Epistle: Romans vi: 19-23
Those of you who are reading the Epistle and Gospel in your own books, please bear with me as I read the two verses which immediately precede the portion in the missal:
+ Gospel: Matthew vii: (13-14) & 15-21
“By their fruits you shall know them.” That is certainly one of the more well known sayings of our Lord. And, certainly, it is comforting to know that there is a way to separate the “false prophets” from the true; a way to distinguish “the sheep” from the “ravening wolves.” Yet, all too often, we find people interpreting our Lord’s words by applying the standards of the world rather than the standards of eternity.
The Old Testament seemed to say that material prosperity was a sign of God’s blessing, and, therefore, a sign of the holiness of the people whom God blessed. The Psalms, for example, speak of God gracing His faithful people materially: “that wine may cheer the heart of man. That he may make the face cheerful with oil: and that bread may strengthen man’s heart.” Sinners, on the other hand, would be “consumed out of the earth, and the unjust, so that they be no more.” [i]
Of course, it would be hard to tell people who had made a forty year trek across the Sinai Desert that their mere survival was not a gift from God, and a gift that they had somehow merited by their holiness. And, it certainly does make sense to think that God would preserve for Himself those people who honor Him alone and keep His Commandments. The problem, though, by the time of our Lord, was that among God’s people, who all knew His Law, they were beginning to make invidious distinctions between “God’s good people,” and “God’s bad people,” based on their wealth and position in society. The rich man, it was supposed, was rich precisely because he had merited God’s favor—even if the poor man was the one who more obviously kept the Commandments. We read elsewhere that the Apostles were astonished when Jesus told them that it might be “easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to be saved”—astonished.[ii]
It is not that wealth is somehow evil. Of course, to some degree, riches can be a distraction from holiness, or a temptation to evil—more so, perhaps, than moderate poverty. (Grinding poverty can be pretty distracting, as well.) But, with the help of God—wealthy people can and do lead holy lives—just as poor people can and do live holy lives—with the help of God—for “with God all things are possible.”
In many cases the distinction between wealth used in accordance with God’s will or against God’s will is the difference of attitude or motivation. Joining together to build a hospital or a cathedral can be a holy thing, indeed—if the first is done out of genuine concern for the sick, or if the second is done out of a genuine desire to give glory to God. On the other hand, the mere desire to have something bigger and better than the next community, or to have one’s name on the building, is a sign of dangerous and unholy pride.
Among Christians, even some Catholics, there remains the misconception that one can equate prosperity with holiness. The “crystal cathedrals and the “Taj Mahoneys” of the world are prime examples—but the same idea is found in the priest or congregation that boasts of how many more dollars are in their church’s stained glass windows than in those of the neighboring parish; the same idea is found in the parish that boasts of its concert series as the social event of the season, rather than its music being sung from the heart to give glory to God.
The “fruit,” about which our Lord spoke as a sign of salvation, is not measured by comparing the height of church steeples, nor by bantering around the names of European artists and vestment designers. The “fruit” by which we are to distinguish the false prophets from the true is nothing other than the knowledge, the love, and the service of God. For this there is no substitute; no material thing that can take its place; no accumulation of possessions that can serve in its stead.
Parenthetically, let me just say that the knowledge, love, and service of God is a unified thing; not three separate things; not a case where one can (or should) strive to excel in one or two without the others. If you do not know God, you cannot love Him; if you do not love Him, you will not serve Him.
Saint Paul rolls the three up into one, speaking about being a “slave of justice unto sanctification.”[iii] He contrasts that with the worldly condition of being a “slave unto uncleanness and iniquity”; the condition of being a “slave of sin.” It is being a “slave of God,” he says, that gives us the “fruit of sanctification,” and “life everlasting.” Again, it is knowing what God wants, and being motivated to do it, which distinguishes the holy from the unholy.
“Not everyone who says ... ‘Lord’! ‘Lord’! shall enter the kingdom of heaven.” We might well ask what Jesus meant by this. Is it not a good thing to call upon the Lord? In the Psalms we repeatedly hear words like: “call upon me in the day of trouble: I will deliver thee.”[iv] We hear them as well in the New Testament, in the words of Saint Peter and of Saint Paul: “It shalt come to pass, that whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”[v] God is merciful, and answers our calls for mercy. Every such call for mercy is an act of worship; a recognition of our dependence on the Almighty.
What our Lord says in today’s Gospel—that “Not everyone who says ... ‘Lord’! ‘Lord’! shall enter the kingdom of heaven”—refers to a different kind of calling upon the Lord. We will not enter into the kingdom of heaven by saying “‘Lord’! ‘Lord’! see what I have done”! “‘Lord’! ‘Lord’! consider the height of the steeple I have built” or “the cost of the window with my name in the corner.” “‘Lord’! ‘Lord’! consider the blessings I have amassed here on earth.” All of those things are boastful, rather than worshipful—you will notice that they all contain that “vertical pronoun,” the capital “I” that speaks of pride rather than humility.
Again (and finally), the difference is largely attitudinal. Those who call upon God, or who put on a great show, seemingly on His behalf, but who seek to call attention and glory to themselves, bring nothing but ruin. But for the mercy of God, their salvation might be even more impossible than getting that camel through the eye of the needle.But “those who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” if they call upon Him in recognition of their lowliness, with the desire to know, and to love, and to serve Him. “By their fruits you shall know them ... he who does the will of my Father in heaven shall enter into the kingdom of heaven.
[i] Psalm ciii: 15, 35.
[ii] Matthew xix:24, Mark x:25, Luke xviii:25. There is some debate as to whether the word in question is “camel” or “rope” in Greek—but certainly difficult in either case, even if “the eye of the needle” is the name of a city gate too small for camels to pass through upright—but not impossible, our Lord tells us.
[iii] Epistle: Romans vi: 19-23.
[iv] Psalms il:15.
[v] Acts ii:21; Romans x:13.