Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time at Mississippi Abbey
Scripture Readings: Is 45:1, 4-6; 1 Thes 1:1-5b; Mt 22:15-21
We at NM were recently honored to have a distinguished New Testament scholar, Dr. Susan Garrett of Louisville Presbyterian Seminary, as a lecturer. One of the books she has published[i] and the topic she spoke on was the testing of Jesus. It happened in many more ways than just the temptations in the desert. Today’s gospel is one of those ways.
To the Pharisees it was a testing of His political loyalties: Is He loyal to Rome or to Israel. To Jesus it was a testing of His faith and obedience to the Father and His mission, His primary purpose.
The tax issue is not part of Jesus’ primary purpose. He is a single-minded man; His primary purpose is the kingdom of God. All else is harmonized with that. What we render to God is the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. In today’s letter to the Thessalonians St. Paul commends the Thessalonians for their “work of faith, labor of love, and endurance in hope of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The letter begins with a greeting St. Paul would use often: “Grace to you and peace.” These are fruits of the Kingdom of God. In this greeting he is reminding them of what they have received and of what is most central to the gospel he preaches. As believers in what God has done in the crucified Christ, they are beneficiaries of the gratuitously given grace and peace. They received it because God loved them first. They did not earn it; they were called and chosen for the sake of the kingdom and its spread to the people of the earth.
What is this grace? It is the establishment of a new relationship with God. It is given for the purpose of doing good and avoiding evil. It is given entirely by His favor. This grace results in peace with God. “Peace” was the first word spoken by Jesus to the disciples after His resurrection. It was then and is now a word of reconciliation with God.
That reconciliation is Jesus’ primary purpose that far outweighs the tax issue. He brushes off the tax question with a simple, “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” This has all the simplicity of “If you love Me, keep my commandments.” St. Paul seems to tell us that this simplicity or primary purpose arises from our status as receivers of the Fathers favor. This single-minded remembrance will strengthen us in times of testing and temptation. Dr. Garrett tells us that testing & temptation can be seductive or afflictive. When it is seductive we are to seek the approval of conscience rather than the applause of fame. When it is afflictive we might seek the easy way out. But instead we persevere, remembering that we receive for the purpose of passing it on. St. Bernard calls this single-mindedness “simplicity.” Simplicity is a constant and unchanging desire for one object and that alone.
St. Bernard said that simplicity consisted in getting rid of everything that did not help the monastic to arrive at union with God by the shortest possible way. The shortest, though, is not necessarily the easiest. For us that shortest way is the Steps of Humility. I have often thought that monasteries should have a large, framed poster of a succinct version of the Steps of Humility posted prominently in the community with a sign above saying, “The escalator to holiness is out of order. Please use the Steps.”
If we stick to our primary purpose of rendering to God our faith, hope, and love, with a little grace, we will find peace.
 Susan R. Garrett, The Temptations of Jesus in Mark’s Gospel, Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998.
Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time at Mississippi Abbey
Scripture Readings: Ex 17:8-13, 2 Tim 3:14-4:2, Lk 18:1-8
A young girl with a big appetite for sweets asked one of life’s perplexing questions: “Why are vitamins concentrated in vegetables while cakes, pies and ice cream are loaded with calories? Why couldn’t it be the other way ’round?” Seventy-three years ago a fourteen year old boy faced another of life’s perplexing questions: “Why do the wicked prosper and the innocent suffer? Why does God keep silence in the face of monstrous physical and moral evils?” It was a dark night in 1944 when he saw Nazis burning something by the roadside. The boy, Elie Wiesel, saw it with his own eyes. They were throwing little children and babies into a large fire as Elie and his father were being herded to the Buchenwald concentration camp. He writes, “I couldn’t believe it. How was it possible for them to burn children? Around us everyone was weeping. My father whispered a prayer, ‘May His Name be blessed and magnified.’ I felt revolt. Why should I bless God’s name? What had I to thank him for?” Why does God see and do nothing?
The teenager survived, but his parents and a younger sister died in the camps. For ten years after the war Elie brooded in silent anguish and then in a soul piercing scream he cried out in an autobiographical novel called Night. He writes, “Never shall I forget the little faces of the children whose bodies I saw turned into smoke. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith … which murdered my God.” He did not deny that God exists. Buchenwald and Auschwitz without the existence of God could be understood. The problem was how to respond to the existence of God along with monstrous moral evil? Doesn’t God care? His father responded with a prayer. Elie responded with a great cry of anger. He quarreled with the silence of God. Finally, he decided that if God would not speak, Elie would. He became a messenger to the world giving voice to the cries of six million Jews who were killed in the Holocaust.1 His message in book after book, fifty-seven altogether, is this: Never respond with indifference to monstrous moral evil. And in Elie’s cry God’s own silence was broken, because God wills to intervene through our voices and actions to secure justice, just as the widow’s persistence in today’s Gospel gave voice to God’s own anger until an unjust judge finally acted justly. Elie died last July 2, at the age of 87. Who will take his place?
Every day since Black Monday, January 22, 1973, the monstrous moral evil of abortion has been protected by unjust laws. Over fifty-four million persons have died in silent screams within our own country. It has gone on for a long time. Does God care? Yes! God is intervening in the non-violent witnesses-for-life in front of abortion clinics, in the crises lines of counselors on telephones, in nurses, doctors, and hospitals who refuse compliance with an unjust law, in civil leaders who seek to give unborn children constitutional protection, in the tears of all who grieve over their own abortions, praying for forgiveness. God is working in the insistent cries of those like yourselves who keep praying that judges will act justly to protect life.
There’s something else we can do for those who suffer abortion. The Catholic Catechism encourages us to pray for them, for children who die without Baptism.2 We can pray every day that aborted children will receive the grace of Baptism through the desire of the Church interceding for them. That would be a Baptism of desire, just as children receive a Baptism by water because of the desire of their parents. Foe it is God’s will to do many things because we pray for them. We can take the place of the persistent widow in today’s Gospel, and be messengers for justice and humanity like Elie Wiesel.
In one of the Peanuts comic strips Lucy says, “Look at it this way, Charlie Brown, these are your bitter days. These are the days of your hardship and struggle.” In the next frame she encourages him, “If you just hold your head up high and keep on fighting, you will triumph!” Looking hopeful, Charlie Brown responds, “Gee, do you really think so?” As Lucy walks away she replies, “Frankly, no!” She’s right. Of ourselves we can do nothing. But with the love of God in our hearts, who wills to speak and act through us, we can resist and overcome the monstrous physical and moral evils of our times.
1 Robert McAfee Brown, Elie Wiesel: Messenger to All Humanity, University of Notre Dame Press.
2. Catholic Catechism, The Grace of Baptism, United States Catholic Conference, Washington DC, # 1283.