“The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right thing for the wrong reason.”
The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost.
The Fifth Sunday after the Holy Cross.
Our Venerable Father Hilary the Great.
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1:52 PM 10/23/2012 — The Gospel for today, which is that for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost because of the “Lucan jump,” is the familiar one of Lazarus and the Rich man, which we took pains to look at in detail last year at this time. The Apostolic reading from the 21st Sunday, which continues St. Paul's letter to the Galatians, is another matter; we haven't dipped into it before because it's so easily misunderstood.
Last week, we saw Paul defending his authority against a certain “judaising” faction that taught that salvation was obtained through works, particularly through observance of various Jewish customs and practices; and, this is the passage in which Paul elucidates his famous doctrine of “Justification by Faith,” or, as he says, “man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ...for by the works of the law shall not flesh be justified.” It's a difficult passage because its the one used by Evangelical Protestants to prove that Catholicism is wrong.
As you can probably guess by now, the Protestants have it wrong because of their penchant for taking isolated verses of the Bible out of context and regarding them as statements of dogma all by themselves. Their interpretation of this passage, viewing it as an isolated verse, means to them that it doesn't matter what you do, only what you believe, or, as St. Paul says, “man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ.” They excoriate the Catholic Church because the Catholic Church requires its members of do this and that and whatever, whereas they believe that Paul is saying that doing this and that and whatever doesn't matter; all that matters is that you believe. You might recall some weeks ago when we discussed John Wesley, the famous founder of the Methodists, who introduced to this country the phenomenon known as the “revival,” the central portion of which is when everyone comes forward with their arms upraised, declaring that they are saved—saved because, according to their interpretation of St. Paul, all you have to do to be saved is declare that you believe in Jesus.
The Catholic position on salvation, from the Protestant perspective, is that we buy our way into heaven by doing certain things without any reference to faith: if we go to church on Sunday, if we obey the Commandments, if we behave ourselves in the bedroom, give to the Church, if we do this or that and follow all the rules, then we get to go to heaven; which is not what the Catholic Church teaches at all, but that's how they see it from their limited perspective of scriptural literalism.
In point of fact, it was this very kind of twisted emphasis on doing certain things that was being preached by the judaisers against which Paul was fighting. Their message was that if you get circumcised, if you don't eat pork, if you keep the sabbath, if you stick to all the prescriptions of the Old Testament covenant between God and man, then, no matter what else happens, you will be saved. Paul is not telling the Galatians that they should ignore the rules; he's telling them that simply following the rules is not enough. What he's telling them is that their following of the rules has to be for the right reason, and that reason is their love for God.
And it shouldn't require a lot of mental gymnastics to see how following the rules of the Church can easily get divorced from the love of God; I'm pretty sure that we've all seen it happen, perhaps even in our own lives. For those who haven't, I can try to give you an example. You might remember a young Irish singer named Sinead O'Connor. She became famous in this country by going on Saturday Night Live and tearing up a picture of Pope John Paul II. She hates the Catholic Church with every core of her being. And her hatred of the Church is based on the fact that her father had attempted to raise her in a strict Catholic environment, but with no other perspective than the necessity of following the rules: you can't do this, you must do that. He never succeeded in transmitting to her a love for Christ and his Church.
Now, nothing is ever that cut and dry. Her father was clearly a man with issues of inadequacy, which made him probably a very angry person, which all translated to her in the form of hostility; so, there are clearly psychological issues involved; but, in a general way it can still serve as an example. The solution for her would not have been to not raise her in the faith, but rather to raise her in the faith with an entirely different motivation: following the rules because of our love for Christ, not because if we don't we go to hell. I'm guessing that would have been impossible for her father, based on the presumption that he, as a very angry individual, probably received no love himself as a child, and therefore had none to give his own child.
So, Paul is telling the Galatians—and, by proxy, us who read his letter a couple of thousands of years later—that the practice of our religion cannot be reduced to just a matter of following the rules, but that we need to be here in the first place because we love our Lord, God and Savior, Jesus Christ. That's a far cry from the Protestant notion that we don't have to follow the rules, that all we have to do is believe; because, in the final analysis, can anyone really say that he truly believes if what he believes doesn't govern how he lives?
There's a wonderful line in T. S. Elliot's play, Murder in the Cathedral, which tells of the martyrdom of St. Thomas Becket. King Henry II sought to confiscate the property of the Church to finance his war with France; and Becket, who was Archbishop of Canterbury, was accused of treason for excommunicating him as a consequence. It's a scene that takes place the night before he figures the soldiers of the king will come to kill him, and he's being tempted with all kinds of thoughts regarding why he's so willing to die in defense of the rights of the Church. The last temptation he wrestles is the sin of pride: the notion that he's going to his death not because he desires to take a stand for the Church against the state, but because he harbors a secret desire to be canonized a saint. The whole play is written in verse like a poem—which is why it's rarely performed—and he has this wonderful line in which he says, “The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right thing for the wrong reason.”
He's wrestling with the very problem that the Blessed Apostle Paul is putting before us today. As Catholics, there are a lot of things we can't do and a lot of things we must do; and, sometimes, we must force ourselves to do them because we find them onerous. The solution is not to ignore them and simply not do them, as the Protestants would maintain; nor is the solution to simply do them as a matter of rote, in the fashion of a Pharisee who follows the rules for the rules' sake; the solution is be so in love with Christ and his Church that we want to do them.
Father Michael Venditti
* Due to the "Lucan Jump," the Gospel read today is that for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost. Cf. the note appended to the Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost.