Jesus is not Norman Vincent Peale; and the purpose of Christianity is to save souls, not to make a better world.
2 Cor. 6:1-10; Luke 6:31-36.*
The Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, known as the Second Sunday of Luke.
The Second Sunday after the Holy Cross; also, the Holy Bishop & Martyr Cyprian, the Holy Martyr Justina and the Holy Fool for Christ Andrew.
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1:28 PM 10/2/2011 — The Gospel of the Golden Rule is short and to the point, because the teaching is short and to the point; but the passage risks being misunderstood. It’s one of those teachings or sayings of our Lord that can—and often is—interpreted as a pragmatic bit of homespun, humanistic wisdom, like something from Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People, or Chicken Soup for the Soul, or like some pseudo-scriptural incantation from that goofy book from the ‘70s written by that man who identified himself as “The Prophet” (who or what he was supposed to be a prophet for was not altogether clear). Which is why it’s important to not lose focus on the disinterestedness that our Lord insists upon in giving us this principle; because, if we treat our fellow man a certain way in the hope that our fellow man will treat us the same way, then our Lord’s command here is nothing more than a Norman Vincent Peale bromide: it has nothing to do with religion at all.
Some of you may be too young to know who Norman Vincent Peale was, even if you recognize the name. Ordained a Methodist minister, he later joined the Reformed Chuch of America, where he became very famous as a writer and a radio personality. He wrote a lot of books, was heard on radio a lot back in the ‘30s and ‘40s. He was for many years the pastor of the very opulent Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan. He opposed the involvement of Catholics in political life, virogously opposed the candidacies of Stevenson and Kennedy, was a personal advisor to Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, received the Medal of Freedom from Ronald Regan. Before Billy Graham came along, he was pastor to the stars; but his brand of Christianity was more of a humanistic philosophy than a faith. Peale’s most famous book, The Power of Positive Thinking, was actually an outgrowth of his Sunday sermons; and you will not find the name of Jesus anywhere in it, except in the context of things like the Golden Rule, which are interpreted in a purely humanistic way, with reference to man’s relationship to his fellow man, but never man’s individual relationship to his God. If you need a more modern figure with which to compare him, it might be the late Rev. Robert Schuller, who preached on television out of California’s Crystal Cathedral: if you ever watched him on TV, his choir was always singing traditional Protestant hymns, but nine Sundays out of ten you never heard him mention the name of Jesus.
This kind of quasi-Protestantism started to flower during that time following the First World War, in which a lot of people lost their faith, but still felt guilty if they didn’t go to church. It offered them all the trappings of a very traditional religious experience without requiring them to behave a certain way or believe in anything in particular. The preaching focused mainly on philanthropy rather than Christian charity, and doing good in the pursuit of a better society rather than in pursuit of eternal salvation. It was always a very lucrative form of religion, as well, as it allowed a New York millionaire or a politician to project the appearance of being a devout Christian even though he was on his third wife; and they would ratify their devotion publicly with large contributions. That’s how Norman Vincent Peale could afford to maintain the Marble Collegiate Church all through the Depression right up to the Second World War.
The secret, of course, to making a success as the pastor of such a church is the fairly safe presumption that your congregation isn’t actually going to be reading the Bible themselves; because, if you read the Golden Rule, for example, in the Gospel passages where it is found, you find a very different mandate than the one that is commonly believed.
In point of fact, today’s Gospel, which is from St. Luke’s very abridged version of the Sermon on the Mount, still makes sure to include our Lord’s stern warning about the correct motive for doing unto others: our love, he says, must be freely given to those from whom we expect nothing in return, the punch line being the words: “Be ye therefore merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful.” We behave certain ways in certain situations because the God who created us has done the same; and this is far beyond the trite, humanistic injunction that we should love other people without hoping for reward. This phrase confronts us with all that is absolute, and portents ramifications for our eternal salvation: to be merciful as the Father is merciful is to participate in the Divine economy of salvation; not that our merciful acts could ever approach the infinite love of God, but rather that our small drops of mercy should flow from the ocean of God's own infinite love, into which, one day, we must all flow at the end of all things. We do this because, even in the most hardened of sinners, we recognize the dormant image of the Creator who made him; and our hope in acting merciful to him is to help awaken that; not in the hope of helping to create a better world, but in the hope of saving his individual soul.
What we come here to celebrate—what we preach to others through the example of our lives—is not a philosophy of brotherly love, but faith in our Lord and God, Jesus Christ; not because man, in himself, is not important, but because he comes from God, and ultimately must return from whence he came.
Father Michael Venditti
* Due to the "Lucan Jump," the Gospel read today is that for the 19th Sunday after Pentecost. Cf. the note appended to last week's homily.