February 6, 2011

Last week our Gospel reading was taken from the first part of the famous
“Sermon on the Mount”,
as we read the beautiful “Beatitudes” of Jesus.
If you heard me preach last Sunday
you may recall that I explained that the 8 beatitudes
are a wonderfully positive, yet more demanding,
presentation of the requirements of the 10 commandments.
Today.s Gospel literally picks up right where we left off last week
as the Sermon on the Mount continues with the beautifully positive images
that we “are the salt of the earth,” and “the light of the world.”
But again, these beautiful images and promises
reveal a very demanding standard for all Christians.

In today.s 1st reading, we find the prophet Isaiah speaking to the people of Israel
after they.ve come back from their great exile into Babylon
about 500 years before the birth of Christ.
For centuries God had given them tremendous gifts:
he gave them land and prosperity, wealth and great military victories.
But because of those many gifts, they began to have pride in themselves,
and to forget that all these wonders were from God, and for God.
Now, returning from Babylon, they are conquered people
whose dreams of being a powerful nation dominating their enemies
have, instead, been crushed by their enemies
They are like a people living in darkness.

And then Isaiah comes along to tell them that God hasn.t abandoned them:
in fact, God has now prepared them for the glory that he had promised.
But to do that they had to first be cleansed of their haughty pride and arrogance.
In essence, they had to become poor in spirit,
they had to mourn, and be meek,
and be persecuted for the sake of their God,
before they could inherit the kingdom of God.
So now Isaiah comes to them and tells them, now that you are humbled,
you are ready to come closer to God and live with him
by humbly loving him and your neighbor.
Humbly sharing whatever you have with those who are in need:
the hungry, the naked, the oppressed and the homeless.
And if you do that, he says:
“then light shall rise for you in the darkness.”

Elsewhere in this same book, Isaiah prophesies that:
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
….For to us a child is born, to us a son is given”
In today.s Gospel we encounter that child all grown up,
that light now shining on a hill in Galilee
–Jesus Christ.
The light has come into the world, and the promises made to Israel are fulfilled.
A light given to his disciples to share if they follow Jesus,
and like him become poor in spirit, meek, merciful, and clean of heart;
if they patiently endure persecution because of him.

They have the light,
but now Jesus reveals that the light isn.t just for the small nation of Israel,
as Isaiah seems to say.
Now we hear that the light promised to Israel
and received by those first Jewish Christians
is to be given “to all”:
“do [not] light [the] lamp and then put it under a bushel basket;
….set it on a lamp stand, where it gives light to all in the house.”
By drawing closer to Christ in leading a life of good works and love,
by imitating him, who is meek and humble of heart,
the light of Christ shines through us out onto the world
so that the whole world can see
what it could never see in the darkness
–they will see the glory of God himself.

Now, someone will say, but Father,
Jesus says that we “are the light of the world.”
Yes, but then he immediately goes on to elucidate his meaning
by speaking of the light of a “lamp” on a “lamp stand.”
Scripture is absolutely clear: Jesus, and Jesus alone, is the light of the world.
But the thing is, by our Baptism Christ-our-light has entered in to us,
and so we bear him wherever we go.
And like a the lamp bearing the light of fire, we, in sense,
become a light, but only because of the fire, the light, of Christ within us,
a light we share in because we share in his very life.

We have to always remember that this is all about Christ and his Father:
on our own, we are not the light, Jesus is,
and our good works are only as lasting as their connection to Jesus.

Sometimes we forget this, and we fall into the trap of pride,
just like Israel did before the Babylonian exile.
Even with all good intentions, we can sometimes begin to think
that we are a light all by ourselves.
And we try to live in the light of merely our own human wisdom and reason
–and this is a real light, because reason comes from God
–but it is a very weak light compared to the light of Christ,
like the light of a match compared to the light of the Sun.
St. Paul warns us about this in today.s second reading:
“When I came to you, ….I did not come with sublimity of words or of wisdom.
I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling.”
He warns us, not to focus on
“persuasive words” or “human wisdom, but on the power of God.”
The power that is the powerful light of Christ.

We can also begin to think that good works in themselves
are the most important thing
–regardless of whether those good works are connected to Christ,
or work to reveal Christ to the world.
But throughout the Gospels, the Evangelists make it abundantly clear
that the main reason Jesus did his miracles of good works
–the main reason he cures the sick and feeds the 5000–
is so that the people–Israel–will recognize the light shining in their midst,
and come to believe in him.
Good works are not enough
if they are stripped from their inherent connection to Jesus Christ.
They are like “salt that loses its taste…
It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out.”
Good works which are not humbly rooted in Christ and in his true love,
will always leave us unsatisfied and will have no lasting good effect in the world.
Because the greatest work, the perfection and purpose of all good works,
is to bring others to Christ, to bring them to have faith in Christ.

On the other hand, we could also begin to think that good works
are not important at all.
Some Protestants believe that we.re saved “by faith alone”
—that good works merely prove we have faith,
or perhaps they.re the fruit of faith,
but aren.t necessary for salvation.
In other words, as long as you believe in Jesus as your Lord and Savior,
you don.t need to be good or do good to go to heaven.

I.m always amazed by this thinking,
since it depends on taking certain texts of the Bible out of context,
and ignoring most of the rest of the Bible.
I mean, practically the whole Sermon on the Mount is about doing good works
and being good by living according to the commandments.

Unfortunately, this false doctrine is not new—it.s as old as the Old Testament.
That.s exactly the mistake Israel made when they took God.s gifts for granted.
They also had faith in God
—they were positive that God had chosen them as his people.
Even still, nothing kept them from falling into the sin of pride in themselves,
and neglecting actually doing the will of God.
They neglected the good works that their faith demanded
–the good works of the commandments and the beatitudes
and the good works that give life and expression
to loving God, and loving neighbor.

For those who say that faith alone saves,
I just wish they.d take a 2nd look at the Scriptures.
In today.s reading from Isaiah, God says:
“Share your bread with the hungry,
shelter the oppressed and the homeless;
clothe the naked.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer,…”

And in the Gospel, as Jesus comes to the end of his “Sermon on the Mount”
he tells his followers
“Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’
shall enter the kingdom of heaven,
but he who does the will of my Father.”

And then there are those crystal clear words of the Epistle of St. James:
“If a brother or sister is ill-clad and in lack of daily food,
and one of you says to them,
„Go in peace, be warmed and filled,.
without giving them the things needed for the body,
what does it profit?
…faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. ….
Show me your faith apart from your works,
and I by my works will show you my faith.
…Even the demons believe–and shudder.”

Works without faith are meaningless,
but faith without works is useless:
like a body without life or like life without love!
Because it.s only through our works that we can live our faith and our love,
And it.s in seeing our good works,
done in the name of and our love for and faith in Jesus,
that others are attracted to have faith in Jesus.

The Israelites were given many wonderful gifts
but they had to be conquered and made humble
before they could receive the greatest gift:
the light that would drive all darkness and gloom from their midst,
the gift of the Messiah, the Christ.
And that gift was not meant to be just for them,
but to be shared with the whole world.
Today, that light shines on in the Catholic Church
which Jesus built on the foundation of his apostles
–a shining city set on a great mountain for all to see.
We, the members of his Church,
must not only not hide that light under a bushel basket,
we must take that light into all the cities of the earth
and shine the light of Christ into every dark corner we find.
Not shining our own dim light–the light of clever words, or of human reason,
or doing good works just to do good works,
or professing an empty and lifeless faith.
But instead, going into the world, humbly filled with the love of Christ
–filled with his light–
and live the life of love, the life of faith
expressed and lived out in good works
—acts following the commandments, the beatitudes
and charity—
and in doing so bring the whole world to join us
in believing in and doing the will of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ
and his heavenly Father.
Remembering always his command that:
“your light must shine before others,
that they may see your good deeds
and glorify your heavenly Father.”

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