January 29, 2012 - Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

Today's Readings

Jesus taught in a way that astonished people. The people of the synagogue were amazed before Jesus cast out the unclean spirit. Jesus simply went into the synagogue and taught. I wonder what that must have sounded like, what it must have felt like, to have been sitting in the pews while Jesus gave a homily. I know what is like to hear a great preacher, to listen to someone who seems to be speaking directly to my soul, to my situation, to my desires, to my hopes, but Jesus is more than a great preacher. Every word he speaks carries with it an authority that no mere human person could ever speak with. When Jesus talked about the Scripture, it was like an author commenting on their own book. When he talked about the world or nature, it was like an artist commenting on their own work.

Jesus is the fulfillment of God's promise to Moses to send a prophet like us who would speak the words of God. Every prophet who was a true prophet spoke God's word, but the people of Israel had come to understand this teaching of Moses to refer not to all the prophets who had come to Israel but to one great prophet. Jesus fulfills that role perfectly. The prophet was supposed to come and teach the people the will of God, finishing what Moses had started. This is what Jesus did. After 1500 years, humans were finally ready to hear the rest.

What surprised the scribes and Pharisees was that Jesus did not come with new laws, as if the only thing lacking was specificity. Instead, Jesus came with something greater than a law; he came with the Holy Spirit. So now we Christians, rather than following a law, are disciples of a person. By the power of the Holy Spirit we declare ourselves devoted to Jesus Christ and to his Father. The law was a sort of middleman that Jesus eliminated. By following the law, the Jews were obedient. We Christians, instead, declare our obedience first and act in accord with that obedience. In this way, we Christians follow a stricter law then the Jews, but we follow it in freedom.

An example of this is found in our second reading today. There is no law in this reading; St. Paul merely suggests that it is easier to follow God if a person does not get married. Some people are afraid of what St. Paul says, because he seems to suggest that unmarried people are holier than married people, or at least that is how some people interpret it after reading it the first time. What St. Paul actually says in this reading is simply an undeniable fact: married people, especially married people with children, do not have time to spend their whole day in prayer. If a married person did spend all day in prayer, as if they were a contemplative nun or a Carthusian monk, they would be shirking their responsibilities to their spouse and their children. It would be wrong for a married person to abandon their family in some misguided attempt to be a more faithful servant of God.

However, I want to clarify one thing that St. Paul says. He says that an unmarried man is concerned about the things of the Lord, but this is not necessarily true. St. Paul is talking about a good unmarried man and a good married man. If we compare the lives of St. Bruno the monk and St. Louis the king, we would find that, although they were both Saints, St. Bruno spent far more time in prayer. This does not mean that St. Bruno was a better man than St. Louis, only that his life was simpler.

St. Paul is not speaking of an absolute fact but a possibility. Clearly not every unmarried person takes advantage of their opportunity to follow God. When I read this passage as a celibate man, I do not see St. Paul congratulating me or suggesting that I had better than married people. What I see is a serious challenge. I have given up the possibility of a wife and children so that I could more completely dedicate my life to God, but this does not mean that I necessarily will. I have so much free time without a wife or children, but what do I use that free time for? If I use my freedom as a single person to watch television or to collect figurines, then I am a fool. In giving up the possibility of family, I have given up a great good. If I fill this space left behind with self-indulgence, with anything less than a greater good, I am a fool.

So St. Paul is speaking of possibilities. A person could give up marriage and use the time and energy they save for prayer and serving others. If someone can do this, then their life will be simpler than the life of a married person who serves God. As St. Paul says, “I am telling you this for your own benefit, not to impose a restraint upon you.” Just because he recommends the one does not mean that he disdains the other. If a person can live the undivided life of service to God and neighbor, then they should not get married, but it is far better to get married and start a family and serve God and neighbor as you are able then to live a life of selfish indulgence.

There is no Christian vocation to be a carefree bachelor. Your life has been given to you by God not for you to do with it whatever you wish, but for you to use for good purpose. A life of meaning, a life with purpose, whether that purpose is raising a family or caring for the poor, is a life well lived. St. Paul followed his own advice. He never married, and had no children. He used his freedom to travel the world and preach the Gospel. He often lived in poverty. He sometimes lived in jail. He could never have done this as effectively with a family to care for.

How could God give this teaching in the form of the law? He could not. He is inviting us to exercise our freedom in favor of serving him. By definition, this cannot be mandated by law. Nothing is commanded. The vocation of celibacy is merely proposed. There would be no way for this to happen in the old law.

The second reading is a framework for the whole Christian life: no Commandments, just suggestions. St. Paul’s teaching is for people who are asking one question: “How can I serve God better?” In this way, a Christian is beyond the law. A disciple of Jesus Christ does not need to be told not to commit adultery or murder or theft. Would any of that serve God? Of course not. God does not want to control our lives with a lot of “do this” and “do not do that”. God wants us to be his coworkers, to share with him a vision of the universe, a mission, a purpose. Once we share that mission with God, we will be free.