Updated: Jan 31
Here we are on the sixth Sunday after the Epiphany. There are three weeks before the first Sunday of Lent. So we are still getting fat, in preparation for the yearly period of sacrifice. Mardi Gras (meaning Fat Tuesday) will be on March 4th, sixteen days from today.
We should be getting fat on the Holy Spirit. That means not fat on sin, to the point we must wear masks and costumes, so we can parade our sinful selves in public.
Instead, we should be having our own Epiphany, our own sudden manifestation of the meaning of the Holy Spirit. Our own comprehension of reality should dawn on us as a sudden intuitive realization. Through individual epiphanies, we must confess our sins sincerely, and then spend Lent in repentance.
Without that epiphany to thrive on, our time of sacrifice will fail.
Failure is common. Anyone who fails to make the necessary sacrifices will not be alone. As the sayings go, “Misery loves company” and “There is safety in numbers.”
In the parable of the wedding banquet, a metaphor of one’s entrance into the heavenly kingdom, Jesus concluded, “Many are invited but few are chosen.”
Today’s readings focus on the choice we must make during the season of the Epiphany.
Do we sacrifice? Or, do we stay with the status quo – the way things are now and have been?
Today we read from Ecclesiasticus. That is the Roman Church’s name for the book containing the All-Virtuous Wisdom of Sirach. The name of that book was changed to Ecclesiasticus, because the wisdom of Sirach states what the Church stands for. The word “ecclesia” means “an assembly of the people,” from which we translate “church.”
Today’s selected reading focuses on how Sirach said, “Before each person are life and death, whichever one chooses will be given.”
That wisdom then ends by saying, “[God] has not given anyone permission to sin.”
In other words, individually we can make the right choice or we can make the wrong choice. Through free will, the choice is each of ours to make.
The alternate Old Testament reading for today is from Deuteronomy, where Moses talked about not choosing to obey the commandments of the LORD. He too said it is between choosing life and death, to which he added, either blessings or curses are received in return. The choice, again, is each of ours to make.
David sang a song of praise, where he promised that obeying the commandments of the LORD brought happiness. He pointed out there is an “all or nothing” clause, when he sang to God, “You laid down your commandments, that we should fully keep them.”
In our educational process, both public and private, we get accustomed to 65-70% score constituting a passing grade – a “D.” A few “D”s are allowed, but for the most part a “C” (between 71-80%) is the regular expectation for passing.
In a school life that never seems to end, a lot of times we get by without being fully committed to a subject. How often have people winged it? How often have we flashed a smile and hoped to catch a break? How many times have we made some correct guesses on multiple choice tests, and got by?
After all, if we are rewarded with certificates, diplomas, and degrees, for having completed an important task, while having given little more than minimal effort, was it worth it?
In my case, in hindsight, from the 20-20 clarity of mature vision, I must have graduated from high school simply because they felt the seat I was taking up could be better served by giving it to a student who might actually care about learning. I have few memories of applying myself to study and homework. I have more memories of the cold feeling of knowing I was about to fail another test … miserably.
Regardless of one’s success in the systems of public education, in the school of spiritual life, where our religious dedication and observance to God is graded, there is only one test, and only one passing score. Nothing short of perfection will allow for graduation. Each one of us must be 100% right, when the day of that big test comes.
Jesus stressed that in the Gospel reading from Matthew today. He reminded those around him of the laws against murder, of bearing false witness against a neighbor, forbidding adultery and against coveting a neighbor’s wife. There was no “gray area” to consider. There was no minimum amount of wrong answers allowed.
Jesus said it would be better to cut off a body part, whichever one led to a sin, in order to make that 100% grade, than it would be to come in under perfection and go to hell.
All …………. Or nothing.
100 ……………. Or zero.
The choice is ours to make, but the wisdom of Sirach, as well as Jesus, says, “God has not given anyone permission to sin.”
Paul wrote to the Corinthians and referred to them as his “brothers and sisters.” He addressed them as being like babies, not capable of digesting solid food. They were just kindergartners, still being nursed along; nowhere close to being tested on their compliance to the Law, and much less the new covenant of Christ.
As babies, they were “still of the flesh.” Instead of minds led by the Holy Spirit, they were still amazed by their physical attributes, just like how babies contemplate their feet, taste their toes and hands, love physical touches, delight in melodic songs, and enjoy the colorful mobiles we hang over their cribs for them to gaze at.
Babies “behave according to human inclinations.” When they physically grow up, into mature bodies, they still behave according to human inclinations. So, grown bodies are still babes spiritually. We become jealous of others who say they know the Holy Spirit. We argue and quarrel over whose version of the Holy Spirit is better.
That is a sub-100% way to be.
The “flesh” needs the Law, or it will wander aimlessly, forever mistaking sensual delights as spiritual surrogates. As such, the Law becomes a prison for everyone. The Law is a wall of safety that has been built around us, designed to keep us within those safe limits.
The Pharisees were like the sentries who walked along the walls, looking down on the people from the parameters of that wall of Law. They could see who stayed within those limits; but more importantly (to them), they could see who was sneaking outside the Law. They could tell who was sinning here and there, and then sneaking back into the prison that the Law created.
Paul told us, as we read a few weeks back, that Jesus came to free us from the prison that the Law represented. However, that freedom was not from Jesus abolishing the Law. He came to fulfill it. Therefore, there is no escaping the physical boundaries the Law is designed to establish.
Jesus frees us from the Law by telling us to stop trying to make the Law our standard of measure. The Law represents a 70% score. That is because the Law has holes in it, like gates, which allow easy access to sin. We pile laws upon laws to cover those walkways into the gray areas, to justify wrong answers; but those paths are still outside the Law, thus sin.
Jesus is telling us to go inside ourselves, to our hearts. Open them and ask the Holy Spirit to come reside in us. If we let the Holy Spirit run our lives, we never go beyond the Law, because we never need to worry about what limits we can go to, before having to turn back.
We move beyond the “flesh” state and enter the “spirit” state.
Earlier this month, Jay Leno retired from the Tonight Show. His final week he had on his favorite guests. One was a native of the South, Matthew McConaughey. Matthew McConaughey remembered his first time on the Tonight Show and how nervous he was. He said Jay came back to the Green Room and offered him a tip, one that he used to get through his nervous first appearance on TV, and a tip he said he has used ever since.
He said, “Jay told me to just want to be here.”
That is good advice. If you ever try to go somewhere you really don’t want to go, you will fail miserably. I did not want to go to high school. I passed simply because no one cared. I wanted to go back to college and complete my degree. I graduated with honors, because I cared.
The same works in the school of spiritual life. You just have to want to offer true repentance to the Lord. You just have to care.
You just have to want to be filled with the Holy Spirit.
You just have to want to be led by the mind of Christ.
You just have to want God to live in your heart.
You just have to want to be free from figuring out if the Law lets you do this, but not that.
You just have to want to be happy by not bringing shame upon yourself.
You just have to want to please God and not anyone else.
You just have to want to choose life over death.
Certainly, that is easier said than done.
We all want to graduate with honors, to be assured our souls will reach Heaven … but it is so hard, and requires so much sacrifice.
We look around and see so many other people who are not sacrificing. People tell us to stop spoiling their party, to get with it and have fun.
“Carp Diem, Seize the day!” they say. That becomes the kind of fun that you always regret afterwards, when the hangover comes.
Happiness is more than a cheap thrill. Happiness is more than a delight of the flesh. Happiness is more than what pleases our five physical senses.
Happiness is the satisfaction of knowing you are on the right track. Happiness is a slap on the back, a hug, and a hand reaching out to help you get back up and continue on your way.
Paul wrote to the Corinthians, telling them Christians all have a purpose. It does not matter if one Christian’s purpose is different than another Christian’s. Some plant and some water, but all serve their purpose together. It is not up to us to choose what role we play for God.
Being Christian means we each serve God, so God chooses how He will use us … after we choose to serve God.
We must know that we are not the only ones making that choice. We serve alongside others who also serve God, but in ways that compliment what we each do in that service.
This is the concept of “Love your neighbor as yourself.” You love those who are also serving God, by being together, by working together, and by living our lives in dedication to God together.
As Christians, we are neighbors. We are led to support one another, just like Paul supported the Corinthians, through deeds and words of support.
We, as Christians, are God’s field, God’s building. We represent the body of Christ, so we may be filled with the spirit of Christ. We are the Church that serves God, through Christ.
In this season of the Epiphany, where we celebrate the Christ child being born of the flesh, we must challenge ourselves to experience our own realization as Christians in the flesh … as babies readying for solid food. We should ask ourselves, individually, “Am I happy with my service to God?”
Are we preparing for the sacrifices that are required for our ultimate graduation?
Are we supporting others in their plans to sacrifice, and are we being supported likewise?
Are we amid neighbors, in a position to succeed?
The choice is each of ours to make. Whichever we choose, life or death, that will be given to us.