A. As Catholic Christians, we believe that the preaching and teachings of Jesus that are recorded in Sacred Scripture have been faithfully handed on to us today from oral to written form by the apostles and their successors. Jewish custom required precision in these matters and anyone who might be tempted to embellish stories or apply their own creative editing would be quickly corrected by others to insure accurate transmission of this tradition (Traditio literally means “to faithfully pass down from hand to hand” like a baton in a relay race). More than 2000 years later, the Christian faithful have continued to receive these traditions/teachings and many of the faithful are so familiar with them that they could easily paraphrase stories about Jesus by heart. However, sometimes “familiarity breeds contempt”and causes us to become blind to the true uniqueness of what Jesus taught.The author challenges us to reexamine these teachings with new eyes and takes a closer look at four such teachings by way of illustration:
1. The Beatitudes (Peace and Joy in the Midst of the Cross)
a. During his famous Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:3-12), Jesus offers us this new teaching: “How blest are the poor in spirit; The reign of God is theirs. Blest too are the sorrowing; They shall be consoled. Blest are the lowly; They shall inherit the land. Blest are they who hunger and thirst for holiness; They shall have their fill. Blest are they who show mercy; Mercy shall be theirs. Blest are the single-hearted for they shall see God. Blest too the peacemakers; They shall be called sons of God. Blest are those persecuted for holiness’ sake; The reign of God is theirs. Blest are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of slander against you because of me. Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is great in Heaven; They persecuted the prophets in the very same way.” WHAT SHOULD DISTURB US ABOUT THIS TEACHING IS THAT THE WORD “BLEST” (ALSO TRANSLATED “HAPPY” OR “JOYFUL” IS TIED TO SUFFERING!
b. In today’s society, many believe that the key to happiness in life is to be able to do whatever we want without restriction or limits. Just like little children who proudly proclaim, “You are not the boss of me!” some adults continue to live in that same fashion in their later years. The Church, however teaches us a different message. Our moral tradition calls this popular attitude “license” rather than freedom and tells us that the one who lives in that way is actually falling deeper into the slavery of sin and is, in fact, becoming less free. True freedom and joy is linked to submitting to God’s law. In this sense, the ancient Jews were much closer to the truth in their own time. They called themselves “the People of the Law” and they understood the link between Beatitude/blessing/happiness and restricting our inclinations and submitting to God’s law. In this sense, the teaching of the Beatitudes is more shocking to us (or should be) because it goes against popular public opinion. But that ancient understanding of freedom linked with God’s law is as true today as it was back then. As the late Pope John Paul II said, freedom is not the ability to do whatever we like. It is the ability to do good.
c. St. Thomas Aquinas taught that the created things of this world are objectively good (God saw that they were good in Genesis) but that, on the moral level, their goodness depends on our proper and ordered use of them in our lives (e.g. food = good / gluttony = bad, sex = good / sex outside of marriage = bad, wealth properly used = good / greed = bad, etc.) If we place anything that is not God above God we are essentially making an idol out of it and, as a result, we sin. Aquinas claimed that these disordered passions are related to one of four objects:wealth, honor, power or pleasure. Our tendency of making false gods out of these pursuits is referred to as concupiscence. Today we might substitute the word addiction. Aquinas says the list of the Beatitudes describe circumstances that force one to break from addiction and, therefore, despite the hardships they describe, they are sources of true joy and blessing. Aquinas says the perfect image of Beatitude is the scene of the crucifixion because Jesus radically rejected wealth, honor, power and pleasure in pursuing God’s will even to the cross, in order to defeat sin and death and the plans of Satan. We are called to deny ourselves, take up our crosses and follow Him in like manner.
2. Non-Violence & Love of Enemy (Passive Resistance and Third Alternative to Fight or Flight)
a. Psychologists tell us that the normal human response to a threat or danger is “Fight or Flight”; to retaliate out of vengeance/fight back and defend yourself or to run away. Jesus, however, did neither. He taught that if we are struck on the right cheek (via a backhand slap of the left hand of an enemy…an ancient form of grave insult, since the left hand was considered the “unclean hand”) we should turn and offer our other cheek to be struck as well. In other words, do not run away or retaliate. Instead, offer peaceful resistance in the face of insult or attack. He not only taught it through his words…he also modeled it through his journey to the cross. And 2000+ years later that radical new way is still transforming the world as we know it!Just consider such historic figures as Ghandi and Rev. Martin Luther King.
b. He also taught us to love our enemies and pray for them. What does this look like in practical terms…to love our enemy? Does it mean running around giving hugs to everyone who hates us or something similarly silly? No. Ultimately, it means to wish good for them. And what is the greatest good? Their conversion, the forgiveness of their sins by God and Heaven. When you tell someone to “go to Hell” (especially if you really mean it) you are committing a grave sin against charity. The reason Jesus says this is the truest test of love is that we can be sure there is no ulterior motive to our good will when we wish our enemy well since we cannot realistically expect any favors or even a sign of thanks from our enemies as we can with our friends. Also Jesus says that even pagans are nice to their friends. As Christians we must rise above mere natural tendencies and live in more supernatural ways.
3. The Prodigal Son (Radical Forgiveness)
a. This radical tale of forgiveness has been called the best image of God in the Bible by Pope John Paul II. Jesus reminds us that his concept of forgiveness is a power rather than a merit system. The prodigal son does not deserve forgiveness and he has not earned it but he learns to surrender to the father’s grace anyway. This teaches us that when we are on the receiving end we also need to surrender to God’s grace and when we are dispensing forgiveness, we must never do so based on whether or not we think the person deserves it or has been contrite enough to receive “our gift of forgiveness”. We forgive because it is God’s command that we do so. This act is not a sign of weakness. It is actually a great act of Christian power that makes us more Christ-like.
b. There is also an aspect of forgiveness that is self-interested. Consider the Our Father prayer: “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”. This means we set our own bar of judgment against our own sins. If we desire mercy for ourselves we must be merciful to others. The measure with which we measure out will be measured back to us according to scripture (Mark 4:24). If you are merciless and judgmental toward others, God will take the same approach with you. So if you know what’s good for you…be merciful.
4. Matthew 25:31-46 (Forever Linking Love of God with Love of Neighbor)
a. Mother Teresa of Calcutta, when she was alive, taught her sisters and all volunteers who worked with her a simple but meaningful prayer, counting off on five fingers as she prayed it, “YOU…DID…IT…TO…ME”. The point could not be more clear and it is taken directly from Matthew 25. When you carry out an act of charity, whether big or small, for one in need, you are doing it for Christ. Similarly, when you insult or harm another by your action, you are doing it ultimately to Christ. This parable of Judgment Day with the goats and the sheep confirms for us that we will be judged by our actions and/inactions regarding our neighbor.
b. In a similar way, in Matthew 22:34-40, Jesus answers the question, “What is the greatest commandment” by offering two rather than one answer. Love God with all your heart, mind soul and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. This is as if to say that they are just two dimensions of the same commandment…two sides of the same coin.
c. John (in 1 John) reflects this teaching by saying in 4:20, “One who has no love for the brother he has seen cannot love the God he has seen”. All of this reflects the reality that a truly holy Christian disciple is never an “island” or a hater but always a community member at heart.