In making an attempt to comeback from a bit of a blogging vacation the last half of August I am faced with the readings for this Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time. Why do I find them daunting? I find them daunting because these are just the kinds of readings that can easily and often are dealt with in a Pelagian manner, that is, in a way that makes it sound like God helps those who help themselves and that it is by our own strenuous efforts that we are saved. (It's important to note that salvation really equates to being made whole and complete- we were made for life eternal). Orthodoxy, right belief, which informs right action, most often consists in maintaining tension between two seeming disparate ideas/concepts/beliefs. And so, as Newton's Third Law holds, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. In other words, while we do not and cannot attain holiness (wholeness) by ourselves, sanctification (holiness) is not a passive endeavor.
In our readings for this Sunday we see a stark contrast between the Old and New Testaments. In our first reading from Deuteronomy Moses enjoins the Israelites to faithfully keep all of the commandments that God has enjoined on them through him. Moses tells them that the commandments of God, far from being an arbitrary set of rules that make little sense, are the paragon of wisdom and virtue. Of course, we know the subsequent history of Israel is a long story that veers from fidelity to infidelity to their covenant with God. Through it all, God remained (and remains) faithful to Israel. But it took Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, to fulfill in His own person what Israel was unable to do over the long course of its history.
Ultimately, keeping the commandments of God is a matter of the heart. This is the point made in our second reading from the Letter of James as well as what Jesus focuses on in our Gospel. This is not to say that obeying the commandments, which can be summarized as loving God with your whole being and loving your neighbor as yourself, is unimportant. Rather, it's why, as a disciple, as a follower, of Jesus you strive to live your life in a certain manner. St Paul wrote about just this in his Letter to the Colossians:
Therefore, from the day we heard this, we do not cease praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will through all spiritual wisdom and understanding to live in a manner worthy of the Lord, so as to be fully pleasing, in every good work bearing fruit and growing in the knowledge of God, strengthened with every power, in accord with his glorious might, for all endurance and patience, with joy giving thanks to the Father, who has made you fit to share in the inheritance of the holy ones in light. He delivered us from the power of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins (1:9-14)We may well ask, "Is it possible to live this way?" Our answer comes from the lives of so many saints, people like Mother Teresa, Gianna Molla, Utah's own Cora Evans, St Francis of Assisi, St Faustina, et al.
While we practice, or ought to practice, spiritual disciplines like prayer, fasting and abstinence, solitude, and confession on a regular basis, as Christians we do not have elaborate prescriptions and proscriptions of the kind found in the 613 mitzvot followed by observant Jews, or even the fewer laws of Islam. We don't believe that practicing these disciplines are ends in themselves, but means to an end, namely closer union with God and living in a more self-sacrificial manner. It is because, as Jesus taught, "Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile" (Mark 7:15) that we can fairly say being a Christian is more difficult, more demanding, than being anything else.
In his book Unapologetic, Francis Spufford captured this well when he observed that, in contrast to Judaism and Islam, Christianity does not consist of "a set of sustainable rules for living by" (43). To wit:
Jewish laws of behavior and Muslim laws of behavior may be demanding to keep at times, but they can be kept. That's the point of them, that's what they're for. Eating kosher or halal can involve juggling with saucepans and reading the sides of packets carefully, but it isn't privation. Getting up at dawn for prayer can be a pain, but it won't leave you short of sleep, if you go to bed at a sensible hour. Refraining from work on Shabbat is tricky, if you define "work" to include all household chores, and it takes some organization, but not an impossible organization. Wiggle-room is kindly built in to the rules, so that you can cope if your water bursts on Shabbat, or if you're traveling and there really is no way of telling the direction to pray in. Nothing crazy or superhuman is required of you... In Judaism and Islam, you don't have to be a saint to know that you are managing to be a good man (44)"Christianity," Spufford notes, "does something different. It makes frankly impossible demands. Instead of asking for specific actions, it offers general but lunatic principles" (45). Unsurprisingly, unlike its older (Judaism) and younger (Islam) siblings, "These principles do not amount to a sustainable program" (45). In fact, according to Spufford, the whole question of how someone could possibly maintain this way of life is completely ignored. The saints make this concrete for us. We neglect them to our own detriment.
More to the point of today's readings, as Christians, what we mean by our behavior is as important as the behavior itself. I shrink back from saying it's more important in a categorical way because I do not believe, nor does the Church teach, that the morality of an act can be determined by intention alone. However, I do believe that what we mean by a particular behavior is more important than the behavior when it comes to doing what is right. As T.S Eliot wrote in Murder in the Cathedral, "The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason." As Spufford observes, with what I surmise is a nod to St Paul (1 Cor 13:1-3), "You could pauperize yourself, get slapped silly without fighting back, care for lepers and laugh all day long in the face of the futures market, and it still wouldn't count, if you did it for the wrong reasons" (45). All of this should both ease us over any Pelagian tendencies and show us in what genuine love consists.