21 Aug 2016
21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
When I was in 3rd Grade, my teacher used to carry a yard stick around the classroom. Sometimes he’d use it like a walking stick; sometimes he used it to point to something on the chalkboard. But other times it was one of his disciplinary tools. Now, he never hit anybody, but when he was upset about something the class or a student was doing, he’d whack that thing on somebody’s desk and raise his voice. More often than not, he broke the yard stick.
It was one of his ways of disciplining us 3rd Graders. And I never liked it. But, of course, that’s the way discipline works. “At the time, all discipline seems [to be] a cause not for joy but for pain.” Being a disciple of Christ, a child of God, and a student of life in general is sometimes a real pain. Sometimes it’s not enjoyable at all. Of course, it’s in those times that we’re perhaps learning the most. And that’s the point of discipline: to learn, to grow, to flourish.
When I used to go to the gym, I had a personal trainer (that was back when I had money). And his sole job was to push me; to take me to the point where it begins to hurt, and then to back off. The next day, my arms or legs would be sore all over, but that’s when I was getting stronger and healthier. The point of going to the gym wasn’t to “feel the burn,” it was to grow and have better health. That personal trainer was really a personal disciplinarian. He didn’t let me get away with anything, and he pushed me for my benefit.
Now, we hear Jesus say, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate.” And by the word “strive” he means to “struggle or contend with” the demands of that narrow path. The ancient Greek word is “a-go-níd-zo-mai,” which is where we get the word “agony.” Agonize, struggle, contend with the demands of what it means to be a Catholic Christian; not for the sake of pain, but for the sake of living up to our potential as children of God.
In years past (and maybe even still today) there was something called “Catholic guilt.” And it’s just the idea that we Catholics are burdened very heavily by our consciences: “everything is an occasion for sin, and you better watch your step or God’s going to condemn you or punish you.” And there’s certainly something to be said for that. After all, we want to have a conscience; we want to do what’s good and avoid what’s not. And when we make a mistake, there should be a consequence, because that’s how we learn.
The problem isn’t the burden of our conscience; the problem is the fear of God which can creep in there. If someone is afraid of God, then having a conscience really is just a burden. Then being a disciple of Christ really is just a pain, and nothing more. If we’re afraid of God, then all that agony and “striving” to enter through the narrow gate, is just an endless agony. But that’s not what “discipline” is—whether it comes from God or someone else.
Discipline is always for a good purpose. God doesn’t give us a conscience to give us a guilt complex; he doesn’t give us the Great Commandments and the teachings of the Lord to make our lives miserable. God disciplines us so that we can be something glorious; so that we can be more than what we currently are.
The Prophet Isaiah reminds us: “O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand” [64:8]. And, the potter’s hands press against the clay, and push it this way and that way, molding it into something more than just a lump of clay. God disciplines us so that we can become something. And that’s a reason to give thanks; it’s a reason to welcome (and even ask for) the discipline of God.
And so, the problem isn’t our conscience; it’s whenever we let the fear of God creep into our hearts—then, the discipline of God is just a heavy burden. But as we hear in the Letter to the Hebrews, “My son [my child], do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him; for whom[ever] the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son [every child] he acknowledges” as his own.
When people come into the Sacrament of Reconciliation, I’ll sometimes ask them to thank God that they’re aware of their sins; to thank God for having a conscience. And that’s because the guilt and shame we feel is a sign that God is at work within us, loving us. If God didn’t love us, he wouldn’t care; there’d be no reason for him to discipline us, because he wouldn’t care how our lives turned out.
But he’s giving us that “guilty conscience” because he loves us; because we are his beloved sons and daughters. God hasn’t abandoned us; he’s inside us, disciplining us from the inside out, shaping us to be (forever) children of all that’s good and true and beautiful. Again, discipline is always for a good purpose. And that’s important to keep in mind when we think about all the ways we’re disciplined in life.
Now, was my 3rd Grade teacher with the yard stick one of God’s disciplinarians? Maybe. He did what he did, not to scare us or tear us down, but out of concern that we learn what we needed to learn. And, you know, I don’t think any of my classmates ever disliked him. I hear similar stories from people who went to Catholic grade school years ago. I’ve heard many, many “nun stories.” The sisters could be strict, but at the same time, they could be incredibly loving. Were they some of God’s disciplinarians? Maybe.
I was thinking about all the ways God disciplines his children, and I came up with a few. In ancient times, he lead the people out of Egypt and into . . . the desert. For forty years they wandered through the desert, being disciplined by God—being taught by God to rely on him alone. Just think about those times in life when we might feel lost, or spiritually or emotionally “dry.” Those times are especially hard when we just come off of a “high point.”
Maybe you had money and a good job, and then suddenly money is tight and they’re cutting back at work. Welcome to the desert. God is there, with you. But it’s a time of testing, a time of endurance and discipline. A time when “the rubber hits the road”—speaking of faith. Or maybe you were in a relationship and life was great, but then that ended and you’re completely off kilter inside. Welcome to the desert. God is there, with you in the dryness. But it’s a time of discipline—not necessarily because we did something wrong, but because God is trying to push us onto another path, and we may not want to go there.
I already mentioned “Catholic guilt” and our conscience as a way God disciplines us, but what about all the teachings and truths that Jesus speaks? Especially the ones we have a hard time accepting. You know, he doesn’t change what he says; he just lets us “sit with it” and mull it over. He leaves it for us to “strive to enter through the narrow gate.” He lets us agonize and struggle over some of his teachings (and the teachings of his Church); not to abandon us or leave us confused, but to let us learn through the struggle.
This is similar to how God uses temptation as a disciplinary tool. God lets us be tempted so our faith can be strengthened. It’s like lifting weights, or running, or going on diet, or anything like that. We get stronger by facing resistance. We get stronger through discipline.
And a third way (and the last one I’ll mention today)—a third way he disciplines us is through the revelation of his Son Jesus. You know, when we encounter the person of Jesus and become aware of his perfection and goodness, his fidelity and beauty, it’s a delightful thing. But, at the same time, that encounter also serves to highlight our own imperfections. Encountering Jesus is like encountering an image of what we aspire to be, only to realize we’re not there yet. And that realization can be frustrating, and that frustration can be a way God disciplines us.
But, of course, we have to be careful with this. God never condemns us. And he doesn’t show us the perfection of his Son to make us feel ashamed of who we are (even in our sinfulness). God reveals his Son in order to inspire us—not to be him, but to be like him, each in our own way. And, in that, God disciplines us by standing on the sideline, shouting: “You can do it! I’m not going to let you settle for less than who you are.”
Thanks be to God for teachers and nuns with rulers and yard sticks. Thanks be to God for a guilty conscience and the shame we feel when we sin. Thanks be to God for temptation, and for letting us struggle with hard truths from time to time. Thanks be to God for his discipline and correction. They are signs to us of his very great affection.