Sunday July 7, 2002 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Fourteenth Week in Ordinary Time
Reading I (Zechariah 9:9-10) Reading II (Romans 8:9, 11-13)
Gospel (St. Matthew 11:25-30)
Saint Paul tells us in the first reading today that we are not in the flesh; but rather, we are in the spirit. He tells us that if we put to the death the work of the flesh, we are to live by the spirit because the One who raised Christ from the dead has given us His Spirit. Saint Paul talks very clearly about this dichotomy between the flesh and the spirit, the works of the spirit and the works of the flesh. Our society has wholeheartedly given itself over to the works of the flesh; everything is about pleasure, ease, comfort, all the little pleasantries, all the niceties, all the things of the world. It is all about what is going to make us more comfortable.
Now that goes just contrary to the ways of the Lord. That does not mean that everything that is going to bring some comfort is evil. Obviously, we need to eat and we need to sleep and we need to do things that are going to bring certain comforts to the body. But the problem is when our focus is the body; that is where we have gotten into trouble. Most people in this country, including most Catholics, have completely forgone the works of the spirit in order to focus almost solely on the works of the flesh. And by the works of the flesh, I am not talking about doing good things for other people to make their bodily existence more simple; I am talking about being selfish and totally self-focused to make our own lives more comfortable and easy.
When we look at the life of Jesus, we realize that is not at all the way He lived His life. He did not live a life in this world trying to seek more comfort for Himself. He could have done so; there were certainly people that were alive in His day that lived a very simple, easy life. But He did not try to live that way and, if that is the case, He is giving to each one of us an example of the way that we are to live our lives. It is a question of the priorities for each one of us. What really is most important to us?
If we are seeking to do the Will of God in our lives, then all we need to do is trust that He is going to provide for all the needs of the body. The Lord told us that in the Gospel reading. He said to us, for instance, "God feeds the sparrows and you are far, far more important than a sparrow. And the lily of the valley is arrayed in a glory that Solomon never even dreamed of; yet that springs up in the morning and withers in the evening. God provides for these beautiful little flowers; do you not think He will provide for you?" But it is hard for us because the difficulty comes down to trust. Do we really trust that the Lord is going to provide? Tragically, the answer is "no". We really do not believe that.
We realize that we do have our part to play. There is a heresy called "Quietism". The easiest way to understand it is simply: "I can just lay on my bed and do nothing. God loves me so much! He is going to take care of everything for me. I don’t have to do a thing." The Church has condemned that outright. We have our part to do. The Lord told us in the Gospel reading that we are to take His yoke upon our shoulders and we are to learn from Him because He is meek and humble of heart.
But when we look at the works of the body as opposed to taking up the yoke of Christ and doing those things that are of the spirit, we need to see where they lead: They lead directly to division. When we do not get what we want, we tend to get angry, we tend to be jealous and envious, we tend to be argumentative, we tend to be divisive. We cause division because we do not get what we want. Somebody else seems to be getting what we want and we do not like it. And so what happens is that when we are slightly uncomfortable – when we are used to being very comfortable – we start becoming very irritable. We all know how that is. Try to fast on a certain day of the year. When lunchtime comes (and you have not eaten yet and the stomach is growling), you start feeling an interior tension. Soon you find yourself, by two or three in the afternoon, nipping at people, getting very impatient, arguing, and getting very frustrated with the people around you. That is why Our Lord told us that when we fast we are to groom and make sure we are not giving any exterior appearance. We are to have a smile on our face and treat people kindly. If we are going to do the works of the spirit, we need to carry them out all the way. The Lord even asks, "Is this the kind of fast that I desire? To drive the workers and to be argumentative?" No. What good is it going to do to be able to fast if on the other side of it you are sinning? That is not what the Lord is looking for. But we can see in that, in just one little example, how much the flesh is a problem for us. When we cannot even go for a few hours without eating and we start causing all kinds of problems and get very self-focused – and if you are like most people, the first thing you start to wonder is when you are going to eat and you start planning for it – you see how much the works of the flesh have taken over. And that is just one little example; we could go on and on and on with innumerable examples.
Look at our teenage kids. Try to tell them to take the headphones off and turn off the rock music - good luck! They are addicted to that filth and they cannot give it up. Even if you explain to them how bad this is for them and what it does to them, they do not care; they refuse to listen. They are addicted to stuff that is destroying their souls. As long as their little bodily needs are taken care of and they are getting the addictive "high" that the rock music gives to them, that is all they care about. And it is not just our teenage kids, because most of us who grew up in the ‘60’s and the ‘70’s are equally addicted to this trash music. Satan has had quite an influence on us.
Saint Paul tells us to put to death the works of the flesh – not give in to them, not jump off the high dive into the nonsense that we have addicted ourselves to – but put it to death to live the works of Jesus Christ. Take up the yoke of Christ. The prophet Zechariah, in the first reading, tells us what Christ is going to be like. He is meek. He is riding on a donkey; He is not riding on a horse. In fact, it says that He is going to banish the horse and the chariot. Horses were forbidden in ancient Israel, so were chariots; first of all, because they were implements of war; and secondly, because it would mean they would have to make a pact with the Egyptians for horses and with the Assyrians for chariots. That was forbidden by God. You do not make a pact with the enemy in order to be able to gain something for yourself.
Just take an inventory of your day to day life and ask yourself, "Where have we really made a pact with the enemy? Where are we doing things that really would be displeasing to Christ?" Now I am not suggesting that you are out committing mortal sins. That would be pretty obvious and the devil is not that stupid. He is not going to tempt you to great big, hideous, rotten things to be able to lead you right into mortal sin and wallow in the mire. But rather, what he does is very subtly put things in there. You can just look at how we live. We do things because they do not seem all that bad. We know they are not really the best thing; we know they are not really good; but they are not all that bad. At least compared to some of these other people, well, this is nothing! We are not out doing drugs; we are not out committing adultery; we are not out stealing and doing hideous, horrible, huge things; we are just doing more subtle things. But they are not the works of God; they are not the works that are inspired by the Holy Spirit. They are selfish and they are works of the flesh.
That is what Saint Paul is trying to tell us because he goes on to say that if you are in the flesh you will die. He is talking about eternal death. He is talking about not going to Heaven because you have given way to the works of the flesh. But if you are in the spirit, he says you will live by the spirit; you will have true life in this world and you will have life for eternity to come. Read the lives of the saints. You are not going to find that any of them gave themselves over to the ease and comfort of the worldly way. You are going to find that they gave that up so that they could find the true way. If we are into the body, we are not going to be able to recognize the movements of the Spirit within us. We cannot because we have blinded ourselves. But if we can give up all those things that lead us away from God, no matter how small and subtle they are, [we will].
Saint John of the Cross and Saint Therese both tell us the same thing. They talk about the soul wanting to soar to God and they liken it to a little bird. They say it does not matter if the bird is held down by a rope or by the tiniest little chain; if that chain is around the bird’s foot, the bird cannot fly away. The same is true with us. It does not matter whether we are held bound by a huge mortal sin or whether the soul is held by a subtle thing that the devil has laid before for us; if it is not of God, we cannot take off. We are doing well, obviously; we can do a little bit more with just a small chain than we can with a huge rope. But nonetheless, the soul cannot leave the cage if we are hanging onto something which is not of God.
And so, it really comes down to the question of whom we wish to serve. It is not necessarily so obvious as to say, "Do we want to serve God or do we want to serve Satan?" The devil, again, is not that stupid to put that in front of us. It is a question of whether we want to serve God or serve ourselves, and we have to understand the implications: If we choose the self, we are choosing Satan. It is not that we are Satan; but rather, we are choosing the works of the flesh, we are choosing the ways of Satan, and we are choosing death. If, on the other hand, we put to death the works of the flesh then we can live for Christ. We can live according to the spirit; that is what the Lord wants for us, that is taking His yoke upon us.
When we read the lives of the saints and we think about the way they have taken up that yoke of Christ, we would look at it in our fleshly existence and we would say, "That doesn’t look too easy. That doesn’t look light. Look at what they do! Look at the way they live!" And yet, what we will find - if we follow the Lord and we are willing to do it His way - is that what He will ask of us is little detachments here and there. He is not asking you to give it up carte blanche and wholesale; He would not do that to you because it would leave you in total chaos. But He is asking you to go to prayer and to ask Him what it is that is in the way. What stands between you and Him? What needs to go? He will show you. He will start out with one thing, then, when you adjust to that, He will say, "Now this needs to go." And when you adjust to that, He will ask you to give up something else. And when you get used to that, then He will ask for something more. You adjust to it very naturally. His yoke is easy and His burden is light.
In fact, what you will find is that with each thing you think you cannot live without, when you give it up and you begin to live that detachment, you will suddenly notice that your life becomes much easier, much less burdened. Your soul is much more free to be able to do the things you really want to do. Then you look back and you wonder why you thought this thing was so important and that you could not give it up. Trust me on that. The Lord will show you and you will be much more joyful, much more peaceful. The Lord is saying, "Behold, your Savior. A just King is He, meek and riding on an ass." He is the one who dwells within you and He will banish from your heart all the implements of war, all the implements of division, all the points of selfishness. He will remove them so that you will be free to be at peace and to do the Will of God in all things. That is His desire for each one of us. The question is: Are we willing to do it? Are we willing to put to death the works of the flesh in order to be alive in the spirit for Jesus Christ?
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.