by Orlando Hernandez
The Gospel readings for this week are full of harsh, ominous sayings by our Lord Jesus. They are filled with characters worthy of rejection by God: the scribes and Pharisees, the careless servants, the foolish virgins, all headed for damnation, punishments, gnashing teeth, Gehenna! I actually could relate to all these unfortunate souls. In many ways I feel as guilty as them. It was very hard for me to choose a Gospel reading to write about.
Careful re-reading and prayer came to the rescue once again. Incredibly, the threatening reading for Monday (Mt 23:13-22) began to show me a way out of Gehenna. Jesus starts proclaiming the “woes” against the scribes and Pharisees. They “lock the Kingdom of heaven before men” (Don’t I in my mind, do this for so many that I judge as hopeless, cruel people?). Jesus goes on to say:
“ Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If one swears by the temple, it means nothing, but if one swears by the gold of the temple, one is obligated.’ Blind fools, which is greater, the gold, or the temple that made the gold sacred? And you say, ‘If one swears by the altar, it means nothing, but if one swears by the gift on the altar, one is obligated.’ You blind ones, which is greater, the gift, or the altar that makes the gift sacred?”
I do not wish to comment on the historical background for this writing, the bitter conflicts between Pharisaic Judaism and the Church of Matthew at the time, which might have influenced Matthew’s writing. What I need to do is to express what Jesus tells me when I read His attacks on the Pharisees and scribes.
We are not supposed to “swear”, but an oath can be a kind of pledge, a commitment that leads to a way of life. Why are so many people committed to follow the Catholic Church? Is it the “gold,” the grandeur , the power of the institution that calls to us, and gives us some sense of security? When we walk into a church building are we simply mesmerized by the splendor all around, the vastness of the place, the large crowd, the ritual, the gold, the place of leadership, respect, and wisdom that we give to our priests and bishops? Is it because we need to belong to something greater than ourselves? What is this “something” that is so great?
This week, Pope Francis is ministering to an Irish Church that has been greatly diminished. Almost 50% of Irish Catholics have left. New civil laws scoff at the precepts of the Church. Fr. Martin Coffey CP once talked to us Passionist Associates about the incredible wealth and dominance that the Church had over Irish culture and government. Yet the power led to hubris, abuse, and corruption. Many Ministers of God went the way of the pharisees in the Gospel. They forgot to act with “judgement and mercy and fidelity”. The Church was like those cups and graves that were shiny on the outside and dirty on the inside. With the news of recent weeks, we wonder if this process of diminishment has also been accelerated in our own Church in the USA.
For my part, and for millions like me, it was never the “gold of the temple” nor the gifts on the altar that captured me. It was the Living God within that temple, in that altar, that made everything “sacred.” Within the tabernacle we have those humble little pieces of Bread that hold greater power than the Vatican and all the Cathedrals put together can ever have! Yes, these “temples” are holy and we “swear” by them, but they are empty buildings without the Life that dwells in them. In the same manner, out lives as Catholics are just as empty if we don’t just relax, take a deep breath, and let Jesus fill our hearts with the power of His Love. Jesus has always been the one that calls me to “Church.” I go to mass to be with Him. Only then, can I look around and feel the greatest reverence for His people within that building. In this Monday’s Gospel Jesus goes on to tell us: “One who swears by the altar swears by it and all that is upon it ; one who swears by the temple swears by it and by Him Who dwells in it ; one who swears by heaven swears by the throne of God and by Him Who is seated on it.”
I have this great faith that we will overcome all these problems in our Church. Too much bleeding and suffering has gone into it. What gives me the right to feel this way? The loving intimacy with which Jesus Christ, my Lord, has claimed me gives me the right. He is ready to give this to everyone. How dare we approach Him when we have so much in common with those Pharisees, unreliable servants, and careless virgins? Because He died for all of us. The answer to the whole puzzle somehow lies in His Passion, Death, and Resurrection.
“Therefore, brothers [and sisters], since through the blood of Jesus we have boldness to enter into the sanctuary by the new and living way He opened for us through the veil, that is His flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us approach with a sincere heart and in absolute trust, with our herts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed in pure water.” (Heb 19-22)
A few years ago someone said to me, “I don’t go to mass because I just don’t trust those priests.” I love and trust quite a lot of priests, but what I told the man was, “The priest I go to meet at mass is called Jesus Christ.” Jesus is the ultimate Power that can lead us to say : “I am a Catholic.”
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has similarly been tested in every way, yet without sin. So let us confidently approach the throne of grace to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help.” (Heb 4:15-16)