Year A Ordinary 31
Last week, on Halloween night, parents everywhere gave us the greatest possible example of the great teaching moment, “Do as I say, not as I do.” What I mean by this is that, once the last child had fallen asleep, every Dad sneaked into his precious child’s room as their innocent faces reclined in the arms of sleep, and those fathers (and maybe you too, mothers), stole a piece of Halloween candy from their darling child’s bag of treats. Never steal, we tell our kids. And if they take candy from each other, you better believe time outs and chores shall be doled out as punishment, but when it comes to the siren song of that fun-sized Snickers bar, rules must be broken. That’s why, when I was a kid, I counted up and organized all my candy very carefully and I took a nightly inventory of my stash. I created all sorts of clever hiding places in my room so my brothers and parents couldn’t get to my stash. I asked my dad this week if he ever stole mine when I was a kid he said, “Yes, but it was for your own good.” He’s totally unrepentant.
That’s not really serious, but parents try so hard, and so desperately want to help their children avoid picking up on their bad habits. It can be a little thing, like when a kid parrots back a phrase and tone of voice that you realize you use all the time and you have a mental crisis and wonder do I really sound like that? That’s why parents, as they say, are the last people on earth who ought to have children. Really, though, it’s a difficult, beautiful vocation – parents you’re the absolute best, and we love having your kids crawl all over the pews during Mass, the more the better, and all of us laughing who aren’t parents aren’t off the hook on this one, either. We’ve all done things we claim we hate. We all nod our heads at things we hear in the Scriptures or homily and then find ourselves doing the exact opposite later in the week.
Our Old Testament reading today is a sobering rebuke of priests, who God says have broken faith with his covenant. If a priest is a spiritual father, how is it that they have broken faith with their children? They have not told the people the truth. It is so easy and so tempting as a priest to avoid confrontations. Sometimes this is prudent and wise, for instance I will never talk about politics under any circumstances. But how about talking to you about the reality of hell? Or the way in which contraception has damaged the human family and caused an epidemic of broken marriages? Immigration? These are very difficult topics and I shy away from them, partly because I don’t know if I’m well-spoken enough to deal with them in a short homily, partly because I worry about how it will be received, or I worry about preaching on difficult topics when I know I fall short and am so sinful in many areas of my life.
But now contrast that with what St. Paul, who as a bishop says to the Church, “We were determined to share with you…the gospel.” The full truth, exactly as laid out in God’s covenant, and taught by the Church. Why? Because you deserve the whole truth! A good parent doesn’t lie or refuse to fulling inform a child. You deserve to know about Purgatory and Hell, and Mortal sin, and about days of fasting and holy days of obligation, and about all the ways in which the Church stands athwart the waywardness of our current age. The Church isn’t judging you, she simply wants you to have all the information you need to form a responsible decision.
Note something really interesting in the Gospel, even the Pharisees, the implacable enemies of Christ, are correctly teaching the people! Our Lord says the problem isn’t their teaching, it’s their actions. Here we are back at the “Do as I say” problem. A priest cannot simply tell you what’s right and wrong and demand that you fall in line, because a priest must himself fall in line first. Parents, you don’t only tell your children how you would like them to behave, you work and struggle to model that behavior yourself. The exterior action is connected with the interior disposition, and so your children imitate you as you show them what a loving family looks like, how a man treats a woman, how a woman gently cares for her children, how a family prays together. They see how you treat the cashier at the supermarket, and how you respond to other drivers on the road. They listen to the kind of language you use to describe others or how you speak when you’re angry.
St. Charles Borromeo was a bishop and spiritual father to many priests. He insisted to them that they must practice what they preach, and he gives them advice about how to do so, writing “Would you like me to teach you how to grow from virtue to virtue…If a tiny spark of God’s love already burns within you, do not expose it to the wind, for it may get blown out. Keep the stove tightly shut so that it will not lose its heat and grow cold. In other words, avoid distractions as well as you can. Stay quiet with God.”
Within each one of us glows a tiny spark, the fire of God’s love. This is God’s grace. Don’t let it go out. Why do we break faith with one another, why do priests break faith with God, why do parents struggle to be consistent with their children? Because we seek to do everything by willpower, we look all around us for strength when the world is powerless to provide it, instead of humbling ourselves and relying on God. We try to be perfect, like the Pharisees, on our own, and even if we say the right thing we are powerless to do the right thing. St. Charles says that the better path is to “meditate on…the Lord’s blood…so that all you do becomes a work of love…in meditation we find the strength to bring Christ to birth in ourselves and in other men.” In other words, focus on Jesus. Consider how we have a Heavenly Father who forgives all things, who only asks of us that we cooperate with his grace. Grace doesn’t immediately make us perfect, but it renders the struggle meritorious. There is grace at work in you when you fall and get back up again, when you stumble and feel you’ve let God down but ask for mercy to keep going. We seek the truth, we ask God’s help to apply the truth, and we ask forgiveness when we fail. As a priest, as a parent, as a friend, this is what God asks of us, and this is the path by which eventually we will finally reconcile word and deed.
In the meantime, we ask Our Lord to shape and renew us until we bear the image of Christ.