Sunday, January 30, 2005

Not All Of Life’s Teachers Are Found In The Classroom!

(Fourth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on January 30, 2005 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. Read Matthew 5: 1-12.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourth Sunday of the Year 2005]

One of Mark Twain’s best known lines is this one: “I never let my schooling interfere with my education.”

There are probably several million students who have quoted that statement over the years—students who were looking for a good reason to skip school or not do their homework!

“But mom, remember what Mark Twain said: ‘I never let my schooling interfere with my education.’”

To which most moms have probably responded, “I don’t care what Mark Twain said, just go to your room and finish your homework!”

I’m sure this statement was originally said tongue-in-cheek by Mr. Twain (or Mr. Clemens, if you want to use his proper name). And yet, standing behind his words is a very important truth: Not all of life’s teachers are found in the classroom! Some are found there, certainly, but most are found in other places.

Mark Twain knew that during his life he had been educated in locations other than school buildings. And so have we!

In this regard, Jesus Christ—who speaks to us in Scripture and through his Church and sometimes in other ways—is supposed to be our primary teacher outside of the classroom (and also inside the classroom, if you happen to go to a Catholic School). You could say that Jesus is to be our “Instructor for Life, Numero Uno”.

Of course, I’m not so naïve as to think that Jesus actually occupies that position in the life of every baptized Catholic—but he should!

We see Jesus in his role as “teacher” in today’s Gospel text from Matthew 5. Here the Lord presents himself to us as “The New Moses.” Moses, as we all know, was the great teacher of God’s Old Testament Law, a law that was rooted in the Ten Commandments. God first gave those commandments to Moses on Mt. Sinai, and when Moses came down the mountain he gave them to the people of Israel.

Jesus, in this scene (and for the next 3 chapters of Matthew), presents the “New Law of the Gospel” to his disciples. Just as Moses “proclaimed” the Old Law from a mountain, so Jesus proclaims this New Law from a mountain. And just as the Old Law was rooted in the Ten Commandments, so this New Law of human conduct is rooted in those same commandments, and in these 8 sayings known to the world as “the Beatitudes.”

If we are trying to live a Christ-centered life—that is to say, if we are striving to make Jesus our primary teacher, then these are the virtues and attitudes to which we will aspire. First of all, we will recognize our complete dependence on God and try to live accordingly (basically that’s what it means to be poor in spirit). We will desire the virtue of meekness (which is another word for humility). We will be sorrowful in the face of the sin and evil we encounter in the world. We will be merciful and forgive those who offend us. We will desire justice (and work for it!). We will want our motives to be pure. We will work for peace (beginning in our families!); and we will be willing to stand up for the truth of Christ and to endure the persecution that sometimes comes with being a truly committed Catholic.

These 8 Beatitudes represent some of the core lessons of Jesus Christ, the Teacher. But let’s be honest and clear about it: Jesus is not the only teacher outside the classroom who is influencing us and our culture at the present time (which is precisely why the Beatitudes are talked about much more than they’re lived!); and he’s definitely not the only teacher influencing our young people.

Let me demonstrate that fact with a little story. Recently an adult shared with me a conversation she had with a local 13-year-old boy. She was trying to be empathetic, as she spoke to this young man about some of the pressures teenagers are currently facing in contemporary American society. He then asked her to get specific regarding some of these “pressures”. Well, this woman just happens to know what some middle school children have been doing in Wilcox Park on Friday nights. (If you don’t know—and I didn’t until I spoke with this woman—the best way I can explain it in this setting is that they’re following the example set by a former president.)

So she brought this into the discussion.

And what was his response?

He said, “What’s the big deal? No one’s getting hurt. And at least no one’s getting pregnant!”
When she attempted to convince him that this behavior is wrong (that it’s a violation of the 6th commandment), and that these young people are putting their physical and spiritual lives in danger, he said, “You guys (i.e. grown-ups) think that stuff will scare us, but it doesn’t. We aren’t gonna stop.”

Later, when the topic of teen pregnancy was raised, he said, “If some girl does get pregnant, she can always have an abortion. It’s not like ‘it’ can feel anything anyway.”

“It,” of course, is the baby.

Not all of life’s teachers are found in the classroom.

Who is teaching this young man about life? Who is teaching him about right and wrong? Who is teaching him how to interact properly with members of the opposite sex?

Certainly not Jesus Christ!

Some better candidates might be the people at MTV, or the people who put pornography on the internet, or the producers of TV shows like Desperate Housewives and The OC—because he’s obviously learning a lot more from sources like those!

The fact is, our contemporary American culture—which is steeped in materialism and hedonism—attempts to “educate” all of us every day. And sometimes it succeeds—as it obviously has with that 13-year-old.

We’ve all heard the saying: “You are what you eat.”

Well, here’s a similar saying that’s equally as true: “You are what you learn.”

If you learn something and accept it as true, it will have a definite effect on your life—for better or for worse! Just ask that 13-year-old boy or some of his friends from the park.

How important it is, therefore, that we learn—and accept—the truth of Jesus Christ, as summarized in the Beatitudes and the Ten Commandments!

For young people, Catholic schools and CCD programs can certainly help this to happen, by reinforcing the Gospel message. But, since most learning and character building take place outside the classroom, it all has to begin somewhere else.

That “somewhere else,” of course, is in the home, in the family.

So, what exactly are you learning, and what exactly are you teaching? That’s a question for everyone, but most especially for the parents here present.

Jesus Christ wants to work through you to teach your children, since you are their primary religious educators. But for that to happen, you’ve got to be learning from the Lord yourselves (as we all need to be learning from him)!

Notice what it says about the disciples of Jesus at the beginning of this Gospel text from Matthew 5. In the opening line we read, “When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he had sat down, his disciples came to him, [and] he began to teach them . . . “

The disciples learned the Beatitudes that day—and they eventually became good teachers of the Beatitudes—because they came to Jesus! If they had not come to Christ, they would have learned nothing of the Beatitudes; consequently they would not have been able to teach them.

We come to Jesus when we’re faithful to Mass, and when we listen at Mass with open ears and hearts—because the Word of Christ is taught here.

We come to Jesus when we have a regular prayer time each day, when we read Scripture, when we go to Confession, and when we study the content of our Catholic faith.

We even come to Jesus when we surround ourselves with good Catholic friends who speak the Lord’s word to us in their own way. These are friends who encourage us to be faithful, and who aren’t afraid to challenge us or correct us when we begin to waver.

Lord Jesus Christ we have come to you, our teacher, at this Mass, and we thank you for having instructed us through the Scriptures that were just read, and through the homily we’ve just heard.
Help us, by the grace of the Eucharist we will receive in a few moments, to go forth from this assembly and to be good teachers of this message both by our words and by our actions. And may our teaching have a powerful influence on all those young people who are looking to us every day for guidance and direction. We ask this through the same Christ, our Lord. Amen.