You Know the Commandments

Douglas P. McManaman
28th Sunday in Ordinary Time (2015)
Reproduced with Permission

There are so many things one can preach on given today's readings, but I would like to say a few things about the first part of today's gospel. A man runs up to Jesus and asks him what it is he must do to inherit eternal life. If we really think about this, Jesus' reply should surprise us. He did not say: "Love", or "Love is what you must do to inherit eternal life". Although that is true, Jesus said something far more specific. He then proceeds to list five "thou shalt nots" - call these 'negative commandments' - , and he ends off with one positive commandment: "honor your father and your mother".

I am not sure how many of you followed the coverage of Pope Francis on his recent visit to the United States, but there is a narrative that has been constructed by the media ever since Pope Francis came to office, a narrative that suggests Pope Francis has liberalized the Church, that he broke ranks with the two previous popes, and that his emphasis on the social aspects of Catholic teaching means that the other more personal aspects of Catholic teaching no longer hold. There was clear evidence of this narrative from CNN commentators on his recent visit. The western media is desperate for a certain kind of pope and they are determined to construct one in their own image and likeness, and "The People's Pope" is that construct. That is why it is very important to read Pope Francis in the original and frequently, and not through the eyes of CNN or the Toronto Star or Globe and Mail.

Pope Francis knows this gospel. He has read it hundreds of times. When he says the family is beautiful, the family is an image of God, and that we are called to love, etc., he knows that there are all sorts of choices and behaviours that are inconsistent with love. If I were to give you instructions on how to make it to Florida or Los Angeles by car, those instruction will inevitably include a list of negatives along with the positives. In other words, where you are headed is just as much defined by "where not to go" (what exits not to take) as it is by "where to go"; i.e., take this Interstate south and that Interstate southwest, but do not take the first exit, and do not go east on that highway, but west for 4 hours, etc. I could keep my instructions simple and tell you that if you want to go to Florida, drive south, or if you want to go to L.A, drive south west, but in that case you probably won't get there and will likely end up in a big state like Texas, or possibly New Orleans or Mexico.

When Pope Francis says "Love" and people who haven't seen the inside of a Church in years begin to scream and commentators smile with great delight, you have to wonder what is going on. We live in a broken world; fetal body parts are for sale, men are leaving their wives and children for the younger looking woman at the office, countless men are addicted to Internet pornography, people are selling their souls for financial security, but so many are smitten by Pope Francis' message of love. They are smitten because many of them really believe that because he speaks generally and does not get down to specifics that the specifics don't matter. As long as we love, everything is okay. Whatever choices we make, as long as we love the poor and the disenfranchised, we are in good standing, and who is anyone to judge us?

But this is a caricature. This is not the Holy Father. He is a son of the Church, as he said, and he is a follower of Christ, and when Christ was asked what must I do to enter eternal life, he said: "You know the commandments: You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and your mother. " It's almost as if Jesus is suggesting the man is deceiving himself: Why are you asking me? You know the answer. Killing another human being, either physically or his very reputation, is inconsistent with love, both love of God and love of neighbor, for God brought that life into being out of love; committing adultery is a crime against marriage and marriage is holy, a sign of the love that Christ has for his Bride (the Church) and thus it tarnishes that reflection and hurts children, leaving scars that they will carry for the rest of their lives, not to mention the spouse that was cheated on; theft is inconsistent with love of God and neighbor, it is a failure to respect a person's fundamental right to property; lying and fraud are inconsistent with love of God and neighbor and the repercussions reach far beyond anything we can imagine - they destroy trust, and the result is we feel we live in a world in which no one can be trusted, and such an atmosphere begets other destructive behaviors, like substance abuse, despair, mental illness, and even suicide. And failing to honor your father and mother - harboring unforgiveness against them throughout our lives, choosing only to look at them from our own point of view - is inconsistent with love of God and neighbor. Jesus could have gone on, but the man got the picture.

Many have convinced themselves that killing an unborn child or deliberately killing a terminally ill cancer patient by an overdose is consistent with the love of God and neighbor, that selling pornography and cheating on your income tax and pilfering things from the office and lying under oath are consistent with love of God, and that the only thing God demands is that we have compassion on a general level and vote a certain way. This is self-deception.

But Jesus goes further, because the man insists that he has observed all these commandments from his youth. Jesus sees right into his heart: there is one thing left for you to do, he says. Jesus knows he has not given his life over to God. His life does not belong to God. He still belongs to himself. He is still the master of his own life. He does not trust in divine providence. So Jesus tells him to surrender that control over to God: Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.

To follow Jesus involves much more than believing certain propositions, it means allowing Jesus to lead. If the rich man sells everything he has, he will learn soon enough that God will take care of him. That's why Jesus instructed his Apostles, when he sent them out in pairs, to take nothing for the journey except a staff - no bread, no bag, no money; he wanted them to experience the care of divine providence, that it is real, that God really is in control, that God does look after their needs. So many people do not know this because they refuse to risk it. They don't trust that God will look after them and that God orders everything providentially so that "all things work for good for those who love God". And so they don't know that joy and security of living in a world in which God is governor and ruler; all they know is the insecurity of living in a world in which so many look out for themselves only and will kill, cheat, lie and steal if they feel that doing so will bring them more happiness. And that is the root of so much of our behaviour that is sinful: a lack of trust in divine providence.

Be wary of the false narrative that depicts our Holy Father as some sort of Marxist who thinks personal morality does not matter. The Holy Spirit has given us a pope who is as son of the Church and a disciple of Christ.