Readings like the three we just heard require so much background information in order to be understood that they are far better handled in a classroom than in a six- or seven-minute homily on Sunday morning. Take as an example today’s brief excerpt from St. Paul’s long letter to the new Christians in Corinth. Interpreted on its own merits the message seems to be that marriage is an inferior way of life for the really committed Christian. Paul says that to have a husband or wife pulls one away from devotion to God. That’s one of the standard arguments, you know, against a married priesthood: that the priest who is married could not possibly at the same time devote himself adequately to his ordained ministry. I’m among the many who do not subscribe to such thinking.
And how different that line of reasoning is from what an Episcopal priest said to me many years ago. He told me that his wife is so much a part of his personal and professional life that if she were removed from the equation, as he put it, he would not know how to be a priest.
But actually St. Paul was not denigrating marriage; he was only trying to establish an order of priorities in the lives of his fellow followers of Jesus. Remember, as we mentioned last week, that Paul thought that the world was about to end and that this was no time to be concerned about things of this life — no time to be thinking about marrying or starting a business or traveling or whatever. All that should be done now is to prepare as best we can for the triumphant return of the crucified and risen Jesus, which could occur even as soon as tomorrow.
Well, we know that Paul was mistaken about the second coming of Christ; it hasn’t happened yet, 2000 years later. But that doesn’t strip his words of relevant meaning, not if we see in them a more general plea that we take seriously becoming more & more attentive to the voice of God within us.
I grant you that that is very subjective: two persons can hear the voice of God very differently, as is the case right now among good people who are concerned about grave moral issues like abortion and wars in the Middle East and various sexual matters.
But to say the “voice of God” is to speak in metaphor. The Second Vatican Council, over 50 years ago, said that we discover in ourselves a law in our consciences which calls us to love and to do what is good and that we will be judged on how we observed that law. That means that we are to be guided constantly by an inner compass which gets its orientation from the Spirit of God. Each of us is to use that compass so as to deal successfully with the persistent distraction and competition that we encounter along the way.
How many times I have heard distressed parents agonize over a son who is gay or a daughter who is divorced and remarried, for example. I respond first by asking two questions: 1) Is your child a good and loving person? Invariably the answer is Yes. 2) Is it clear that he or she has acted, not thoughtlessly or selfishly, but in good conscience after a long period of consideration? Again, I have rarely heard anything but a resounding Yes.
A moral decision can be costly for the person who makes it when it disappoints those that he or she loves. But, if it comes out of heart and mind and conscience, it is perfectly in accord with the time-honored tradition that we are to be directed ultimately – in the final analysis, as we say — by the Divine Spirit present within us and speaking through a well-formed conscience.
“If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”