Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Authentic faith, genuine religion, is meant to be transformative; or it is nothing. (Reflections on Jn. 8:31-42, Wed. 5th Week of Lent)

Jesus deals a death-blow in today's gospel reading to a claim all-important to the Jews. For them, Abraham was one of the greatest figures in all religious history, and they considered themselves safe and secure in God's favor simply because they were Abraham’s descendants.

The admiration which the Jews had for Abraham was of course perfectly legitimate, for he is a giant in the religious history of the world. But what followed from their admiration of him, was quite misguided. For they believed that Abraham had gained so much blessings from his goodness that this merit was sufficient, not only for himself, but for all his descendants as well.

This in effect, led to a very bad attitude of complacency and indifference on their part. They became less concerned with actually seeking and obeying God’s will, and had instead allowed their religion to deteriorate to the point that they could not even recognize the Messiah they had been waiting for. In fact, as Jesus says, they now even wanted to kill him. This could hardly the work of Abraham’s children.

What Jesus was telling them therefore was that true faith is known, not by claims, even as important as the claim of being children of Abraham. Faith is known, not by words, however great sounding they might be.

A religion built on words, beautiful, grandiose, even edifying words, remains just that, a religion of words. A religion founded on emotion, deep, moving, even most intense, remains just that, a religion of emotion. A religion whose edifice is no more than thought, no matter how profound, elaborate, sophisticated and complex, remains just that, a religion of thought, issuing forth in nothing truly meaningful in the lives of women and men.

Faith, true religion, is known only by concrete deeds. Action alone proves that faith is real. The book of James tells us in no uncertain terms: “faith without works is dead”. Authentic faith, genuine religion, is meant to be transformative or it is nothing: it must convert one's mind, change one's heart, and move one's hands and feet to make a difference in the world.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The hour of Christ's death on the cross, the "hour of glory" (A brief reflection on Jn. 8:21-30, Tue. 5th Wk of Lent)

Still they do not understand. "Who are you?" the Pharisees ask Jesus in today's gospel reading. All this time, all those miracles, all those kind and loving words, and still they didn’t recognize him.

One of the recurring themes in the gospel of John is precisely the inability of many to recognize Jesus and appreciate his ministry. Even the disciples, time and again, are presented as having such great difficulty in understanding him.

All such misconceptions and lack of recognition, however build up to a climax which, in the Gospel of John, is the “hour of glory” when Jesus will finally be revealed as the Son of God, and the Savior of Israel.

And yet, even at that point, perplexity is the order of the day. For the very moment of glory is also the moment when Jesus dies on the cross—an event that seemed to be the very opposite of glorification.

This is the greatest paradox of John’s Gospel. And it’s a paradox that has confounded many who encountered Jesus, not only those who refused to believe, but even his closest friends.

It is only after the resurrection that his disciples and many others will come to realize what he had been telling them all this time, that his Kingdom was not of this world, and that his being Messiah is different from the way they had come to expect a strong, and powerful ruler.

The way of Jesus is the way of humble service and the way of the suffering servant. There is tremendous consolation here, especially for those who of us who find in suffering a great stumbling block to our trust in God’s love and compassion.

Nothing, not even suffering, is outside the scope of God’s love and care for us. For in him, even the deepest and darkest moments of our life can find meaning and redemption.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Recognizing the "instruments" of God's love and salvation, judgment and condemnation (Reflections on Seminary Life, 4th Sunday of Lent, Jn. 3:14-21)

Today's gospel reading contains two rather curiously entwined realities: the reality of God's saving love on the one hand, and the reality of judgment and condemnation on the other. Love and condemnation - two realities Jesus juxtaposes in his reply to Nicodemus.

"For God so loved the world
that he gave his only Son,

so that everyone who believes in him
might not perish
but might have eternal life.
Whoever believes in him
will not be condemned,

but whoever does not believe
has already been condemned".

"How could a God who truly loves, ever condemn?" one of my university students asked me once in a theology class. "They're diametrically opposed realities. Surely a God of love cannot condemn."

How indeed, could a God who loves, condemn? How could a God who desires nothing but good for his creation, also make room for judgement? These questions never cease to leave me perplexed whenever I read these passages from John. How could love make room for judgement? How could an all-embracing love, make room for condemnation?

There is perhaps no experience more difficult for a teacher than for his or her students to refuse to respond to the thoughts and values he shares. Indifference, not critique and argument, is the real enemy of growth. This, in fact, has been my experience over the last decade and a half that I've been engaged in the teaching ministry as a priest.

But what makes the experience of indifferent students so difficult? Is it that a teacher feels disappointment at what she sometimes sees as the enormity of her task? Is it because he knows that at the end of the term, judgement will have to be rendered? Or is it because she knows that it is the students themselves, because of their lack of interest, who will eventually render judgement upon themselves?

At the heart and root of the difficulty though, I believe, is the fact that a teacher loves his students and does not want to see them fail but to learn, develop, mature and grow into the young man or woman God wishes him or her to become. Indeed, it is possible to offer a person an experience in nothing but love and the promise of salvation and for that experience to turn into a judgement or even a condemnation instead.

The love of God we encounter in the gospel of John is a love that calls and invites creation towards growth; it dreams only the best for the world; it envisions the "more" that human beings can become.

But this offer of love, this promise of salvation, can be transformed into condemnation, not because God himself condemns, but because one has already condemned himself by his reaction to God's initiative. He has already rendered judgement upon himself by his refusal to take part in the great drama of redemption. To refuse to respond is to condemn oneself to stagnation, sterility, and decay. To choose to respond - no matter how difficult and painful this can sometimes be - is to become more fully, the person God wishes one to be.

[The following section of the reflection was given at Mass at the seminary.]

Seminary evaluations begin this Wednesday. And I am looking forward to them! Not because of some not-so-friendly reasons you might now be thinking of, but simply because chef Ramon prepares really great sandwiches for lunch, for the faculty on that day, perhaps to "ease the pain" a bit.

You see, I have a confession to make. I've never really liked evaluations, I've never been fully comfortable with them, whether as a seminarian or as a priest doing formation work.

When I was a seminarian, I felt I got too much of what I then thought was "just a lot of nonsense" from the seminary formation staff, chief of which was the fact that I didn't wear enough sweaters and thick clothes and would keep my room freezing, with the windows open during winter, which caused me - that's what they thought - to get sick often.

But I also never liked evaluations as a seminarian, because I felt none of those forming me knew me as much as I would've wanted them to.

But then, who would have? Do we even really know our very selves that much?

When I became a priest, I still didn't like evaluations; not only because I had to sit through countless hours of talking about other people, but also because I felt I really didn't know about the students as much as I would've wanted to - no matter how hard I tried to get to know them.

But then, who would? Is there even such a thing as a hundred-percent knowledge of another human being?

I still recall a conversation I had with my spiritual director about my discomfort and dislike of the process. And the advice he gave me as a student is something I've kept close to my heart all these years; and it's the same advice I wish to share with you this morning.

"When you leave seminary", Fr. John said, "when you get ordained, you will never have to go through these evaluations again. You will also never have to be in chapel for regular prayers, you will never have to be in the dining room for meals at regular times, you will probably never have to take exams again, unless you go for further studies, and you will never have to live with your superiors in such close quarters again, unless the bishop makes you his secretary".

"When you leave seminary, you will probably thank God that you don't have to go through these things again. But it's also then that you will slowly realize how valuable they were, how important for your growth as a person, how necessary for your guidance and safety as a priest, how vital for the protection of your vocation. But by then, they will be gone".

Think about it, once we leave seminary, all the requirements connected with our life in formation disappear. And then we are free... but then we are on our own; sink or swim, we are on our own.

When we do leave seminary, the voices of feedback and critique, these evaluative voices, the prophetic voices reminding us to keep to the straight and narrow path - they all disappear, and we are left on our own - and the only time we get that critical voice, as a friend of mine who used to be a priest, said to me just this past week - is "when we've already failed; but by then it's often too late".

All our activities in seminary, from our prayers, to our classes, to the evaluations we have to go through, are 'supports', 'scaffolds' that enable the Church to slowly but surely, build and form the priest that Christ desires.

They're not perfect structures; but they've all been designed, evolved, and developed over the course of hundreds of years, to mold us - sometimes painfully - into a a priest according to the mind of Chris. While in seminary, we are meant to internalize these structures, to make them part of our very selves. So that one day, when we leave seminary, and leave the structures behind, the values they were meant to instill in us will remain.

That's why the many things we do in seminary are never ends-in-themselves. And even our entire life in formation is not an end-in-itself.

Think about it. What role will Plato, or Aristotle, or Nietzsche or Husserl play in your priesthood? Nothing. But the sharpness of mind that philosophy gives you, that will remain. What role does coming together in prayer or in other activities have in your priesthood? Not much. Once you leave seminary, you won't be going to communal prayers again. But the value of prayer, the value of relationships, they stay with us for the rest of our lives. But only if we learn to appreciate them now, and learn to internalize their meaning and their significance in our life.

What role will these evaluations have once we get ordained? Not much. My old seminary evaluation files are all stored in a footlocker back home, gathering mold or dust. But the value of self-critique, of honesty to self, of seeking meaningful feedback from people, of seeking brotherly correction that will keep us on the straight and narrow path - those we shall need for the rest of our life. For they will be our guide, our protection, our shield, and our salvation.

The many challenges we encounter in seminary life - yes including the evaluations we have to periodically go through - challenging and sometimes difficult and painful as they might be - are the Church's ways of reminding us that Christ cares for us, that God loves us, and wants us to be the best persons, the holiest priests we can be.

But we have to learn to see them as that - despite the occasional difficulty of doing so. And we have to learn, throughout our six or eight years in seminary, to internalize them, to make them our own. So that when our time in seminary is over, when the supports and scaffolds of seminary life are gone, they will remain there inside us, guiding us, protecting us, shielding us, and leading us through the rough and often thorny path that lies ahead.

God's love is offered to each one of us in all the structures of our life in formation; yes, even those as complex and sometimes tough to take as evaluations. But we must learn to see them as such, and value them. Failure to do so, has led many, not to the salvation Christ speaks of in today's Gospel, but to a condemnation which they too often bring upon their very selves.

"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son,
so that everyone who believes in him might not perish
but might have eternal life.
Whoever believes in him will not be condemned,
but whoever does not believe has already been condemned".

Saturday, March 17, 2012

From Saint Patrick's Breastplate (St. Patrick's Day, March 17)

I arise today

Through a mighty strength,
the invocation of the Trinity,

Through the belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness
Of the Creator of Creation.

I arise today
Through the strength of Christ's birth
with his baptism,

Through the strength of his crucifixion
with his burial,

Through the strength of his resurrection
with his ascension,

Through the strength of his descent
for the judgment of Doom.

I arise today
Through the strength of the love of Cherubim,
In obedience of angels,
In the service of archangels,
In hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
In prayers of patriarchs,
In predictions of prophets,
In preaching of apostles,
In faith of confessors,
In innocence of holy virgins,
In deeds of righteous men.

I arise today
Through the strength of heaven:
Light of sun,
Radiance of moon,
Splendor of fire,
Speed of lightning,
Swiftness of wind,
Depth of sea,
Stability of earth,
Firmness of rock.

I arise today
Through God's strength to pilot me:
God's might to uphold me,
God's wisdom to guide me,
God's eye to look before me,
God's ear to hear me,
God's word to speak for me,
God's hand to guard me,
God's way to lie before me,
God's shield to protect me,
God's host to save me
From snares of devils,
From temptations of vices,
From everyone who shall wish me ill,
Afar and anear,
Alone and in multitude.

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness,
Of the Creator of Creation.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

"Let justice flow like a river, and righteousness like a never-failing stream." (Reflections on the 3rd Sunday of Lent, John 2:13-25)

There are only two instances in the New Testament when Jesus is portrayed as being angry. Today's account of the cleansing of the temple is one. The other is when he asks the Scribes and Pharisees if they thought it was more acceptable to do good or evil on the Sabbath, and they keep silent rather than give him an honest answer. Here the gospel of Mark says that "he looked at them in anger, distressed at their hardness of heart". (Mark 3:5)

In his narrative of the temple cleansing, John tells us that Jesus, "made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen, and spilled the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables.” (John 2:15)

It would be wrong to think that Jesus drove the people out of the temple simply because they were doing something evil or illegal or unacceptable. If we take a closer look at the circumstances surrounding the presence of these animal sellers and currency changers, we see that the situation is a little more complicated.

First, consider the animal sellers. Animal sacrifice was necessary for temple worship, and the Law stipulated that the animals to be offered be unblemished. Now that's precisely what those selling animals in the temple area were doing - selling unblemished offerings that were in fact guaranteed by a "quality-checker".

Now animals were also offered outside the temple area; but these tended to be of poor quality and were consequently unacceptable. Worshipers thus had to purchase them inside, or they'd just be wasting their money on what were essentially rejects. What the animal sellers were doing was therefore perfectly normal.

Next, consider the money changers. The pilgrims who came to the temple in Jerusalem were from all over the empire, and they had to make monetary offerings at the temple. Now the Law stipulated that coins to be offered cannot have "graven images" on them, which most of the coins of the pilgrims had.

The money changers inside the temple were consequently doing an important service to both the pilgrims and the temple itself. They were changing the pilgrims' coins which had the images of emperors, kings, and pagan deities to Jewish coins that were acceptable to God. Like the animal sellers, therefore, the currency changers were doing something perfectly normal and even necessary.

Why was Jesus so angry then?

It was not so much what the animal sellers and money changers were doing that angered him; rather, it was the manner by which they conducted their affairs and what this meant for temple worship that caused him no small amount of distress and indignation. More than the physical mess itself, it was what such mess truly pointed to that truly angered Jesus.

First, consider the animal sellers. While the service they provided was legitimate and necessary, they also literally turned the outer area of the temple into a marketplace. This outer area was called the "Court of the Gentiles". It was a space reserved for non-Jews who wanted to pray and be close to God.

But the animal sellers were allowed by the temple authorities to turn this area into a filthy place which stank because of animal manure. It had become so noisy with all the animals and bargaining going on that those who sought to pray there could hardly do so.

More than anything thus, it showed how low the Jews regarded the Gentiles. A stinking, noisy, messy place for prayer was good enough for them. And this was done in the name of religion! That was completely unacceptable to Jesus.

For how can one profess true faith and true religion when he can’t even treat people with fairness, simply because they’re different from himself?

Next, consider the money changers. They were known to cheat people by charging them unreasonable exchange rates. The temple offering was worth a day and half’s wage; but these changers sometimes charged double that amount, making it amount to three days’ wages.

Most of these pilgrims were poor. Consequently, these money changers were fleecing the poor, in the name of religion. It showed how low these people regarded those who were already poor—and, once again, this was being done in the name of religion. This too was completely unacceptable to Jesus.

For how can one profess true faith and true religion when he can’t even treat people with justice, simple because they are poor?

Why was Jesus so angry then? Because what he saw was a religion gone out of control. It wasn’t even true religion anymore.

What he saw in the temple was a kind of religion that had become a show. It had forgotten what authentic religion is all about. And so Jesus makes a whip of cords and drives the sellers and money changers out: “Take these out of here”, he cries. “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

He was angry because these men were giving religion a bad name. They had forgotten that religion isn’t only about the externals of sacrifice and offering and ritual.

True religion is true relationship, with God and with people, especially the weak, the outcast, the poor, and those who live on the margins of society. How can it be true religion when one treats others unjustly, without respect, or even excludes others?

“It is justice that I desire, not sacrifice!” God himself repeats over and over again in the Old Testament. And the prophets were no less severe in their condemnation of religious practices that were solely meant for show, rituals that had to do purely with externals but caused no change whatsoever in one's heart, mind, and soul.

If we think Jesus' action in the temple was harsh, we only have to consider the words God spoke through the prophet Amos:

"I hate, I despise your religious feasts. I cannot stand your assemblies. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice flow like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!" (Amos 5:21-24)

The mess at the temple, which Jesus had to cleanse, symbolized a religion that had forgotten its heart and core, one that had lost sight of its meaning and substance. Jesus’ anger was meant to demonstrate that in the most dramatic way.

The sellers and money changers and temple officials weren’t bad people. In fact they were good persons who were doing their duties. But they had lost sight of the true meaning of what they were doing.

Even the best among us can sometimes lose sight of the true meaning of our faith and our religion. We get lost in the externals, and we forget that what goes on, on the outside, must be consistent with what goes on in our hearts.

The sellers, money changers and temple officials lost themselves in the superficial and peripheral because they had forgotten what was essential and substantial.

In another part of the Gospel, someone approached Jesus and asked him what was the greatest commandment of religion, and how he can gain everlasting life. His reply was simple:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your mind, and with all your strength. And you shall love your neighbor as yourself”.

The Jews at the temple had forgotten that. Today, Jesus invites each one of us to remember.

Friday, March 9, 2012

"Be compassionate, as your heavenly Father is compassionate" (A reflection on the Parable of the Prodigal Son, Sat. 2nd Wk of Lent, Lk. 15:1-3,11-32)

There’s a fascinating story in the Jewish Talmud of the angels in heaven rejoicing after the Israelites had crossed the Red Sea and the Egyptian army was drowning. They wanted to sing their song of praise and rejoicing, but God instead commands them to be quiet.

"Be silent", he tells them. "The work of my hands, my children, are drowning in the sea, and you wish to sing a song?" (Megillah, 10b)

The parable that Jesus tells in today’s gospel reading arose out of a very concrete situation, namely, the Pharisees disdain for sinners, which Jesus contrasts with God’s compassion and forgiveness, and his love, even for sinners. The first reading from the book of Micah expresses it in these words:

"Who is there like you, the God who removes guilt
and pardons sin for the remnant of his inheritance;
Who does not persist in anger forever,
but delights rather in clemency."

There are three characters in Jesus' parable of the prodigal son: the younger son who squandered his father’s wealth; the elder brother who sought to live a life of righteousness; and the father who showed nothing but love and compassion to both his sons.

It would not be correct to think that Jesus was praising the younger son in the gospel—as if sinning and then repenting were the way to go. God may be a loving and forgiving father, but he does expect us to live in righteousness.

And neither was Jesus saying that the younger son was better than the older one. No, there was nothing wrong with the elder son’s seeking to live an upright life.

The older brother's problem was not that he was good; his problem was that his goodness had made him harsh, unforgiving, and lacking in compassion. In the same way, it wasn’t the Pharisees righteousness that made them unacceptable to Jesus, it was their self-righteousness.

The problem with self-righteousness is that it can really mask either of two things.

First, the harshness and lack of compassion one has for others is often a reflection of the same harshness one shows towards oneself, and the disdain one has for others, especially those upon whom one looks down on account of their "weaknesses", is often a sign of a deeper disdain for oneself.

Second, self-righteousness is, most often than not, a façade, a smokescreen that hides something more troublesome. Jesus pronounced woe upon woe on the Pharisees for their hypocrisy, referring to them as "white-washed tombs".

The parable of the prodigal son is not only a reminder for us to be compassionate towards others, especially the weak and sinful. It also contains a warning. Harshness, lack of compassion, self-righteousness, and a judgmental attitude are like bricks that slowly but surely, build a wall that hides our true selves, from others, from God, and eventually even from ourselves.

Our only safeguard against such an unfortunate outcome is to heed the words of Jesus in another part of scripture: “Be compassionate as your heavenly Father is compassionate”. For when we do so, we eventually discover that by being compassionate, forgiving, merciful, and kind to others—the very person we are showing compassion, forgiveness, mercy, and kindness, is none other than ourselves.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

It isn't simply our possessions, but what we do or fail to do with them that matters in the end. (Thurs. 2nd Week of Lent, Lk. 16:19-31)

The story of the rich man and Lazarus brings to mind the promise of justice that God will give his people at the end of time.

At first glance, it seems like a mere condemnation of the rich who will find torment in the afterlife and a kind of romanticizing of the poor who will be consoled and comforted in heaven when they die. While this is certainly one of the ideas the parable wishes to convey, there is a deeper meaning the story wishes to convey.

The rich man finds himself condemned not for simply being rich. Jesus never said being rich was a sin. Instead, he finds himself tormented in the afterlife because in this life he showed himself quite indifferent to the plight of the poor Lazarus lying at his door, eating the scraps that fell from his table.

It wasn’t his wealth that condemned the rich man, it was rather what that wealth made of him—a man completely insensitive and indifferent to the plight of those who needed his help. It is what wealth does to a person that either merits him heaven or throws him into the fire in the afterlife, not wealth itself.

We too have possessions. We may not be as wealthy as the man in the parable, but we certainly own things. These in themselves, however much they might be, are neither good nor bad. But it is the effect they have on us that will determine whether they turn out to be good for us, or otherwise. How we use our wealth and the things that we own in order to be of help to our neighbor is what will ultimately decide where it is we shall go.

"Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’

Then the righteous will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’

And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’

Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.'

Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’

He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’

Friday, March 2, 2012

"An eye for an eye" properly understood, and Christ's command to love one's enemies (Sat, 1st Week of Lent, Matt. 5:43-48)

Are the standards by which Jesus wants us to live too high? Don't the demands he makes on his followers seem too difficult? "I say to you, love your enemies; and pray for those who persecute you?"

Can anyone really live up to the requirements of such a command?

The Law of Moses on retaliation which says,
“an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”, seems far more reasonable, and yet, is itself often misunderstood.

I once saw a bumper sticker that said: "An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind". It was certainly clever, but it also missed the law's real point and intention.

In reality, the so-called "Lex Talionis" was not meant to encourage revenge. In fact, it was intended to put a limit to the vengeance a person could take on another who had caused him harm.

The Law was the basis for order and justice in ancient Israel. It forbade one seeking vengeance to take more than what was taken from him. If an enemy took one eye from me, I may only take one eye from him, no more than that. Without this Law, revenge would’ve been excessive. With this Law, the possibility of an endless cycle of vengeance was put to an end.

But Christ was not satisfied with Laws that merely put limits to the evil we can do. And so he replaced it with one that would not put a limit to the good that we should do.

And so the Lex Talionis, the law setting limits to revenge was replaced with the Law of Love, which calls us to a higher standard, precisely because it’s very difficult to live up to.

“Love your neighbor”, it says. But notice that after we’ve loved our neighbor, it tells us again, “love your neighbor”. [And in today's gospel, we are enjoined to see that even the enemy is encompassed in the command to love.] "Love your neighbor; love your enemy". And should we reply, "I have already done so", it simply answers us back, "then love some more", repeating the command over and over again.

One can never fully satisfy the Law of Love.
For with this Law, love is made endless, limitless, and ultimately something which one must spend his entire life doing. Love then becomes an endless quest, a life-long endeavor, not vain and hopeless, but a quest whose fulfillment is the quest itself.

There was once a philosopher who said, “the standards of Christianity are either the standards of a madman or the standards of a God who has too much faith and trust in human beings”. The standards by which Christ asks his followers to live are indeed higher, more difficult, and more challenging.

But that’s because he has far too much trust in our ability to achieve the highest and most noble goals and aspirations life sets before us. We are after all, made in the image and likeness of a God who is fullness Himself.

The consistency of authentic faith (Friday, 1st Week of Lent, Matt. 5: 20-26)

The scribes and Pharisees were persons who lived their faith on the outside. While they were not always that way, eventually they became more interested in a person’s external acts of righteousness than in the interior dispositions of his heart.

Religion for them had become a show, a hollowed-out shell, pleasant-looking on the outside perhaps, but holding nothing genuine and substantial on the inside.

That’s why Jesus reminded his followers that their righteousness must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees. He wanted them to be on guard against religious acts done simply for show.

It was always his teaching that our inner thoughts are just as important as our outward deeds, and that it isn’t enough to appear good on the outside, we must also be truly good on the inside.

As far as Jesus was concerned, our motives, thoughts and desires are as important, and at times even more important, than our actions themselves. For the scribes and the Pharisees of his day, the outside alone mattered.

Jesus doesn’t say of course, that the inside alone is what counts. What he does says in today’s gospel is that genuine faith is one that makes our outward actions and internal motives correspond to each other.

This is the kind of faith and righteousness for which he wishes us to strive. It will not be easily attained. For it requires hard work, perseverance, and patience with ourselves whenever we fail to live up to the integrity of heart, mind, and soul that Jesus enjoins upon us. And yet we must press on; for as he says in the gospel, our very entry in the Kingdom of heaven depends on it.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)