Wednesday, August 26, 2009

You Have Searched Me, Lord, And You Know Me

First Reading
1 Thessalonians 2:9-13

Surely you remember, brothers and sisters, our toil and hardship; we worked night and day in order not to be a burden to anyone while we preached the gospel of God to you.

You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed. For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into his kingdom and his glory.

And for this reason, we also thank God continually because, when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is at work in you who believe.


In today’s First Reading, Paul reminds the people of Thessalonica of how hard he and his companions worked to avoid being a burden to them. The epistle does not say what sort of work they did. We know that Paul was a tent-maker (Acts 18:3), and he probably worked at that trade in Thessalonica; it is likely that Silas and Timothy helped him make tents.

If Paul and his companions worked to sustain themselves, they were also diligent in their behavior toward the people of Thessalonica. “You are witnesses, as is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you.” They treated each and every one of them as a father treats his own children, teaching and training them to love God and to live good lives.

Thessalonica was a city where most of the people worshipped idols. There were those – the pagan priests who conducted worship at the temples, for instance – who attempted to thwart the efforts of Paul and his companions to preach the good news, and to convert people to the Way of Jesus. Some of them accused Paul, Silas and Timothy of bad behavior. This should be a reminder that even in our own times, not everyone who is accused is guilty.

Most of the Christians at Thessalonica had been idol worshippers. Paul and his companions had taught them how God wants them to conduct themselves, and gave them a model to imitate in the way they themselves lived. Elsewhere, Paul sums it up in just a couple of words: “Imitate me, as I imitate Christ.”

For this reason, Paul gives thanks to God unceasingly, because, when they heard the word of God, they accepted it not as the word of men, but as it truly is: the word of God, which is actively at work in all who believe.

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Matthew 23:27-32
Jesus said: "Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside, are full of dead men's bones and every type of filth. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.

"Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous. And you say, 'If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.' So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. Now, fill up the measure of what your ancestors measured out for you!”


One view of the Pharisees:

St John Chrysostom (344/354 – 407) is able to give as good it gets in preaching about the Pharisees. “You have been counted worthy to become temples of God. But you have instead suddenly become more like sepulchers, having the same sort of smell. This is dreadful. It is extreme wretchedness that one in whom Christ dwells and in whom the Holy Spirit has worked such great works should turn out to be a sepulcher, a place for death. What wretchedness is this? What mourning and lamentation does this call for...! You were intended to be a temple without fault, beautiful, not adorned with gold or pearls but with the spirit that is more precious than these.... You carry around a dead soul. You are shunned. Be honest. If anyone were to go around carrying about a dead body, wouldn’t everyone else rush for cover! Wouldn’t they all flee? But this is what you are like. You go about carrying a corpse far more grievous than this. It is a soul deadened by sins, a soul paralyzed.”

The Pharisees have always been sitting ducks for Christian preachers. “The true prophet says humbly, ‘To me, a sinner, God spoke.’ But the scribes and Pharisees declare, ‘When we speak, God agrees.’ They feel no need of a special revelation, for they are always, in their own view, infallible. It is this self-righteousness of the pious that most breeds atheism, by inspiring all decent, ordinary people with loathing of the enormous lie.” It’s clear, of course, that the person who wrote that wasn't thinking only of the historical Pharisees. The reason they continue to be so popular is that they are still breeding.
Donal O’Shea, S.J.

Another view of the Pharisees:

It is all too easy to treat the Pharisees as embodying all that is worst in humankind. But in fact, they were probably the best men of their time, the most religious, the most devoted to the will of God, the most eager to express their loyalty to him in obedience to his every word, the most determined never to compromise with the world around them. But, as Saint Paul came to see in retrospect, they were exposed to a fatal flaw: the trouble with their outstanding righteousness was that, all too easily, it could be viewed precisely as their righteousness. It was a righteousness that could be measured, so that, at a certain point, you could say that you had now achieved it. This meant that it could all too easily come adrift from its original inspiration in devotion to God, and become a self-sufficient end in itself.

So far as we can tell, the Pharisees were probably quite prepared to acknowledge their dependence on God’s grace; there are some early Rabbinic texts which express such dependence in the most emphatic terms. Of course, there is the risk that human beings will forget their dependence on God, but the far more essential criticism is that the Pharisaic concept of righteousness is such that it allows a man to be self-consciously righteous, to contemplate himself in his righteousness, to treat it as something he can possess as his own, whether or not he also thinks that he has achieved it on his own.

The basic form of complacency, after all, is that a person is pleased with himself. … It is only a subdivision of complacency to be smug because we give full credit for ourselves to ourselves.
Simon Tugwell, O.P

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