Sunday, March 08, 2015

“I’ve fallen and I CAN’T get up”; “I’ve fallen but I WON’T get up.” Which of those best describes your attitude right now?

(Third Sunday of Lent (B): This homily was given on March 8, 2015 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Exodus 20: 1-17.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Third Sunday of Lent 2015]

Our Bishop, Thomas Tobin, began a column he wrote recently in the Rhode Island Catholic with these words:

I’m sure you’ve seen the commercial. An elderly lady has fallen down the steps in her home, is seriously injured and unable to move to the telephone when she cries out, “Help! I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” The commercial promotes Life Alert Emergency Response, a medical alert pendant that’s used to notify dispatchers about someone’s health emergency.
Although I haven’t yet had any personal experience with Life Alert, I’m sure it’s a fine product and a useful service that has assisted many individuals, perhaps even saved some lives. But it occurs to me that the phrase “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up,” serves well as a description of the human condition we need to confront during the Season of Lent.
It’s true—as a human family, and as individuals, we’ve indeed fallen, very far and in many ways, and a thoughtful, faith-filled person will quickly recognize that we need God’s help if we are to arise and walk again.

The majority of the rest of the Bishop’s column explores how we can access that help from the Lord, especially through our Lenten disciplines of prayer and self-denial and charity.

But there’s a presumption behind our Bishop’s words in this article.  He presumes that we actually WANT to “get up”!  He presumes that his readers are people who honestly examine their lives every day in light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and then strive for perfection through repentance.  Put in the terms of today’s Gospel reading, he presumes that his readers are constantly working to keep their “temples” as clean as possible.

And that’s certainly a reasonable presumption with respect to readers of the Rhode Island Catholic newspaper.  But the fact is (and our Bishop knows this as well as anybody) there are a lot of people in our world right now who are quite content to be living in a state of sin—a state of serious sin.  They’re attitude is not, “I’ve fallen and I CAN’T get up”; they’re attitude is, “I’ve fallen but I WON’T get up!”—“I’ve fallen but I don’t have ANY INTEREST WHATSOEVER in getting up!”

This all came to mind as I reflected on today’s first reading from Exodus 20.  There we are presented with the Ten Commandments.  Notice that they’re not called the “Ten Suggestions”; they’re not called the “Ten Recommendations”.  They’re called the Ten Commandments—which means they’re as binding on us in 2015 as they were on the people of ancient Israel at the time of Moses.  (And if you don’t believe me, just look in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.  A large section of Part 3 of the Catechism is a reflection on the Ten Commandments and how they apply to us today, in our modern world.)

These Commandments are a gift—a gift from God, giving us the guidelines we need to follow in order to live lives of relative peace and happiness.  I hope you realize, my brothers and sisters, if everyone on planet earth right now lived his or her life according to these ten directives, planet earth would be a very different—and a much better—place.

But a lot of people today are not living them, and many of these individuals aren’t interested in even trying to live them—and that’s a huge problem, as Bishop Tobin notes in his recent column.

And those who disobey often have excuses—interesting and sometimes very clever excuses—as to why they disobey, and as to why their disobedience is actually a great thing!

I’ll bet that you’ve heard some of these excuses before—many times!  For example …

Excuse #1 for not obeying the Ten Commandments: “God told me.  God told me to disobey.”

That excuse is used, of course, by people who are mentally ill and hear strange voices in their heads.  But, sad to say, it’s also used by a lot of other people who are completely sane.

Like the radical Muslim jihadists who are wreaking havoc all over the world right now!  Ask those evil men why they’re killing innocent people in such barbaric ways and they’ll tell you without any hesitation whatsoever: “Because God has told us to!  We are commanded either to convert or to kill all infidels, and that’s precisely what we’re doing!”

And if you said to them, “But that’s wrong!  It’s not only contrary to the Ten Commandments, it’s also contrary to right reason.  It’s contrary to right reason to kill the innocent,” they’d reply by saying, “We don’t care about your ‘reason’; we’re not interested in being ‘reasonable’!  Allah has told us to kill, so we kill!”

This, by the way, was the issue that then-Pope Benedict was trying to address in his speech at the University of Regensburg back in 2006.  His basic point was that God is the author of human reason, so he’s not going to command us to do things that are irrational and unreasonable. 

It was a direct challenge to the jihadist mentality that’s present today in radical forms of Islam (not in all of Islam, but in certain segments of it).  For the most part, the secular press criticized Benedict for being naïve and for making so-called “inflammatory statements” against Muslims.  But Pope Benedict was absolutely correct—as the world is now coming to recognize more and more.

If only the man in the White House would recognize it!

So that’s the first excuse people use for disobeying the Commandments: “God told me to.”

Let me quickly mention some others which are even more prevalent—especially in our modern American society.

Excuse #2: “Everybody is doing it.”
No, everybody isn’t doing it—whatever “it” happens to be.

Excuse #3: “It’s my body, and I’ll do whatever I want with it.”
Well, it may be your body, but remember: what you do with it will have consequences—both here AND in eternity!

Excuse #4: “The ‘experts’ tell me it’s okay.”  That one is used to justify everything from self-abuse to cheating on one’s taxes.

Excuse #5: “It’s legal, so it’s okay.”  Of course, slavery was once legal in this country, as was segregation—and neither of those two things was “okay”.

Excuse #6: “I’m not hurting anybody.”  People who use this one forget that every sin—even a sin that somebody commits “in private”—changes the sinner, and affects that sinner in a negative way in his or her relationships with others.

And, finally, excuse #7 that people use for disobeying the Ten Commandments: “I have to follow my conscience.”  That, of course, is true.  The Catholic Church teaches that we should always follow the dictates of our conscience.  As it says in paragraph 1782 of the Catechism: Man has the right to act in conscience and in freedom so as personally to make moral decisions. ‘He must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters.’”

But that’s only half the story!  The corollary of that teaching is that we are personally responsible for forming our consciences properly!  And, according to paragraph 1783 of the Catechism, what is supposed to guide us in forming our consciences properly is “the Word of God”—which includes (yes, you guessed it!) the Ten Commandments.

“I’ve fallen and I CAN’T get up”; “I’ve fallen but I WON’T get up.”

When all is said and done, my brothers and sisters, everyone—without exception—goes through life with one of those two attitudes dominating.

Notice that the first part of each statement is the same: “I’ve fallen.”  That’s because we have all “fallen”—that is to say, we’re all sinners in need of God’s forgiveness.  The difference between the two groups is that those in the first one have the opportunity to receive that forgiveness, while those in the second one have willingly closed themselves off from that opportunity.

Hopefully those of us who are in that first group will make it a point to seek the Lord’s pardon sometime during this season of Lent by making a good confession.

Like the elderly who have Life Alert pendants, we cannot raise ourselves up after we fall into sin, but God can “raise us up”—and God does raise us up, spiritually, in that great sacrament!