18th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Preached August 4, 2019; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon
Jesus once made a serious complaint about those who believe in him. He said that the children of this world are more prudent in worldly matters than are the children of light in spiritual matters. (cf. Lk 16:8)
We can consider the contrast between the prudence of the children of this world and what should be the prudence of the children of light by comparing today’s 1st and 2nd readings.
We start with the children of this world.
Those who are prudent will labor with wisdom and knowledge and skill, acquiring thereby success by their own efforts.
We can think of an entrepreneur who builds up a new business from scratch into a multi-million or even billion dollar corporation. Day and night he thinks about the business and how to make it succeed. He does not only think idly about the matter, but he forms plans and puts them into action. He foresees what might go wrong and ways that he might forestall them, or otherwise he already has contingency plans in place in his mind if things do not go as expected. He judges every expenditure, every investment, every decision about hiring and firing, every relationship, in relation to how it will advance his business or not.
From a human standpoint there is something amazing and admirable about this sort of wisdom and knowledge and skill.
Nevertheless, if that is all that there is, the judgment of the word of God is very severe. Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.
Everything he labored for will vanish from his hands like a puff of smoke when he breathes his last on the deathbed. His heirs might very well end up squandering the fortune he acquired. How many times has a father labored to heap up a fortune to pass on to his children, but in the end been discontent with his children whom he perceives as eagerly awaiting his death so that they can lay their hands on the fortune?
So also our Lord himself passes judgment on all this wisdom and knowledge and skill for the things of this world, saying: You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?
In the end, that is all worth of the prudence of the children of this world – their wisdom, their knowledge, and their skill is admirable, as far as it goes, but in the end it is empty and vain; mere foolishness.
How about the prudence of the children of light? What would that involve? We are supposed to be children of the light, but unfortunately, because our Lord’s complaint is valid, we do not have abundant living examples of what it means.
We can gain some idea of what it would involve from today’s 2nd reading.
If you were raised with Christ – this took place in our baptism – seek what is above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.
Because we have been baptized, because we have been raised with Christ, the supreme goal of our life should be to be joined with Christ at the right hand of God. The goal determines the prudence; prudence seeks the proper means to the goal.
Just as the prudence of this world applies wisdom, knowledge, and skill to the attainment of some worldly goal, such as the accumulation of wealth, the prudence of the children of light applies wisdom, knowledge, and skill in order to be joined to Christ at the right hand of God. This is the prudence of the saints. We are all meant to be saints.
The first requirement of this prudence is the lesson we learned last week: the life of prayer that revolves around the sacraments. St. Paul today goes into some of the specifics that follow upon the life of prayer.
Unfortunately we have a unique, modern reason for our lack of prudence. We simply do not think it is necessary. We think: “God is merciful. He would not condemn anyone to hell.” When someone dies, people say, “Johnny was a good person. He is with God now.” Never mind that when Johnny was on earth he never troubled his mind much with the thought of God.
This attitude is revealed in the way we worship. In the military there is a cynical saying, “Good enough for government work.” Unfortunately, that often seems to be our attitude towards the worship of God. Instead of, “Let’s give him the best”, our attitude is, “That will do. He will understand.”
Well, if we can’t be troubled to give him the best of our material goods, physical skills, and technical know-how, then we are not going to be very inclined to the much more difficult and demanding interior task that St. Paul lays out for us in order to be joined to Christ at the right hand of God.
Put to death the parts of you that are earthly. That sounds rather uncompromising to me. It seems to exhibit the same spirit as our Lord’s own words: If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into Gehenna. (Mt 5:29-30) There is the prudence of the children of light. The prudence of the saints.
But what are these ‘earthly parts’ that we must put to death?
St. Paul explains: Fornication, impurity. This refers to every use of sex outside marriage, every use of sex that deliberately frustrates the procreative purpose, and every deliberate impure sexual thought and desire. The Virgin Mary told St. Jacinta Marto, one of the innocent children of Fatima: “More souls go to hell for sins of the flesh than for any other reason.”
Sins of the flesh are not the most grievous of sins, though they often lead to much more grievous sins, but they are the most frequent of mortal sins and the ones that produce the lowest level of repentance because while people might feel they are shameful (so they do not want to confess them), they don’t really think they are wrong or at least not that serious. God thinks otherwise.
St. Paul continues: Passion, evil desire. Besides the turbulence of disordered sexual desire there is all the violence of anger, resentment, and hatred that festers within human hearts. When unchecked that readily leads to evil desires, the desire to take vengeance and to hurt others, to lift oneself up by tearing someone else down.
And the greed which is idolatry. This is the worship of the ‘bottom line’; the false belief that “money makes the world go round”; the engine the drives the prudence of this world; the love of self that gains the world at the cost of one’s soul. (cf. Mt 16:26)
St. Paul adds (although it is omitted in today’s reading): Because of these things the wrath of God is coming upon the children of disobedience. (Col 3:6)
We must stop lying to one another – not just telling each other the normal every day lies, but we must cut out the lies by which we fortify one another in our sins. In the same way we need to stop lying to ourselves about our sins. We need to stop rationalizing and making excuses.
Before we can discover the life that is hidden with Christ in God, before we can put on the new man, renewed in the knowledge of the truth and refashioned according to the image of the Creator, we must strip ourselves of the old man with his practices, we must put those practices that have become part of us to death.
That is only the beginning of the path of the prudence of the children of light. St. Paul continues: Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do. And over all these put on love, that is the bond of perfection. (Col 3:12-15)
That is what is required in order put on the likeness of Jesus Christ, to live like him; we must apply all of our wisdom, knowledge, and skill to becoming like him, not just in occasional outward actions, in random acts of kindness, but in the constant inward dispositions or virtues that characterize our very person.
St. Paul has much more to say on the subject, but we can sum it up with these words: Whatever you do, in word or in deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Col 3:17)
That is the prudence of the children of light, the prudence of the saints; that is truly the road less travelled, even by those who profess to believe in Jesus Christ.
The road might seem too difficult. We might want to ask: “Surely there must be another way, an easier way.” Alas, if we follow any other way to the end, we will end with vanity of vanities, all things are vanity. Pure emptiness.
If, however, we enter through the narrow gate and persevere on the difficult road (cf. Mt 7:14) then, though in the present life, our worth might be hidden from our eyes, when Christ appears, we will appear with him in glory.
But is there really no other way? Well, there is what St. Louis Marie de Montfort referred to as “a smooth, short, perfect, and sure way of attaining union with our Lord” (True Devotion, 152): Consecration to the Blessed Virgin Mary. It is not another way, but the Virgin Mary makes the hard to become easy and the bitter to become sweet; she fills us with confidence, hope, and courage in the attainment of our goal; she helps us to get up when we stumble or fall; she assures us of the mercy of God and keeps us from becoming discouraged by our weakness and failures. With her prayers, help, and presence in our life, we can do it.