When Goods Become Gods

Jesus said:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites.
You pay tithes of mint and dill and cummin,
and have neglected the weightier things of the law:
judgment and mercy and fidelity.
But these you should have done, without neglecting the others.
Blind guides, who strain out the gnat and swallow the camel!

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites.
You cleanse the outside of cup and dish,
but inside they are full of plunder and self-indulgence.
Blind Pharisee, cleanse first the inside of the cup,
so that the outside also may be clean.”—Matt 23:23-26

I recently subscribed to Apple Music, which enables me to listen to pretty much any song for free.  In a fit of nostalgia, I downloaded many of my high school favorites from the 80’s and early 90’s.  Listening to them I am amazed and amused by two things: First, these songs are so riddled with longing and angst I am surprised I survived even an hour of adolescence without copious amounts of Prozac.  Second, I really had no idea how very many metaphors there are for the should-be-marital-act that I was completely oblivious to in my youth.

Just like the lyrics of an old country song, I too was “looking for love in all the wrong places.”  But this is not a story about sexual mistakes or what Fr. Isaac dubbed the “Las Vegas Sins.”  Rather I tried very hard to be a “good girl” and knew that my desire for love was ultimately to be met in God.  But I (unconsciously) believed that God’s love was something to be earned, fought for.  I thought it was a matter of getting the rules right, of moral perfection, of mastering my will.

The Opposition Voice will take one of two tactics when it comes to morality.  First, he may tempt us to ignore God’s law entirely, saying a particular sin is no big deal, won’t harm us, isn’t even really a sin.  Or, he may take an opposite tact: he may encourage us to fixate on sin, fixate on what is right and wrong, the details of law—at the expense of our relationship with the Law Giver.  This was the mistake of the Pharisees in today’s Gospel, and at times my own as well.

All of God’s laws are for our ultimate good and happiness, even those we find difficult and unpalatable.  Moralism, however, takes those beautiful and good laws and makes an idol of them.

We need a sidewalk to proceed down a street safely, but we are not meant to live our life looking only at the concrete.  A map may provide helpful directions to keep us from getting lost, but life is not meant to be an endless squabble over the map.

A few years ago, some Frassati friends and I visited Yellowstone Park.  There are hundreds of acres of land that are completely free and open to exploration.  There are some areas with recommended paths that are helpful but not required.  And there are some areas, generally surrounding hot springs or canyons, with paths and platforms that are absolutely essential for one’s safety—step off the path, and you could die.

The purpose of these latter paths is non-negotiable—we disregard them to our peril.  But we do not come to Yellowstone to gaze at and photograph the path, but to enable us to enjoy all of the beauty that surrounds it.

Similarly, the moral law is not at end in itself, but God’s plan to help us live life to the full.  A good marriage is not the absence of adultery or murder or skillful negotiations about who does the dishes and takes out the garbage.  Certainly, those things are necessary if not deal-breakers, but they are not enough.  What makes marriage meaningful is the love lived between spouses, the gift of self that grows into new little gift-givers.

The Opposition Voice will sometimes encourage perfectionism and moralism, not because he values morality, but because he knows we will ultimately fail.  He will encourage us to jump as high as we can, in order to try to reach God on our own, knowing we will get tired and eventually give up.

After sin, he continues with the same varying tactics.  To one he whispers, “Your sin is no big deal!  No need to go to Confession.  You didn’t kill anyone after all.  Oh, well, maybe you did, but she deserved it, right?”

To the other: “What an abominable sin you committed!  God could never forgive that.  You are not worthy of the pure love of God.  You shouldn’t even think about approaching Him in prayer!”

Always his goal is to block relationship, block reconciliation between creature and Creator.

When I taught children about Confession I would hold up a clear glass of water, telling them that it represented their souls at baptism, clean of original sin and filled with sanctifying grace.  Then we would add drops of food coloring, representing various sins committed, until the water turned black.

“Does God love you when you look like this?” I would ask.  There were always a few who guessed No.

“God never stops loving you—even when you look like this!” I would insist.  “God loves you just the way you are—but too much to let you stay that way.”  And then I would talk to them about the sacrament of Confession, how God’s love not only washes us but transforms us with His Grace and Mercy.

To further illustrate this, I would pour into the blackened water Absolution (represented by a bottle of Clorox), which changed suddenly the contents of the glass.  I had been told that this would make the water clear again, but in fact, it turned it a deep golden color.  At first I was dismayed that it “didn’t work properly,” but then I realized that this was in fact a more appropriate image for Confession.

Scripture tells us that “where sin abounds, grace abounds more.”  God takes the evil we offer and transforms it to an even greater good than existed previously.  The Prodigal Son upon His return finds not the life of servitude he expects, but a great welcome, the father running out to meet him, a party thrown in His honor

May we seek to follow Christ, who is the Way, the Truth and Life, and never let any sin be an obstacle to His love for us.