Don't just want it - will it!
Sunday June 30, 2002 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Thirteenth Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I (2 Kings 4:8-11, 14-16a) Reading II (Romans 6:3-4, 8-11)
Gospel (St. Matthew 10:37-42)
In the readings today, the focus is one of charity, the charity not of simply giving to the poor - the idea of philanthropy that we think about sometimes when we consider the notion of charity - but rather, it is charity in its very depth. When we consider what charity is all about, it is self-giving, it is pouring one's self out for the sake of others. Our Lord tells us that anyone who receives a prophet will receive a prophet's reward. We see, for instance, in the first reading, this generous woman who would take in the prophet Elisha and provided for him a room, a lamp, a table, food, and so on as he would be traveling. She received a prophet's reward. She was without a son and, through the prayers of the prophet, God provided for her a son so that she would be taken care of in that culture in her old age. Without a son, that would not have been possible simply because of the way it was set up; if she had daughters, that would not have worked in that culture; it was [necessary] to have a son as an heir who would also be able to support his mother. And so she truly received a prophet's reward.
If one receives a righteous man, Our Lord tells us that he will receive a righteous man's reward. But then He goes a step further and says, "Anyone who gives even a glass of cold water to one of these little ones because he is a disciple will not lack a reward." Now the question is what is the reward that will be given? I think, when we look at the second reading, that the reward that will be given is very clear because in Baptism, Saint Paul tells us, we have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; because of that, we are members of Jesus Christ. And if someone, out of charity, gives to any one of us a glass of cold water because we are a disciple of Jesus Christ, the reward that will be given is the reward of the Lord. Not merely a prophet's reward, not merely a righteous man's reward, but the reward of Jesus Christ Himself, the reward which God offers.
Now, of course, it would not be charity to be offering a glass of cold water so we will get a reward. The woman in the first reading did not offer Elisha food and a place to stay hoping to get something in return; but rather, she did it out of charity. It was not a selfish thing. If we do something selfishly it is not an act of charity. But look again at the second reading and see what Saint Paul says about this. He talks about the death and resurrection of Christ and says that Jesus Christ has died to sin and lives now for God. Therefore, he says that you too must be dead to sin and living in a newness of life, a life for God in Jesus Christ. That is the way we are to live our lives: to live our lives for God, Who, Scripture tells us, is love - true charity. God is love. You are not only made in the image and likeness of God; you have been incorporated into Jesus Christ, Who lives for God. Therefore, we are to be living the life of Christ. We are to be so transformed that Jesus Christ lives in us and through us so that we live the life of Jesus Christ, that we are truly dead to sin and living in newness of life, living for God.
To be dead to sin means to be dead to selfishness because at the root of every single sin is selfishness - every single sin. Selfishness is just a synonym for pride; it's the self. The self is the biggest problem that we have to overcome. Sure, there are lots of temptations out there and the devil knows exactly how to do it. He knows what you like. He has watched your every move from the day you were born; he knows every one of your weaknesses and he is more than happy to provide opportunities for you to fall right into that. But it is not a matter of pointing at the externals. It is a matter of looking at what they are really rooted in, and that is something which is internal: it is the self. All of our problems are rooted right there. And yes, the devil will provide all the external temptations because he knows the internal weakness; he knows where our selfishness lies. And while each one of us may have some point of weakness and selfishness in different areas than the next one, the reality is that until we are perfect we are all selfish.
But because of our baptism, because of our call in Jesus Christ, we are to overcome that selfishness. We are to be alive for God in Jesus Christ, living in newness of life, putting the old self to death and putting on the new self, made and re-made in the image of Jesus Christ. It is not an easy thing for us to be able to do; we know our weaknesses well. But neither is it permissible for us to sit back and excuse ourselves because we are weak. That is the false compassion of modern theologians. They will tell you things like: "It's okay for you to be able to do that because it would be too difficult for you to overcome that area of weakness in your life." That is garbage, pure and simple. It is not okay for somebody to sin. But we live in such a permissive society that it has become commonplace for people to excuse one another, and more than anything to excuse themselves as they go off and sin in various ways and come up with interesting justifications and rationalizations to explain why it is okay for them to do it.
One of the most common [rationalizations] in trying to excuse people is that it is just too hard for them: "I'm so weak that I can't do this." By ourselves, that would be true, but we are not alone - we have Jesus Christ and we have all of the grace necessary to overcome all the sinfulness in our lives. The question really has to do with the will. Do we really want to overcome sin? But it is not a matter of want. It is one of the things that I very often have to point out to people in the confessional. It is not enough to sit back and say, "I don't want to do this anymore." You have to say, "I will not do this anymore." It is a question of the will, not a question of the want. I do not think most of us want to sin. The problem is most of us do not will to stop sinning because we like it and because we do not like what it is going to require to overcome it. We need to really look at that. If we look at the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus did not really want to go to the Cross, but He willed it. It was not something that was pleasant for Him to do on the natural level, but He knew the Will of God and He chose the Will of God. He embraced it and He rejoiced in it. Out of love for us, He was willing to go to the Cross and accept it all.
Now, to show the depth of the kind of self-sacrificing love and the complete lack of selfishness that the Lord is asking of us, we can look at the beginning of the Gospel reading today. He says, "Anyone who loves mother and father more than Me is not worthy of Me. Anyone who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me." Of course, with what I just said, most of us would sit back and say, "Listen to that selfish man talking, thinking that he's more important than anyone else and wanting himself to be at the center of it all: 'If you love your husband or wife or son or daughter or your parents more than Me, you are not worthy of Me'." If He were merely a man, that would be true; it would be pure selfishness; it would be arrogance. But He is God, and He has made very clear in Scripture what our priorities have to be: to love God with our whole heart and soul and strength, and to seek first the kingdom of God and His way of righteousness. It is very clear what we are to be doing.
But the other part of that statement (the last statement I just made) must also be kept in mind: "Seek first the kingdom of God and His way of righteousness and all of these other things will be provided for you." It is not a matter of saying, "Well, let me abandon my spouse and my children so that I can be alone with Jesus." Not at all. If you are putting Jesus Christ first, He is going to say, "Now, you need to go back and love your spouse and your children." But the love that you have for your spouse and children will flow from your love for Jesus Christ - not out of any kind of selfishness, but out of true charity for them. The duties of your state in life are going to be very different when you do it for a different reason. They will be the identical duties, but the manner in which you take them on, the manner in which you discharge them, is going to be very different. It is not going to be drudgery and toil any longer; it is going to be charity.
Now do not think it is all going to be easy and simple, because Jesus is going to ask us to purify that love. Even in the most loving acts that we perform there is still an awful lot of selfishness that is there. And so, He will allow it to become very difficult because He wants us to strip all of the self-love so that there is truly left only love for God and love for neighbor, the two greatest commandments in the whole law. He will allow very difficult things to happen. For instance, the more you try to love the people around you, the worse they treat you. Our natural tendency is to say, "If that's what you're going to do to me, forget it then! I'm not going to do this for you anymore!" The Lord says, "No, allow yourself to get kicked around but continue to treat that person with the same charity." It requires a more perfect love to do that. It does not require a whole lot of love when somebody is nice to you, when they are very gracious and they are offering you all kinds of things in return; but when they treat you badly and you continue to get back up and treat them with great charity, that is when love is really being exercised.
What does the Lord tell us? "Unless you take up your cross and follow Me, you are not worthy of Me." And so it is not merely a matter of putting Him before everybody else; it is not merely a matter of seeking God; but it is a matter of seeking God the way He has laid out for us, to follow in His footsteps as Saint Peter tells us He has left an example for us to do. To follow in His footsteps means to follow Him to Calvary. Once again, we come to that point that going to Calvary was not something which was a natural-level want for Jesus; it was a supernatural act of the will for Jesus. And so it will be for each one of us. But He also tells us what it is going to require: "Whoever finds his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it." If we are willing to die to self, to get rid of all the selfishness, all the self-love, all the self-seeking, and simply learn to give, to pour ourselves out, to seek true charity in the love of God and the love of neighbor, it is then that we will find the true self that God created us to be. But that does not come easily; it comes only by taking up the Cross and following in the Lord's footsteps.
When we see what it requires then it is very easy for us to understand why we will sit back and say, "You know, I really wish I could do this better. I really want to be a saint. I want to be better. I want to stop sinning." Then when we realize what it will require, we understand why we do not will it, why instead of taking up the Cross, we turn and fall right back into the same sin, why we can look at the Cross and we can look at Jesus and then say, "Nope. I prefer myself. I prefer the easy way, the wide way, the smooth way - the way that leads straight to perdition, but it's the easier way to go."
The Lord has made very clear to us what we are called to be and what we are called to do. We are members of Jesus Christ, sharing in His life, and thereby sharing also in His sacrifice, persons who have made a promise to God that we would strive to be saints, that we would take up our cross daily and follow Him, that we would die to self and live in newness of life, living for God in Jesus Christ. That is what we are called to. Each one of us needs to make a choice, to make an act of the will - not to sit back and sigh and think how nice it would be if we were not sinning anymore and what it would look like if we were saints, but then fail to will it. It cannot be a matter of want for us; it must be a choice and an act of the will. We must look at Jesus Christ and look back at ourselves and say, "In Baptism, I have died to sin and I'm alive for God in Jesus Christ. Now I must die to self and live for Jesus Christ. I must choose it with my whole heart and soul and say, 'Yes, Jesus Christ, I will it. I will put You before anyone else and anything else in my life - including myself - and I will strive to die to self and live for God'."
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.