The Gospel is not reducible to “The Power of Positive Thinking”; and, our mission is to save souls, not make a better world.
2 Cor. 9:6-11;
The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost.
The Third Sunday after the Holy Cross.
The Holy Martyr Gregory, Bishop of Armenia.
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3:13 PM 9/30/2012 — As you may recall, last week I made the mistake of preparing my homily on the wrong Apostolic reading. The cantor chanted the correct one, but I read the one for this week because my homily was based on it. This week I asked him to chant the one he had chanted last week with the intention of preaching on it, but circumstance prevented me from preparing a homily on it as I had hoped. So, I'm going to do what I have tried this year not to do—with mixed success—and repeat myself; but, I confess I'm not all that self-conscious about it since, as I recall, the homily about the Golden Rule which I'm repeating was a pretty good one the first time around.
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 Church 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, vigorously opposed the candidacies of Stevenson and Kennedy, was a personal adviser to Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, and received the Medal of Freedom from Ronald Reagan.** 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, but it's the punchline that makes all the difference: “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.
** In 1960, Peale declared: "Faced with the election of a Catholic, our culture is at stake." In a written manifesto, Peale and his group, "The Norman Vincent Peale Committee," also declared JFK would serve the interests of the Catholic Church before the interests of the United States: "It is inconceivable that a Roman Catholic president would not be under extreme pressure by the hierarchy of his church to accede to its policies with respect to foreign interests," and that the election of a Catholic might even end free speech in America. Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr responded, "Dr. Peale and his associates...show blind prejudice." Protestant Episcopal Bishop James Pike echoed Niebuhr: "Any argument which would rule out a Roman Catholic just because he is Roman Catholic is both bigotry and a violation of the constitutional guarantee of no religious test for public office." The Peale statement was further condemned by President Truman, the Board of Rabbis, and other leading Protestants such as Paul Tillich and John C. Bennett. Peale recanted his statements and was later fired by his own committee. As William F. Buckley succinctly described the fallout: "When...The Norman Vincent Peale Committee was organized, on the program that a vote for Kennedy was a vote to repeal the First Amendment to the Constitution, the Jesuits fired their Big Bertha, and Dr. Peale fled from the field, mortally wounded." Peale subsequently went into hiding and threatened to resign from his church. The fallout continued as Peale was condemned in a statement by one hundred religious leaders and dropped as a syndicated columnist by a dozen newspapers. After the uproar the pastor backed off from further formal partisan commitments.
Peale is also remembered in politics by the Adlai Stevenson quote: "I find Paul appealing and Peale appalling." The origin of the quote can be traced to the 1952 election, when Stevenson was informed by a reporter that Peale had been attacking him as unfit for the presidency because he was divorced (Stevenson never remarried, remaining a faithful Catholic the rest of his life). Later, during the 1956 campaign for President against Eisenhower, Stevenson was somewhat rudely introduced in the following way: "Gov. Stevenson, we want to make it clear you are here as a courtesy because Dr. Norman Vincent Peale has instructed us to vote for your opponent." Stevenson stepped to the podium and quipped, "Speaking as a Christian, I find the Apostle Paul appealing and the Apostle Peale appalling." In 1960 Stevenson was asked by a reporter for a comment regarding Peale attacking JFK as unfit for the presidency because he was Catholic, to which Stevenson responded: "Yes, you can say that I find Paul appealing and Peale appalling."
Peale died of a stroke on December 24, 1993, at age 95 in Pawling, New York.