Intentions of the Holy Father for April

Ecology and Justice. That governments may foster the protection of creation and the just distribution of natural resources.
Hope for the Sick. That the Risen Lord may fill with hope the hearts of those who are being tested by pain and sickness.

Easy All The Way

Today's readings (Thurs after VII Sun of Ord II; Jas 5:1-6; Ps 49; Mk 9:41-50) are not pleasant ones.

First, James excoriates the rich indifferent: "Come now, you rich, weep and wail over your impending miseries. Your wealth has rotted away, your clothes have become moth-eaten, your gold and silver have corroded, and that corrosion will be a testimony against you; it will devour your flesh like a fire." Their crime was that they "lived on earth in luxury and pleasure," gaining their wealth from the backs of laborers whose cries for justice have "reached the ears of the Lord of hosts." Thus they "have stored up treasure for the last days," as if gold could bribe God, as if money would appease the Maker of Heaven and Earth.

In the Gospel reading, our Lord gives us hard advice: if something of us causes us to sin, then we are to get rid of it, even going so far as to rip out an eye or cut off a hand, if it becomes for us an occasion of sin. People often say that our Lord is being metaphorical or hyperbolic on this point. He is not, and makes it clear by saying that it is better to lose a body part than to risk damnation. We can disagree only if we overvalue our possessions (even body parts) and do not understand how horrible hell is. Think about it: if we found we were holding in our backpacks a bottle of deadly poison gas, we would be very careful to distance ourselves from it. If such care is taken to protect the body, then why not the soul?

The message gains an added dimension if we recall the martyrdom of the widow and her seven sons, recounted in the Second Book of Maccabees (2 Mac 7). In that story, each of the sons willingly parts with hand, tongue, scalp, feet, or more, rather than betray the laws of God. The first brother expresses the hope of resurrection at the end of time. The second brother, disregarding his maimed limbs during his martyrdom adds: "It was from Heaven that I received these; for the sake of his laws I disdain them; from him I hope to receive them again," (2 Mac 7:11).

If we are really serious about avoiding sin then we must be willing to sacrifice the things that lead us into sin: wealth, comfort, friendships, love of self - all good things in their own right, can become inordinate and lead us away from God into disregard for our neighbor, greed, addictions, sexual immorality, and worse. We must take measures against these occasions for sin. Parting with wealth to avoid disregard for the poor; ridding ourselves of comforts to avoid sluggishness; parting with friends to avoid being tempted by them - none of these should be beyond our thinking, beyond our willingness. Whatever we cling to, even at the price of our relationship with God, will certainly drag us down to hell. Whatever we sacrifice for the love of God, we have good reason to hope will be restored to us in a glorified way at the resurrection. We have to be willing to go all the way for Jesus.

Easy now - don't go apoplectic! Usually, intermediate steps are possible between our current sinful state and a total disposal of all worldly goods. We need not break off all ties, or give away all wealth, at once. Rather, we should prudently examine ourselves. We should ask if it possible to avoid the occasion to sin by taking steps in the relationship, or parting with a chunk (but not all) of the wealth.

If a particular friend encourages me to use narcotics, might I meet with him only in safe situations? If that works, so much the better - I might end by being a good example to him. But if I think that by falling into sin with him I will somehow be a good example, or lead him out of it, I am only fooling myself. Better to cut him off than to go to hell with him. It is not my job to save others' souls, and pride alone can convince. Jesus will take care of him - perhaps seeing his good friends leaving is just the medicine needed. I cannot know. I can only do my sincere best to avoid sin at all costs, and that I must do.

Likewise, it may be that by developing a habit of tithing, I learn generosity as a virtue and begin to give to all who ask, as our Lord commands (Mt 5:42). In such cases, perhaps it is wise to keep a stock of wealth, especially if the firm intention is to invest it ethically and wisely to multiply its usefulness to God's purposes. But if I find myself obeying the commandment to tithe and then feeling self-satisfied and disregarding the vital needs of my poor brethren - well, better just to get rid of the wealth, flush it down the toilet even, so that I will be unable to help them, than to hold onto it and refuse to help them.

Prudence is the virtue of knowing what is most valuable and the best way to gain it. Heaven is more more valuable than a fat wad of cash, cool friends, or even two working eyeballs. The prudent thing is to be willing to go all the way for Jesus, to whatever sacrifice is needed (He did!), and to do it one solid step at a time.

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