Appreciating the Better-than-Good News
Sunday, February 20, 2022
Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time
by Fr. David M. Knight
1Samuel 26: 2-23 shows us David giving up the opportunity to kill the enemy who was trying to kill him. His reason? Saul, murderously demented or not, had been consecrated King by the prophet Samuel on God’s instructions (1Samuel 10:1). He was “the Lord’s anointed.” So David let him live, even though he thought, “I shall now perish one day by the hand of Saul” (27:1). And, in fact, Saul kept trying to kill David. From a standpoint of human reason, it made no sense for David to spare him.
The “wisdom and love” to which Jesus invites us — and which he offers to give us — calls us far beyond what is humanly intelligible, or even possible. The Responsorial Psalm (103:1-13) echoes this reading by focusing us, not on what we find natural, but on what God is: “The Lord is kind and merciful.” That tells us what we need to be. The gift of grace is a call and an empowerment to give up life on the human level in order to live on the level of God.
The teaching “of many Church Fathers, particularly those of the East,” is the shocking statement: “Christian life consists not so much in being good as in becoming God” (Michael Casey, OCSO, Fully Human, Fully Divine, Liguori / Triumph, 2004). Is that Good News, or news so good we can’t hear it?
Jesus is the norm
In Luke 6:27-38 Jesus gives us his New Law, which consists, not in rules of good human behavior, but in guidelines for living on the level of God. The standards of the Gospel presume the gift of grace. They are neither intelligible or possible without it.
In a nutshell, the “morality” of Jesus, which goes far beyond what we think of as morality, only makes sense on one condition: that we have deeply, radically accepted to “lose our lives” on this earth in order to find that “life to the full” which Jesus offers both here and hereafter: “eternal life,” the life enjoyed by God himself.
It’s an either-or choice. Jesus makes that plain in several places in the Gospel. To be his disciples we must give up all attachment to possessions, prestige and professional priorities, to family and social bonds (insofar as they are restrictive rather than just relational), to sex, shelter and security, to life itself. He is explicit about it. And radical (Luke 9:3-4, 23-26, 57-62; 10:3-5; 14:7-27; 18:22; 22:26; Matthew 19:12).
The challenge would be too much for us if Jesus did not also make clear that “The Lord is kind and merciful.” He doesn’t ask us to be perfect overnight; just to accept a glorious ideal —surrender to perfect love — and let him lead us to it. His first command is not “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” What comes first is “Follow me” (Matthew 5:48; Luke 5:27-32). He will lead us at our own pace.
Read the passage for particulars. Bear in mind that Jesus is serious about everything he says here. We have to accept all of these instructions as the “norm” of our morality if we want to be authentically Christian. But even accepting them takes time. We just have to start by recognizing that this is in fact the Good News. Then grow into it as disciples — “learners.”
No one has expressed the radical nature of Christian morality better than John Paul II, who said (World Day of Peace address, January 1, 1993, and The Splendor of Truth, nos. 19-21): “Christ's example, no less than his words, is normative for Christians…. ‘Following Christ’ is thus the essential and primordial foundation of Christian morality.” He continues:
This is not a matter only of disposing oneself to hear a teaching and obediently accepting a commandment. More radically, it involves holding fast to the very person of Jesus, partaking of his life and his destiny….”
Jesus’ way of acting and his words, his deeds and his precepts constitute the moral rule of Christian life. Indeed, his actions, and in particular his Passion and Death on the Cross, are the living revelation of his love for the Father and for others. This is exactly the love that Jesus wishes to be imitated by all who follow him. It is the “new commandment.”
John Paul sums up:
“Following Christ” is not an outward imitation, since it touches humans at the very depths of their being. Being a follower of Christ means “becoming conformed to him” who became a servant even to giving himself on the Cross (Philippians 2:5-8). Christ dwells by faith in the heart of the believer (see Ephesians 3:17), and thus the disciple is conformed to the Lord. This is the effect of grace, of the active presence of the Holy Spirit in us.
It is in this context that John Paul quotes the teaching of St. Augustine that is basic to our understanding of Baptism:
By the work of the Spirit, Baptism radically configures the faithful to Christ in the Paschal Mystery of death and resurrection; it “clothes them” in Christ (Galatians 3:27): “Let us rejoice and give thanks,” exclaims Saint Augustine speaking to the baptized, “for we have become not only Christians, but Christ. Marvel and rejoice: we have become Christ!”
Jesus relates this to the Father. By living on the level he prescribes we will show that we are “children of the Most High.” If we want to experience our divinity, we need to live as divine: “For the measure by which you give will be the measure you get back.”
The two Adams
In 1Corinthians 15:45-49 St. Paul gives the same teaching on a more metaphysical level: “Scripture says: ‘The first man, Adam, became a living soul; the last Adam [Jesus] became a life-giving spirit.’” Through Adam we receive the life of human nature: our bodies are the instruments of our psyche or “soul.” But “in Christ” we share in the divine nature of God. Our bodies become the instruments of our pneuma, our “spirit” as obedient to the Spirit given to us by grace (see the Jerome Biblical Commentary). Paul is talking about resurrection when he says, “Just as we resemble the man from earth, so shall we bear the likeness of the man from heaven.” But he draws the practical conclusion: “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above…. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:1-2). If we have “become Christ,” we should live like Christ.
Could the Good News be so good it is bad? Have you ever felt that what Jesus asks is impossible? That “the better is the enemy of the good” because it discourages us from the outset? Or do you just not take seriously some of the things Jesus says we should do? (What is the first one that comes to mind?) Do you see it as Good News that you are called to live on the level of God? Why?
Don’t be just human. Keep saying the WIT prayer: “Lord, do this with me, in me, through me.”
Reflections brought to you by the Immersed in Christ Ministry