Reading (James 5:1-6) Gospel (St. Mark 9:41-50)
In the readings today, we see once again a great contrast. In the first reading, we hear from Saint James that those who are storing up riches for themselves are to weep and wail over their impending miseries when Judgment Day comes. As we heard in the responsorial psalm, there are those who would say to these wealthy people, “How blessed you are because you have stored up all kinds of riches for yourselves,” but then God is going to condemn them. What good are all the riches? They do not follow you below, as the Psalmist says.
Saint James tells us that all of these things we tend to store up selfishly are actually going to be used as a testimony against us, that these are the kinds of things that speak against us, because so often when we start storing things up selfishly what we tend to do is violate other people in the process. For instance, Saint James says, “You withheld wages from your workers.” That is one of the four sins that cry out to heaven for vengeance. God will avenge the poor. If someone has treated them unjustly, God will deal with it. Even if it does not seem that God takes care of them in this life, He will take care of it all in the next. Now we might think that a bit unjust. Why would God not do something for the poor now? He is – He is making them saints. By their poverty and learning how to trust in God, they are becoming extraordinarily holy. Therefore, God is giving to them a great good. They are not storing up treasures for themselves so that they can have corroded silver and gold and moth-eaten vestments, but rather they have treasure in heaven and they will be richly rewarded for eternity.
When we look at the contrast between the people who store up treasures for themselves and those who do not, the Lord says, Anyone who gives you a cup of water because you are a follower of Christ will not want for his reward. That is all it takes. You see with God how simple things are. It is just a matter of charity. But the opposite of charity is selfishness. So we can ask ourselves how many selfish things we do and how many selfless things we do. The latter most of us can probably count on one hand (even if we did not have fingers), and the former we are not going to be able to count because for most of us almost every single thing we do is selfish. Look at the motives for why we do what we do. Even the kind things that we do for others, most often it is because we want something for ourselves. We want to impress somebody, we want them to think well of us, or whatever it might be. So to have the kind of charity that the Lord is seeking is not an easy task for any of us. We are too concerned about the things of this world to be concerned about the things of the next. That is the contrast. Where is our focus? Is our focus on this world, or is it on the next? Is our focus on ourselves, or is our focus on loving God and loving neighbor?
These are the kinds of things the Lord is challenging us with, and He tells us what is going to happen. He says that all of us are going to be salted with fire. It is a necessity, and we can see why it is a necessity: We need to be purified of all the selfishness. He said, Salt is good. Well, what did salt do in the ancient world? It preserved things. So that is what God wants. And we can see the two types of fire that are there. He talks about the fire of Gehenna and then talks about us being salted with fire, which is the fire of the Holy Spirit so that we can be purified. We need it. Otherwise, the fire of Gehenna is what we are going to get. This is why the Lord in His mercy allows difficult things to happen in our lives, to purify us so that we can no longer be selfish, so that we can truly learn how to love, so that we would have so much charity that we would actually give a cup of water to a follower of Christ simply for that reason and for no other reason. That sounds so simple. But let us just ask ourselves: How often have we done it? We do not. As simple as it is, most of us have not achieved the level of charity that we can even give a cup of water to a follower of Christ. We have a long way to go.
That is what Saint James is challenging us with, and that is what Our Lord is challenging us with. One way or the other, we need a fire. We can receive the fire of the Holy Spirit in this life and be purified, or we can enter into the fires of Gehenna for eternity. Obviously, we know which one to choose. We need to pray and ask, and we need to try to cooperate. Listen to what Saint James says with regard to these unjust people; he says, You have condemned and you have murdered the righteous one, but he shows you no resistance. We resist the Holy Spirit. Jesus did not even resist the people who unjustly condemned Him, and we resist God. Once again, we see how far we have to go. This is why we need to pray and this is why God is going to purify things – because it is a necessity. It is because He wants people to go to heaven, and if we are not cooperating with the fire of the Holy Spirit to purify us, we are not going to be able to get there. This is why when things happen in our lives it is not because God hates us, and it is not because He is trying to get even with us. If He wanted to get even, we would not be here, so we need to realize what He is doing. He is loving us. He is purifying us and He is preserving us for life eternal.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.