Today Jesus tussles not with the scribes and Pharisees as he often does, but instead with the people of his own home town. They are amazed at his words and speak highly of him, right up until the time when he begins to challenge them. Then they have no more use for them. The question for us disciples today is who are the prophets among us and what message are they bringing us? God may well be using someone in our workplaces or homes or schools or wherever we find ourselves this day to speak a message to us. The question is, will we be open to hear it?
What is it that you have brought with you to Mass today? That, I think, is the real question our readings are asking us. What’s at issue is what it takes to be a follower of God, a true disciple.
For the Israelites to whom Moses was speaking in our first reading, it was scrupulous observance of all of the 613 laws in the written and oral tradition of their religion. But as Moses was exhorting them, this rather daunting observance wasn’t seen as particularly burdensome so much as it was a response to God’s love and care for them. They had been led lovingly through the desert and were about to take possession of the Promised Land, the land promised by God to their ancestors. And so as they obey the law and take possession of the promise, they give witness to the nations to the greatness of their God and the wisdom of the people.
But as time went on, the observance of these laws got a bit messed up. People had given up true observance of the law and the love of God, and got caught up in the appearances that came from rigid observance of the rules of the law. They missed the spirit of the law, and even used the law as justification to do whatever it was they wanted to do. Our readings give us to responses to that issue today.
The first response is the response Jesus gives to it in today’s Gospel. Here he has yet another altercation with the scribes and Pharisees. They begin to quiz him about his disciple’s habit of not washing their hands before they eat. Now before all you parents start siding with the Pharisees, they weren’t talking about cleaning dirt off their hands before a meal. They were talking about a ritual custom of washing, not only hands, but also jugs and other things. These rituals probably began as something the priests did before offering sacrifice. Much like the hand washing that is done in the Eucharistic Liturgy before the Eucharistic Prayer. But in the case of the Jews, this practice seems to have become something that ended up obliging everyone, and the Pharisees were keen to see that it was done faithfully by everyone, along with the other 612 laws they were required to practice!
So what Jesus was criticizing here was empty, meaningless ritual. Non-observance of these meaningless things, he says, do not make a person impure. Those demanding that people obey these human laws are themselves disobeying the law of God, Jesus says. So he illustrates the problem by making the point that real impurity comes from a much more fickle source: the human heart. It is not missing mere ritual cleansings that presents the problem. The real problem is not purifying the heart. Because from an impure heart comes all sorts of foul things: “evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils,” Jesus says, “come from within and they defile.”
The second response comes in our second reading from the letter of St. James. St. James attacks the rigid observance of the law at the expense of the poor. Those who dwell on the mere observance of the law are missing its point: and that is that we are to love as God loves. So if one wishes to be pure in one’s observance of religion, one should be a doer of the world and not just a hearer. Pure religion involves caring for widows and orphans and all those who have been marginalized, and to keep from being corrupted by the world and its influences.
I think James underscores Jesus’ point that missing a spurious point of the law does not make a person unclean or irreligious. Instead, missing the whole point of the law and becoming corrupted by the world is what does that to a person. We do have to be honest, I think, and acknowledge that this kind of issue was not limited just to the people of Israel, but instead to admit that it can be our issue too. We too have to admit that we are guilty that horrifying list of sins that Jesus spells out for us today. And the way we’ve gotten there is by putting ourselves in harm’s way.
The Catechism tells us, “The sixth beatitude proclaims, ‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.’ ‘Pure in heart’ refers to those who have attuned their intellects and wills to the demands of God’s holiness … There is a connection between purity of heart, of body, and of faith.” (CCC, 2518) This, I think, is what Jesus was getting at. If we would be really clean, and not just ritually so, then we would do well to purify our selves from the inside out, and not the other way around. Pure hearts would avoid all the evils Jesus lists, and then some.
The task before us is that of purifying our hearts, so that we may rid ourselves of the source of all these evil and vile things that can so easily come forth from us. What does that mean? Well, it’s probably different for every person. Maybe some of us need to stop watching so much television. Or spending too much time on the internet. Perhaps some relationships we have are not healthy and need to be ended. Maybe we’ve been paying attention to the wrong advice. This is what the Church fathers and mothers have called “chastity of the eyes”: being on guard as to what goes into us, knowing that, as the Act of Contrition says, we need to avoid whatever leads us to sin. So, whatever it is that needs to be rooted out, it needs to go.
Then too, we have to put more of the positive stuff into our lives. Perhaps we need to pray more. Or to read the Scriptures or other spiritual books more. Maybe it would be good to spend more time with our families, to pray together, or watch a good movie together, even to have more meals together. I know those things can be hard to do, but they’re never a waste of time or effort.
The point is that we need to do whatever it takes to purify our hearts, and the task is most urgent. We need to root out the sources of evil thoughts and replace them with beautiful thoughts. Unchastity and adultery need to be replaced with faithfulness. Theft and murder with respect for property and above all, life. We need to do away with greed, malice, envy and deceit and replace them with honesty and justice. Root out everything that leads to licentiousness, arrogance and folly and replace them with encouragement and right relationships with others. And above all let there be no more blasphemy, that we may make way for true faith. Every source of vice has to be eliminated in our lives so that we can practice virtue. There is only so much room in us, and if it’s all full of vice, there’s no room for virtue. That’s a little simplistic, but there is truth to it. We must cleanse ourselves from the inside out, and become a people marked by purity of heart. This exercise is one that is tied to a promise for us: those who purify their hearts, the beatitude tells us, will truly see God. The Church teaches us that the goal of all of our lives is to become saints, and this, brothers and sisters in Christ, is how we do it.
What Jesus is saying to us is quite simple: we have to clear away the obstructions in our lives so that we can live as authentic disciples. Today’s Liturgy of the Word shows us how to do that. The Christian disciple strives always to live with a pure heart. I started the homily today with a question: “what is it you have brought with you to Mass today?” Praise God if it is something virtuous, pray to God for help casting it out if is not.
How wonderful it is to be known by God. Today the Psalmist prays, “O LORD, you have probed me and you know me; you know when I sit and when I stand; you understand my thoughts from afar.” Being known by God implies also being cared for by God. Why would God busy himself about our business if he did not care for us? Being known by God also means we can be ourselves from him. We need not hide anything, indeed, we cannot hide anything. This doesn’t mean we need not grow, and change, and repent as necessary. But it does mean that God meets us where we are and intends to take us with him to glory. As the Psalmist also says today, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; too lofty for me to attain.” The good news is that we need not attain it ourselves. This God who knows us and cares for us, is the one that helps us to do everything.
Will the real St. Bartholomew please stand up? Bartholomew is one of the saints that we know almost nothing about. He is mentioned in the lists of the apostles, but nowhere else in Scripture. So, as is true of many of the saints, what we know about him belongs mostly to the realm of the Church’s tradition. Not that we should look down on tradition, because it comes from the lived experience of the early Church, and is also inspired by the Holy Spirit.
What tradition tells us about St. Bartholomew is that he is often identified with Nathanael in the Gospel. That explains why Nathanael is prominent in the Gospel reading for today. Nathanael – or Bartholomew, take your pick – is picked out of the crowd by Jesus. Nathanael is surprised at what Jesus says about him: “Here is a true child of Israel. There is no duplicity in him.” We should recall that Jesus considered it his primary mission to seek out the lost children of Israel, so seeing Nathanael as a “true child of Israel” with “no duplicity in him” means that Jesus considered Nathanael a role model for his people. He was one whose faith reached beyond mere observance of the Law or the Torah, and extended into the realm of living the Gospel. And because he was able to do that, then we should consider him a role model for all of us as well.
It’s very interesting, I think, that we do know so little about the Chosen Twelve. I mean, aside for characters like Peter, John, Matthew, and, well, Judas, we don’t have a lot of details. Still, these Twelve were chosen as Apostles to bring the Gospel to all the corners of the world. And maybe that’s all we need to know about them. It is because of their efforts that we know about Jesus today and are able to seek after the life of grace. Their preaching continues today in every land as Jesus intended, and we continue to have as our example these men in whom there is no duplicity; indeed the sole purpose of their life became the preaching of the Gospel.
That’s where we are all led, I think. When it comes down to it, there is nothing more important than living the Gospel, and every one of us is called to do it. If our spiritual life is not our primary concern, then we have nothing to look forward to. But the good news is that, by the intercession and example and preaching of the Apostles like Bartholomew, we have every hope of eternal life.
Today our Liturgy of the Word gives us the last of the readings from St. John’s Gospel that we call the Bread of Life Discourse. We’ve been reading from that one chapter of John – chapter six – for five weeks now. It all began with the feeding of the multitudes. Jesus took just five small barley loaves and two fish and fed five thousand men, along with women and children, and not only that, provided twelve baskets full of leftovers besides. The crowds then caught up with him the next day, looking for more. So Jesus took that opportunity to unpack the real meaning of what he was trying to do, and challenged them to believe in him if they really wanted to do the works of God. He said that the bread that came down from heaven during Moses’ days was nothing compared with the bread that God wanted them to have – a bread that gives life to the world, a bread that meant they would never hunger again.
So Jesus was making it clear here that he wasn’t just giving them physical bread, but instead a food that was a taste of the heavenly banquet in the kingdom of God. And Jesus himself was that bread; those who believe in him and partake of that bread will live forever, having eternal life as God intended. “The bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” And in last week’s Gospel he made it clear to us. He wasn’t just talking in metaphors, but instead he really did mean that he was the bread of life and people actually had to eat the bread that was him. This began to trouble people.
And that leads us to where we are today. Jesus gave them a wonderful meal in the feeding of the multitudes, but now he wants them to have even better bread. So now they have to make a decision and take action. Will they accept the hard teaching that they need to eat his own Body and Blood to have eternal life, or will they turn away? Some of them indeed do turn away, and Jesus lets them go. But for the Twelve, Jesus’ words might be hard but they recognize them as the only hope they have. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You alone have words of eternal life.” Peter speaks for them, but they all elect to stay with him.
The choice of the disciples in the Gospel story is reminiscent of the choice that Joshua put to the people. Joshua took over leadership of the people after Moses died, and he is now showing his leadership style. He will not be a leader that forces the people to do one thing or another. Instead, in the first reading, he points out the many wonderful things God has done for the people. This is the God who led them out of Egypt and sustained them through the desert journey. This is the God who led them into the Promised Land, the land he promised their ancestors he would give them. And now that they have received the many benefits of God’s mighty promises, it’s time for them to make a choice. Will they serve the so-called gods of the pagan inhabitants of the land, or will they serve the Lord their God, who gave them so much. For Joshua, the choice is easy: “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
And now the question is ours. We have all of us been on a five-week-long Eucharistic retreat. If you’ve missed any part of it, I encourage you to go back and read all of the sixth chapter of John. It will take you five, maybe ten minutes if you read it nice and slow. And as we stand here at the end of it all, we too have to make the decisions we hear in today’s Liturgy of the Word: decide today whom you will serve; what about you, will you also leave?
It’s a critical question for us. Because there are lots of entities in our world that are vying for our servitude. Will we serve the so-called gods of the people in whose country we live? We who are disciples are aliens here; this is not our true home. So what’s it going to be? Are we going to serve the gods of relativism, of greed, and the culture of death? Will we turn away and no longer follow our Lord? Or will we recognize with the disciples that there is no one else to whom we can turn and say with Joshua, “we will serve the Lord?”
At one point or another in every disciple’s life, he or she has to answer this question. For me, it came in my early thirties, when I had been going to Willow Creek Church with some friends. I was attracted, as many are, to the music and the preaching and I had many good experiences there. There came a point in which I felt like I had to make a decision between the Catholic Church and Willow Creek, and I spoke to Father Mike, of blessed memory, about it. We went back and forth for a while and finally Father Mike put it very bluntly: “I don’t think you would ever stand in that chapel and say Jesus wasn’t present there.”
Shortly after that, I went to Willow Creek while they had their monthly Lord’s Supper service. And that was part of the problem: it was monthly, not every week, certainly not every day. And it wasn’t Jesus: it was just bread and wine that was a mere symbol of the Lord’s Body and Blood. They had to project the Lord’s Prayer on the screen, because people didn’t just know it. And the speaker in his sermon, apparently an ex-Catholic, made light of the Sacrament of Penance. And in that moment, I knew Father Mike was right. Christ is present in the Tabernacle, he is present on the altar, present in the sacraments, and there is no way in the world I could ever live without that. I couldn’t turn away, and I would serve the Lord in the Catholic Church. Who would ever guessed it would have led me here today!
So here at the end of our study of the Bread of Life Discourse, the question for all of us is this: what does the Eucharist mean to us? It’s a poignant question because in April of this next year, on Holy Thursday, our diocese will begin a year of the Eucharist, in which we will celebrate and re-dedicate ourselves to the great gift God gives us in the Eucharist. This question means for us: is the Bread of Life good enough for us, or are we feeding ourselves on something less satisfying? Does the Blood of Christ quench our thirst or do we seek inebriation from the offerings of this world? Will we too turn away, horrified at the idea of eating the flesh and blood of our Lord? Will we, and our households, serve the Lord?
The Psalmist has been inviting us these past few weeks to “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.” And that’s quite all we need, isn’t it? We disciples will come to the Eucharist today, and go forth with our households to serve the Lord, our Lord who alone has words of eternal life.
In our first reading today, Ruth had already figured out the teaching that Jesus spoke about in our Gospel reading. She refused to leave her mother-in-law alone, even though she herself was from a distant land and a different people. She could have turned and gone back there, and her mother-in-law gave her leave to do so. But Ruth knew her place was where she was and she cemented the friendship and love between them.
This is the love that Jesus speaks about in today’s Gospel. Love God and neighbor – that is the call of our lives, and the project we live out every day that we have breath. These two commandments are completely inseparable, because we love others as they are other christs in our lives. We are called to pour out on one another the same great love that God has poured out on us. This is how we in fact return that love to God and show our love for him.
Pius X was a good pastoral man who lived these words and taught them to others. He was born Joseph Sarto, the second of ten children in a poor Italian family. He became pope at the age of 68, and he too wanted to open the banquet for all those who would come worthily. He encouraged frequent reception of Holy Communion, which was observed sparingly in his day, and especially encouraged children to come to the banquet. During his reign, he famously ended, and subsequently refused to reinstate, state interference in canonical affairs. He had foreseen World War I, but because he died just a few weeks after the war began, he was unable to speak much about it. On his deathbed, however, he said, “This is the last affliction the Lord will visit on me. I would gladly give my life to save my poor children from this ghastly scourge.”
Our God has blessed us with love beyond all imagining. We have great teachers of that love today: Ruth, who refused to leave her mother-in-law alone in her grief, and Pius X who would give anything if the people he shepherded could avoid the scourge of war. Each of us is called to pour out God’s love on one another too, and we will most likely have at least one opportunity to do that today. The two greatest commandments are to love God and love our neighbor. What will that look like for us today?
We spend a lot of time, too much time really, looking at other people and what is going on with them. We can be so worried that others will end up with something better than what we have, that we may very well miss the great blessings that are set out for us. None of those migrant workers were cheated, indeed the landowner was fair to all of them. But he went beyond fair; he also recognized the plight of the poor. In case you missed it, that is the Gospel, brothers and sisters in Christ. He decided to give more than he had to to those who might have otherwise gone without anything. He recognized his duty to the poor, and we would all do well to follow his example, because that’s what Christ expects of us. We are also expected to be thankful people. If we have worked all day by the sweat of our brow to earn what we have, then we should be grateful for the grace of honest work. If we received a gift we could never earn, then we should be grateful for the grace freely given. But we must never sully it by looking at what others have received, lest we miss noticing the graces we have received and miss the opportunity to be thankful.
Today’s Gospel reading follows immediately after yesterday’s in which the rich young man went away sad, not knowing how he could attain eternal life, because he had many possessions. Today, Jesus explains to his disciples what was going on. “Amen, I say to you, it will be hard for one who is rich to enter the Kingdom of heaven.” And it’s not going to be hard because God is setting up the obstacle; it will be hard because we have placed an obstacle between ourselves and God. Jesus isn’t bashing rich people. And it’s not just rich people who will have trouble going to the kingdom. It’s going to be hard for anyone who has an obstacle between themselves and Jesus. So whether that obstacle is riches, or our work, or our lifestyle, or whatever, we need to let go of all that. It’s going to be hard for us to get into heaven with obstacles in our way, “but for God all things are possible.” If we let go of our obstacles, if we make a real sacrifice for the kingdom, then the kingdom is ours.
So the question today is, what is it that holds us back? The rich young man seemed to have it all together: he acknowledged Jesus as the good teacher, so he must have been familiar with what Jesus said and did. He kept all the commandments, so he certainly had a religious upbringing and was zealous to follow the law. But, with all that, he still knew that something was lacking. “What do I still lack?” he asks. When Jesus reveals that the next step in following the Gospel involves letting go of his worldly possessions, he finds that to be somewhere he can’t go. He had many possessions, and he wasn’t yet ready to give them up.
So back to my first question. What holds us back? Is it many possessions? Maybe, but maybe not. It could be our work, or power, or what the neighbors might think. It could be that we don’t want to get out of our comfortable boats and follow Christ according to the way he is calling us. Whatever it is, it involves letting go – giving up what is not God and clinging to him alone. It’s not that Jesus didn’t want the rich young man to have money. He wanted him to have eternal life. And whenever we cling to what is not God, we are in effect giving up eternal life.
There’s the old joke about the man who fell off a cliff, and on the way down he snagged a precarious branch to hold on to. But there was no way he could get to safety, so he called out for help: “Is anyone up there? I need help!” Suddenly he heard a voice in response to his pleas: “Let go.” He thought about that for a minute and said, “Is there anyone else up there?”
We have to be ready to let go of whatever holds us back from accepting the life that God wants for us. What he has is so much better than whatever it is we’re holding on to. So the question is, will we give up what is holding us back, or will we give up eternal life?