death? We even use strategies to help our wrath and anger to grow, replaying over and over again another person’s faults and offenses, reminding ourselves not so much of our own superiority, but of our neighbor’s inferiority. Why can’t we let go of our wrath and anger, and instead work for forgiveness and reconciliation? Is it that, deep down, we still don’t trust God? Are we afraid that God’s mercy will annihilate His justice? Are we afraid that He will forgive something that should never be forgiven? “Vengeance is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord, and yet we sinners are still not fully convinced. We insist on repaying a little vengeance of our own, maybe with the tongue or with the heart.
“Think of the commandments, hate not your neighbor; remember the Most High’s covenant, and overlook faults” (Sir 28:7).
Ex abundantia cordis os loquitur. “From the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks” (Luke 6:45). This verse from today’s gospel has become one of the most profound criteria for discernment in the Christian spiritual tradition. People who are critical or bickering in their speech can betray a heart that is not rooted in the saving love of Jesus Christ—however much those people may protest that they are standing up for the Lord’s name—but rather is choked by brambles and thornbushes.
We should be especially attentive if we are prone to condemn others in our speech, for this may be a sign that we condemn people constantly in our thoughts. Satan is the accuser, from Genesis all the way to the book of Revelation. But Jesus says, “I did not come to condemn the world but to save the world” (John 3:17). When the woman at the well tells Jesus, “I have no husband” in John 4, Jesus does not respond by accusing the woman of a lie, but rather, finding the truth in her statement, he actually saves what she has to say instead of condemning it: “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband;’ for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true!” (Jn 4:17-18). When we encounter such situations, do we accuse and condemn them in our words and in our hearts, as Satan does, or seek to save them and lift them up, as Jesus does?
“Not everyone who says, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Mt 7:21; cf. Lk 6:46f). Let us ask for the grace to not merely confess the Lord with our lips, but also in our hearts, so that we may “produce good out of the store of goodness in our hearts” (Lk 6:45). Ex abundantia cordis os loquitur.
On the day after the Exaltation of the Cross, the Church celebrates “Our Lady of Sorrows.” This feast links Mary explicitly with the cross of the Lord, and invites us to enter more deeply into the mystery of Mary’s motherhood as the Theotokos, the “birther of God.” Mary does not merely “give birth to God” in a physical way, at Jesus’ birth. Mary is just as much a spiritual mother to her Son as she is a mother in the flesh. This reality is revealed in Luke 2:33-35, in which Simeon foretells, in the Holy Spirit, not only that Jesus will be a sign of contradiction, but that, together with this, Mary’s own soul would be “pierced by a sword” (Lk 2:35).
The alleluia verse for today’s feast proclaims, “Blessed are you, O Virgin Mary; without dying you won the martyr’s crown beneath the Cross of the Lord.” Alleluias are sung on this day! It is not a Lenten feast, but a cause for rejoicing! Why? Because as we celebrated yesterday the Exaltation of the Cross, which, in the light of the resurrection reveals the glory of the eternal Love that gives itself in Christ’s crucifixion, so also we see the glory of that purely human love of the maiden who gave birth to God and remains God’s mother, even as she stands underneath the cross. As he suffers for the salvation of all humankind on the cross, she suffers the birth-pangs of a mother in the most painful spiritual labor, even as she, too, is saved by her Son. Out of love, Mary would not trade the sorrow that she experiences under the cross for any lesser joy, for her greatest joy—one devoid of any superficial or felt happiness in this moment—is to suffer with the Son whom she so loves, who is dying for her and for the whole world. Just as the Son could, at any moment, call upon the Father and his passion would be over, but instead chooses, in every moment, to suffer to the end out of love (Cf. Mt 26:53), so also the Mother’s unique privilege is to suffer with the Son to his death, out of love, without for an instant ceasing to be the Theotokos, the one who gives birth to God. This is her unique privilege, by God’s grace, but through her it is one into which we are all called, one which manifests humanity as being called to a love that is the true created likeness of God’s own uncreated love.
Let us sing the “alleluia,” for the great glory of love that God reveals to us today in this sorrowful lady. Through her, we know that the glory of this love is indeed shared with all of humankind, and by God’s grace and through her intercession, we ask that we, too, might love in a way that triumphs over our mediocrity and finds its joy in accompanying the crucified body of Christ as far as he will permit us to go. May we so love Christ that we, too, may know the joy of this sorrow.
Today’s celebration of the Exaltation of the Cross offers a scriptural depth of meaning that far surpasses the feast’s historical origins. The fact that Christians exalt in the cross, indeed, that they “glory in the cross of our Lord” (Gal 6:14) can seem just as perplexing today as it did in the time of Saint Paul. Why would we glory in an instrument of torture and execution? Indeed, some critics of the Exaltation of the Cross suggest that it makes about as much sense as wearing a little electric chair around one’s neck. But the cross is not just an instrument of death and torture. Thanks to Christ, it has become the path through which we find salvation, the path that reveals that the Lordship of Christ will not be undone by our rebellion, and that, in the fullness of time, even those things through which we sought most to undermine God’s love can become the greatest symbol of that love itself.
When we contemplate the Lord on the cross—which, in obedience to his command, we should do frequently—we see the evil that we have laid upon the Lord. But if that were all that we saw, then this sight would not have the power to save. By God’s grace, we see far more. We see that the instrument through which we intended the greatest hatred in our greatest rebellion against God has become the instrument through which God in Christ has shown us the greatest love: so great that when we gaze at Christ on the cross, we no longer see the hatred that we had for Jesus but the love that he has for us. If we live from the cross and exalt it as Jesus commands us to do, then we have the hope that, in eternity, what will remain is not our sin, but the love that God made manifest in willingly bearing those sins for us on the cross: thanking us, even, for giving him the chance to let him show us that he truly does love us that much.
Paul’s message in Col 3:1-11 is so direct that the text needs very little commentary; what would be most fruitful would simply be to more spend time with the text itself, using it as an examination of conscience.
Are you raised with Christ? Because if you are, then seek what is above! If you do not, then perhaps you do not live from Christ’s resurrection as much as you thought you did. Look at the attitudes that belong to the “old self:” “immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, the greed that is idolatry, anger, fury, malice, slander, and obscene language.” These realities need to die with Christ before we can be lifted up with him. Let us ask for God’s help, so that by contemplating Jesus’ life we might “put to death, then, the parts that are earthly” (Col 3:5) so that we might begin to be “renewed, in the image of the Creator” (Col 3:11).
Saint Paul exhorts us not to be led astray by “an empty, seductive philosophy according to the tradition of men.” Such traditions promise to unlock for us the “elemental powers of the world,” but Paul warns us that they do not reveal to us the true nature of the world we live in, which can only be found in Christ (Col 2:8). Both in Paul’s time and in our own day, there are many systems of knowledge that claim to unlock “the elemental powers of the world.” Those who claim to be initiated into magic and the occult claim to harness and manipulate the “elemental powers of the world” for their own purposes. From its earliest days, Christianity has rejected all such magic as opposed to the logic of the love that Christ reveals. In Acts 8, Simon Peter rebukes Simon the Magician who thinks that he can purchase from Peter the secret to “controlling” the Holy Spirit. In Canto 19 of his Inferno, Dante makes reference to what Christians believed happened next after the scene that we read about in the Acts of the Apostles. Simon the Magician, wanting to outdo Simon Peter through magic, returns to him flying with the help of elemental spirits. But Simon Peter prays and Simon the Magician crashes, and, in Dante’s version, descends into hell, where he languishes upside down, in a perpetual crash from the elemental power that the magician claimed to control.
Today, the temptation of magic does not compete with Christianity in quite so direct a manner as it did in the days when Christianity was first being proclaimed. But the temptation to “cut a deal” with “hidden powers” instead of seeking our life in Jesus Christ continues to exercise a potent influence over many people. Many people approach sexuality and romance in this “magical” way, imagining that having this or that experience with this or that person will change everything and make their life into some sort of a revelation of something hidden deep within the “elemental powers of the world.” This type of thinking pervades many movies, songs, and TV shows that might seem otherwise harmless. But they hold up before us false gods, false ways of living, and ideologies that promise the world, but only offer chains. It is no surprise that what these ideologies claim to offer often go by the name of “love,” since God is Love. But it is ultimately a defective love, just as the ideology itself makes for an ultimately cruel god.
The truth of the world is revealed in the flesh of Jesus Christ, “for in him dwells the whole fullness of the deity bodily” (Col 2:9). It is Christ “who is the head of every principality and power” (Col 2:10) and who reveals to us that true Love that creates, redeems, and sustains the world through his life, death, and resurrection. There are false loves as there are false gods. Let us not try to cut deals with the “elemental powers of the world” in pursuit of some selfish advantage, but let us follow the path of the “Lamb that was slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev 13:8), for he is the true God who reveals to us true life and true love and shares this fullness with us (Col 2:10).