Monday, July 4, 2011

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 14th Sunday of Ordinary Time

Readings: Zech 9:9-10; Rom 8:9-13; Mt 11:25-30

Way back in 1964, when I was in my first year of theology studies at St. Meinrad, I read a book that had a huge impact on my way of thinking----it was A Study of Hebrew Thought by Claude Tresmontant, a very noted Scripture scholar. (I doubt anyone here is going to rush out and read this book.) What struck me so forcefully was the way the book severely challenged some presumptions I had held for a long time. In the chapter on "Hebrew Anthropology" the author explained how the Hebrew mentality looked at the human being in an integrated wholistic way. There was no division into body and soul as two separate principles as Greek thought did. Rather the reference was always to the total person acting in a particular way. To exemplify his point Tresmontant referred specifically to the exact passage we heard this morning from Paul’s Letter to the Romans concerning being "in the flesh" and "in the spirit." From the Hebrew perspective these do not refer to our usual understandings of body and soul, but rather to different orientations of the whole human person.

That just blew away the meanings I had always assumed. To me "in the flesh" had always meant body, sex and everything associated with them. I had never imagined it could have been anything different. But the writer said that "in the flesh" refers to considering yourself more than any other person or issue. In other words, to be "in the flesh" means to act selfishly. To be "in the spirit" means to act with the needs of others in mind. It is similar to a point that Sr. Karen made in one of her retreat conferences last week when she cited a reference to two different kinds of power: unilateral and relational. Unilateral power is forcing others to do what I want them to do. Relational power is to be in dialogue with others and working with them toward a common goal. That’s to be "in the spirit." It took me quite a while to digest all that.

Years later I discovered a variation on all this in the Episcopalian theologian Urban Holme’s distinction between the hot and cold sins of the clergy (Spirituality for Ministry, pp. 42-57). Let me read you a portion of this chapter: "American religion is obsessed with the warm sins of the clergy such as illicit sex and gluttony. .... The sins that should concern us far more deeply are those that prevent the clergy from exercising their spiritual vocation. These cold sins truly violate the mission of the pastor to be an instrument of spiritual growth." (P. 43) He then goes on to enumerate and exemplify some of these cold sins: the desire for power—always wanting to be the one who controls every situation, insulation and evasion—the refusal to truly listen to other’s problems, abstraction—always speaking in general terms only and never in personal, apathy—not caring at all about other people’s lives, ecclesiastical dilettantism—being totally concerned with the trappings of religion like vestments, incense and stained glass windows. To one who is primarily concerned about any of these things St. Paul would say, "You are ‘in the flesh,’ acting primarily in a selfish manner."

While Urban Holmes is writing about differences in clergy behavior, the same truly applies to community. It is so easy to gossip about the hot, flashy failings of community members. But it’s the cold failings that are far more damaging to community life: the snubbing of other people, the refusal to be compassionate about another’s difficulties, wanting to control every situation insisting that our word be the last in any discussion. It is to these people that St. Paul would say, "You are in the flesh." And "If you live according to the flesh, you will die." Let’s heed these words today.

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