Sunday, July 02, 2006

Three Possible Philosophies Of Life

Jairus sought Jesus out, asked him to come and heal his sick daughter, and brought our Lord into his home. Then--AFTER Jairus did all these things--Jesus raised his daughter from the dead!

(Thirteenth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on July 2, 2006 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Wisdom 1: 13-15; 2: 23-24; 2 Corinthians 8: 7, 9, 13-15; Mark 5: 21-43.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Thirteenth Sunday 2006.]

Bishop Fulton Sheen used to say that there are 3 possible philosophies of life for the believer.

The first is to think that God, in his great power, can and should take care of every problem on earth himself, without the involvement of human beings like you and me. As Sheen used to say, this is the philosophy that says God does everything, and we do nothing. People who follow eastern religions tend to have this perspective on life, although you can also find it in many Catholics and other Christians.

For example, how often have you heard Christian friends of yours say things like this: “Why didn’t God do something to stop the Holocaust? Why didn’t he save those innocent Jews and others from the gas chambers?”; “Why doesn’t God do something to end poverty and lower the crime rate?”; “If God exists, why has he let so many innocent people die in suicide bombings in Iraq?”

Those who have this perspective on life seem to think that the Good Lord should operate like a heavenly magician or puppeteer—waving his magic wand or “pulling the right strings” constantly, so that everyone on earth always does the right thing in every situation.

But I wonder—would they really want a God like that? Would they really want a God who negated their free will and forced them to act like robots?

I don’t think so! Even though there’s something rather appealing about giving God all the responsibility for making the world a better place, it could only happen if we were willing to give up our freedom.

And most of us—rightly—would not want to do that.

The error of this view is made clear in today’s first reading from the Book of Wisdom, chapters 1 and 2. There the sacred author reminds us that death was not a part of God’s plan for the human race when he created our first parents: “God did not make death, nor does he rejoice in the destruction of the living. For he fashioned all things that they might have being. . . . God formed man to be imperishable.”

Death became part of the human experience only after Adam and Eve made the free choice to sin, in response to a temptation by the devil. God didn’t do it; it’s not his fault! (So, obviously, God doesn’t do “everything.”) As the writer of Wisdom puts it, “But by the envy of the devil, death entered the world.”

So if we’re going to blame anyone, we ought to blame Satan.

The second philosophy of life that Bishop Sheen used to speak about is the exact opposite of the first. The first says that God does everything and we do nothing. The second says that we do everything, and God, in effect, does nothing—or next to nothing.

This idea (or at least some of form of it) stands behind many of the expressions we use in daily conversation: “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps”; “Stand on your own two feet!”; “I don’t need any help; I can do it on my own”; “I’m an independent person; I’m an independent thinker”; “He’s a self-made man”.

Now obviously we can use expressions like these and still have God at the center of our life. That is to say, we can use them figuratively and not literally. But in a secular society like ours, the prevailing tendency is to think that we really don’t need the Lord, and that we can make it through life on our own—without having to submit to some higher authority and power.

To some, in fact, that’s “the American way.” They say, “Our country, after all, was founded on the idea of independence.”

That, of course, is true, as we’re reminded every year on the 4th of July. But, since most of our Founding Fathers were believers, they never understood the idea of independence to mean “independence from God and his moral law”.

But, sadly, that’s precisely what some contemporary Americans believe.

So what’s the proper perspective? If it’s wrong to believe that God does everything and we do nothing, and if it’s equally erroneous to think that we do everything and God does nothing, where’s the middle ground?

Bishop Sheen found it in that line from St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians—chapter 4, verse 13—where the apostle says, “I can do all things in Christ who strengthens me!” In other words, by the grace of God, I can—and I should—discern and carry out the Lord’s perfect will in my life—for the betterment of myself and others.

Jesus once said, “Apart from me, you can do nothing.” (John 15: 5) Whether we realize it or not, it’s only by the grace of God that we can do anything good in this life. In fact, it’s only by the grace of God that anything truly good happens in life.

But there are many wonderful things in this life that God has made conditional. In other words, there are certain good things that will only happen if we freely cooperate with God’s grace and do what he wants us to do! So it’s not a case of God doing everything; it’s not a case of us doing everything; it’s a matter of God and us in a very real sense working together according to the Lord’s plan!

Look at today’s Gospel text from Mark 5. There God the Son—our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ—does two great things: he heals a woman who has been suffering from hemorrhages for 12 years, and he raises Jairus’ daughter from the dead!

But when you read the story carefully, you realize that neither of these miracles would have occurred unless human beings had taken appropriate action and done God’s will.

If Jairus, for example, had not sought Jesus out, and invited him to come and pray for his daughter, and accompanied our Lord to his house, his daughter would have died—AND SHE would have remained dead! Jesus performed the miracle, but only after Jairus had taken appropriate action, moved by God’s grace.

The same is true of the bleeding woman. If she had not actively pursued Jesus, and reached out her hand in faith to touch his clothes, she would have remained sick! She would have gone on bleeding for another 12 years—and perhaps for the rest of her life.

You young people who will be coming with us in a couple of weeks to the Steubenville Youth Conference need to remember this. Having a good experience on that retreat is not a matter of God acting alone and doing something “magical”. God will pour out his grace upon you, for sure. But if you want a good experience you also need to do your part! You need to open your heart to the Lord; you need to tune out the distractions; and you need to reach out to Jesus in faith, as this bleeding woman reached out to him in faith.

It would be good for us today to consider how this truth applies to our second reading from 2 Corinthians 8. Here St. Paul is writing about the importance of financial charity in the life of Christians. He says that those who have an abundance (and most of us, in Paul’s view, would be in that category)—he says that we have a responsibility before God to help others according to our means. It’s not enough, in other words, to pray that God will supply a financial need for someone else (as if God does everything and we do nothing). Paul would say that as followers of Christ we must respond to God’s grace and give as best we can.

Please keep this in mind in a couple of months when we begin our capital campaign to raise $1-1.2 million to pay for our school addition. We say we want our young people to be well educated in the truths of the faith—in our school and in our CCD program. God will certainly do his part to make that happen, but we need to do ours by giving our children a decent place in which they can study and learn the Gospel.

(See how I weaved that idea into my homily today?—“Ah yes, Fr. Ray, you are definitely a pastor!”)

Let me conclude this morning with a line attributed to the great St. Augustine: “Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you.”

Pray, because without God nothing truly good can or will happen. Then work, and do what you believe God wants you to do—like Jairus and the hemorrhaging woman in today’s Gospel story. Because if you don’t, even if you pray very hard, the good that you desire might never happen.