5th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Preached February 9, 2020; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon
Last Sunday, on the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, Jesus Christ, was proclaimed as the light of revelation to the Gentiles. (Lk 2:30) Today, Jesus, the light of the world (Jn 8:12), says to his disciples: You are the light of the world.
We can only become the light of the world, first by believing in Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, then by receiving his life, the life of grace in our souls through baptism, then through letting that interior light kindled in us in baptism, shine forth outwardly through the practice of good works.
Last Sunday I spoke about the necessity of religious observance, this Sunday we see how religious observance needs to be completed by good works.
When someone performs a good work without the light of faith and the life of grace, that work has no supernatural quality to it, it is directed purely to a worldly goal, and it fails to bear witness to Christ, the Son of God and through him to the Father. At best it is a kind of preparation for grace; at worst it becomes a deceitful seduction, lulling people asleep with the idea that we don’t need God in order to be good.
On the other hand, when someone has received the life of grace in baptism, has not lost it through mortal sin, but leaves that grace asleep, as it were, not letting it grow and transform his life, not allowing it to become the source of his thinking, speaking, and acting, he hides the light beneath a bushel basket. He remains opaque to Christ, the Light of the World, so the light of Christ does not shine outwardly in his life.
The Church is now moving towards the Lenten season, which begins this year on February 26. Indeed, in the traditional Catholic calendar, today would be Septuagesima Sunday, the beginning of the “Pre-Lenten” season.
In the light of today’s readings, we can consider the three practices that characterize the Lenten discipline: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving (or works of mercy) with an emphasis today on the latter.
Prayer in Christ, keeps us connected to God, the source of grace; works of fasting and self-denial work to remove the obstacles of grace in our souls; the works of mercy are truly the good works about which Jesus speaks, which allow the life of grace to shine in the world to the glory of the Father.
Further, if we merely engage in works of prayer and self-denial, the capacity of our heart will remain rather small, the life of grace will be somewhat stifled, having little room to grow. The works of mercy are not only the fruit of the life of grace, but when someone is generous in practicing mercy, the heart expands and grace both grows and flows freely. Grace needs a generous heart, not a small, petty heart.
Attachment to money and to material things, even when it is not outright sinful, impedes the work of grace; it is like a blockage of the arteries of the spiritual organism of grace. I would almost say that the first step to true generosity is being generous with money; if someone can’t let go of their hard-earned (and sometimes not hard-earned) dollars, even if they are generous in other areas, it is likely little more than a show.
Still, we need to consider the whole realm of the works of mercy, traditionally enumerated as seven corporal works of mercy and seven spiritual works of mercy. They should not be separated, but work together as body and soul.
The corporal works of mercy are listed as: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the sick, visit those in prison, and bury the dead. The spiritual works of mercy are listed as: Counsel the doubtful, instruct the ignorant, admonish sinners, comfort the afflicted, forgive offenses, bear wrongs patiently, and pray for the living and dead.
Let’s consider how these works of mercy might work together.
Visiting someone who is in prison, does not necessarily involve ‘forgiving offenses’ because the person I am visiting may have done nothing against me. While it might begin with simply being present to the convict, listening to him, and winning his trust and confidence, is will usually need to go past this to giving counsel, instruction, and even admonishment.
Again, visiting the sick person, while beginning in simple presence and listening, will also require giving comfort. The sick person, in his affliction, might well be suffering from many doubts and be in need of encouragement and advice to resolve those doubts.
Giving food, drink, clothing, and shelter, cannot be viewed as a mere material transaction, but must involve a recognition of the person. The ancient Christian writing, the ‘Didache’ famously taught “let your alms sweat in your palm until you know to whom you are giving.” (Ch. 1) The person in need is also afflicted, in need of comfort; he might not be well behaved, so he also needs to be treated with great patience.
In all these cases, while we must not blame a person’s need upon their sins, making them to feel at fault because of their situation; rather, we must recognize that for everyone, ourselves included the greatest need is conversion to God. We must not be afraid to admonish the sinner. If we are afraid to admonish the sinner, we will not be the salt of the earth. We must desire above all the salvation of souls.
Burying the dead must be accompanied by prayer for the dead. We must remember the reality of purgatory and stop assuming that everyone goes straight to heaven. While it is good to remember and give thanks for the life of a departed loved one, we must realize that death is not an occasion for celebrating life, which has come before the judgment seat of God; rather death calls us to pray for the deceased that he might enter into the true life. We must give honor to the body, destined for the resurrection, and pray for the soul, meant for eternal life in the vision of God.
Finally, indeed, all the works of mercy must be accompanied by prayer for the beneficiary because the supreme goal is eternal salvation, which can only be given by God.
Nor should we think about the works of mercy as being performed only for ‘strangers’ out there somewhere. A husband and wife must be merciful to each other, especially through the pardon and patience. The life of a father and mother offers continual possibilities of mercy towards the very needy children God has entrusted to them. Children should be taught to be merciful to their brothers and sisters and begin to recognize and respond to needs of others outside the home.
Nor is any one of us in a position to be a pure giver of mercy, but each one of us is also in a position in which we need to receive mercy from others. Indeed, the ability graciously to receive the gift of another, is itself a gift given to the giver. Even Jesus, who stands in no need of our gifts, has graciously given us the gift of being able to give to him, precisely through the works of mercy, when he said, Whatever you did for one of these least of my brethren, you did it for me. (Mt 25:40)
Why be merciful? Because our heavenly Father is merciful and, if we are to be his children, we must become like him in the practice of mercy. (cf. Lk 6:36) That means we must first receive God’s mercy before we can truly practice mercy, but unless the mercy received is transformed into mercy given, we are in danger even of losing the mercy received. (cf. Mt 5:7)
If we are truly to receive God’s mercy, we must first of all recognize that our very life and existence is his gift. Once we recognize that God’s gift is at the foundation of our very existence, that we have no rights or entitlements before God, then we can recognize all the good we have received in life, either directly from God or by way of others, as coming from the overflowing bounty of his mercy. If we consider how we have treated God, how forgetful we have been of him, how disrespectful, ungrateful, and downright disobedient and rebellious, then we will realize that he does not treat us as we deserve, but according to the greatness of his mercy.