1 Thessalonians 1:5-10
We often say, and it is generally true, that America is a Christian country. Since Europe was almost entirely Christian and most New World settlers who were not slaves were European, they brought their religious beliefs with them. But since Europe was also undergoing the period known as the Age of Enlightenment, they also brought with them a form of religion called Deism. Deist hold that there is indeed a God, and the nature of God can be discerned from observing the world that He made, much like we could probably tell, if we watched someone over a long period of time without speaking to them, what they were like by the choices they make in their lives. This philosophy is called natural law and natural theology, and is in perfect agreement with Catholic teaching from the time of Saint Thomas Aquinas.
However, Deism parts from Catholic teaching because it rejects revelation, that is the nature of God revealed through Christ as well as other prophets in Scripture. Many of the Founding Fathers of our country were either Deists or were influenced by deism, including Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson, a child of the Enlightenment, edited his own set of Gospels, which he titled “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth” and today is known as the Jefferson Bible, in which he cut out all of the miracles which Jesus performed, the Resurrection, and any reference to Jesus as divine. To Jefferson, this heavy elimination of many Gospel accounts made Christianity a better philosophy of life, which is to say it made it more like what he wanted it to be, although he still called himself a Christian to his dying day.
Now I’ve risked this long introduction, which had both history and philosophy which can bore the socks off of many people, to get to this question: Do we, too, have our own bible that we’ve edited down? Sure, we’ve never written it down like Jefferson did, but are there passages of the Old or New Testament in which we conveniently forget? It is human nature to remember what we want to hear and to forget what we find unpleasant or inconvenient. The Gospel readings from today and last Sunday, both taken from chapter 22 of Matthew, make a contrast in point. Last week we had people wanting to get Jesus in trouble with the civil authorities by tricking Him into excusing unlawful behavior, and He would not do so: “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” [v. 21]. Today, we hear about the greatest of commandments: to love God and, just as important, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” [v. 39], which is another way of saying what the last line of the first reading from Exodus tells us: God is compassionate, and we must be as well. Taken together, the last several weeks tell us that Christ neither condones the disregard of the law nor the use of any brutality in its enforcement.
There are no easy answers for a true follower of Christ. The world is neither black nor white. This is consistent with the natural law, which Aristotle taught several centuries before the birth of Jesus. One of his principles is that too much or too little of any virtue becomes a vice. Too little confidence makes someone ineffective, too much makes him arrogant. Too little drive makes a person lazy, too much makes her insensitive to the needs of anyone around them but themselves. Our adages can contradict: a stitch in time saves nine, but then again haste makes waste. Both are true, but it is the wise person who knows when to apply each. It is in keeping with this idea of paradox that the title of our recent election information from the diocese states the issue clearly: “Not liberal, not conservative, simply Catholic.”
The problem, though, is that there is nothing simple in making difficult moral decisions. Our lives are complicated and messy. Jesus Christ is not on the ballot; flawed women and men are. The diocese may have called it “simply Catholic,” but it then took them two pages of dense type to outline the various positions of the candidates against Catholic moral teachings. People of good will, Catholics of good will, must weight this in their own hearts and minds and make decisions, and they can and will come to different conclusions.
Today's readings are an example. The very first line of the first reading tells us not to oppress the alien, for we, or at least our ancestors unless we are of a pure Native American heritage, were once aliens. Just this week, court documents stated that 545 children were separated from their undocumented families and now they are left alone since their families cannot now be found. This is not consistent with God's commandments, and if we just shrug it off as giving to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, since their families were breaking our American law, then we are in danger of not giving to God what belongs to God, our obedience to His command which we just read from the book of Exodus. The flip side would be equally wrong, as Christ did not preach disobedience or uprising against the rule of law during His lifetime, in this case against the Romans. Therefore, we as Catholics must follow Christ's lead and look for the rule of law with compassionate enforcement of those laws. We must dial down the rancor and hostility to those who would drive wedges between the two sides. Anyone who thinks that one side or the other has all the wisdom on their side is not wise at all. Christ did not side with either the authorities in power at that time, the Romans in civic matters and the Sadducees in religious ones, and he did not side with those who would tear down the system, the Zealots and other insurrectionists. He preached a personal reform to the ways of God's law.
Let us all be careful that we do not have our own edited versions of the Bible. Both liberals and conservatives have pointed to Scripture to justify their positions, but they only quote the verses that they like and ignore the ones that they don't. There's an old adage that even the devil can cite Scripture for his purpose. I encourage everyone here to, when listening to the readings each week, to not look for ways that they are consistent with their already established way of thinking, but to look for ways that they can challenge themselves to grow in understanding. Pray hard over them, and ask God's help in being faithful to His teachings as He is faithful to us. This is the path of true discipleship, and of gaining true wisdom.
As we continue with the Liturgy of the Eucharist, let us ask the Lord to strengthen us for continual spiritual growth. Let this communion celebration brings us together as one with both God and our neighbor, so as to fulfill the whole of the law. Let it help us to become joyful disciples who leave the church today as followers of Christ who seek understanding, good laws, good public servants, and a civil discourse in achieving these aims.