To read some spiritual writers of recent decades, you might get the impression that the keeping of the commandments is an entry-level affair, as if it is a concern primarily of children and of recent converts, but that after some time and some maturing as a Christian, the focus is put on loftier things, like relationships, prayer techniques, and theological concepts. It is not that these authors will come right out and say that God’s commandments are irrelevant, but that they have a consistent tendency to direct their readers’ attention elsewhere.
St. Paul was not such a writer. Again and again, he pounds away at the importance of God’s commands. He “charges” his readers (Cf. 1 Tim 6:13) to keep God’s commandment “without stain or reproach.” Again and again, he calls upon God as his witness, and he calls upon Jesus Christ as his witness, as he imposes the obligation of obeying God’s commandments all of the time, avoiding even the appearance of an infraction.
His point is not that we should have an obsessive mania over our sins, but that we engage in a responsible and whole-hearted process of overcoming them, with the help of God’s grace. This is why St. Ignatius, in his spiritual exercises, so strongly encourages a regular examination of conscience.
“Those who want to be rich are falling into temptation and into a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires, which plunge them into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is the root of all evils.” So wrote St. Paul in his first letter to Timothy.
St. Ignatius has his retreatants meditate on this truth in a special way as part of his spiritual exercises. Inside one of those exercises, he presents a three stage process of temptation. First comes the desire for riches, then the longing for honor, and finally pride, which is the fount of all the vices.
Thus, when a new cell phone comes out, sometimes we feel like we have to have it, because its new features will increase efficiency and productivity, improve communication etc. Hidden inside that desire for riches, there may, in fact, be lurking two other temptations. Maybe we think that having that cell phone will make us a go-to person, and improve our reputation, either in our own eyes or in the eyes of others, and that would be the desire for worldly honor that St. Ignatius is warning us about. Maybe we think that, more than anyone else, we deserve the credit for becoming a better person by having this new cell phone, and this is the pride that we are being warned about.
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).
“Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early in the morning, while it was still dark, and saw the stone removed from the tomb.” For some reason or other, Mary Magdalene woke up very early and went to the tomb of Jesus. The scriptures do not record for us the reason why she got up so early. Was it her custom to do so, or was it because of her grief at the loss of her “Rabbouni,” which means Teacher?
Contemplative monks and nuns rise very early, while it is still dark, to sing God’s praises. Were they not, perhaps, inspired to some degree by Mary Magdalene’s example? Whatever her reasons were, Mary Magdalene was given a great and special reward for seeking Jesus so early in the morning: she learned the good news of the resurrection before any of the apostles, she saw Jesus Christ in his resurrected state, and she was filled with the joy of Easter Sunday. In my opinion, St. Ignatius Loyola was also influenced by Mary Magdalene’s example, which is why he put various guidelines for sleeping in his Spiritual Exercises. One’s manner of sleeping and waking are important to the life of prayer.
Which divine laws admit of exceptions, and which don’t? In other words, which laws did God intend to be taken in the strictest, most literal sense, and which were meant more as general guideposts that could sometimes be improved upon, adapted, or maybe even set aside? The answers to this question have not always been clear, and debates have arisen over this question that have been divisive and even destructive.
For example, in Matthew 12:1-8, Jesus debates the Pharisees over the correct interpretation of the Biblical prohibitions against working on the Sabbath. According to the Pharisees, picking the heads off of grain and eating them while travelling on a Sabbath was a violation of a divine law that could never be set aside. According to Jesus, that law was meant to have exceptions. For example, the priests working in the temple still had to work in the temple on the Sabbath, as required by divine law elsewhere.
Then Jesus adds something that will be a key principle for all his disciples: “something greater than the temple is here… the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” This is why, if we wish to understand God’s laws, we must turn to Jesus Christ and to His Church.
Who is the true god of the sun? Is it Ra, as the ancient Egyptians believed? Or is it Helios, as the ancient Greeks would say? Or is it Apollo, according to the ancient Romans? Did Ra truly reveal himself as the god of the sun? Or was it Helios or even Apollo?
My point is not that we should believe that any of these pagan deities revealed themselves as sun gods, but that we should consider how such a revelation would have occurred. “Who are you?” “I am Ra, the god of the sun.” The identities of such pagan gods was tied to some amazing phenomenon: the sun, the moon, the earth, the ocean, death, birth, etc.
When Moses heard the voice of the Lord in the burning bush commanding him to return to Egypt to free the Israelites, he asked which god he should say was sending him to them. At that point a very mysterious name was revealed to Moses, together with a key identifying feature: “tell them: The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, has appeared to me.”
Jews and Christians do not worship a “god of the sun” as such. We worship a God of our fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Jesus Christ was a descendent of those fathers according to the flesh, and all Christians are their descendants according to the Spirit. This is one reason why we read and even pray over the Old Testament: to know the God of our fathers.