Sunday, February 16, 2014

Be A Spiritual Olympian!

 Gold medalist Matthias Mayer of Austria, making his winning run in Sochi, Russia.

(Sixth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on February 16, 2014 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Sirach 15: 15-20; 1 Corinthians 2: 6-10; Matthew 5: 17-37.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Sixth Sunday 2014]

God’s message to us today in this text from Matthew 5 (and in the other readings we just heard) can be summed up as follows: Develop an “Olympic attitude” in your spiritual life.

Or, to put it another way, Be a spiritual Olympian!

Many of us, I’m sure, have been watching the Winter Olympics in recent days, and marveling at the performances of these world-class athletes.  They make activities that are extremely difficult look incredibly easy.  But that’s not a coincidence!  They do what they do as well as they do it because they are extremely talented, and highly trained—and because they have the right attitude of mind and heart.

They each have a goal in view—a gold medal—and they pursue that goal relentlessly and with incredible focus and concentration.
In today’s second reading from First Corinthians, St. Paul reminds us of another goal: the ultimate goal of human existence.  He says, “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it even entered in to the mind of man what God has prepared for those who love him.”

That’s a glorious and inspiring description of God’s eternal kingdom.  But what’s important for us to note today is that this ultimate goal of human existence—heaven—is not forced upon us by God!  It involves a personal choice which is rooted in free will.  As the Lord reminds us in today’s first reading from Sirach 15: “Before man are life and death, good and evil, whichever he chooses shall be given him.”

Which brings us to the gospel.  Jesus makes it very clear in this passage from the Sermon on the Mount that this ultimate goal of human existence can be missed if we don’t pursue it like a “spiritual Olympian”; if we don’t have an “Olympic attitude” in our spiritual life.

Now what exactly do I mean by that? 

Well, did you see the men’s downhill ski race at the Olympics the other day in Sochi, Russia?  It was incredible!  That was one of the most difficult and treacherous racecourses I’ve ever seen.  Some of the jumps those downhill skiers had to take sent them flying through the air for almost the length of a football field.  And when they landed at speeds of 70 miles an hour—or more!—they sometimes had to make hard turns on the packed snow almost immediately (snow that was more like ice!).

Now, I’m a pretty fair skier, and I rarely fall when I ski—but, in all honesty, I don’t think I’d make it past the first turn of that racecourse!

I’d definitely get to the bottom of the mountain—but probably on a stretcher or in a body bag!

When you ski a steep slope—even on a regular mountain—you have to stay forward on your skis.  If you lose your concentration and start to lean back even a little bit (which is what most people instinctively want to do in a situation like that), you’re gone.  

You can be out of control in a flash.

That’s what was so amazing about these Olympic downhill skiers.  They had to have almost perfect concentration to stay forward on their skis and balanced as they flew down that mountain.

And they had to overcome their human weakness (that natural tendency we human beings have to pull back when there’s a steep drop in front of us).

If one of those skiers had let his guard down for even a millisecond, he not only would have lost his chance to win the gold medal (that’s a given)—he might even have lost his life.

And that is not an exaggeration!

This is analogous to the message Jesus is giving us in this very challenging gospel text, which is most evident in the following verses:

  • “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, You shall not kill; and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.  But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment . . . “
  • “You have heard that is was said, You shall not commit adultery.  But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
  • “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, Do not take a false oath, but make good to the Lord all that you vow.  But I say to you do not swear at all . . . let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’”

Not coincidentally, those very challenging verses come immediately after our Lord says, “I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

So what is Jesus telling us?  He’s telling us that if we want to get on—and stay on—the road to eternal glory, we need to have an ‘Olympic attitude’ in our spiritual lives.  We can’t ‘let our guards down,’ so to speak, when it comes to things like anger, and impurity and dishonesty.

If we do, we could easily become like a downhill ski racer at the Olympics who gets casual about his run and gives in to the tendency to sit back on his skis.

It can mean death—not physical death, but what’s even worse: spiritual death (which, without repentance, lasts forever!).

So Jesus is saying to us today in his word, “Deal with these sins (and others like them) QUICKLY!  When you find yourself slipping into sinful anger, acknowledge it and deal with it quickly!  Deal with any impure thoughts you may have and any little white lies you may tell immediately!  Don’t ‘sit back.’  Don’t allow your weak, fallen human nature to guide you in your response to these little sins, lest they become big sins!  Repent, bring them to confession, and stay on the racecourse.”

That’s how to be a ‘spiritual Olympian’ and win the ultimate prize of life—which, by the way, is the only prize in the end that will really matter.