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Sin is No Match for the Spirit of God: The 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Sin is No Match for the Spirit of God: The 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Our Readings for this Sunday may seem dour at first, dominated by discussion of going to hell and the merits of self-amputation, but the First Reading actually points us in the right direction to overcome sin and hell and live in joy. We will see how as the Readings unfold:
The LORD came down in the cloud and spoke to Moses. Taking some of the spirit that was on Moses, the LORD bestowed it on the seventy elders; and as the spirit came to rest on them, they prophesied. Now two men, one named Eldad and the other Medad, were not in the gathering but had been left in the camp. They too had been on the list, but had not gone out to the tent; yet the spirit came to rest on them also, and they prophesied in the camp. So, when a young man quickly told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp, “ Joshua, son of Nun, who from his youth had been Moses’ aide, said, “Moses, my lord, stop them.” But Moses answered him, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets! Would that the LORD might bestow his spirit on them all!”
Let’s call to mind the context of the Book of Numbers. In the Book of Exodus, Moses lead the people of Israel out of Egypt to Mount Sinai, where he mediated a covenant between themselves and God. A covenant is the extension of kinship by an oath or oath-ritual: the point of the covenant at Sinai was that God was adopting Israel as his family. Thus a blood ritual solemnized the relationship (Exod 24:8), symbolizing that God and Israel now shared one blood.
In Exodus 32, however, the people of Israel rejected the LORD as their God and returned to Egyptian religion, worshiping the bull-god Apis in the form of a golden calf. This broke the covenant relationship, but Moses interceded for them, and God graciously agreed to renew the covenant. Nonetheless, when he did, he included as part of the covenant many more regulations: the entire Book of Leviticus. Israel lived under this renewed covenant for a short time (Numbers 1-10), as they were getting organized to leave Sinai for the Promised Land, but as soon as they left Sinai (Num 11), the wheels came off of the whole arrangement. Numbers recounts the forty years the Israelites spent wandering in the desert (Num 11–25), which consisted in one rebellion against God after another.
Today’s First Reading is a description of events during the second major rebellion in the Wilderness after Israel has left Mount Sinai. Moses has complained to God that part of the reason the people are always getting out of hand, is that he (Moses) cannot govern them all alone. So God tells Moses to gather some worthy men together, on whom God will bestow the Holy Spirit so that they can assist Moses in governing the people.
In this context, Moses utters one of his most profound prayers, which sums up the problem of the Old Covenant and the promise of the New:
Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets! Would that the LORD might bestow his spirit on them all!
The problem with the Old Covenant was that it did not involve the gift of the Holy Spirit. Without the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Israelites found themselves unable (or better, unwilling) to follow God’s law, and thus were in an almost constant state of rebellion.
One of the main distinctions between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant we enjoy in Christ is the gift of the Holy Spirit we now possess through Baptism. St. Paul summarizes as follows:
Rom 8:2: For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death. 3 For God has done what the Law [i.e. the Mosaic Covenant], weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
Moses already knew, so long ago, that there was something inadequate about the covenant he mediated. He wished that “all the people of the LORD were prophets” and had God’s Spirit. This has been fulfilled in the New Covenant. Every one who is baptized shares in Christ’s prophetic office. From the Catechism:
783 Jesus Christ is the one whom the Father anointed with the Holy Spirit and established as priest, prophet, and king. The whole People of God participates in these three offices of Christ and bears the responsibilities for mission and service that flow from them. 785 “The holy People of God shares also in Christ’s prophetic office,” above all in the supernatural sense of faith that belongs to the whole People, lay and clergy, when it “unfailingly adheres to this faith . . . once for all delivered to the saints,” and when it deepens its understanding and becomes Christ’s witness in the midst of this world.
It’s the Spirit of God that will give us power over the sin about which St. James and Our Lord himself will warn us so strongly in the Second Reading and Gospel.
R. (9a) The precepts of the Lord give joy to the heart. The law of the LORD is perfect, refreshing the soul; the decree of the LORD is trustworthy, giving wisdom to the simple. R. The precepts of the Lord give joy to the heart. The fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the LORD are true, all of them just. R. The precepts of the Lord give joy to the heart. Though your servant is careful of them, very diligent in keeping them, Yet who can detect failings? Cleanse me from my unknown faults! R. The precepts of the Lord give joy to the heart. From wanton sin especially, restrain your servant; let it not rule over me. Then shall I be blameless and innocent of serious sin. R. The precepts of the Lord give joy to the heart.
Psalm 19 is one of the three great Torah psalms, that is, psalms that glorify God’s Law (Torah): Psalm 1, Psalm 19, and Psalm 119. The Psalmist writes of the Law of God written on tablets of stone, that it was “perfect … refreshing the soul.” The Ten Commandments brought great clarity to a world that otherwise was groping about moral confusion and chaos. But if the Law of the Old Covenant written on stone was “perfect,” how much more the Law of the the New Covenant, which is the Holy Spirit? St. Thomas Aquinas says:
The New Law is chiefly the grace itself of the Holy Ghost, which is given to those who believe in Christ. This is manifestly stated by the Apostle who says (Rom. 3:27): “Where is . . . thy boasting? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No, but by the law of faith”: for he calls the grace itself of faith “a law.” And still more clearly it is written (Rom. 8:2): “The law of the spirit of life, in Christ Jesus, hath delivered me from the law of sin and of death.” Hence Augustine says (De Spir. et Lit. xxiv) that “as the law of deeds was written on tables of stone, so is the law of faith inscribed on the hearts of the faithful”: and elsewhere, in the same book (xxi): “What else are the Divine laws written by God Himself on our hearts, but the very presence of His Holy Spirit?“
So when we sing this Psalm in Mass, we may apply it in praise of the Holy Spirit, the new “Law” that God has given us, even more perfect and effective than the Old.
Come now, you rich, weep and wail over your impending miseries. Your wealth has rotted away, your clothes have become moth-eaten, your gold and silver have corroded, and that corrosion will be a testimony against you; it will devour your flesh like a fire. You have stored up treasure for the last days. Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers who harvested your fields are crying aloud; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on earth in luxury and pleasure; you have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter. You have condemned; you have murdered the righteous one; he offers you no resistance.
St. James words here need to be understood in contrast to what Our Lord says in the Gospel:
Matt. 6:19 “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, 20 but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. 21 For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
But the people St. James describes have stored up their treasure on the earth. When he says “you have condemned, you have murdered the righteous one,” St. James probably means it in the same sense as Our Lord’s words: Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ (Matt 25:40). Inasmuch as these rich oppressors have persecuted or even caused the deaths of those poor who were brethren of Christ, they have abused Christ himself.
The problem here is idolatry of riches. The wealth of the rich has become their “golden calf.” But, according to Psalm 19:10, the “Law of the LORD” is “more to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold.” For us, this “Law” is God’s Spirit: the Holy Spirit is a treasure so much better and more satisfying than bank accounts and real estate. It’s tragic to get sidetracked with building up earthly riches, because it involves setting our sights on a goal far beneath us, and missing out on the treasures of the Spirit.
At that time, John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name, and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.” Jesus replied, “Do not prevent him. There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name who can at the same time speak ill of me. For whoever is not against us is for us. Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ, amen, I say to you, will surely not lose his reward.
In this incident, the Apostles encounter a man who identifies with Christ but “does not follow us,” that is, he does not yet associate publicly with Jesus and the Apostles, who constitute the visible Church. Jesus advocates a gracious approach toward such persons. They are on his side; they will have a reward for what they do in Christ’s name. This incident is instructive still today, and has implications for how we deal with those who claim the name of Christ but “do not follow us,” that is, are not part of the visible Church and do not acknowledge the authority of the successors of the Apostles. Their good works should be encouraged, even as we work toward the visible unity of all who follow Christ (John 17:23).
“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.
Jesus’ teaching here applies especially to those who would teach the faith of the Church. Teachers will be judged more strictly. Those who teach in Christ’s name, whether in kindergarten or a doctoral program, need to convey His teaching and not their own. In Catholic higher education, much has been said about the right of “academic freedom” of professors of theology. What about the right of the Catholic student to be taught the faith of the Church and not the personal opinions of the professor? Sadly, many “little ones who believe in me” have been taught to sin in high school and college classrooms, by persons substituting their own ideas for the teaching of Christ and the Catholic Church. Such persons will one day have to give an account of themselves before Christ.
If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter into life maimed than with two hands to go into Gehenna, into the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut if off. It is better for you to enter into life crippled than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna, where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.'”
Jesus now stresses the seriousness of sin. It is better to amputate part of one’s body than to lose one’s salvation through sin. “Gehenna” here is a term for hell. It comes from the Hebrew ge-hinnom, “the Valley of Hinnom,” one of the valleys on the side of Jerusalem where child sacrifice to idols was practiced in ancient Israel. In later times, the Jews were so disgusted with the abhorrent worship that had taken place in the Valley of Hinnom that they used the area only for disposing trash. Fires continually burned there to consume the debris, adding to the hellish atmosphere of the place. Thus, “Gehenna” became a term for the place of final punishment. In contemporary society, hell has once more come to earth in the form of “clinics” where children are sacrificed to our idols of pleasure, convenience, and wealth.
It is often said that Jesus, in describing self-amputation, is using the literary device of hyperbole, that is, exaggeration for the sake of emphasis. However, it is not quite hyperbole, because what Jesus says is literally true. It is better to enter life maimed than to go to hell with a whole body. That is not an exaggeration.
Why, then, have the saints not made a practice of self-amputation? Because it is never really the case that our hand, foot, or eye causes us to sin. If they did, we should cut them off. But the cause of sin is not in our physical appendages. Here we should remember Our Lord’s teaching from earlier in Mark:
18 And he said to them, “Then are you also without understanding? Do you not see that whatever goes into a man from outside cannot defile him, 19 since it enters, not his heart but his stomach, and so passes on?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.) 20 And he said, “What comes out of a man is what defiles a man. 21 For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, 22 coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man.”
What Our Lord says about food also applies to parts of the body. They are not truly the cause of sin. It is the evil in our heart that causes sin. That’s why we need a cleansing of the heart if we are to follow Christ, and that cleansing comes through the Spirit. The prophet Ezekiel spoke about it in these words:
25 I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. 26 A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to observe my ordinances.
Through baptism we experience this “sprinkling” and receive the new “heart” and the Holy Spirit.
Our Lord’s words in this Gospel are a very serious warning about the gravity of sin, emphasizing that we cannot tolerate or become accustomed to any sin in our lives. “Be perfect, even as your heavenly father is perfect” (Matt 5:48). The good news is, he has provided us the Holy Spirit to eradicate this sin. The Spirit is given to us through the sacraments, especially through Baptism and Confirmation, and renewed at every Eucharist. Nonetheless, we do need to cooperate with the Spirit that is in us. Resistance to God’s Spirit is itself sin and will result in more sin.
From a practical perspective, frequent confession—weekly if possible—can be a great help in conforming our will to the will of the Holy Spirit that dwells within us. Another great help is the practice of “mortification” or self-denial. “Mortification” means “putting to death,” and the concept comes from St. Paul:
Rom 8:13 If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God.
“Mortification” is the “putting to death the deeds of the body” through acts of self-denial.
Fasting is the best-known and most obvious form of “mortification,” and it seems that fasting is making a comeback at least in some areas within the Church. Fasting only on water is difficult to start with; many may want to begin by fasting on bread and water at first, or on liquids while abstaining from solid food.
St. Josemaria Escriva was a great advocate of the “small mortification”: skipping sugar in one’s tea, skipping butter on one’s bread, getting up right when the alarm rings, sitting up straight in one’s chair, etc. He encourage Catholics to practice small mortifications throughout the day. They had the advantage that they could not lead to pride, because they were so small. Yet they still were real tests of the will, helping Christians to learn to say “No” to self and “Yes” to the Spirit.
The Old Testament prophets also cultivated openness to the Spirit of God within them through the practice of self-denial or mortification—so we see Elijah living in the wilderness and wearing coarse clothing (camel’s hair and leather). We now share the prophetic role in Christ, and the practice of mortification helps open us to the Spirit that has been given to “all the people of the LORD,” as Moses once desired.