My Postulant brothers and I have spent the past week settling in here at St. Bonaventure University in Olean, NY. We are spending approximately 5 weeks here this summer to take some courses on Franciscan history and spirituality in preparation for the Novitiate, which we will be entering in August (God willing).
Today, I was given the grace to provide a reflection during Mass. The reading was from the Gospel of St. Matthew, 7: 21-29.
Jesus said to his disciples: “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.”
When Jesus finished these words, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.
When I was preparing for this reflection, I couldn’t help but think that today’s reading is quite relevant for my time here at St. Bonaventure. For the past few days, my Postulant brothers and I have been reading the Testament and Admonitions of St. Francis and his Exhortation to the Brothers and Sisters of Penance, both earlier and later versions. And so these texts have been fresh in my mind.
I then wondered to myself, “What would have St. Francis thought when he read this passage from the Gospel of Matthew?”
Like all of us, I’m sure he would have been gripped with a desire not to be like the individuals mentioned in the first part of this reading. We all know that St. Francis was very much concerned with the salvation of souls – his own, those of his brothers, and those of all the faithful. In the Earlier Rule of 1221, Francis exhorts us to “Keep watch over (our) soul and those of (our) brothers.”
Furthermore, the writings and letters of St. Francis are rife with appeals and advice on how to live a proper Christian life – and also the consequences of not following a life in keeping with Gospel values. This desire for the salvation of souls is perhaps rooted in Francis’s personal desire to perfectly imitate Christ and in his conviction and belief in an evangelical life.
The Gospel was so important to Francis that when he wrote the Rule, we are told by Thomas of Celano that he used “primarily words of the Holy Gospel … longing only for its perfection … (with) a few other things necessary for the practice of a holy way of life.” (FAED 1, 1C, p. 210)
Another aspect of the first part of this reading, which I find so intriguing, is that all of the actions that are mentioned by those who are denied admittance into the Kingdom of Heaven – mainly prophesying, driving out demons, and doing mighty deeds in Christ’s name – are things that many people did in Francis’s day and they are things that we still so easily and so often get caught up in today.
How easy is it for us to proclaim that “this action” and “that deed” is just and holy because it is (we feel) what Jesus would want? How often do we “drive out demons”, or as is more often the case today, condemn others, in the name of Christ? How often do we boast of our own goodness and superiority because everything that we do is done with the blind confidence that Jesus would have wanted it so.
Now, I am generally not one who shies away from expressing how I feel. And, as I’m sure my Postulant brothers can attest, I don’t have any scruples about getting into debates and arguments, theological, political, or otherwise. In fact, I kind of enjoy it.
This is fueled by a confidence and a certainty in my beliefs, my own ego, and a desire on my part to prove the other party wrong. Too often, I am convinced that the correctness of my actions far out-weighs any negative, divisive, or hurtful effects it may have.
And so, after reading this Gospel in light of Francis’s writings, I cannot help but wonder if it is this grandiose self-righteousness and deluded self-confidence that so often paints us Christians in such an unfavorable light in the mainstream media. Are we preaching what we preach because it is truly informed by genuine Gospel values, or are we preaching because it makes us feel better about ourselves while condemning those we do not really care for?
If prophesying, driving out demons, and doing mighty deeds in Jesus Christ’s name is not enough, then what is?
The second part of this passage provides the answer – we are told that we must listen to Jesus’s words and act on it. Just because we claim that we do Christ’s Will or attach His seal of approval to our actions does not mean it is so.
In order for us to enter the Kingdom of Heaven and be like a house built on solid rock, we must be able to understand the essence of Christ’s message and take it to heart. The reading from yesterday’s Evening Prayer, taken from the First Letter of John 2: 3-6 reinforces this message:
The way we may be sure that we know Him is to keep His commandments. Whoever says, “I know Him,” but does not keep His commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoever keeps His word; the love of God is truly perfected in him. This is the way we may know that we are in union with Him. (1 John, 2: 3-6)
In other words, it is not enough to reduce our understanding of Christ to a purely intellectual, doctrinal, or theological exercise. And it is not enough to preach this, or do that, without arriving at a genuine love, affection for, and an understanding of his message of mercy, compassion, and redemption.
We must know what Christ says and live it, “With our whole heart, our whole soul and mind, and with our whole strength” (Mark 12: 30) and we must follow His command to “Love our neighbor as our selves” (Matthew 22: 39) because “Whosoever claims to abide in Him ought to live just as He lived.” (1 John, 2: 6)
And I think it is this basic understanding that so wonderfully imbued St. Francis’s life with such humble strength, courage, and conviction. In the Later Exhortation to the Brothers and Sisters of Penance, St. Francis encourages us to, “Put into practice, and to observe … these words and the others of our Lord Jesus Christ with humility and love.” (FAED 1, 2LtF, p. 51)
In no instance does St. Francis come across as self-righteous or sanctimonious – in any of his writings or in the writings of his followers. Rather, we see a man who surrendered his entirety to the Will of God and lived his life loving his neighbors as himself – even more so than himself.
In St. Francis, I feel that we have the kind of guy who not only talked the talk, but also walked the walk. And it is his example of living of the Gospel life with such integrity, compassion, and love that will serve to inspire us, as religious in formation, in our Church today, ensuring that our foundations are built solidly on rock and not on sand.