The free gift of Godís grace
(Readings: Deuteronomy 11:18, 26-28, 32; 3:21-25, 28; Matthew 7:21-27)
Introduction to Mass
In todayís gospel Jesus warns his listeners not to mistake an ostentatious religious devotion for the genuine following of Godís will. As he often does, Jesus echoes the critical and challenging language of the Old Testament prophets, summoning people to authentic faith in God, free from self-deception.
Coming together as Godís familyÖ
Jesusí preaching during his ministry invited people to enter the Kingdom of heaven, as he says in this passage from Matthewís gospel, but this was an invitation often couched in the language of criticism, confrontation, rebuke. Like the Old Testament prophets Jesus often drew a vivid contrast between right and wrong attitudes and faced his listeners with a basic choice between two alternatives, only one of which actually led to God.
This is what he does here. The contrast is between people who offer loud praises to God and advertise their religious devotion outwardly and those who practise the values approved by God. Those who take heed of Christís words are building their house on rock, he says. Those who donít are building a house on sand. The style of preaching is in the prophetic tradition: Jesus wants people to reach a decision about their commitment to God, and his stark, urgent language is calculated to elicit such a decision.
We can easily imagine a situation where an unbeliever or an agnostic speaks out against corruption or injustice Ė maybe in a work situation - while the Christian believer keeps his head down and thinks of his own welfare. A person with no religious belief might react with compassion and self-sacrifice to some instance of human suffering where the faithful churchgoer will find reasons for looking the other way.
The integrity and selflessness of non-Christians or non-believers can often be a reproach to our mediocrity and lack of love. Non-religious people sometimes do the will of God while we are content to cry ďLord, LordĒ. That would be a valid lesson for us to take from Christís words here.
But Jesusí criticism is a bit more specific even than that. His contrast isnít between non-believers and believers. His target are those very religious people who claim to practice great spiritual works in Christís name: prophesying in Christís name, performing miracles in Christís name, casting out demons in Christís name.
Jesusí view is that carrying out those sorts of activities, which many religious-minded people would immediately view as a sign of great holiness or a sign of possessing supernatural power, actually might not signify holiness or closeness to God at all. God doesnít particularly want to see stupendous miracles or grand manifestations of supernatural ability.
As Jesus has just been teaching the crowds in the long section of preaching which preceded this particular passage, ďdoing Godís willĒ and ďentering the Kingdom of heavenĒ is much more a matter of adopting certain basic attitudes and internalising them thoroughly - love and forgiveness of enemies, detachment from wealth and possessions, trust in Godís Providence, bringing every aspect of our lives before God in simple, unaffected prayer.
These are the values and principles which Jesus has just been proclaiming as the real content of belief in God, and although itís very undramatic and unsensational, itís when we practice these simple values that we become a focus or a cell of God presence and activity in the world Ė which is what God really wants to see.
In terms of his final judgement of our lives, Jesus says, God will welcome the person who is sincerely striving to shape their moral and spiritual lives along those lines. Whereas those who claim to have performed such feats as miracles and exorcisms are turned away by Christ with the rebuke: ďI have never known you; away from me, you evil men!Ē Jesus rarely resorted to subtle hints or understatement to get his point across and to challenge people to review their idea of God or their notions of what worshipping God consists of.
St. Paul, in the second reading, adds a further point which is important to bear in mind when weíre thinking about the carrying out the demands of the gospel.
Paul was a convert from the Pharisaical movement, and he came to reject very vehemently the Pharisaical idea that Godís will could be done by rigidly keeping hundreds of laws and regulations. Paul was anxious to convince people that genuine faith, genuine closeness to God, is not the product of our own willpower but the result of responding to the offer of grace on Godís part. As he says here, our human sinfulness has driven us away from God and we are reconciled with him only ďthrough the free gift of his graceĒ Ė not by any effort of willpower on our part.
A temptation that religious people face is the temptation to multiply all kinds of resolutions, actions and practices - to set targets in their spiritual life Ė which they try to keep through the exercise of their own willpower. They might even reach their targets and achieve great feats of mortification and self-denial. Then they assume some of the pride and hardness and condescension of the self-made man: the occupational hazard of the Pharisee.
Paulís experience of meeting Christ convinced him that the starting-point of genuine spirituality is a sense of our own weakness and the insufficiency of our own strength, coupled with an openness to Godís grace and a sense of dependence on his saving power. We canít make ourselves holy - God makes us holy, although of course we have to co-operate and respond to Godís initiative. God will only ever invite us to move in a certain direction: he never starts pushing us if we donít want to budge.
The first reading, from the book of Deuteronomy, points the same way. External obedience to laws and commandments doesnít take us very far. Godís word has to sink into our heart and soul, transforming our character and inner attitudes - and itís when we let Godís grace fill our heart and soul that our outward behaviour changes accordingly.
Those are the lessons I would suggest we take from these scripture passages to apply to our own efforts to discover Godís will and place out lives more firmly and faithfully under Godís Reign.