On Ash Wednesday, we begin Lent. People will be talking about praying more, fasting and making sacrifices–and will thereby prove they are not ready for Lent. Lent is a challenging time because the Christian life is a challenging life. It’s challenging because what many people do in the name of religion is actually the opposite of what needs to be done to fulfill Christ’s commands and actually live a spiritually holy life.
In Lent, we devote 40 days to concentrating on what we should be doing everyday. St. Benedict explained that a Christian should be living as if it was Lent every day because what symbolizes in the Church calendar is realized in the Christian life. The Easter holiday signifies the resurrection of the just at the end of the age and Lent signifies…the life we’re supposed to be living today. Lent is a springboard we should use to reach a new level in that life of ours, not an island of time to use well each year. Most of the talk about Lent is ignorant and pointless. Let’s actually get into the real stuff of holiness. I’m going to challenge you here, so buckle up.
Our duty, as Christians, is to obey the teachings of Our Lord. In fact, the mission of the Church is to:
Go into the world and make disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit–and teach them to obey all that I have commanded.
Now, I know you have become a Christian disciple. I know that you have been baptized. What about part three? Are you ready to obey all that Christ commanded? Well, you’d better be if you want to be saved. Now, I’d like to challenge you with what it was he commanded. The teachings of Christ are summarized in his famous “Sermon on the Mount” which is found in the Gospel of Matthew, from 5:3 through 7:27. You should be reading this during Lent rather than the 30 million other books people will be recommending to you. I’d like to break this sermon down for you in a way that is more helpful that reading it in your Bible probably is. Then, I’d like to zoom in on one part that I think is most important for our Lentent observance.
PART I. PERFECT HAPPINESS IS AVAILABLE TO EVERY MAN
Plato taught that true happiness was available only to contemplative philosophers. Aristotle agreed, but argued that all men could enjoy a happiness relative to their state in life. Our Lord disagreed with both and told us that all men have access to perfect happiness, but it will not be sought in this life–that is the key to the quest for perfect happiness.
Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the land.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the clean of heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you…
for your reward will be great in heaven.
PART II. CHRISTIANS MAKE THE WORLD HOLY
Our Lord teaches us that we are not to seek help from the world in living out our Christian life any more than salt should seek saltiness from the food it salts and light should seek light from the darkness it enlightens. We are the salt and the light and we should seek not to be served, but to serve.
You are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its taste, with what can it be seasoned? It is no longer good for anything but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.
You are the light of the world. A city set on a mountain cannot be hidden. Nor do they light a lamp and then put it under a bushel basket; it is set on a lampstand, where it gives light to all in the house. Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.
PART III. CHRISTIANS ARE HOLIER THAN OTHER RELIGIONS
In the ancient world, the Jews were pretty good when it came to morals–and they took the interpretation of the law very seriously. Protestants rejected Jewish legal wranglings and argued that true religion isn’t about keeping laws. Our Lord teaches us that the Jews were wrong in that they didn’t aim high enough, and that the Protestants are wrong in that God demands more perfect obedience, not less, from Christians.
Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. But whoever obeys and teaches these commandments will be called greatest in the kingdom of heaven. I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
EXAMPLE 1: CHRISTIAN SACRIFICES ARE HOLY
A man who hasn’t killed anyone may have simply been less successful in his intentions than those who have. Anyone can put on a happy face at Church and be masking a life of nasty fighting and hatred. God is not fooled. True Christians are not filled with the emotions of sin.
“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, and whoever says to his brother, ‘Raqa,’ will be answerable to the Sanhedrin, and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ will be liable to fiery Gehenna. Therefore, if you bring your gift to the altar, and there recall that your brother has anything against you, leave your gift there at the altar, go first and be reconciled with your brother, and then come and offer your gift. Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court with him. Otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge will hand you over to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Amen, I say to you, you will not be released until you have paid the last penny.
EXAMPLE 2: CHRISTIANS ARE PURE WITHIN
A man who hasn’t actually had illicit sex…but enjoys the thought of doing so…is, in the arena of God and the angels, a sexually immoral man. How many people have been kept by their own ugliness or lack of opportunity from great sexual sins? True Christians are not filled with the desires of sin.
“You have heard that it 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. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna.And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into Gehenna.
EXAMPLE 3: CHRISTIANS KEEP THEIR VOWS
A Christian who breaks his vow–especially the marriage vow–is in trouble. This calls us to be a people slow to make any promises or enter any contracts before God. Note: This led St. Peter to conclude that “It is better not to marry.”
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce.’ But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
EXAMPLE 4: CHRISTIANS KEEP THEIR OATHS
A true Christian is trustworthy, but that trust should be earned be experience, not faked with guarantees and swearing. Your deeds should speak for you, not your own lips.
“Again 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; not by heaven, for it is God’s throne; nor by the earth, for it is his footstool; nor by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. Do not swear by your head, for you cannot make a single hair white or black. Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’ Anything more is from the evil one.
EXAMPLE 5: CHRISTIANS DO NO EVIL EVEN WHEN PROVOKED
A phoney religious person thinks little of what He has received from God’s mercy and will be quick to demand justice in his dealings with other men. He will demand repayment for every wrong and will refuse any request for help beyond what is absolutely necessary. A true Christian is forgiving and generous.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on (your) right cheek, turn the other one to him as well. If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand him your cloak as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles. Give to the one who asks of you, and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow.
EXAMPLE 6: CHRISTIANS LOVE THE UNLOVABLE
A phoney religious person is willing to love when he may get something out of it, but he has no motivation to love anyone who actually needs his love.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what recompense will you have? Do not the tax collectors <1> do the same? And if you greet your brothers only, what is unusual about that? Do not the pagans do the same? So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.
PART IV: CHRISTIANS ACT WITH PURE MOTIVES
Phoney religious people can’t perform any of the deeds God requires without making sure they have other people watching because, having no real faith in God, they feel that if no one sees them, the deeds are wasted. The true Christian, truly believing that they are living in the presence of God and his holy angels, can do good in secret with joy–and must–or his deeds will be rejected.
“But take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father.
EXAMPLE 1. CHRISTIANS GIVE ALMS ONLY FOR GOD
There’s nothing like a staged charitable donation, where a “generous done” stands smiling before the camera holding a 6′ long copy of a check that makes sure everyone can see the amount and applaud after the cameras flash. If we make a gift to the poor (i.e., truly poor) and not secretly, our gift is rejected by God for it was not a true Christian gift for God’s sake.
When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites <1> do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.
EXAMPLE 2. CHRISTIANS PRAY ONLY FOR GOD
Many people use prayers as a way of showing off their parroting skills or demonstrating what authors they’ve read. Others use prayer as an opportunity to gossip out loud while appearing to be religious. If we actually believe we’re talking to God, our prayers would assume that our needs are already known and wouldn’t require any theatrics. Jesus tells us what to pray–there, no more nonsense.
When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you. In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask him. This is how you are to pray:
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven. Give us today our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, <1> as we forgive our debtors; and do not subject us to the final test, <1> but deliver us from the evil one. If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.
EXAMPLE 3. CHRISTIANS FAST ONLY FOR GOD
In a society of fat people, fasting and dieting are confused. Others fast in groups or as part of some fasting retreat, etc.. True fasting is a secret sacrifice made for God’s sake alone. It is a sacrifice made to God and God says that He will only accept the secret fast.
When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.
The lamp of the body is the eye. If your eye is sound, your whole body will be filled with light; but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be in darkness. And if the light in you is darkness, how great will the darkness be. No one can serve two masters. He will either hate one and love the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.
PART V. CHRISTIANS LIVE WITHOUT THE FEARS OF OTHER MEN
If you’ve read any of my arguments with people about medicine or politics, you’ll see that people are ruled by fears of dangers that don’t even exist. A true Christian believes that God owns everything and can provide anything needed at any time. That doesn’t mean the Christian is stupid and irresponsible, but they are free to do things others can’t because they are from from others’ fears.
Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat (or drink), or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds in the sky; they do not sow or reap, they gather nothing into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are not you more important than they? Can any of you by worrying add a single moment to your life-span?
Why are you anxious about clothes? Learn from the way the wild flowers grow. They do not work or spin.
But I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was clothed like one of them. If God so clothes the grass of the field, which grows today and is thrown into the oven tomorrow, will he not much more provide for you, O you of little faith? So do not worry and say, ‘What are we to eat?’ or ‘What are we to drink?’ or ‘What are we to wear?’ All these things the pagans seek. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom (of God) and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides. Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient for a day is its own evil.
PART VI. CHRISTIANS LEAD BY EXAMPLE
Everyone loves to quote “Remove the log from your own eye” as a defense against criticism from others or to excuse themselves from correcting their friends and children, but Our Lord is not teaching that at all. He’s telling us we need to correct ourselves so that we can correct others effectively.
Stop judging, that you may not be judged. For as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you. Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove that splinter from your eye,’ while the wooden beam is in your eye? You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye.
PART VII. CHRISTIANS KEEP HOLY THINGS
We live in the age of the “seeker-sensitive” Church. People love to say, “Jesus ate with tax collectors and prostitutes”, but they obviously haven’t read those passages carefully. Jesus never brought holy things to sinful people. He reserved his most sacred teachings for private discussions with his disciples and reveals his way slowly to his obedient followers–never all at once. We should not be bringing the sacred to the profane, but bringing the profane to the sacred.
Do not give what is holy to dogs, or throw your pearls before swine, lest they trample them underfoot, and turn and tear you to pieces.
PART VIII. CHRISTIAN HAVE EVERYTHING
Here, Our Lord tells us that–seriously–God will give us all that we need when we offer ourselves as His workers in the world.
Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. Which one of you would hand his son a stone when he asks for a loaf of bread, <1>
or a snake when he asks for a fish? If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him.
PART IX. CHRISTIANS FOLLOW A VERY SIMPLE RULE
When in doubt? Do what you’d want someone to do to you. No excuses.
Do to others whatever you would have them do to you. This is the law and the prophets.
PART X. CHRISTIANS OVERCOME ALL OBSTACLES
We live in an age of wimpy people who work at nothing so much as to find a disability or disorder that will give them permission to fail. Our Lord warns us that heaven is the ultimate prize and it will only be obtained by people for whom it is so. If you want it, you’ll get it. If you don’t get it, it will be because you really didn’t want it. It’s amazing how much people can do for stupid things and how little they can do for important things. God cannot be fooled.
Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And those who find it are few. Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but underneath are ravenous wolves. By their fruits you will know them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Just so, every good tree bears good fruit, and a rotten tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a rotten tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. So by their fruits you will know them.
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’ Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you. Depart from me, you evildoers.’
Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock. And everyone who listens to these words of mine but does not act on them will be like a fool who built his house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. And it collapsed and was completely ruined.
Now, what I encourage you to focus on in Lent is Part IV: “Christians Act With Pure Motives” This is where most people around you will prove to have no clue what they’re doing–even the priests and religious. What Our Lord’s true disciples do is incredible–because it is kept secret for only God to see, enjoy and reward.
Can you live like a true disciple of Christ? If so, we shouldn’t hear you say a word about it.
William Michael, Director
Classical Liberal Arts Academy