It is commonplace today to tell rambling, convoluted stories in order to excuse one’s own inappropriate and offensive behavior. The NSA has done lots of storytelling over the past few months to justify its spying on U.S. citizens and allies. A sports franchise owner who recently indulged in racial slurs has a long story by which he attempts to excuse himself from culpability for his prejudice. In recent weeks, a major manufacturer, whose products have been responsible for the deaths of numerous consumers, has been issuing installments of an epic saga of exculpatory buck-passing.
The excuse-making that is so common today is often represented as repentance, but it is not. There are easily discernible differences between excuse stories and repentance. One easy way to discriminate between these two is to look at the volume of details present. Story telling requires a large quantity of detail; repentance requires as little as possible. Another difference between excuse telling and repentance is the response that each attempts to elicit from its target audience. Story telling seeks permission; repentance seeks forgiveness.
As a society, we would be much better off to quit all of our story telling and excuse making. It is not possible to excuse inappropriate, anti-social behavior. Rather than try to give, or ask for, what cannot be given, we would be much better off to ask and offer forgiveness. No one can give permission for destructive or self-destructive actions. As the old adage says, “one cannot give what one does not have.” The first reading for the Vigil for the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul offers a clear illustration of that old adage.
In this evening’s selection from the Acts of the Apostles Peter and John were going to the Temple to continue preaching about the Resurrection of Jesus. They encountered a crippled beggar. Peter addressed the beggar, “I have neither silver nor gold, but what I do have I give you: in the name of Jesus Christ the Nazorean, rise and walk.” (Acts 3:6)
Peter did not offer money; he didn’t have money to give. Rather, he offered what he had: his faith and the prophetic signs that accompanied the preaching of the Gospel. Peter was never the most clever of the disciples, but he had sense enough to give only what he had. Because of Peter’s faith, the beggar was healed. Peter’s faithful actions are worthy of imitation by believers today. There is a regular request made by our contemporary society, one that the Church is not able to fulfill. Unfortunately, some Catholics actually try to give what they do not have to offer.
Growing numbers of people in western society want to have a personal spirituality without the communal demands of religion. These folks seek the benefits of religion, but do not want the inter-personal responsibilities that are central to Catholicism. Spirituality without religion, and religion without responsibility, are experiences that Catholicism does not have. As no one can serve two masters, the Catholic Faith requires obedience to God only. This is what the Faith has to offer, and nothing else.
I am both amused and disappointed when I come across the contemporary Catholic apologists who present Catholicism as a consumer product. The promises of a life of self-fulfillment and easy success are just exactly what our society wants. Unfortunately, they are neither what society needs nor what the Church has to offer.
Obedience to God’s will is not an unthinking act that does violence to human freedom; rather, it is the act that accords with what is most human in our nature. Faithful obedience to God’s will is the single act that brings human nature to its fulfillment. Jesus’ Resurrection from the dead was no parlor trick on God’s part in order to get the world’s attention. It was God’s faithful approval of Jesus’ faithful obedience. Resurrection, the promise of a life free from sin and death, is the reward for which we hope – the reward for our faithful obedience to God.
Obedience is shunned by most people in our society because it is perceived to be the opposite of freedom. Even many church-goers find that obedience to God is a cause of resentment. Whatever those folks are thinking and doing, however, isn’t obedience. Obedience accompanied by resentment, or done out of fear, isn’t really obedience to God.
Obedience to God’s will is authentic when it done as an expression of love and faithfulness. In a like manner, the preaching of the Gospel is authentic witness to the Resurrection when it offers people the possibility of real, loving obedience to God. Promises of self-esteem, self-indulgence and self-congratulatory accomplishments are antithetical to the Gospel because consumer oriented religion focuses entirely on self to the exclusion of obedience to God.
Immediately after Pope Francis was elected he said that he would prefer a “poor Church, for the poor.” Predictably, his remarks have been widely misinterpreted to be some sort of socialist agenda. Even some of the Church leaders who have tried to ameliorate the negative reactions to this statement have taken an entirely materialistic approach to the Pope’s words. The Church is poor; we have no wealth to offer, because salvation is not the result of what people possess or wish to possess. The Church can only offer what it has: the possibility of living in obedience to God’s will. Are we, as a Church, ready to give what can come only from people of faith?