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Tag Archive: Faith

Turning Aside from the Way Ordained

Posted: Sunday, June 1, 2008 (11:20 pm), by John W Gillis


Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. Matt 7:21 (NAB)

9th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A

Deut 11.18, 26-28, 32
Rom 3.21-25, 28
Matt 7.21-27
(view the readings at the USCCB site)

Very interesting how the two reading cycles converge in today’s liturgy – which they certainly don’t always do. The first reading is not on a cycle, but is usually an Old Testament reading that somehow typifies, or at least contextualizes, the reading in the Gospel cycle. The Gospel reading today is from the end of the Sermon on the Mount, which Jesus finishes by making a startling distinction between effective and vain forms of encountering Him. I sometimes hear people refer to this as the difference between giving lip service and real service to God, but I don’t think that goes far enough.

True, in Mt 7.24-27, Jesus clarifies the distinction by differentiating between those who act on His words and those who don’t, but I don’t think this is just about the need to put faith into action. It is about faith being rooted in truth, in God’s will. This seems very clearly illuminated in the first reading.

Just as in the Sermon on the Mount, God has placed before the people His words, and invited them to respond. Paralleling the “act on them”/”not act on them” distinction in the Gospel, we see the options to obey or not obey the commandments, bringing about blessing or curse.

The curse in Dt. 11.28 is identified with three phrases: not obeying the commandments; turning aside from the way ordained; and following other gods not known. There’s no distinction made between the first two terms – disobeying the commandments is turning aside from the way ordained – but the third term is given as a reason: to follow unknown gods. In other words, turning aside from the way ordained is said, by the LORD, to be done for the purpose of following other gods.

I think it’s important not to miss the significance of the assumption this verse is pregnant with: that one does not fail to obey the commandments except to follow other gods – perhaps even that one cannot turn away from the way ordained (The Way) without following other gods. So not only is following the LORD without obeying the commandments excluded a priori, but so is any semblance of agnosticism – at least among those who have heard the commandments, the “words.” This is sensible enough: having encountered the truth, one can accept it or reject it, but one can hardly claim to be unaware of its existence.

I think the NASB, HCSB, NIV and NJB get this verse wrong by translating it: “turn aside from the way… by following other gods.” (To its credit, the NASB does put “[Lit: to follow]” in the margin.) I’m not suggesting that following other gods is not in and of itself a turning aside from the way ordained – it’s a violation of the 1st Commandment – but the wording in these texts envisions sin (turning away) following from idolatry, instead of the other way around. There may be a reciprocal relationship between them, but I think the text is trying to tell us here basically that pride goes before a fall; the desire for falsehood precedes the lie.

Many of the loosey-goosey translations seem to botch this passage at least as badly. I see far too much leaning in them toward the wrong-headed idea that fidelity to God is about worshiping the “right” god, and, conversely and even more so, that worshiping the “wrong” god is what constitutes a sinner – and especially an enemy. This is an overly simplistic reading, and I think both the Matthew reading and the Romans reading witness against it.

Just a few verses earlier in Deuteronomy, we read: “be careful lest your heart be so lured away that you serve other gods and worship them” Deut 11:16 (NAB). The word that the NAB here translates “lured away” is often translated as “deceived.” Idolatry is enticing, but it is by means of embracing falsehood (deception) that one is brought to idolatry. When Jesus says “I never knew you [evildoers]” to those who protest: “we cast out demons in your name,” we see the fruits of religious self-deception at work in those who may be very much in conformity to the exterior norms of a life of faith, and even impressively so, but who are not transformed themselves to a life of fidelity to God’s Word, which amounts to taking the truth as a yoke to bear, without regard to personal cost – that is the knowledge of Christ that unfolds in the life of the disciple. We cannot turn back from that path without “exchanging” gods.

This is essentially what Paul is getting at in the Romans reading as well, though he comes at it from a very different angle. Paul had to deal not only with practitioners of religious self-deception, but with teachers of it. The issue is complex, and deserves much more time than I can give it here, but we are still talking about the difference between approaching the spiritual life as an exercise in religious conformance, and approaching it as a humble – and grateful – subject of the encounter with ultimate truth. We are not made right with God through the practice of religious activities – ritual or charismatic – but through persevering faithfully in the ever-unfolding encounter with truth, as God has revealed it in the person of Jesus Christ.

Ransomed From Your Empty Way of Life

Posted: Sunday, April 6, 2008 (9:33 pm), by John W Gillis


There is a strand of thought in Christianity which supposes that each person, to be saved, is obliged to believe in Jesus as the Christ, wherein they will be judged righteous by God, with no reference to the lives they have led (i.e. their works). I think this is an oversimplification, failing to grasp either the defining significance of our lived lives, or the complex character of a believing faith. I also think the second reading in today’s liturgy, 1Pet 1.17-21, is awfully difficult to reconcile with such a soteriology.

3rd Sunday of Easter, Year A

Now if you invoke as Father him who judges impartially according to each one’s works, conduct yourselves with reverence during the time of your sojourning, realizing that you were ransomed from your futile conduct, handed on by your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold but with the precious blood of Christ as of a spotless unblemished lamb.

He was known before the foundation of the world but revealed in the final time for you, who through him believe in God who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.
1 Pet 1.17-21 (NAB)

Peter doesn’t seem to have any question in his mind that God has called us, in Christ, to live holy lives – in the verse (1Pet 1.16) just preceding this reading, he quotes Lev 19.2 saying “Be holy because I am holy” – and he treats as common knowledge in v.17 the assumption that God indeed judges, impartially, according to one’s works.

What he goes on to say next is as boldly empowering as anything a health & wealth gospel preacher on TV will come up with:

For you know that you were redeemed from your empty way of life inherited from the fathers
1 Pet 1.18 (HCSB)

The “empty way of life” (the Holman translation here echoing the anguished words of Jeremiah: “thus says the LORD: What fault did your fathers find in me that they withdrew from me, Went after empty idols, and became empty themselves? Jer 2:5 (NAB)) is the heritage of godless paganism, the “desires of your former ignorance (v.14)” that was the natural patrimony of these new gentile Christians. When Peter called them to be “holy in every aspect of your conduct (v.15), he did so with the knowledge that their supernatural Father had ransomed them from their empty, unholy desires – by the blood of Christ.

Peter does not merely tell us that we are ransomed from the consequences of our natural patrimony of sin, but that we are ransomed from the futile conduct itself, that is sin and idolatry – ransomed for the sake of holiness, that we might become living stones in God’s spiritual house, a holy priesthood (1Pet 2.5). This is an extraordinarily powerful statement that Peter makes about the meaning of a faith in Christ, intended to open the eyes of our minds to the depth of the wonder that God desires to see come to a full flowering in our lives – right now.

Why does God ransom us from sin and idolatry to live in the holiness of Christ, if in the blink of an eye, we will be rescued from the world to possess our eternal inheritance?

Because our part in the drama is to live those holy lives, through our “works” of every kind, so that the light of Christ might be made manifest in the world. Peter tell us (v.21) that Christ was revealed to us “who through him believe in God… so that [our] faith and hope are in God.” In other words, our faith itself comes from the revelation of God in Christ, and the faith of others can only come about through the continuation of that revelation, the proclamation of which is entrusted to the believing community (the Church) through the sharing of Word and Sacrament, but also through witness – through works. In short, it’s not about me; it’s about others – it’s about you.

Belief itself comes through Christ, as Peter says in v.21. It is a gift of his own perfected humanity. The faith that saves is the faith that reveals God – the faith of Christ. That is why James tells us that faith without works is dead (Jas 2.26). And that is also why the writer of the letter to the Hebrews says that Christ is “the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (Heb 5.9).

Much like forgiveness is impossible to possess selfishly, salvation is not something one obtains for oneself, but rather something we are invited to participate in for the sake of others. It is a life we are called into, not some kind of eschatological get out of jail free card.

Good Friday: The Other Mothers’ Day

Posted: Friday, March 21, 2008 (10:01 pm), by John W Gillis


As has been my custom for several years, I listened to Henryk Gorecki’s Symphony No. 3 (Symphony of Sorrowful Songs) this afternoon, before attending the Good Friday liturgy. This is a remarkable work that never fails to move me. I don’t listen to it very often during the rest of the year, but it has become a Good Friday staple for me.

Though Gorecki himself insists that the work has much broader meaning (no doubt), it is difficult for me to listen to it without being overwhelmed by thoughts of the insane brutality of the Nazi death camps in Gorecki’s own Poland. The text of the second movement is actually taken from scratchings on the wall of a Gestapo prison in southern Poland, and the entire piece seems imbued with the lingering memory of a people and a boy (b. 1933) who lived through the madness. In this connection, I see a particular affinity between this piece and Good Friday. It is not for nothing that Isaiah 52 is read in today’s liturgy.

Michelangelo’s PietaAt the simplest level, it is a piece about the suffering of mothers losing their children. It is a Pieta, writ upon the maternity of humanity. The first movement’s text is quite literally a Marian lament, dating from the 15th century, that could have been spoken at the foot of the cross. The third movement uses a local folk song that speaks of a grieving mother yearning for her son, lost in a violent uprising in the early 20th century.

But the shorter second movement is the most remarkable to me. It recognizes a mother’s sorrow through the eyes of a lost child – in this case an 18 year-old Polish girl named Helena, imprisoned by the German Gestapo on September 26, 1944. On the wall of her prison cell, she wrote: “No, Mamma, do not cry -Immaculate Queen of Heaven support me always” (followed by the beginning of the Ave Maria – in Polish).

It is humbling to realize that this girl – in such dire straights – concerned herself, before all else, with the suffering she knew her mother must have been living through on her account. I know a man who, we are told, acted very similarly in his own hour of darkness. It’s a tale that tells of the triumph of charity – and faith – over despair, despite an aching sadness.

Gorecki_3rd_1992Musically, the symphony culminates when, after almost an hour of slow, brooding, dark, aching, sometimes devastatingly angst-ridden waves of sound, the third movement resolves – twice – into an A Major chord that witnesses to the persistence of possibility – though not without a lingering knowledge of darkness.

It is in no way corny or contrived, the way the piece comes around like this; rather, it smartly reflects the essence of a faithful existence in the face of madness and rampant sin. In a Good Friday context, it is simply the realization that Easter has the last word.

God bless all grieving mothers on this day. And God bless Henryk Gorecki, who, whether he intended to or not, managed to capture the Pieta in music – right down to the last note.