Tuesday August 26, 2003 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Twenty-first Week in Ordinary Time
Reading (1 Thessalonians 2:1-8) Gospel (St. Matthew 23:23-26)
Saint Paul tells the Thessalonians in this morning’s reading that when he came among the people of Thessalonica it was not with any kind of impure motive, that the Gospel he had preached was not a matter of delusion, it was not a matter of seeking human approval, but rather it was solely for the sake of serving God and loving the people. That was the only thing he was interested in. But it is important also for us to see the context that he places it in. He tells the people that they already knew about the suffering they had endured in Philippi, how they had been badly treated so that when they came to Thessalonica it was with fear and it was a struggle to preach the Gospel. But when they saw the way the people had opened their hearts to receive the Word of God, Saint Paul said, “Not only did we share with you the Gospel, but our very selves, so dearly beloved to us had you become.”
And so it shows to us a pattern for our own lives of something we must understand: the importance of the suffering. It is something that none of us tend to like very well, and yet we know it is necessary. We have to suffer sometimes in order to bring about the good. For instance, if you are praying for somebody’s conversion and there is no suffering involved in there someplace at all, I have my doubts that the person is going to convert because there is not anything that is connected with it to give it power.
When we pray for someone or we want to do some good work, like Saint Paul is making clear, there are two possibilities. We can either be trying to please others or please God. If we are trying to please others, it is a selfish thing. We want their approval of our own selves. The suffering removes that because if we are going to have to suffer in order to bring about the good that we are desiring, it has a very quick way of removing any kind of selfishness because I do not think many of us would say, “What I really want more than anything is to be able to suffer so I can impress people.” That is just not the way our minds operate. So we see real quickly how this works. If the suffering begins and we are praying for someone or trying to do some good work, and we are simply trying to do it out of some kind of selfish motive, trying to please people instead of God, we are going to quit real quickly if the suffering begins. But if we truly want the good of that person and we are trying to please God, then what happens is no matter what the obstacles are that are placed before us, we manage to keep going because we are not doing it for ourselves. We can offer that suffering to the Lord and great good can come from it. That is the point Saint Paul is making for us today, to be able to see that the fruit of the conversion of the people in Thessalonica is because of the suffering they had endured when they were in Philippi.
I always tell people, “When you are dealing with God, there is no such thing as collect-on-delivery; it is always pre-pay.” And it is almost always pre-pay in full. Not just put down a little bit of a payment to assure that you are going to get the goods, but rather payment in full is usually required before you get what you are seeking. And so we should not be surprised when things get a little difficult. When we find how much we whine and complain when things get difficult, that is when we realize how much selfishness there is in our motives. Even though what we are seeking is something good, we have to get ourselves out of the way. The Lord has rather interesting ways of helping us to do that, and it is usually going to be done through the suffering.
So too, when we compare that with the Gospel, the Lord condemns the Pharisees for being hypocrites, telling them that they are swallowing the camel while they strain out the gnat, telling them that they need to cleanse the inside of the cup so the outside can be cleansed. It is the same basic thing. We tend to look at one thing sometimes to the exclusion of everything else. We tend to look at what it is going to appear like rather than the reality of what is underneath it. And the Lord is saying, “No, look at what’s most important: serving God and serving the person for their own good, not for anything you’re going to get out of it.” It doesn’t matter if the cup looks nice on the outside if it’s filled with garbage on the inside. We need to make sure we are doing first and foremost what is right.
If you think about it from that perspective, if our motive is right – that is, if the inside of the cup is clean – then the outside is going to look perfectly fine as well. If, on the other hand, we are seeking our own self-interest or we are doing something for the wrong reason, we do everything we can to make the façade look nice. The outside of the cup looks nice and clean, but we have never done a thing about the inside; our motives still remain impure. The Lord is making very clear that when we do good works we have to have the right intention, the right motive. If our motive is correct and we are doing things for the love of God and for love of neighbor then everything else is going to follow correctly. We have to put things in the right order otherwise we are going to be just like the Pharisees; we are going to pay attention to little, tiny things and we are going to miss the big ones. We are going to strain out the gnat and wind up swallowing the camel, and that will all be to our own detriment.
So we can learn from these things, and we learn from our own experience. We know how it works. And we know our own weakness all too well, how when the struggles begin how easy it is to quit, which shows us exactly how selfish some of our motives really are. The Lord is asking us to purify the motive, and once that is purified everything else will follow in proper order.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.