On the outside, the people against whom Jesus is speaking appear devout and pious: they build memorials to the great prophets, putting the capstone, so to speak, on their legacy. But they are putting the capstone of a house of blood; it is a dramatic image to be sure, but Jesus is deadly serious. How better, after all, to forever silence a prophet, than to build a memorial? For a memorial oftentimes does our remembering for us: we build a statue of an influential person, and it is as though we leave them there. How easy it is for us to slip into a false sense of security when we have our religious artwork on our walls, our holy medals around our necks, and then we forget what it all means, what they point to. The danger is always there: it is so simple to let memorials do the remembering for us.
This is not to condemn devotional items, artwork, and statuary: quite the contrary. Rather, Jesus is reminding the people that the memorials have tremendous power, both to bless and condemn. For if the people erecting memorials really wished to honor the prophets they claim to revere, they would not spend their time building monuments, but rather listening to the word they spoke and would believe in the Messiah of whom they preached. Yet because the people reject Jesus—and would come, as He mentions, to reject His Apostles—they are consenting to the murder of the prophets, and thus the memorials they build do the prophets no honor, but insult them instead.
Jesus says they will “be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah,” all the prophets from A to Z, because they have begun to kill Jesus in their own hearts, the very One for whom the ancients were prophets in the first place. In their hostility they will silence the prophets forever.
This is an incredibly hard Gospel, but again Jesus is underscoring the importance of integrity. Had these people been building memorials to the prophets from a place of true faith and a desire to see their prophecies fulfilled, their hearts would have been open to the teaching of Jesus; He cries woe also to the scholars of the law, those intimately familiar with Scripture and the way one was to live in accordance with it. Yet even they would not receive Jesus into their hearts; worse, they would use their knowledge of the law to convince others to reject Jesus as well. What good is it to love the prophets—or the saints—but not love Jesus? What good is it to read Scripture, to know Scripture, but not love Jesus? All of Scripture, and every true prophet and saint points to a single truth: Jesus.
This “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) is upheld by the Church to lead us to Him; the greatest memorial we can build for the saints—from Agnes to Zita—is to love Our Lord and allow Him to transform us into saints ourselves. We are to be the memorials of the prophets.
In Matthew’s Gospel we read: “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.” (10:40) Today, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus sends seventy-two disciples to go out ahead of Him to various towns, and His packing list is very specific: bring nothing. Why?
Because the more they bring, the less their lives will testify to the One who sent them.
If a disciple of the Lord is living according to Christ in their hearts, an encounter with that disciple is an encounter with Christ Himself; this was to be especially true of those appointed by Jesus in our Gospel. As with the crowd on Monday that could not accept Jesus without some sort of sign, imagine the impact of meeting a disciple of Jesus that had no money, no sack, no sandals, who didn’t move from house-to-house but stayed in one place, eating and drinking whatever was offered them, even if the people there could offer only very little. Such a disciple comes preaching the Kingdom of God, the promises of Jesus and the goodness that comes of surrendering all things and following Him. Their lack of possessions witnesses outwardly to the inward reality of the Word they preach and believe.
Imagine, on the other hand, a disciple who comes preaching the same message, yet has a full purse, a sack full of food and clothing, and sandals on his feet, who goes house-to-house as a variety of people host and entertain him. He says, “Blessed are the poor! Jesus says to you, ‘Surrender everything and come, follow me.’” What credibility would that disciple have if he was not, as they say, walking the talk? Even today we struggle to find credibility in those preachers who live a life of luxury and wealth.
The world would look on the disciples as foolish for traveling without any provisions at all, yet they were not without provision: they trusted in our providential God, the same God of providence which they preached to those they encountered. They were living, walking, talking proof that the Kingdom of God is at hand, for while they seemed outwardly to be foolish, their outward testimony spoke to an integrity and contrary wisdom that has the potential to deeply impact the hearts of others. What freedom; what faith! Do we not, deep down, desire to have such faith as those disciples had?
With integrity of life—where our outer actions are expressive of our inner faith—comes peace, the same peace that these disciples offered to the households they entered. “Peace,” the old Latin saying goes, “is the tranquility of order”, and when there is a disorder between interior movements and exterior actions, there is anxiety. But when we live our faith with integrity, we not only find peace within ourselves, but we become an instrument of peace to others. With such peace we realize that, indeed, “The Kingdom of God is at hand…”
The traditions and practices surrounding the purification of nearly everything was strong in the Jewish culture, such that when they did not see Jesus observing them, they criticized Him. After all, one’s holiness relies upon following every act required by the Law; play by the rules, and you win.
But Jesus teaches them that merely practicing the Law is not the same as observing it, the word “observe” meaning, at its root, “to listen.” What good is it, for example, to purify your dishes if you hate your neighbor? Our own news media is filled with instances of celebrities who, outwardly, seem to have it all together until, one day, something of their inward life is revealed, and the house of cards comes crashing down. Likewise we often try very hard to control how people perceive us; we want others to think we are happy, attractive, good, and successful, even if we are not ourselves convinced. The people of Jesus’ time were no different: some believed that if God saw that they were good, then He would favor them.
“You fools! Did not the maker of the outside also make the inside?” The Pharisees believed that God was satisfied merely by right action, regardless of the interior forces that motivated the action. One must offer certain sacrifices for certain sins, but contrition was of secondary importance. Jesus shatters this view, reminding them that God is interested in the whole self, that—as He says earlier in Luke’s Gospel—“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…” (6:45) Holy deeds are not holy in themselves, but are holy because they spring from holy desires and intentions; the Pharisees, in other words, have no integrity. Their actions say one thing but their hearts—which God can plainly see (1 Samuel 16:7)—say another. Jesus offers a cure for their religious disconnect, something that will make them whole: giving alms. In this simple, unseen, act of generosity they will learn humility, for they will be surrendering the wealth to which they cling; they will be emptying themselves of the very thing that causes the internal impurity they strive so hard to avoid externally.
Jesus teaches us that even if we perform outwardly religious acts—we pray the rosary, we attend Mass, we read Scripture, we perform works of service—yet have not love (1 Cor. 13:1-3), then our deeds are of next to no worth. The outside of the vessel may be clean, but the inside may yet be quite the opposite. It is an incredibly challenging Gospel, but a vital one. If we are to be fully alive in our faith, and not only appear so, we must constantly seek Jesus’ help in serving God and neighbor with our hearts as well as our actions, loving one another as He has loved us. (John 13:34-35)
We are very visual creatures; we derive comfort and certainty from what we can see, and are deeply confused when our eyes are deceived. Earlier in this same chapter Jesus drove out a demon, and yet they ask for a sign! What is going on here?
Jesus cuts, quite literally, to the heart of the matter: the crowd refuses to believe in Him. They rely not on faith, but by sight (2 Cor. 5:7) and will not take the Word of God at His Word. What He says, and the things He does, demands an incredible act of trust on their part, and they are unwilling to step out onto those waters for fear of getting wet when—if they but dare to believe in Him—they could walk! But they will not dare, and they will not trust.
They must have a sign; they must see outward proof of the inward Truth of Jesus. So Jesus promises that they will be given a sign, but it will not be a sign that they will like. He promises them the sign of Jonah, not only recalling the three days he spent within the fish—thus referring to His own three days in the tomb—but more so the preaching of Jonah: repent! The people of Jonah’s time believed him and repented, and their city was spared the consequences of their sins. Jesus is also preaching repentance and the salvation God offers to those who turn to them with their whole selves, but the crowd will not listen.
At the judgement, the citizens of Nineveh will condemn them: they believed in God’s prophet, and yet those in the crowd would not believe God’s own Son! The queen of the south will condemn them: she heard about the wisdom and greatness of Solomon and traveled to see if the reports were true, and she found that the reality far exceeded what she heard (1 Kings 10:7). She did not believe until she saw, but her desire to see if there was truth in the reports was enough to cause her to travel a vast distance. Yet Wisdom Incarnate comes to the crowds, to their very homes, and they will not listen. The very same people who tout the greatness of Solomon, or retell the story of Jonah, will not receive in their hearts what they cannot perceive with their eyes.
How often we hear the Word of God, how often we feel the challenge of God’s Word or the Church’s teaching pressing our hearts to conversion, to deeper commitment, but resist for lack of some kind of sign! Yet when it comes to those we love most in this world, we make no such demands that they prove the love they profess. Why is it that we so frequently put God to the test?
Yesterday we saw the importance of being a whole Christian, of our faith informing our actions, of our insides matching our outsides. Today we see the crowd’s failure to see Jesus wholly: they are far more interested in what He can do, rather than who He is. They want the great deeds of past prophets, but do not desire the one thing that can actually save them: the Heart of Jesus, which is best seen in His ordinary acts, as our hearts should best be seen in ours.
A strange parable: a king invites a number of people to a wedding feast held for his son, the people refuse to come, some reacting even violently to the summons. Then he invites everyone he can find, “bad and good alike,” so that the feast may not be in vain and his son may not be dishonored. The king spots a man not dressed for the occasion and dramatically throws him out. What can we draw from this parable?
The first part of the parable refers to the end of time and the final judgement; in the latter part we can see a lesson regarding the importance of integrity, of coming to God wholly. The man was indeed invited, but he did not come to participate in the feast. Notice our Gospel says that the king addressed him as “My friend,” before asking why the man was not dressed for the occasion, at which point the man is “reduced to silence”: he had no excuse. The Gospel concludes with “Many are invited, but few are chosen.” This man was invited, but he was not chosen to enter the feast: what was his crime? Had he come to honor the son, to participate in the feast, he would have prepared himself: he would have attired himself as a wedding guest. His outsides betrayed his insides, and the king threw him out: the man was no friend at all.
Throughout the week we will be reflecting on the importance of integrity, of being whole people, such that our outsides—our words and actions especially—match our insides—our hearts and souls—for God desires our entire selves, not merely our actions, nor merely our faith. We are both body and soul, and the Son of God to Whose feast we are invited became man in order to redeem both. All are invited, but not all will sit at the table, not because our God is so exclusive, but because, by our own choice, we ultimately reject the invitation.
We have already been given our wedding garment: at our baptism we were clothed with Christ (Gal. 3:27). This is the garment we are to wear to the feast; have we worn it faithfully, and constantly? Will it fit us when it comes time to enter the Lord’s house, having grown with us as we have grown in our faith, or will it be small, remaining as it was when we received it in the infancy of our faith, while we have since grown large on other things? Or have we misplaced that garment altogether? This parable carries some frightening images; none of us wants to relate to the man who is cast into the darkness.
Thankfully, the Father does not want any of us to suffer that man’s fate, and so He has given us the Mass as a foretaste of the Wedding Feast to come. “Behold the Lamb of God,” the priest says, showing us the Host and Chalice, “behold Him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those called to the supper of the Lamb.” We respond, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof…” At every Mass we prepare to receive Jesus into the temple of our bodies, seeking to welcome Him in the same manner we hope to be welcomed by Him when we enter under His roof. At every Mass Jesus, clothed in humility, in the outward appearance of food and drink, comes to us, attired not merely for supper, but as our supper, hoping that our hearts will be moved with love for Him who feeds us, to live according to the Life we have received.
This week has been a challenging one; the interior transformation and conversion necessary for life in the Kingdom is not easy. Yet Jesus tells us today that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to the childlike. Are we overthinking this Kingdom thing? Not at all. Rather, we are under-trusting our King.
To be childlike, as Jesus encourages us today, is to be like a child in our heart, in our relationship with God. Consider the almost blind trust children ideally have in their parents. Children don’t worry about where their next meal will come from, don’t worry about money, about where they will live, or that their parents will harm or mistreat them. This deep trust allows children a degree of freedom we often miss as adults, such that some adults gradually slip into childish behaviors in an attempt to recapture the freedoms and joys they once enjoyed as children.
But Jesus is not telling us that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to the childish. He holds up the child as a teacher, as an example of the kind of heart and soul that He desires in us all. He desires a heart that is open, which errs on the side of love and trust rather than suspicion and fear. He desires not a heart that has become ossified in its relationship with God, not having grown or deepened since childhood, but a heart that is constantly yearning to know God more. And more. Remember that stage of childhood when the word “Why?” was nearly as constant as our very breath? Why do we lose that when it comes to our faith in adulthood, when we are so easily content with a religious knowledge and relationship with God that hasn’t changed since our days in Sunday School? Certainly the mysteries of the faith are deep enough that our “whys” will not exhaust them!
What Jesus teaches us today is this: to prepare for life in the Kingdom, we must grow, but not in the way the world often expects us to, telling us that we need to be more self-sufficient, more powerful, more serious, and so on. Rather, we must become more and more like children, growing into the reality of our baptismal identity as Children of God. This means humility, dependence, and a deep trust of which we are hardly conscious as it becomes the basis of our relationship to the Father. The kind of trust Jesus displayed when asleep in the boat during the storm (Mark 4:38), or in the Garden when He desires only to do the Father’s will, though it surely will lead to suffering and death. (Luke 22:42)
Hasn’t our Father proven Himself to be worthy of complete trust? Can we not rely upon Jesus who walks upon water, who freely and willingly bows to worldly authority because He is not actually bound by it? Can we not trust Jesus who took His mother to Himself, and desires to take us as well, who encourages us to work with Him to heal divisions in this Body of which we are a part? This Jesus who never tires of forgiving us, and encourages us to forgive likewise, who condemns divorce not because marriage is easy, but because He has promised never to divorce us? The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, and it is His Hand, pierced for love of you, that has established it in our midst. Listen to His call, trust Him with a childlike heart, and enjoy that long-awaited freedom of the children of God. (Romans 8:21)
Lately in our King’s teaching about life in the Kingdom, the focus has been on the importance of forgiveness in our relationships with one another. Today He addresses perhaps the most painful and devastating break in a relationship that we can possibly endure: divorce. Marriage calls a man and woman to become one flesh, and not merely in the somewhat euphemistic sense of what occurs in the privacy of the bedroom. The physical intimacy is but a symbol, but a powerful statement in the language of the body that expresses a deeper love and incarnates a deeper word of intimacy in the heart of husband and wife. The unity of bodies is a flesh-echo of the unity of hearts and souls. When divorce divides such unity, it is not a neat paring as though cut apart by a surgeon’s scalpel, or unzipped, or even withdrawn. It is a violent tear, a ripping. How else does one divorce a body from itself? This cannot be the way of things in the Body of Christ.
When the Pharisees bring up the matter of divorce before Jesus, He sternly denounces the very idea of divorce, teaching that “from the beginning it was not so.” While divorce today, sadly, is seen as the easiest solution to marital strife, the first resort rather than the last—and is seen as a resort to begin with—it was never a part of God’s plan, and is not in His Heart as a solution to the incredibly difficult and painful reality that as holy and good as marriage is, sin has not spared it. When He teaches that divorcing “for any cause whatever” is impermissible Jesus is not ignoring the difficult situations in which many married persons find themselves; when He teaches that to divorce and remarry is tantamount to adultery, He is not ignorant of the reality that some marriages are mortally wounded and cannot survive. But what He does teach us is that when we go first to a lawyer for the solution to our difficulty, we reduce marriage to a legal contract as Moses and the Hebrew people did. Rather we must honor marriage as more than a contract: it is a lifelong covenant imitative of that which exists between Christ and His Bride, the Church, and without this perspective we lose sight of the heart of God and how He created us to love in the beginning. He sets high the standard because He has set high His promise of grace and help, even in situations that seem impossible. Would He call us to forgive seven-times-seventy-times if He was not also promising, in the same breath, to help us in doing so? If He could forgive those who slew Him on the Cross, can He not help us forgive even our spouses, who pierce our hearts with any hurt whatsoever?
This is not to condone abuse; Jesus willfully, for our sake, endured abuse but does not command us to do so, for it is by His stripes (Isaiah 53:5) we are healed, not our own, nor is anyone else healed by our consent to be wounded by abuse: those in abusive situations are not obligated to remain in them. But when it comes to the ordinary wounds—frustrations, day-to-day failures, anger, ingratitude, and so forth—do we forgive, or do we bind? Do we allow these little things to accumulate and fill our heart until there is no room for our spouse, or do we admit our faults, do we forgive, do we admit our hurts to one another? Do we bring Jesus into our marriages as the Third Spouse, the very Heart of the Union, or do we insist on somehow keeping this covenant by our own power and wisdom? Do we fight for unity in the Body, or allow for division? Allow the King who called you into marriage to be the one who seals it and keeps it, ‘til Kingdom come.
The Kingdom of Heaven is a kingdom where those of the greatest power are those who are weak, and those of the highest standing are the most humble. There is justice, but it isn’t about the satisfaction of retribution, but rather the restoration of what ought to be, and the reconciliation of relationship. Forgiveness, rather than condemnation, is the Kingdom’s response to offence; freedom is not earned, but rather given. Such is the grace of God that our King calls us to forgive as He forgives: over, and over, and over again. Suffice it to say that we are called to always forgive, as often as God has forgiven us. What a strange Kingdom that even the lowliest subject is called to live in the manner of their King!
Jesus gives us a vivid image of not only the mercy of God, but the importance of being merciful ourselves, lest we close ourselves to God’s mercy. The king in the story—an image of our own King—forgives a tremendous debt owed him. But when he sees that same man refusing to show similar mercy on a fellow subject whose debt is much less, the forgiveness is withdrawn and the hard-hearted man is thrown not into a debtor’s prison, but to the torturers. As yesterday, the petition in the Lord’s Prayer echoes in our hearts: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” How can we receive the forgiveness of God if our hearts are imprisoned in the chains of unforgiveness? “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” (Matthew 5:7)
This imperative to forgive is perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of our Christian life, but it is so necessary: the whole of the Christian faith, after all, hinges upon our need for God’s mercy and forgiveness and the fact that He has given and continues to give that mercy and forgiveness. Forgive. Forgive. Even if at first it seems insincere, even if it hurts. Forgive, and beg Jesus for the help and grace you need to truly forgive in your heart. You needn’t tell the other person, you needn’t make a grand gesture. Forgive, and let Jesus help you to move that mountain of hurt, even if only one pebble at a time.
Today Jesus reminds us of the important role the Church plays in ushering in the Kingdom of Heaven, particularly her role in reconciliation. Jesus encourages us to try and work things out between ourselves: when someone wrongs us we ought, in a charitable manner, to bring that wrong to the person’s attention in the hope that the other person will admit their fault, and reconciliation—founded upon forgiveness—may occur. If this doesn’t work, ask one or two others to come in and offer their perspective on the situation; as a last resort, go to the Church for help.
This might strike us as somewhat idealistic: can you imagine such a process? But Jesus is telling us that as subjects of the Kingdom we are invited to do things differently: instead of holding grudges, and instead of pretending everything is fine, we are invited to forgive, and to ask for help from our fellow Kingdom citizens. What we learn today is that our struggles are not just “our” struggles, nor our sins just “our” sins. We belong now to a Kingdom, a Body, and that changes our relationships and the way we approach problems therein. If we find ourselves in such a situation where we have been wronged by a brother or sister in the Church, have we ever tried to find resolution to the matter through our common faith, or by seeking the Church’s help in some way?
For Jesus teaches us, time and again, the necessity of forgiveness; in a way, He reminds us of this when He says “whatever you bind on earth with be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Refusing to forgive another person binds your heart, as you choose to hold their wrong against them, and the love Christ desires us to show is tied up—is bound—by the chain of our grudge. Recall that forgiveness does not mean excusing the person’s wrong. Rather it is choosing not to allow the wrong to define your relationship, nor color the image you bear of the person in your heart. It is often a difficult, painful process, depending on the wrong done, but if we allow our hearts to be bound on earth by the chains of unforgiveness, will we have the freedom of soul needed to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, or will those chains bind us to the earth? Yet if we can find the courage to invite Jesus into the midst of such difficulties, He promises to be there in our midst. Pray for the ability to forgive; don’t become a slave to unforgiveness, but rather ask Jesus to help you “forgive those who trespass against” you, forgiving them as He has many times forgiven you.
We have seen Jesus as the King of Creation and the King of the Kingdom of Heaven who freely submits to worldly authority. We submit to worldly authority because we, like Jesus, have come to serve the world. Today we remember the Assumption of Mary, the Queen of Christ’s Kingdom, Queen because she is the mother of our King. What does the Assumption teach us about the Kingdom of Heaven?
Jesus says in John’s Gospel, at the Last Supper: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If there were not, would I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back again and take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be.” (14:2-3) We believe that at the end of Mary’s time on earth, her Son came to take her to Himself; whereas Jesus ascended to Heaven by His own power, Mary was taken up by a power other than her own, that where her Son was, there she may also be. The two Glorious Mysteries—the Ascension of Jesus and the Assumption of Mary—are intertwined, because the people in the center of each are intertwined. We profess in the Creed that “He ascended into Heaven”, and we believe He did so in the entirety of His Body and Soul, His whole being now “sits at the right hand of the Father.” But from where did this Body come? From Mary: there is a deep connection between Mother and Son, between her body and His. Was not the very first scar upon Our Savior’s Body the same scar we all bear that reminds us of the fact we once were one body with our mothers? The ascended Jesus draws Mary to Himself, for through not only her motherhood but her discipleship she is a part of Him; through our Baptism into His Body we, too, are a part of Him, and so we are drawn upward by the call to join Him, to be One with the Body to which we belong.
Mary referred to herself as “the handmaid of the Lord” (Luke 1:38), a title of supreme humility and lowliness. Who are we when compared to our humble mother? Yet today we see that God, truly, “has looked with favor on his lowly servant,” and we call her “blessed” to this day. In the Kingdom of God mercy is shown to those who fear the Lord, who are in awe of His power. The proud are scattered, whereas as the humble are gathered to Him, as He gathered Mary to Himself in Heaven. The mighty are toppled from their thrones, for in this Kingdom the Crucified Carpenter and His handmaid Mother sit as King and Queen. The rich cannot afford to eat in this Kingdom and starve, because they place their hope in their worldly wealth and not in the King who offers Himself as our Food: only those who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be satisfied. (Matthew 5:6)
Jesus has gathered us into His Church, His Body, with the hope of gathering us fully to Himself one day. Live as members of His Body; live the life He gives you from the Cross and through the Sacraments. Draw nearer to Him until, at least, He draws you fully to Himself.