This was a reflection based on yesterday’s Gospel, Matthew 5:1-12. I am posting it today, because I offered it at Evening Prayer last night and did not get to put it up when I returned home last night.
Although I am a member of this parish community, I work in the office of another parish. Recently, two men of that parish died. When people come in to get a mass card, they often tell a story about the deceased person. In the past few weeks, I have heard so much about these two men, much more than usual. I knew one of them, but not the other; they both appeared to live lives of generous service and were highly esteemed in their careers and their lives. It is the work of a lifetime.
One of the men was a CEO, the other was a chemist, both were highly successful, both following the rules to achieve that success. Someone told me that the CEO would always spend time with his all of his employees, especially those with the most menial jobs. He would talk with them as they worked, ask them questions, and even help with some aspect of their jobs. The other man, the chemist, long retired, could have spent his days relaxing, but he did not. I knew this man – he was constantly on the go, always focused on helping others, right up to the end.
As I pondered today’s Gospel, I thought of the CEO and the chemist. These men, both highly successful, and seemed to follow all the rules, but they did not put themselves above others. They both practiced what they preached. Their preaching was not from a pulpit; it was the preaching of their ways of living and being, in the model of servant leadership.
Jesus delivers a powerful message today, a message about what God asks of us. In what is the work of a lifetime, we are to invited by Jesus, to live in a particular and intentional way. This way may be taught to us by parents, teacher, and other leaders, but not always lived that way by them. It is the work of a lifetime for all of us.
How easy it can be to get caught in the rut of trying to follow to every rule with precision, in order to do right and please God and others. Are we supposed to adhere to rules? Are we supposed to follow Jesus? Can we do both/and?
Rules – religious and otherwise – are all around us. This is not a bad thing – consider the disorder of no rules! We may have felt subject to overwhelming rules offered by others – whether at home, in church, at work, in many places. Perhaps we are currently subject to one who decides that the best way for us to follow is to be pressed harder and harder… yet they may not do anything to help us. Or it could be us, expecting that from others. This was the mode of the Pharisees we hear about today.
It is easy for us to say that Jesus came along to set us free from all those pesky and annoying rules. It is about love and service, and we shouldn’t obsess about the rules. Is that what the message is? Today Jesus says, “Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example.” That is what Jesus said, let’s hear that again, “Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example.”
If we turn back one page, in the Gospel of Matthew, to chapter 22, we see the Pharisees testing Jesus. They ask him to state the greatest commandment, and Jesus replies. “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and the first commandment. The second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Love my neighbor as myself? Whoa! That’s a pretty hard rule; I might be better off on a tile floor, on my knees, praying the entire Rosary, and then fasting all day long. Perhaps what Jesus is trying to tell us is that living the law means very little if we don’t live it from deeply within. In other words, Jesus is confirming authority, but cautioning us against inauthentic living. Do we follow the rules? Or are we transformed by the rules? He speaks of the authority that does not come as result of power or prestige, but the inner authority of living in concert with God and with one another. This, the work of a lifetime, and it comes from living the rules in a way that transforms us through Christ.
So how do we do this? How do we live with authenticity, with inner authority, and with obedience?
The first thing might be to take the focus off ourselves. We are told that if we work hard and follow the rules, we will find success. We may think that if others don’t work as hard and follow the rules, they don’t deserve what we’ve earned. If we go to church every week, and then hear a cry for help only to think, “what do they want,” rather than “what do they need,” our focus may be misplaced. Jesus asks us to shift that – which can be the work of a lifetime.
The second thing is to understand the context of rules and love, as understood through Christ. This makes me think of a piece of string, or rope, with one end that symbolizing the rules, and if we hold that up high, the other end, that symbolizes love and service, droops down. If we hold that one end up, the other end drops down. However, if we can hold both ends in balance, the rope is taut and can hold many things. This too, is the work of a lifetime.
The third thing is obedience. Maybe this is learning to live the rules, rather than simply follow them. Everything that Jesus offers us is from the heart, part of a journey that leads us to God and one another. Jesus lives in a particular, intentional way. He shows us that obedience comes from an inner listening and a way of being, not simply by specific, rote, external behaviors. Once again, it is the transformative work of a lifetime.
So what about the CEO and the chemist? They both lived from their hearts from all appearances. They were, following many rules, and they were following Jesus. They were seen bending down, lifting up and walking with, rather than standing over people. They were both tremendously successful and influential people. Their rules, founded in faith seemed to point them in service to God and to God’s people.
You have probably known someone just like these men and we all know Jesus. The next time we feel ourselves bowed down by the weight of rules, put upon us by forces that oppress us, rather than get angry or feel despair, we can draw upon a well of wisdom from Jesus. If we consider his invitations, and the work of others who live by example from this place of deep giving, we will live the rules of love.
It is the work of a lifetime.