“[W]e must watch and pray that our time may not pass away without fruit.” (IC 1,10,2) “[W]hoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mk 3:35)

Chapter Ten of Book One of Imitation (1,10) regards “Of Avoiding Useless Words,” which encourages silence habitually and edifying, or at worst, indifferent, speech, if necessary.  (Proverbs is loaded with sayings on the tongue — see here).

In today’s very brief Gospel reading (Mk 3:31-35), Jesus’ mother and other relatives come to the very popular preacher’s house in hopes of meeting with Him, only to find a large crowd filling the place (and, I suspect, spilled out to the surrounding area).  When the crowd gives Him word of His family’s arrival, He responds with the words in the headline.

Some try to convince us that Jesus is somehow being dismissive of His mother with these words.  Nothing could be further from the truth!  Mary is the exemplar of following the will of God to the letter, saying fiat! in her every thought, word, and deed all the days of her life.  Jesus implores His followers to imitate that pattern.  As Kempis advises, we are to “watch and pray” constantly that we may bear fruit for the Lord.  This reminds us of Jesus’ admonition during his agony in the garden:

Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. (Mt 26:41)

For many of us, the spirit is indeed willing.  But, how often do we think, like St. Paul,

What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want [i.e., the good], but I do what I hate. (Rom 7:15)

We wish that we could just will away our sinful habits at the snap of our fingers.  It is then that we come to realize our own weakness and our need for the free gift of grace.  Improvement requires constant prayer, the sacraments (the ordinary means of grace), and perseverance.  It has been said, and we can relate, that grace does not necessarily make virtuous living easy, but it does make it possible.

We are called to bear fruit by seeking the will of God and following it.  May we do so in abundance for our sake and for the sake of all whom we encounter.

“Who is so wise as to be able fully to know all things” (IC 1,9,2) “The scribes who had come from Jerusalem said of Jesus, ‘He is possessed by Beelzebul,’ and ‘By the prince of demons he drives out demons.'” (Mk 3:22)

Kempis writes this (1,9) in the context of speaking of our opinions, which we hold dear, and how it is often for the best to defer to others whose views are more trustworthy.

Many of the scribes and Pharisees of Jesus’ day, who tormented Him so with their constant accusations, attempted traps, and conniving, thought they had it all figured out.  They were the smart ones, the learned ones.  They had studied, debated, and taught the Scriptures.  They were the Lord’s special envoys, those closest to Him.  They deserved the respect of the Jewish faithful.

So, when someone comes along who questions their hearts and threatens their status they quickly go from suspicion, to vile accusations (like the ones in the headline from today’s Gospel — Mk 3:22-30) and, in short order, to conspiring to kill Jesus.  Were some open to Jesus’ words and moved by Jesus’ miracles?  Yes.  But we don’t hear of many (Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea were two such men).  They needed to listen more attentively and speak less frequently.  In short, they needed humility.  Unfortunately, when they received a dose from Jesus, it seems that few learned their lessons.

What about us?  We love our own opinions.  We often think we have it all figured out.  What can he say to enlighten me?  What can she say that would be worth my while?  Well, a little humility is in order for us as well.  You, like I, have likely been surprised many times by persons who, at first blush, we felt had nothing to contribute to our knowledge or perspective only to find deep insight from those who have different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives than we do.  When we are willing to not just hear, but listen, we grow.  And maybe we just might hear God speaking to us through our interlocutors.

Let us remember the old adage: the good Lord gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason.

“Nor will they gain freedom of mind, unless they submit themselves, with their whole heart, for God’s sake.” (IC 1,9,1) “[Jesus] said to [Simon Peter and Andrew], ‘Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ At once they left their nets and followed him.” (Mt 4:19-20)

So many of the burdens that weigh on our minds, that occupy our thoughts, that bring anxiety to our lives, have to do with things of this world that divide our loyalties between God and mammon (i.e., material things — see Mt 6:24).  Kempis continues to expand on the issue of obedience and submission by declaring that we must give our whole hearts to the Lord to achieve true and lasting peace (1,9).

In today’s Gospel (Mt 4:12-23), we read of Jesus’ initial calls, soon after He begins His public ministry, to the men who He desires to be His closest collaborators.  Above we read of the fishermen brothers who were the first called.  The next two verses give us a similar response (“immediately they left”) of another two brothers, also fishermen, James and John.

We may be tempted to think that their quick response was a miraculous event, or that they were in some sort of hypnotic state — after all, it is the Messiah calling them and He should get the helpers He desires, right?

Well, Jesus does not force Himself on anyone.  He proposes, not imposes — the pattern we are to follow when sharing the Gospel.  All of the followers Jesus invited to ministry consented fully to being His disciples (although they certainly did not know all that it would entail — not even close, I’d wager).  So how did they know Jesus?  Likely they heard Him preach or at least heard glowing reports of Him (some quite possibly from John the Baptist).  Then, when encountering Jesus personally, He certainly must have been a compelling figure.

In the case of the four men mentioned in today’s Gospel, we have more insight into this episode from Luke (see 5:1-11).  When he first encounters these fishers, Jesus actually asks to preach from their boat (all four were working together), so they did hear the Good News directly from Jesus.  Then He miraculously provides them a great catch of fish, after which He tells them “from now on you will be catching men” (v. 10).

Jesus invites the whole world to “come after me.”  We should renew our commitment to this calling daily by seeking to eliminate all that causes separation between us and God (sin, unnecessary worry, and materialism).  We are to lighten our load and what better way to do so than to attach ourselves ever more closely to our Savior who said,

Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden light. (Mt 11:28-30)

Then we will be much better disposed to become “fishers of men” through word and action.

Image result for calling of simon and andrewThe Calling of the Apostles Peter and Andrew (1308-1311) by Duccio di Buoninsegna

“It is a very great thing to stand in obedience…and not be at one’s own disposal.” (IC 1,9,1) “Get up and have yourself baptized and your sins washed away, calling upon [Jesus’] name.” (Acts 22:16)

Chapter IX of The Imitation of Christ treats “Of Obedience and Subjection” (1,9).  The words above introduce this chapter.  On today’s Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, Apostle, the man from Tarsus follows this good advice (Acts 22:3-16).  Not only does he obey Ananias, a man he just met, by receiving baptism, but, more importantly, he obeys Jesus, who he just encountered on the Damascus road in finding Ananias and receiving his marching orders from this man (read Acts 9:1-22, the alternate reading for today, and Luke’s rendition of Paul’s conversion, to flesh out more details).  Paul’s life would not be his own, ever again.  The zeal that he showed in persecuting Christians was now directed, many fold I suspect, in bringing others to Christ.

So, we also are to be obedient to the Lord and our lawful superiors.  Due to our fallen, stubborn, prideful nature, not always an easy task, whether it’s God or man giving the direction.  Once again, we go back to the virtue of humility.  Even though we believe, as we should, that the Almighty is perfectly trustworthy, His plans do not always comport with our desires.  With His grace and much prayer, we might just be able to comply in such circumstances.  But when our imperfect human family is the source of orders that contradict our opinions, that is when the rubber meets the road, so to speak.  Now, of course, we are not to follow sinful demands, and we may wish to provide a counterpoint, but as Kempis says further along in the chapter, “Although your opinion be good, yet if for God’s sake you leave it to follow that of another, it will be more profitable to you” (1,9,2).

The Gospel is challenging, isn’t it?

Saint Paul Ananias Sight Restored.jpgAnanias restoring the sight of Saint Paul (1631) by Pietro da Cortona

“Associate yourself with the humble and simple” (IC 1,8,1) “[Jesus] appointed Twelve, whom he also named Apostles, that they might be with him” (Mk 3:14)

Kempis continues to emphasize not only personal humility, but preferring the company of the lowly (1,8).  If anyone has the right to not be humble, it is Jesus, God incarnate.  Yet, from the moment of his fleshly existence until His death, He exemplified perfect humility.  Is it any wonder that He chose to be his closest collaborators not the wealthy and elite but those whom, in the world, were considered of little account (a bunch of fishermen) or even despised (a tax collector and a Zealot) (Mk 3:13-19)?  There would be no confusion either before or after Jesus’ death from where the power of word and deed of this motley crew came.  This would help convince many from various social strata, intellectual abilities, and faith traditions, the truth of the Gospel message.

We should be very mindful of this example.  Seek out the humble, that is, those who, as we should, know the proper relationship between themselves and God (in short: God is God and they are not).  A meek person acknowledges the truth, knows the author of it, and seeks to follow Him.  Outward appearances or personal abilities mean little in this.  Interior disposition is the key.  In this way we strengthen each other for the task ahead.

Therefore, encourage one another and build one another up, as indeed you do.
(1 Thess 5:11)

Image result for jesus chooses the twelve

“Open not your heart to every man; but treat of your affairs with a man who is wise and fears God.” (IC 1,8,1) “Saul discussed his intention of killing David with his son Jonathan and with all his servants.” (1 Sam 19:1)

This new chapter of Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ entitled, “Of Avoiding Too Much Familiarity” (1,8), cautions against laying one’s heart bare to others indiscriminately — especially to those who are not close, who are immature, or, as above, who are nor wise and God-fearing.

In the first reading (1 Sam 18:6-9; 19:1-7), Saul, on the other hand, seems quite free to voice widely his displeasure with David by declaring his desire to kill him (in fact, in the remainder of chapter 18, not read at Mass but worth reading now, Saul tries to kill David twice by his own hand as well as attempting to set him up for failure and death in battles with the Philistines).  Fortunately, there was a man of God (and a great warrior in his own right — see 1 Sam 14) among his hearers, his son, Jonathan, who was a great friend of David’s (see 1 Sam 18:1-4).  Not only does Jonathan warn David of Saul’s continuing desire to kill him, but he also convinces his father of David’s value to him and his kingdom.  (Tomorrow we jump to chapter 24, but it is worth reading the intervening chapters as they show Saul’s continual attempts to eliminate David, as inspired by the devil, and Jonathan’s ongoing intervention.)

God forbid that, like Saul, murder would be in any of our thoughts, but when we are troubled by temptation, sin, doubt, despair, or anything that draws us away from the Lord, we should seek out persons who have gained our respect due to the true friendship they have shown us along with their witness of lives lived in accordance with a deep and abiding faith in Jesus.  This requires proper discernment.  We are not to be quick about revealing our deepest thoughts and feelings to others, but, rather, we must begin by going to prayer.  Begin with an examination of conscience, take advantage of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and seriously consider a properly formed spiritual director for ongoing guidance in your spiritual life (contact your diocese for help in finding one, if necessary).

David and Jonathan (1843) one of Gustave Doré’s illustrations for
La Grande Bible de Tours

 

“He is a foolish man who puts his trust in men” (IC 1,7,1) “Looking around at [the Pharisees] with anger and grieved at their hardness of heart, Jesus said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out and his hand was restored.” (Mk 3:5)

It is difficult to argue with Kempis regarding in whom to put our trust, ultimately (1,7).  Even our closest family and friends can be a disappointment, but the Lord never lets us down.  God understands us perfectly and knows the heart.

So Jesus, being divine, in today’s Gospel (Mk 3:1-6), is able to read hearts.  The religious leaders were constantly looking for ways to trap Him, to accuse Him, to take Him down.  Jesus, who could have ingratiated Himself to these men to gain status in their eyes, rather trusted in His Father and the mission He was sent to fulfill.  Not caring for worldly accolades or recognition, Jesus does what is right (healing the man with the withered hand) rather than what is expedient.  We can recall these words written about Jesus:

Jesus would not trust himself to them because he knew them all, and did not need anyone to testify about human nature. He himself understood it well. (Jn 2:24-25)

And how do the Pharisees react?  Rather than resorting to prayer and searching the Scriptures (that they claim to be experts in knowing and interpreting) to resolve their concerns and doubts, they conspire with their enemies the Herodians (the political leaders associated with the pretender “king of the Jews,” Herod Antipas) — on the Lord’s day no less (thanks to Fr. Mitch Pacwa for this insight from today’s EWTN Mass homily)!  This is how they honor the day that God — who they claim as their own — has set aside for rest and worship?

Would that those politicians and religious leaders (and all Christians) of our day, who care more for political expediency rather than doing what is morally required by their professed faith, trust in God rather than men!  We would then see great progress toward the fulfillment of this petition of the Lord’s Prayer in our day:

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. (Mt 6:10)

Christ healing the man with a withered hand (Byzantine mosaic)