22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time
A little boy was diagnosed with a severe heart defect. His family happened to live in a small city that was the home of one of the nation’s most respected heart surgeons. This doctor was a crusty old character, near retirement, and usually refused to operate on children. After hearing the pleas of the boy’s mother and father, though, he finally conceded to take the youngster as a patient.
After the examination, the old doctor knew that surgery was required and that it would be very risky. There was something badly wrong with the boy’s heart. So the doctor told the boy, “Son, I’m going to try to fix your heart. I’ll have to cut it open, and I’m not sure what I’ll find there.” The boy brightened up when he said this, and replied, “Don’t worry, doctor, when you cut open my heart, you’ll find Jesus there!” The surgeon was silent. Dealing with life and death on a daily basis had embittered him horribly, and he had long ago abandoned any pretense of faith. As they prepared for the surgery, the doctor was determined that the little boy understand what was happening, so he repeatedly warned him of the risks involved in the surgery. But each time, the boy smiled and said, “Don’t worry doctor. When you cut my heart open, you’ll find Jesus there.” On the day of the operation, just before they wheeled the boy into the operating room, the doctor spoke one last time to the little boy, “I want you to be brave, because when I cut your heart open, I’m not sure what I’ll find.” Again, the boy beamed at him and said, “Don’t worry. When you cut my heart open, you’ll find Jesus there.”
After the surgery, the doctor went to the waiting room to give some horrible news to the parents: the boy had died on the table and he’d been unable to save him. They were people of great faith, but now they were extremely distraught.
As the father grasped for something to explain what had happened, he asked the surgeon, “Doc, when you opened his heart, what did you find?” And the old doctor, with tears in his eyes, said, “His heart chambers were damaged beyond repair, but in the midst of all the disease, I found Jesus there.”
Hearts! Biologically, we need them to pump our blood! Indeed, we need them to stay alive! In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives us another function of the human heart. It’s the place where God alone ought to dwell! It’s the place where we can have intimate union with God and the place where we can hear God speak to us. Yes, the human heart is intended to be a sacred space spiritually, through which all our emotions and life experiences pass, and these emotions and experiences can either affect us positively or negatively. They can either impede or hasten our union with God.
Jesus rightly understands that our inner life of the Spirit is much more important than superficial external actions which aren’t solidly based on an authentic faith life. That was his problem with the pharisees. Outwardly, they seemed to be perfect, exemplary Jews, but inwardly they were far from it! Outwardly, they received the esteem and respect of others, but inwardly, Jesus could tell that they were trying to save themselves by clinging to human traditions. Jesus’ criticism of the pharisees is the same warning he levels at all of us. He doesn’t want us to pretend to be something we’re not, or to judge others as less worthy who aren’t, perhaps, as far along the spiritual path as we may happen to be. You see, Jesus knew that it’s very easy to put on an outward appearance of holiness and respectability for others, while on the inside, we’re full of unconfessed sin, anger, hatred, jealousy, resentment, animosity, impurity, pride, and greed that’s unbeknownst to others.
An authentic Christian life, by contrast, requires that our inner life of the Spirit be reflected and witnessed by our outward dispositions, attitudes, and actions of love toward God and neighbor. Indeed, our second reading from the letter of James asserts, “Be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” (James 1:22) James understood that it’s easy to hear the Gospel but it’s another thing to put it into practice. It’s easy to spend time reading the Bible, but it’s quite another to absorb the meaning of the words, parables and stories and to put them into practice in our particular circumstances. It’s easy to come to church but it’s hard to let the Word and Sacrament that we receive change us from the inside out, so that when we leave the church, we’re a more godly person than when we first entered. An authentic Christian life demands that we practice what we truly believe and preach to others. It requires our inner and outer dimensions get in synch with each other.
In order to start on this authentic life path, we need to first examine ourselves. What are we allowing to enter into our hearts and why? Are we allowing the sights and sounds of violent or gory movies, inappropriate language, and gossip to enter our hearts? Are we allowing provocative sexual imagery and innuendo to enter our hearts? Are we allowing feelings of jealousy and envy to enter our hearts? Are we allowing feelings of greed and inordinate attachment to persons or things to enter into our hearts? Are we allowing a false and puffed up image of ourselves to enter into our hearts? For whenever we intend to let any of these things into our lives, they pose the risk of invading our hearts and taking up the space that’s intended to be reserved for God alone to dwell. They pose the risk too, of becoming God-like to us, in their false promises of making us happy and satisfied. But we all know that such feelings and promises never last. They never last because nothing and no one can ever bring us the sort of happiness, peace, and contentment for which our hearts long, except God alone.
What will give us lasting happiness is deciding what we will and will not let influence our lives. What will give us lasting happiness is becoming good discerners of what will help us on the road to the Kingdom of God and what won’t. What will give us lasting happiness is developing the courage and the will power to withstand sinful temptations that don’t build us or others up, but rather become a source of discouragement, dissonance, and division.
Our lasting happiness does indeed begin with us. But it doesn’t end with us. It’s not enough to work just on our own holiness. Our internal holiness necessarily requires that we work toward and for the holiness of others, to share with others the Good News, to celebrate with them our sacramental life of faith, to empathize with one another’s life struggles, and to help each person achieve a better life, by utilizing the various blessings, skills, and talents we’ve been given by God. An authentic life requires that we strive for a more just, peaceful and loving world too, and that we never give up on the inherent goodness and dignity of each and every human being. It’s about giving others a lift up rather than a hand down. It’s about empathizing with another’s plight and finding a way to bring the love of Christ to a broken situation. Talk is cheap. It’s actions that matter. What is God calling each of us to do to bring another person happiness, peace and reconciliation? What is God calling each of us to do to bring another the peace of mind and heart of knowing God’s love and mercy, through and through? What is God inviting us to share with another that will bring them a foretaste of what the Kingdom of God is all about? If another opens our heart, will they find Jesus there?
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