9 Sunday of Ordinary Time (A)


This Sunday, which can fall either before Lent or after the Easter season, is often not celebrated.

Readings
Deuteronomy 11:18.26-28
Romans 3:21-25.28
Matthew 7:21-27

IT HELPS IN OUR UNDERSTANDING of the gospel text today to realise that it forms the conclusion of Matthew’s first great discourse, the Sermon on the Mount.  So the references to hearing followed by doing are highly relevant to all that has gone before in the preceding three chapters.

Qualities of a disciple
The whole of the Sermon on the Mount has been about the essential qualities to be found in the disciple of Jesus.  He or she is not to be measured simply by what they do and say, however religious or "holy" they seem to be.  It is not enough, for instance, to keep saying "Lord, Lord…"  That by itself will not bring a person under the kingship of God.  Translating that into contemporary terms, it means that just spending a lot of time in church, being regularly at Sunday Mass, going on pilgrimages, joining in novenas, saying rosaries does not necessarily make one the kind of disciple that Jesus is looking for.  Church-going and discipleship are not synonymous.

    It will not be enough even to be able to perform wonders like exorcisms of demons, preaching brilliant sermons before huge crowds or working other miracles, even if these are all done in the name of Jesus.

    Something more is required of the true disciple.  He or she is someone who is totally united to God in heart, soul and mind.  We can say a lot of prayers and be very busy doing the Lord’s work and yet not be such a person.  The problem is that such persons do not really have "the mind of Christ", they do not think like Christ nor have they totally submitted themselves to his way of seeing and doing things.  They are not really in touch with his will because they are so busy talking (even to him) and doing that they have never really listened.  So much so that at the end of time when they come face to face with the Lord he will not recognise them.  "You did your (holy) thing but you were not doing mine."

A listening ear
The true disciple, Jesus tells us, is one who listens to Jesus’ words and carries them out.  What do we mean by "listening" to Jesus?  I suggest that it includes four interacting qualities, all of which must be present:

    First, we have to hear what Jesus is saying.  We can only do that by being in touch with the Word of God which we find above all in the scriptures, both the Old and New Testaments but especially the latter.  Many Christians, sadly many of them Catholics, have a very scant knowledge of God’s Word in the Bible.  They seldom, if ever, open the book, that is, if they have one at all.  They may feel that the "catechism" they were taught in school is all they need.  What they carry away consists mainly of various "truths" to be held and moral obligations to be observed.  Even otherwise highly educated people have only the scantiest awareness of the dynamics of the Gospel message.

    Secondly, we need to understand what we hear and read in the Word of God.  It is very possible to hear (e.g. during the Mass readings) or read (privately) and not understand the inner meaning.  This understanding does not come without some effort.  It is dangerous to read and interpret the Bible without guidance.  The Word of God has come to us through two millennia from a time and culture very different from our own.  Without someone to guide us, it is difficult for us to access the fuller meaning of what we are being told.  It is very easy to distort the meaning or to make the text say something it never intended. 
    There are now plenty of books and courses available to guide us and open the scriptures for us.  At the same time it must be emphasised that the scriptures provide a depth of meaning which is never exhausted.  A lifetime of reading and reflecting constantly reveals new insights.  It was what makes the Bible such an exciting book.

    Thirdly, we need to accept fully and to assimilate into our very being what we have come to understand.  It is possible to hear well, to understand clearly but not to accept or assimilate.  Children and teenagers do that all the time!  We have not reached full discipleship until the thinking of Christ becomes our own.  It was put marvellously by Paul when he said, "I live, no, it is not I, but Christ lives in me."  At the beginning of the Letter to the Philippians he also said, "For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain."  If he were to die, it would mean instant and total union with his beloved Lord; if he were to live on, he could continue sharing his experience of Christ with his brothers and sisters.

    Fourthly, when, like Paul, we have fully assimilated as part of our own thinking what we have heard and understood, we will naturally act accordingly.  It will not be possible to act otherwise.  His will and mine totally coincide; his vision and mine are exactly the same.  So, contrary to what many people feel, being a Christian and following the Gospel is not as difficult as it sometimes seems.  It is not a question of will power.  It is a question of seeing things in the same way as the Gospel.  As Fr Tony de Mello used to say, “It is all a question of attitude.”  When we see life and relationships the way the Gospel does, our behaviour is likely to follow quite naturally.  It is only when all this becomes a reality in our lives that we can say we are truly disciples of Jesus and, as he says, that is the only sure foundation on which to build our lives. 

Blessing and curse
The First Reading presents our choice as a blessing and a curse.  In the light of the New Covenant, we need to be aware that the "commandments" are not just the Ten Commandments of Mount Sinai.  Rather what we need to obey is the way of life, built on truth, justice and love, built on the inseparable link of love between God and those around us, which God in Jesus has presented to us. 
And the "blessing" and the "curse" are not simply divine decrees.  They follow out naturally from our response to Jesus’ call.  To hear and do brings built into it the happiness and peace that we long for; to refuse to hear and do is to bring anxiety and disharmony into our lives.  "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you" (St Augustine).

A message for all
Paul in the Second Reading from the letter to the Romans raises another important element.  What was originally given to the Israelites through the Law and the Prophets is now extended to everyone without exception as a gift of love through the life, suffering, death and resurrection of Christ.  Under the old Law, it was believed that salvation came through one’s keeping of the Law’s requirements.  Under the New Law, we have all been saved through Christ who won reconciliation with God for us through his life, death and resurrection. 

    We become right with God by our total commitment in faith to Jesus Christ and not by our own efforts.  The good that we do is done only through God’s loving gift.  As one of the Weekday Prefaces puts it: "You have no need of our praise, yet our desire to thank you is itself your gift.  Our prayer of thanksgiving adds nothing to your greatness, but makes us grow in your grace through Jesus Christ our Lord."  Or, as Paul puts it today, "one is justified [that is, made right with God] by faith and trust in him and not by doing something the Law tells him to do".

    It is important for us to understand this in the context of today’s Gospel reading.  When we become disciples of Christ and live the life he calls us to, we do that, not on the basis of our own efforts, but in response to his coming into our lives.  All we do, we do "through him, with him and in him".

Sand or rock
To live a Christian life only on the surface, that is, only with words and externally conforming behaviour, is like building a house on sand.  Once we come under attack, we will collapse because we have no deep foundation inside.  We see that happening frequently when people who have lived in an outwardly Christian environment move to a purely secular situation.  They fall away very quickly.

    So let us be like that sensible man who builds his house on rock.  The Rock is the firm foundation that is Christ, together with the vision of Christ which becomes also the vision that guides our own life, a life built on truth and love.

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The word ‘faith’ translates the Greek word pistis which essentially implies trust or confidence in another person.  In the Church it carries also the meaning of accepting as true from God something we cannot verify by any human evidence. 
    Faith, in fact, is a reality of our daily lives.  We accept as true many things we have no way of verifying.  How often have we categorically made statements on the basis that "we saw it in the newspaper"? 
    At the time of the Reformation, the Reformers tended to emphasise the first meaning while what was to become the "Catholic" Church stressed the second.  In fact, both meanings are important and, in general, I would say that Paul is thinking more of the first meaning.  Faith is not just an act of belief that something is true but includes, as an essential element, total commitment to what that truth involves and especially to the Person who communicates it.

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