When I was a college student, at the U of Wisconsin, most professors did not insist on mandatory attendance. As long as the student passed the exams, it didn’t matter when or even if he attended class. This was great for me because I was working a 50 hour workweek and raising 3 sons, so often I would opt to stay home and study rather than go to class. Sometimes I had a nightmare that became a recurring one: I would dream that I had forgotten to attend a final exam and that I would have to beg the professor for another opportunity. In the dream and in waking life I knew all too well that it was completely my fault, that I had not kept my part of the bargain in taking that particular class. I hadn’t followed through on what I had committed to do.
Since the days of the Reformation, many Protestants have said that the Roman Catholic Church is not a true Church, and that Catholicism is a false religion. But from the days of the English Reformation until the 1920’s, Catholics in Ireland were oppressed by Protestant kings, parliaments, nobility, soldiers and landlords. I suspect that the Irish rejected the Reformation, at least in part, because of the hypocrisy of English Protestants. What is one to make of a Christianity that drives families off their fertile ancestral lands to starve on Ireland’s barren west coast? Or seizing the choicest lands for wealthy English nobility, and making the Irish tenants on their own land, or keep them from getting any education or a decent job? Or ship them off to Australia when they protest, or make it a capital crime to speak their native language instead of English? These acts pale in comparison with English slavers who profited from the slave industry at the expense of many Africans.
The point here isn’t that English people are notorious sinners. There isn’t a shortage in any country on the planet. The point is that Christians have almost from the inception of the Church behaved in a most unchristian manner.
In the Middle Ages, one of the crusades never actually made it to Palestine. Instead, the ships’ captains persuaded them to land at Constantinople, and sack the capital city of their fellow Christians. How can this be? How is this related to anything Jesus said or did?
In America, more than half the population claims to be Christian. Yet we seethat it makes next to no difference in the lives of so many who make that claim. We hear of and see people we know who say they are Christians, and then we see dishonesty, immorality, stealing and cheating, and worse. They live like those who have no religion, so what’s up with that?
There are three big truths that Jesus teaches about this. First, not everyone who claims to be a follower of Jesus is actually a follower of Jesus. Many people will say that going to church isn’t that important, or that their walks in the woods are just as good as church. Others will cling to their possessions, even if they’re not rich, as if salvation were somehow related to the 1980s adage: “Whoever dies with the most toys wins.”
We may be disappointed or disgusted with the way supposed Christians act, but it should cause us to examine our own thoughts and actions as well.
The second truth Jesus gives us that people are capable of fooling themselves, and to make the point, he reinforces this idea with the parable of the two houses. But reality always intrudes on even our finest fictions, and in the end the truth is revealed.
The 3rd truth is that Jesus himself will be the one to be the final judge of who is following him and who is not. It’s about our focusing on our OWN actions and choices that will determine how the Reign of God is manifested within us and in our world.
Sometimes when we look at world events or back into our own history, we have no difficulty identifying hypocritical Christians. Notice that Jesus is not concerned here with non-followers or even non-believers: He is concerned only with those who claim to be one of His followers. Some have prophesied in Jesus’ Name, even performed miracles, and cast out demons in Jesus’ Name. In other words, you could say that they have gone beyond the stage of just occupying a pew in church. These are people engaged in real ministry who seem on the surface to be involved in ministry but who are in fact practicing “lawlessness”, meaning placing themselves above the dictates of conscience.
We have come once again to the threshold of Lent, a time of penance and purification, so it behooves us to ask ourselves: Am I self-deceived in some way? Is there something in my heart that I carry within me in secret that is contrary to the Gospel? Are there areas of my life that are inconsistent with what I say I believe?
Jesus says, Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the Reign of God.” Two verses later he orders the self-deceived to depart from his presence because he doesn’t know them or recognize them as followers of his. Finally, the same truth is driven home in a different way by the parable of the two houses, which reinforces the idea: every house will be tested by life’s storms. Those who build on the sand are the self-deceived, and their illusions will perish, bringing them unhappiness. We know from having carried our own illusions that this is obviously true.
This reading from Matthew comes, ironically, at the end of the section we call The Beatitudes. The first part of this reading has Jesus as the New Moses delivering the New Law of the Kingdom to the people. He begins by saying that those who are conscious of their weakness, who know themselves to be dependent on God’s grace, who can admit they are sinners are blessed.
The Sermon on the Mount goes on to show that Jesus’ followers, the Poor in Spirit, who have come to truly know Him, are called to bring justice to all those who are oppressed, and that to help in their liberation is to cocreated the Kingdom with God. To make that happen, to come into a clearer picture of our true selves, to free ourselves once and for all from the chaos of resentment and the poison of non-forgiveness, we need only take an honest look within. We have hurt others, sometimes willfully, sometimes not. Regardless, the hurt we caused is real and we need to apologize for it.
We have to admit that we have all built our houses on sand to a greater or lesser degree. We have all chosen our own way instead of God’s way. We have all turned a deaf ear to others in need and we have all injured other people. Lent begins again in a few days, so let’s take this opportunity that the whole Church offers us and rebuild or remodel our house, making sure its foundations are secure, so that the inevitable storms of life will pass over us, leaving us unharmed.