Sunday, March 6, 2011

9th Sunday in Ordinary Time

On this last Sunday before we enter the season of Lent
our Gospel reading offers us the conclusion
of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount,
which we have been hearing for the past five Sundays.
Jesus has been laying down for us
the challenge of being his disciple:
the challenge to be poor in Spirit,
to be salt of the earth,
to turn the other cheek,
to love our enemies,
to not worry about tomorrow,
to seek first the kingdom of God.
This is the challenge that we take with us
into the Lenten season,
as we prepare to celebrate the great mystery
of the salvation that comes to us
through Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection.

That’s a pretty long to-do list.
You had better get busy.

But in today’s Gospel,
Jesus concludes the Sermon on the Mount with a warning.
He speaks of those who are very busy with their to-do lists –
saying, “Lord, Lord,”
prophesying in Jesus’ name,
driving out demons in Jesus’ name,
doing mighty deeds in Jesus’ name –
and he tells us that he will say to them, “I never knew you.”
He never knew them
because they were too busy with their to-do lists
to stop and to listen and to come to know him.
He contrasts them with the person,
“who listens to these words of mine and acts on them.”
The problem is not that they are busy with their to-do lists,
but that they have assembled those lists
without first listening to the words of Jesus.
They have not listened to him
so that they might come to know him
and to know what it is that he is asking of them.

Notice the kinds of things that are on their to-do lists:
driving out demons,
doing mighty deeds –
big, flashy things that might make you
the first-century equivalent of a celebrity,
with a million people following you on Twitter.
Compare this with the picture of the disciple
that Jesus has sketched for us
in the Sermon on the Mount:
poor in spirit,
and even insulted and persecuted.
Not the sort of person
who is likely to be tweeting their latest mighty deed
done in the name of Jesus.

So maybe the first challenge of Lent
is not one of working our way
through our to-do list of mighty deeds,
but simply of listening to the words of Jesus
as these come to us through the scriptures
and in our prayerful reflection.
For if we act before we listen,
our to-do list is more likely to represent our agenda than Jesus’;
it will end up being a lot more about glorifying ourselves
than about glorifying God,
even if we drape our deeds
in the fig-leaf of piety,
saying “Lord, Lord.”

Jesus goes on to say in today’s gospel, however,
that listening is not enough.
If we want our house to be built on solid rock
rather than on shifting sand
we must not only listen to his words,
but also act on them.
We must not act without first listening,
but we also must not listen without then acting.
The demanding picture of the disciple that Jesus’ gives us
in the Sermon on the Mount
is not simply an ideal that we are to admire
but a concrete set of instructions
that we are to embody in our lives.
We will, of course, fail.
We will be prideful
rather than poor in spirit.
We will hold grudges
rather than be merciful.
We will try to defeat our opponents
rather than be peacemakers.
We will surrender our ideals
rather than face insults and persecution.
As Paul reminds us in our second reading,
“there is no distinction;
all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God.”
But he also goes on to say that we are justified –
put back on the right path –
by God grace, “through the redemption in Christ Jesus.”

I suspect that your Lent, like mine,
will end up being something of a disappointment.
Prior experience tells me
that I will try to act without first listening,
or I will listen, but never get around to acting,
or, perhaps most likely,
I will fail to do either much listening or much acting.
But if we can manage to listen even just a little
to the words Christ will speak to us over these next six weeks
we will hear of his power and his glory
that is revealed in suffering and weakness.
We will hear of “the righteousness of God
that comes through faith in Jesus Christ”
and we can hope for some share in his righteousness,
not because we have said “Lord, Lord,”
or because we have done mighty deeds in his name,
but because we have listened and acted on our faith –
our faith in the mighty deed of God in Jesus Christ
by which we have been saved.
This Lent, let us make listening to Jesus and acting on his word
the solid rock on which we build.