Friday, February 04, 2011
“Jesus said to his disciples, ‘I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’” (Matthew 5:20)
February 13, 2011
Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Matthew 5:17-37 Readings Here
Fr. Robert deLeon, CSC
A while back now, a stunned former student sent an email describing what seemed akin to a miracle. He wrote, “What a day! [My 8 year-old son] David got a hole-in-one today at Stafford Country Club. It is a 115-yard par 3 that is surrounded by bunkers. His brother Craig watched as his three-wood shot hit into the upslope over the right bunker and kicked left toward the flag and rolled, and they heard it hit the flagstick and saw it go in. [My wife and I] were playing one hole behind them, and we saw them running toward us. They yelled that Dave got a hole in one. They hadn't actually looked in the hole yet, so we rode over quickly, and two workers were raking the greenside bunker. I asked them if the ball went in, and they didn't seem to understand English, so I motioned by pointing downward as if to ask did it go in, and the one guy nodded excitedly that it did, and he pointed downward. We looked in the hole and there it was. It’s unbelievable that an 8-year-old boy made a hole-in-one. I've been playing for 28 years and have never gotten one!”
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Replying to the email, I suggested that this experience, exhilarating for young David, and, no doubt, just a bit humbling for old Dad, could provide a vital life lesson: success doesn’t necessarily go to the more practiced or better player. That is, always leave room for luck, providence and God’s sense of humor! While no one can say which force may have been at work that summer day at Stafford Country Club, the day concluded with Dad’s exclamation, “It’s unbelievable that an 8-year-old boy made a hole-in-one. I've been playing for 28 years and have never gotten one!”
In a wider context - indeed, a gospel context - another lesson might be this: nourish a gentle skepticism toward those who consider themselves “the professionals” in any of life’s many arenas, but most especially in the spiritual arena. It’s the very topic Jesus addresses in the gospel passage we hear today when he says to his disciples, “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20) That is, be very careful when dealing with those who fashion themselves religious authorities, for some unknowingly have gone astray and will surely lead their followers in the same direction.
As an undergraduate college student from 1967-1971, I am a member of the generation that birthed the Woodstock Music Festival, championed hippies, protested the Vietnam War and defiantly displayed the “Question Authority” bumper sticker that caused elders to seethe. And now here I am, 40 years later, an ageing baby-boomer wondering what it all means as I continue to question authority. But these days my skepticism comes, I believe, from a healthier place. Way back in college years, I knew what I was against, but were one to ask me what I was for, I would have been hard pressed to come up with an answer. I mean, it was cool in those days to be an anarchist!
These days skepticism is a bit more tentative. Nothing seems quite as clear as it did so long ago when it was easy to distinguish black from white. Today the world is mostly shades of gray. And worse still, there are some (spare me, Jesus!) who insist that ordination is a sort of divine seal of approval, marking one out as the truest guide on the heavenward journey. Well, let me tell you, formal theological education has fostered as many agnostics and atheists as saints! Indeed, credentials and honors remain an ever-present threat to one’s relationship with God. The gospel admonition we hear today is a reminder to me and every other presumed religious authority to flee from the pedestals that beckon us ascend as Jesus sternly warns, “I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:20)
Just as Jesus was critical of the religious authorities of his own day, I expect he’d likewise be a bit peeved with present day leaders in all those churches that claim a Christian basis. And while I dare not put words in the mouth of Jesus, I share a creative vision of church that might soothe his imagined anger even as it provides us a way forward. Such a vision is found in the book Joshua and the Shepherd, authored by Fr. Joseph Girzone. A review of the book sums it up:
“The Jesus figure, central to Girzone's earlier bestsellers, Joshua and Joshua and the Children, is once again introduced into a contemporary setting. This time he first appears as a young man dressed in baggy khakis, beckoning across a field, in the dream of a newly consecrated bishop, David Campbell. Bishop Campbell is known for his strict interpretation of church law, often at the cost of the human element. Profoundly changed by the dream and, soon after, by a meeting with ‘that friendly stranger,’ Joshua, Campbell embarks on a radical plan to implement the message of Jesus. He dismantles the chancery, joins forces with his peers in other sects and forms small communities bound by faith, acts that court the wrath of his clerical enemies. Events reach a boiling point over Campbell's ingenious maneuver, with the compliance of the pope, to retain a married priest. Late-night calls to a friendly pope and advice from Joshua (who dwells in a compound for the homeless) are prelude to the imaginative conclusion of Campbell's spiritual campaign.” (Publisher’s Weekly)
That former student of mine shared the news about his son with jubilation and also some exasperation as he wrote, “It’s unbelievable that an 8-year-old boy made a hole-in-one. I've been playing for 28 years and have never gotten one.” I might have responded to him, “No kidding, Dad! And guess what? Tax collectors, prostitutes and assorted scoundrels will also probably best us as we wend our way home!”