Have you noticed the way that the instructions in the Sermon on the Mount do not allow for an arbitrary choice? Consider the way in which the teaching proceeds:
“When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you . . . But when you give alms. . . When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, . . But when you pray, . . . When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. . . . But when you fast, . . .” (Mt 6:2, 3, 5, 6,16, 17)
The discipline demanded is not “if” you give alms, or “if” you pray, or “if” you fast, the summons repeatedly comes forth as “when.” These are not Christian options, but expectations. One might hear this lesson in a particular way in this Year of Mercy as we attend to our ministry of charity.
But, perhaps, a previous question may also be asked which can help to emphasize the values and directions of these ministries of mercy.
In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King uses a line which sticks in my mind. He quotes T.S. Elliott: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.” In his context, King is speaking about the possibility of using a moral means to maintain an immoral end. In the Gospel today, we can find another application of Elliott’s principle. A person can be faithful to fasting, to prayer and to almsgiving, but not engage in these evangelical practices with the correct motive. One may do these things out of habit, discipline, vainglory, and the expectations of others but not virtue, discipline, generosity, or reverence.
Thus, it is not enough to be present for prayer. I need to want to connect with the Lord God who loves me and I want to do that as part of a community. It is not enough to fast from chocolate. I need to want to bring discipline into my life which allows me to connect with my brothers and sisters who know genuine need. It is not enough to give extra stuff away. I need to want to be generous with what is important to me because the other is more important.
God knows our hearts. That is not a threat, but a promise. We can ask the Lord today to enable us to respond to this promise with hearts and minds focused on what is most important—to do the right thing, for the right reason. But to be sure to do it.
Homily – June 15, 2016 – Wednesday of the Eleventh Week in Ordinary Time