National Conference of the Australian Confraternity of Catholic Clergy
Melbourne, Australia, July 5, 2007
Matthew 9: 1-8
1. We need to read today's passage in Genesis in light of the four chapters that precede it. Abraham lives in an evil and confused time. He himself is a complicated man. He haggles with the angels over the destruction of Sodom; he lies to Abimilech and hands over Sarah to sleep with him; and he expels Hagar and her son into the desert. We see God obliterating the cities of the plain for their wickedness; Lot's daughters get him drunk in order to have sexual intercourse with him; and we discover that Sarah is not only Abraham's wife, but also his half-sister. It's a portrait of human stubbornness, anarchy, jealousy, deceit, incest and cruelty. If our own times seem difficult, the human condition hasn't changed much. God worked with the available material then. He does the same now.
2. What distinguishes Abraham is not his virtue but his fidelity. He has many flaws, but he knows God, and he is faithful to Him. This is enough for God to begin His work. It's the foundation stone of Scripture. All salvation history flows from this one fact. Abraham is a faithful man.
3. Scripture is emotionally compressed because of its huge scope. We need to unpack it. Remember that Isaac is no ordinary child. He's a special gift given to Sarah in her old age, per Gn 18:10. Then note verse Gn 22:2, where God says to Abraham, "Take your son, your only son Isaac whom you love . . . " [emphasis added], and kill him as a sacrifice to me. Abraham's natural first instinct would be to see God as callous and greedy; an all-powerful, unfeeling liar and deceiver. Any human father in this circumstance would have extreme emotions of doubt, fear, anger and guilt. Scripture only records what matters: Abraham's obedience despite his own will and anguish.
4. God doesn't ask of us anything He is unwilling to do Himself. Isaac prefigures Jesus. God spared Abraham the pain of sacrificing his only son. But He did not spare Himself or His own Son. As Abraham's obedience allowed the story of our salvation to begin, so Jesus brought it to its fulfillment in His own obedience. The lesson here is simple. What God asks first of His people is not that we should be creative or intelligent or well informed or urbane or tolerant, although all these qualities have importance in their place. What He asks first is that we be radically faithful and obedient to His will. This is how He reshapes the world - through our choosing His will over our own. As priests who are configured to Christ in ordination, this applies especially to us. We cannot ask of our people what we will not do ourselves. Radical unselfishness, interior humility and conversion; daily prayer and a hunger for winning souls; radical fidelity to Jesus Christ and obedience to the Church and her teachings: These are the first and essential steps to any renewal in priestly life. This is what matters. Everything else in religion is just pretty words and false optimism.
5. Finally, the lesson of today's Gospel is that the things of God should come first. The issues of this world, while important, are secondary. Jesus' greatest gift to us is not food, shelter, legal reform, economic justice or personal health, but interior life, true interior healing that lasts forever. Christ's priority is the redemption of sins, which makes real human freedom possible. He also heals the paralytic, but that is not the focus of His mission - in fact, Christ's fatigue with man's inability to see the really important truths about life is apparent in this passage. In like manner, as Catholics we must be concerned with the needs and sufferings of this world. But that is never our primary focus, especially as priests. Our task is the conversion of the world and the salvation of souls. This is what we'll be judged on.
Printed with permission from the Archdiocese of Denver.