TEXT: 3rd Sunday of Lent, March 4, 2018
Third Sunday of Lent
March 4, 2018
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church
Today’s Gospel tells us that Jesus:
“made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area.”
For many people today, this can be a very troubling text.
In fact, if this weren’t Jesus,
at a minimum, most Americans today would be confused by such behavior
and many would be outraged, finding it really “hateful.”
And as I thought about that this week,
I remembered that many of Jesus words and actions
would be considered hateful by a lot of folks today.
For example, He regularly insulted the Pharisees,
he treated men differently than he treated women,
and He taught that to go to heaven you have to keep the 10 Commandments,
that marriage is between one man and one woman,
and that sex outside of marriage leads to the fires of hell.
And in fact, many people today do reject Jesus, and even call Him “hateful,”
specifically, because He does these things.
But of course, it can’t be “hateful”: this is Jesus, God the Son—and God is love.
There must be love here.
This led me to think a little more deeply about why people would react this way,
and it became clear to me that this kind of symptoms of a larger,
That is, too many Americans have adopted
a corrupted understanding of the idea and meaning of “love.”
Put simply, over the last few decades we’ve more and more come to believe
that love is first and foremost all about feelings.
So that if you have strong feelings of attraction toward someone,
that must mean you love them.
Or if someone makes you feel good that must mean they love you.
And on the other hand, if someone makes you feel bad,
or uncomfortable or afraid or hurt or diminished in any way,
for whatever reason
that someone not only doesn’t love you—they must “hate” you.
Of course, this way of understanding love has always been with us,
but it’s also always been considered as childish
and detrimental to the true good of the person and society.
Instead, we had a more a more mature and truly human understanding of love.
The idea of love, sometimes defined as,
“willing and striving for the good of the other”
–if you love someone, you want what is truly good for them,
and you do what you can to bring that good to them.
Notice, it has nothing to do with feeling good:
it’s about being good and doing good.
Good feelings are not necessarily reflective of true and objective good:
shooting heroin in your arm every night
might make you feel good for a while,
but there in no way is it truly, objectively good for you.
And yet that kind of feeling good
is what the popular culture promotes as “love.”
And so the culture finds it almost impossible to find love
in saying “no” to something that makes you feel good.
And so, for example, Jesus and His Church
are unloving when we say you can’t do whatever makes you feel good
with anyone that makes you feel good.
Or that we’re hateful when we say that if you don’t repent mortal sin
you will go to hell, even if that sin makes you feel really good…
But all the while the Church is only saying,
we truly love you, and we want only what’s good for you
and we’ll do only what we understand to be truly good for you,
which has very little to do with whether or not
it makes you feel good right now.
This dichotomy of these 2 meanings of love is seen nowhere more clearly
than in that which is the object of our particular reflection throughout Lent:
the suffering and crucifixion of Christ—or simply, “The Cross.”
The Cross has never made anyone feel good:
not the Blessed Mother, or St. John or St. Mary Magdalene
standing at the foot of the cross;
not Pontius Pilate or the Roman soldiers,
and not even Caiaphas and the members of the Jewish Sanhedrin.
It certainly doesn’t make you or me feel good.
And above all, it definitely did not make Jesus feel good.
And yet, it was the most truly profound expression of the Lord’s
willing our greatest good—our salvation,
and the greatest thing he could do to bring about our greatest good,
to win our salvation.
In short, the Cross didn’t feel good, but it was the greatest act of love ever.
2000 years ago St. Paul wrote, as we read in today’s 2nd reading:
“Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom,
but we proclaim Christ crucified,
a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”
Today he might say:
“Americans demand good feelings,
but Christians proclaim Christ crucified,
a stumbling block and foolishness to Americans.”
Now, saying all this I might appear to be talking about
some nebulous culture “out there,”
or perhaps about people who embrace that culture—but still “out there.”
And I am to some extent.
But what worries me most is how that culture “out there”
has influenced us “in here.”
Because we don’t just stay “in here” in this church–we live out there,
where we are constantly surrounded by the culture and its values
—especially it’s strange notion of love.
It’s in the books we read, the movies and shows we see,
the news we watch, the lessons we learn in school,
and in the conversations we have with friends and family,
especially in social media.
It’s almost in the air we breathe.
You may think you avoid it,
but it’s almost impossible for it not to affect each of us in some way.
Again, think about how many Catholics today would be a little embarrassed
by our Lord’s actions in today’s Gospel when He whipped
and drove the moneychangers from the Temple.
And how many Catholics would be hard-pressed to explain
why He wasn’t being hateful.
And yet, Jesus didn’t hate the moneychangers,
anymore than He hated the scribes and Pharisees when He told them:
“…You serpents, you brood of vipers,
how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?”
He didn’t hate them, He loved them.
But some people are more thick-headed than others
—some can be corrected by a gentle word,
and some by an intellectual argument,
But some can only be corrected by plain, harsh criticism,
and some, apparently, only by a whip.
As St. Paul tells us, in his letter to the Hebrews:
“‘the Lord disciplines him whom he loves,
and chastises every son’
…he disciplines us for our good…
For the moment all discipline seems painful;
later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness…”
“For our good.”
Not our good feelings.
I remember once when I was a just a little boy,
I ran into to the street and almost got hit by a car.
My mama, the sweetest, kindest, gentlest woman you ever met,
grabbed my arm, spun me around and slapped me right on the bottom.
It hardly hurt at all, but she definitely got my attention.
I had no doubt she loved me,
but I also had not doubt that I would never run into the street again.
In Lent, we remember all of this,
and, in effect, we invite the Lord to be brutally honest with us
—to show us, in whatever way is necessary, what is truly good for us.
In effect, we ask him to call out to us like he did to Pharisees
to break through our stubbornness.
And yes, we even ask him to take a figurative whip to us, if necessary,
but to drive out the sins and vices in our souls,
sins we act out with our bodies,
which are supposed to be the temple of the Holy Spirit.
And we even join him in this chastisement,
by figuratively taking a whip to ourselves, by our acts of penance.
Now, please, don’t write the bishop saying I told you to whip yourselves,
or that I’m advocating lawless violence—far from it.
But by simple things like giving up chocolate or meat or coffee—whatever—
and by adding prayers and acts of charity to your daily life,
you remind yourself that love is not about feeling good,
but about being and doing good.
And in fact, we remember that in the end,
sin hurts us more than any whip or penance could.
because sin keeps us from being good—being the best we can be.
And in the end, venial sins lead us to mortal sins, and mortal sins lead us to hell.
So, just as in love the Lord takes a whip to the moneychangers,
we ask him to take a whip to us, and we take a whip to ourselves.
Scripture tells us “He made a whip out of cords.”
Doesn’t sound like a very formidable or whip
—it doesn’t sound like it would hurt very much.
Kind of like the verbal whip he took to the scribes and Pharisees
—words of truth, that stung, but did no real damage or injury.
And the whip he takes to us is the mildest of discipline:
his yoke is easy, his burden light.
And the whips we take to ourselves, our penances,
honestly, they’re almost nothing.
But then we remember another whip
—a whip Jesus took to Himself,
or rather allowed others to take to Him,
as part of the penance He did for us on the way to the Cross:
what we call “the scourging at the pillar.”
History tells us that the whip wielded by his Roman guards
was not a harmless whip of cords,
but a vicious, even deadly, instrument of torture.
The “flagellum” consisted of several thongs of leather,
with lead balls or pieces of bone at the end.
It was not designed to get merely your attention,
but to violently rip open the skin, down to the muscle and bone.
Our Lord would never take such a whip to us.
But out of love He gladly endured such a whip for us.
Again, not for a good feeling, but for our true good—our salvation.
During Lent we turn our eyes and minds and hearts to meditate
on the suffering and death of Jesus.
Not because it feels good to watch Him suffer,
but because in His suffering we discover
the amazing depths of His love for us.
And in His love we discover the true meaning of love,
—that seeks not temporary good feelings,
but seeks and strives for the true good of the beloved,
no matter how painful it is to us, or to them.
As we move forward in Lent, by the grace of Christ scourged and crucified,
may our penances remind us of this love,
drive out all trace of sin from our lives,
and fix in their place a true abiding love for God and neighbor.