By the Rev Msgr Harry Entwistle
Ordinariate of Our Lady of the Southern Cross
Sunday 31 July, 2016
Ordinariate Community of Blessed John Henry Newman, Adelaide
“Christians are dull, boring, plastic people who need to lighten up. All they ever talk about is what we are not supposed to do. They need to get with the program.” Now that statement may be an exaggeration, but it reflects what many people think about Christianity.
Today’s scripture readings can certainly give us the impression that the critics might be right. There is nothing joyful, light or hopeful in them.
The author of the book of Ecclesiastes displays depressive tendencies. He can see no point in life because everything is wiped out when we die. He does not see the point of enjoying anything if it cannot be enjoyed forever. If we are here on earth, then we die, then nothing, what is the point? So eat, drink and be merry because there is no tomorrow. Now this view is a pretty common one in modern Western society. Life is lived at a superficial level in the here and now. History is bunk and the future is meaningless. Everything is NOW. Even sections of the Church embrace this view.
The reading from Colossians isn’t designed to make us feel good either. It seems to be telling us that we have to give up everything that is illegal, immoral or makes us fat.
At a superficial level, these readings are rather depressing, so perhaps we need to scratch the surface a little and see what lies beneath.
The key word seems to be “choice”. We have been created with free will, so we all have the ability to make choices. Most choices we make in life are of a minor nature, e.g. which flavour of ice cream to choose, or whether to fly Qantas or Virgin. Other choices are much more important and create paradigm shifts in our life, and these are the ones we have to get right.
Both the epistle and gospel readings make the point that the choice to be a disciple of Jesus is a major choice in life, which shapes all other significant choices we make. In the gospel reading, Jesus is asked to make a judgment on a family property dispute. One son was challenging a family will in which his brother inherited the whole estate. The brother wanted a share of the inheritance. He appealed to Jesus who saw the claim as an act of greed, and made the point that the value of a person does not lie in what that person has, but in who that person is. The choices we make reflect where are our values lie, indicating what type of person we are, so shaping who we become.
To illustrate the point, Jesus tells the story of the rich farmer who had such a bumper yield in his harvest crop that his barns were adequate. The choice he made was really a judgment on the matter. He chose to build bigger barns, retire, live off the proceeds, and spend his time eating, drinking and making merry. These were his values. However, it all caves in around him. God intervened and told him that he would die, and those who had not worked for it would enjoy his wealth.
Jesus said that his values were wrong, and he described this as covetousness, which is really ‘all about me.’ Covetousness is another form of self-centredness, and is not confined to concrete objects as the tenth commandment puts it, to desiring a neighbour’s house, wife, servant, maid, ox, ass or anything else. Covetousness exists in the spiritual realm as well as the psychological. It may desire someone’s success, spiritual calmness or even piety. It may be a desire for constant approval, or appear as a constant grumbling about one’s lot. It is always self-centred and sinful.
Jesus’ warning to us is that we must be careful about the choices we make in life, for they reflect our values.
St Paul disapproved of covetousness so much that in his letter to the Colossians, he describes it as idolatry – the worship of a false God, namely ourselves.
The people who were reading Paul’s letter had already made their choice. They had chosen to turn their backs on their past pagan life and embrace a new life as a disciple of Christ. Despite the choice for Christ they had made, their past life was still making its presence felt.
Paul presents two lists of vices that he sees as being troublesome. In verse 5, we read of ‘immorality, impurity, passion, evil desires and covetousness, which is idolatry.’ These are physical sins belonging to their old life as pagans.
In verse eight, the list is ‘anger, wrath, malice, slander, foul talk from your mouth and lying.’ These vices seem to be connected with personal relationships and unless checked, they can creep into the very fabric of a community, even the Christian community and destroy it from within.
Paul recognises the difficulty of trying to live Christ’s risen life, but he reminds his readers that they have died to the world although they still live in it. The choices we make must be related to Christ and God’s Kingdom, and not to the cultural values of the world. Whenever we make a choice in keeping with the Kingdom’s values, the image of God becomes clearer in us that others can see.
Paul was also practical. The call to discipleship does not mean that we must live as a hermit or appear to be miserable and joyless. A Christian life is a joyful life, but the joy flows from our relationship with Christ and not from living life at a fast pace, and needing all kinds of stimulants to enable us to do so.
Christians do not hate the world. Because we love it as God’s creation we are called to transform it. After all God in Christ lived on this earth. St Luke’s gospel tells us that as a child Jesus ‘grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man’ (ch 2 v 45). In other words he was nourished physically, psychologically, socially and undergirding them all was his relationship with God his Father. Life in Christ means finding that balance between these four things, and if they are in balance, we will find freedom through godly choices in life.
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