I found myself doing something as I prepared to write this sermon -- something that strikes me as a spiritual mistake. When I read over the Mass text -- the Epistle and Gospel for today -- I almost immediately reacted to the topic of the Gospel, and was going to preach about it. The resurrection of the widow's son -- that certainly demonstrates the awesome power of God; and it shows that our Lord Himself had that power; demonstrating that He is indeed God, the Son of God. And, if that wasn't good enough, it would be possible to refer to two other occasions on which our Lord raised people from the dead -- not to mention, of course, His own resurrection on Easter Sunday morning. This is one of those events that bolster the faith. And, finally, the story also lends itself to a little Marian piety, as one can easily make the case that our Lord had some extra compassion for the widow, knowing that He was going to leave His very own Mother in precisely the same situation not too many days hence.
But then it occurred to me that I was doing something so very common today. I was allowing my attention to be drawn to the marvelous, when I should have been paying attention to the more mundane. And people seem to do just that -- they tend to seek after the marvelous, the miraculous, and the mystical, rather than spending their time learning more about their Faith; rather than spending their time doing the practical things of the Catholic Faith. They will spend thousands of dollars and a week or two of their time to visit a place where a miracle is said to have taken place a hundred years ago on the other side of the globe -- but they are utterly unwilling to come to daily Mass, where our Lord Himself is actually present in their local parish church. They will chase after "seers" who claim (often somewhat dubiously) to be having visions of the Blessed Mother, but have no time for prayers on their own. Some will even demand of God that He give them experiences of mystical prayer, failing to realize that such demands are more often rewarded with experiences of the diabolical rather than of the divine. And with all of this emphasis on the marvelous and the miraculous, there is little time or effort left to do those acts of kindness and charity for our neighbor -- even though our Lord insists that such things are the only way to heaven: "I was hungry and you did not give Me to eat ... I was a stranger and you did not take Me in ... sick, or in prison, and you did not visit Me...."1
Don't get me wrong about this. The account of the widow of Naim, and other accounts like it, are important enough, and one certainly cannot minimize such a demonstration of our Lord's divinity. But, beyond that, doesn't the epistle today have more to say to us than today's Gospel? Doesn't it have some very practical advice that we need to follow to be good Catholics? We can be good Catholics without ever seeing anyone resurrected from the dead; we can be good Catholics without ever witnessing a miracle or a vision; without ever being favored by a mystical experience. But can we be good Catholics without paying serious attention to Saint Paul's admonitions in today's epistle? The answer, of course, is "No!"
In fact, Saint Paul reminds us of three very important things which need to be constant factors in our observance of the Catholic Faith:2
We are told first to avoid vain glory; not to compare ourselves to others, seeking to enumerate the ways in which we are superior to those around us. To be a good Catholic, one must, first of all, possess humility. One ought never to be making those invidious comparisons that are designed to place ourselves in the spotlight be relegating others to the darkness. It matters not at all in the eternal scheme of things that we do some earthly thing better or worse than our brother -- it only matters that we do our own best, and that we make full use of the talents God has bestowed upon us. And, of course, there are many things that foolish people boast about that have no significance whatsoever in the light of eternity. Woe to the one who provokes his brother to jealousy, and makes his brother lose sight of what is eternally important!
Paul also tells us to instruct the evildoers -- particularly those who act out of ignorance, rather than out of malice. How else are the younger ones and those new to the Faith to learn, if the older and more experienced do not take the time to teach them. Only if such instruction might be an occasion of sin for the teacher can we fail to give it.
"Bear one another's burdens, and you will fulfill the law of Christ." Man is a social animal, and our salvation must be worked out -- in large degree -- in conjunction with others. Some of this is material -- when our neighbor is hungry, or sicck, or in need of an extra hand to get some important work done. Some of it is more spiritual -- when our neighbor needs guidance or reassurance, or just needs a friendly ear to listen.
"Do good to all men, but especially to those that are of the household of the Faith." That may sound a bit strange to modern ears -- we are all so used to hearing much more egalitarian ideas. The prevailing "wisdom" is that "one religion is as good as the next," that there is no difference, and that one should not "discriminate." Well, of course, we should do good wherever the opportunity presents itself. But we must also recognize that the Catholic Faith is unique among all other systems of belief -- for it was given to us by God Himself, so that we might know Him and know His expectations of us in this world. It make sense, then, for our charitable efforts to be directed toward those who share the Faith -- especially so that they are not tempted to give up the Faith when they are upon hard times.
Finally, there is the implied requirement that we pray for one another and for the wellbeing of the Church. All of the material help in the world will be of no value if it is not accompanied by an outpouring of God's spiritual gifts.
Once again, let it be said: The mystical and the marvelous and the miraculous are all good things. But they are elusive, and they may never be a part of our personal experience. We are no less good Catholics if we never experience them. But humility, and fraternal correction, and the works of mercy -- both the corporal and the spirituall -- must be part of our every day lives -- day in and day out. As our Lord said, "Amen, I say to you, as long as you do them for the least of My brethren you do them for Me."