Sunday Sermon for September 19, 2021, the Twenty-fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B
Readings: Wis 2:12, 17-20; Jas 3:16-4:3; Mk 9:30-37
In the first reading today, we hear the about the wicked who are discussing the treatment they intend to inflict upon a righteous person. We read that the just one is obnoxious to the wicked. More than anything, the reason for this is because the way the just person lives is a thorn in the conscience of those who are not living a godly life. For this reason, the wicked decide to persecute the just person and even kill him just to see what happens. After all, they reason, if this person is a child of God, God will protect him.
In the Gospel reading our Lord tells the Apostles about His impending death. One cannot help recognizing the correlation between the just man in the first reading and our Lord, Who is the Righteous One. We know that God did take care of Him and deliver Him from His foes. Of course, this was not done the way anyone looking on the natural level would recognize. Instead, it was through the resurrection that complete freedom was granted.
This scenario of the just being persecuted by the wicked is one which has taken place in the lives of the Saints, and it will also happen in the lives of those who are trying to live upright and holy lives. God allows this in order to bring about greater virtue in the person who is being persecuted. At the same time, it may be that the suffering endured, the example of virtue provided, and the prayer of the righteous for his persecutors will bring about the conversion of those who are persecuting him. This has happened countless times throughout history.
However, I would like to approach this from a different angle. When we consider the way the wicked persecute the righteous, we can also see this within our own selves. By this I do not mean our being persecuted by others, but the interior battle we all must endure if we are going to grow in holiness. All of us have weaknesses with which we struggle. Just as the persecutions from the outside bring our virtue, or lack thereof, to the surface, the same is true of the interior battle taking place in the souls of those who are striving to grow in virtue.
We know virtue only grows when it is tested. If we are serious about developing virtue in our lives, the Lord will arrange things so we will be required to practice the virtue. Such attempts on our part often result in a failure. The Lord allows this not only to help us see how far we have to go in obtaining the desired virtue, but also to help us grow in humility and dependence on the Lord.
If we look at the second reading, St. James brings up two areas of vice: jealousy and selfish ambition. So, if jealousy is a problem we are determined to overcome in our lives, we will be confronted with person after person who has something we want. Our natural tendency is to desire whatever the perceived good may be, but instead we need to not give into those desires, to thank God for what He has given this other person (without desiring it for ourselves), and then to thank God for what He has given to me. We must learn to be a peace with what the Lord has given us, knowing that, in His wisdom, this is what is best for us.
Ambition is similar because it is desiring something for ourselves. Jesus addresses this to His Apostles in the Gospel today when He tells them: “Whoever wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” For an ambitious person to choose to be last is not typical. The person may need to fight against other vices like anger and self-pity, along with the ambition. This fight is a battle that takes place within our own self.
In case anyone thinks this is incorrect, St. James asks where the wars and conflicts among us come from. He answers that it is from our passions that make war within our own members. So, to grow in virtue, we need to fight against our own self. Even worse, since our vices are often deeply rooted, we may find ourselves attacking the “obnoxious” virtue we want to acquire rather than attacking the vice!
This interior war is real and it is a fight to the death. We must die to self in order to put our vices to death. This is how the children of God are delivered from their foes, not the foes who are external, but from those interior foes that when put to death, bring us new life and cultivate peace.
Fr. Altier’s column appears regularly in The Wanderer, a national Catholic weekly published in St. Paul, Minn. For information about subscribing to The Wanderer, please visit www.thewandererpress.com.