September 28, 2003 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Twenty-sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reading I (Numbers 11:25-29) Reading II (James 5:1-6)
Gospel (St. Mark 9:38-43, 45, 47-48)
In the Gospel reading today, we see a juxtaposition of two different points of view and what we need to do with the point of view that is wrong. We also will see the same thing in the other two readings. For instance, when we look at the Gospel reading today, Saint John comes to Jesus and says, “Lord, we saw somebody casting out a demon in your name so we tried to stop him.” In other words, “This is exclusive to us, isn’t it? This is the gift that we have to be able to do this and nobody else is supposed to be able to do it so we tried to put an end to it.” Moses ran into the same problem with Joshua when the young man came running out and said, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp. Moses, put a stop to it.” Moses looked at him and said, “Are you jealous on my account? Would that all the people of Israel would be prophets!”
So we see that the Lord, as well as Moses, handled this in the same way. There was no selfishness on their part. There was no jealousy on their part, but rather what they desired was that everyone would be holy, that everyone would have the gifts of God – and we do. We do not all have the same gifts, and that is a good thing; but we all have been given gifts by the Lord. And what happens with those gifts sometimes is that we use them for selfish purposes rather than for the glory of God and for the good of our neighbor. When we are selfishly using those gifts and abilities that God has given us then what we want is to make sure that somebody else does not have them; or, if somebody else does, then we immediately begin to compare ourselves with them to see that “I have better gifts than you do” or “The way I can use them is better than the way you can use them” or whatever it is that we do, all of these judgments, all of the pride, all of the selfishness that gets in there. And the Lord is saying that He wants everyone to be holy. This is not something that is reserved for a few; this is something that is open to everyone. Instead of being selfish and jealous, what we need to be doing is praying that everyone would be converted to Christ, that everyone would grow in holiness, that everyone would recognize the gifts God has given to them and put it at the service of others.
What happens when we place things at our own service is that we get totally caught up in ourselves, which is the American way. The marketing people are paid big bucks to tell us to look out for Number One, to be interested only in ourselves, to not care about anyone else, or to the degree that we do care about someone else it is really to make sure that we get something out of it. Now we did not need any marketing people to tell us that; with Original Sin on our soul from the moment of conception, we come into the world that way. The goal of the Christian life is to overcome selfishness, to become selfless, to become truly charitable; not worrying about the self but seeking God and neighbor, which are the two greatest commandments in the law as Our Lord tells us. That is what we are to be about.
But what happens when we become selfish is what we see in the second reading. We start focusing in on the self and we start amassing all kinds of things “only for me”. So Saint James says, “Woe to you who are rich.” Now we have to put it into context. The people that he was talking to back then who had lived a life of wealth and pleasure would be about equal to what we as Americans would consider lower-middle class people, which means most of us are either equal to or greater in wealth than the people he was writing to. And he was telling them that their wealth was going to be used against them, the corrosion of their gold and silver, because they stored it up only for themselves. God had allowed them to amass some wealth and they did not use it for anyone other than themselves. Now again, we need to look at it properly. Each one of us has a right to be able to make a living. Each of us has a right to be able to put some money aside for retirement. That is not a problem. The problem is when we are trying simply to get more for the self.
The real question is how much do we really need? Now we could sit back today and say, “Well, I don’t know! What if I live to be 110 years old? I might need five million dollars in the bank then because I might live that long and you never know how much money I’m going to need to be able to survive. After all, with inflation as it is, well, you know, we’re gonna have to have a lot of money set aside.” What we need is to trust God. We need to be reasonable and that is all. But when it becomes selfish, it becomes very much unreasonable and this society is totally self-centered. So when we look at what Saint James is talking about, the moth-eaten clothes, we do not have to worry about that these days because they are all polyester so the moths do not want them anyway but it is amazing how much we want them so that we can fill our closets with them. For what? How many changes of clothes does one person need? How much money does one person need? How many TV sets in one house are necessary? How much stuff do we really need? We keep looking and we want more. We are never going to be content with what we have because we always want more. We are trying to find our fulfillment in all of the things and we never will.
Our Lord looks at us today and we see His mercy. He tells us, “Anyone who gives a cup of cold water because you are a disciple will not go without his reward.” So you see that Jesus rewards every little good act. But if He is just on that level, He is also just on the other level, which is why He follows it immediately by saying, “Anyone who teaches one of these little ones to sin, it would be better if a millstone was tied around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” What have we done for our children? We put them in front of the TV or in front of violent video games. The average child watches who knows how many murders a day on TV sets and is involved in virtual murder, as they might call it, in the video games hundreds of times a day on average. We fill them up with material things but nobody is with them. We have taken away their parents and we have substituted a TV set or a video game or whatever it might be. Have we not led our little ones into sin? How about our own selves? If we put our kids in that kind of situation, it is because we want more time “just for me”. “I don’t want to have to spend time with these kids. I’ve got my own things to do, after all.” Yes, we do, the duties of our state in life which God calls us to; for parents, that is first and foremost your children. It is not about the self; it is about the other.
The Lord is going to be just in rewarding even the smallest good act. He is also going to be just in condemning even the smallest sinful act. Now we have this weird attitude as American Catholics that we are so good that God is just simply going to look at all of our good stuff and He is going to think we are pretty great and let us into Heaven anyway, as if somehow He is going to pay no attention to the bad stuff we have piled up. The only way we are going to get rid of all the negative stuff is to go to Confession, but somehow we have the weird idea that we do not need Confession, that we have a better idea than God did and so we do not have to go to Confession because, after all, we are so good that our good stuff outweighs the bad stuff. I do not think so. At least, I know in my own life that is not the case. I hope I am trying to live a good life, but the bad stuff piles up pretty quickly and without regular Confession I am in some pretty big trouble because you can no longer think clearly. And I am not talking about mortal sins; I am talking about venial sins and imperfections. They get in the way. They start to weigh down your soul. You cannot think clearly. You cannot see clearly. You cannot act properly. You need to get to Confession.
The Lord told us at the end of the Gospel reading, “If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. If your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.” Your hand cannot cause you to sin nor can your foot. You can sin with your hand or your foot or your eye, but it is not that that causes the sin. It is simply to say, “It is better to enter life without all these things than to be thrown into hell with them.” So we can look at our own selves and we can change it slightly. Say, if you have bad influences in your life, friends that lead you into sin. When you get together with your friends, do they lead you into drunkenness, into drugs, into gossip, into doing bad things that you normally would not do? Then cut them out. Get rid of them. Better to enter into Heaven without people who claim to be your friends but who are not than enter into hell with them where you can spend eternity doing bad things with them. Get rid of them. If the wealth is a problem and it has become selfish, get rid of it. If the materialism is a problem, get rid of it. Perhaps the god of the American public today is entertainment in all of its various forms. Go home today and look at how many videotapes, CD’s, DVD’s (or whatever they call these things these days) you have amassed all up and down the living room wall. Get rid of them. What good are they doing? So what if you have got hundreds of them that you can show off to your neighbor? Big deal. Better to enter Heaven without them than to be thrown into hell with all the junk. If it is selfish, if it is arrogant, if it is “about me”, it is wrong. That is the point the Lord wants us to see. We are going to be held responsible for all of these things even if they seem small to us.
We have to understand, the Lord told us in the Book of Revelation that nothing impure or imperfect can enter into the kingdom of Heaven. We are not going to enter Heaven with any of our sins, with any of our selfishness, with anything that is not of God. So even if the things are not sinful, maybe you have quite a collection of good things, there is no sin in it per se unless it has become an obsession or a major attachment of some kind, then it becomes sinful. Or let us say it is not that at all, but if there is some attachment to the stuff, you cannot enter into Heaven with that attachment. You will be spending some time in Purgatory becoming detached from all of the things you were trying to be attached to in this life. Now we can do our Purgatory here getting rid of the stuff and living without it – which actually I can guarantee will make you much happier than you have ever known before. But anyway, in the meantime, as the detachment happens it feels a little like Purgatory. We can do it here or we can wait until we get there. That will keep us from being able to enter Heaven for a longer period of time. Why wait? Why put it off when we know that this is the way? If there is something sinful in your life, if there is something selfish, if there are people or things that are leading you away from God and into sin, cut them out. Get rid of them. Start living the life of Heaven now.
Just think, if we were to get rid of our TV sets how much time we would have everyday to pray! Our lives would change. Our priorities would be different. Our attitudes would be different. All of these things we can have if we put God first. That is what we want to see. The Lord desires for us to be holy. He desires for us to be able to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in our lives and use the gifts He has given to us for His glory, for the good of others. Our society tells us to take it as though it was our own and use it for our own self and for our own self-glorification. That is the dichotomy that we see in today’s readings. One will lead us to eternity in hell, and the other leads us to eternal life. The Lord makes very clear which we need to choose. Anything that is not leading you to God, cut it out. Better to enter life without it than to go into hell with it.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.