16th Sunday of OT: Vigil Mass
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, U.D.
Have you heard that moral evil is really just an illusion? Or that there really is no real difference between the sacred and the profane? Or that faith is primarily a matter of good feelings? Have you ever been taught that the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist is a symbol? Or that the celebration of the Eucharist itself is all about building community? Or that sin is not something you need to worry much about? Perhaps you have been lead to believe that God loves you more when you do good works? Or that the Blessed Mother guarantees the good results of a novena? Or that burying a statue of St Joseph in your yard will get your house sold? If we took a survey here this afternoon, how many of you would know that Jesus Christ is one person with two natures; or that the Trinity is One God in Three Persons; or whose sinless origins the dogma of the Immaculate Conception describes? Could you accurately define the gift of infallibility and distinguish it from impeccability? Do you know the difference between dogma and doctrine, tradition and custom? If you don't, you might want to say that these are obscure questions that only academic theologians should be worried about. All I need to do is love God and be a good person. OK. What does it mean to love God? What is a good person? For that matter, what is a person, human or divine? What does it mean to be good, to do good works? Why should anyone love God and be a good person? Now you know what my students feel like during class? The point of this border-line insulting harangue is not to make you feel ignorant, but rather to point out the vocation of a good Christian teacher: teachers of the faith lead those who do not know the truth of Christ—yet desire to know him—into knowing his truth and from this acquired knowledge of Christ's truth, lead the newly enlightened into the righteousness he promised us. When we know God, we love God. In fact, knowing God and loving God are two sides of the same act. But to know this truth, you need a faithful teacher. Unfortunately, not all teachers of the faith teach faithfully. We have been warned.
St Augustine had this to say about teachers who stray from the lessons of the one True Teacher: “[Teachers] sin. . .not when they say a good deal in agreement with [Christ] but when they add their own notions. This is how they fall from much speaking into false speaking.”* The prophet, Jeremiah, preaches against wicked teachers, unjust shepherds: “Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture, says the Lord. . .You have scattered my sheep and driven them away. You have not cared for them, but I will take care to punish your evil deeds.” How often do you hear teaching connected to caring? Good teachers teach the truth of Christ because they care for God's people. Instructing the ignorant by “false speaking” not only leaves the ignorant in their ignorance, but it scatters them from the safety of the truth, driving them away to be dinner for wolves. Scattering sheep is easy. Just yell and flail your arms a bit. There is no high art to it. Nor is there any high art or complex theory to not-caring. It springs immediately from the heart of a teacher determined to impart the imperfection of human prejudice over and above the incarnated perfection we find in Christ.
We are thankful that our Lord did not succumb to this temptation: “When [Jesus] disembarked [from the boat] and saw the vast crowd, his heart was moved with pity for them, for they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.” Paul reminds the Ephesians of one of these many things that Jesus taught: “[Christ] came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near, for through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.” Paul notes that the peace Christ brings is not the peace of a gun-free, crime-free culture, but rather the calm that settles over our souls when we realize “that through his flesh, [Christ] abolish[ed] the law with its commandments and legal claims,” and we are no longer driven to crippling anxiety over whether or not our animal sacrifice was pure enough to gain us access to God and the forgiveness of our sins. Because they cared for God's people, Jesus and Paul taught the truth of the new covenant, and we hear that truth spoken again this afternoon because they still care; they still long for us to come to God, holy and righteous. Do we listen and act accordingly? Or do we allow ourselves to be scattered and driven off like sheep ready for the wolves' stew?
In his gospel account, Matthew focuses on Jesus and the disciples, showing them all to be nearly tireless healers and preachers. But look at the crowd, the people who follow them and gather before them. Needing a well-deserved retreat, Jesus and his friends try to boat across the lake for a quick nap and a snack. They almost make it, but the crowd converges from all over the countryside and gather again to hear the gospel and to receive healing. These are not people who want to be lied to, or shown magic tricks, or told to go away. They want the truth. They have taken it upon themselves to follow behind the Lord and seek out his teaching. And because they had no one to teach them the truth of God's loving-care, Jesus had compassion on them and did what every excellent Christian teacher will do for the next 2,000 years. He taught them. He taught them many things. All of them true.
How fervently, how tirelessly do we seek out the truth of many things? How long and hard will we follow Christ to be taught the truth of God's loving-care? How much of our time and energy and material resources are we willing to sacrifice to know even one true thing? We can look to our teachers and hope that they will give us the truth we were made to know and live. We can call on our bishops, priests, and theologians to faithfully preach and teach God's Word. We can even complain bitterly when they fail to do so. I have it on good authority that the Vatican receives more letters of complaint from Catholics in the U.S. than any other nation in the world. We are heard. But are we taking responsibility for seeking out and living the truth that we all have immediate access to? Are we following Christ and his disciples across the lakes and rivers and crowding around until compassion drives them to teach us? Or are we accepting as good enough the first lesson we hear that scratches our favorite itch? Giving our hearts to the loudest professor of theology, or the most generous politician, or the hippest bishop?
Jesus taught the crowd because they clamored to be taught. The great medieval teacher of the faith, Thomas Aquinas, argues that knowledge is received by the hungry mind according to its hunger. In other words, how and what we eat depends on what we are hungry for. If you long for a fervent, fiery lesson in the truth of Christ, then pursue his truth with fervor and fire. If you long for the steely cold facts of the faith, then straighten your backbone with cold steel and ask for it! If, however, you want sugary junk food and poisonous sodas, then hang around on the corner for a while, a teacher who speaks falsely will be along soon enough. And he will be more than delighted to feed you your fill. Just don't come complaining to the Church because you suffer from spiritual diarrhea.
The Psalmist sings, “The Lord is my shepherd and there is nothing that I want.” When you are stuffed to the limit with the truth our Lord has to teach, nothing else will ever satisfy.