Sunday, April 22, 2012

“The right deed for the wrong reason"

Jesus and the Pharisees

R.R. Reno at First Things has a great essay on our preoccupation with earthly matters.


“Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.” So wrote St. Paul to the Colossians, reminding them that if they have been raised with Christ, then they should direct their minds and their lives toward him. 
As I sat in the pew on Easter Sunday and listened to that passage for Colossians, I found myself wondering: Do I set my mind and life too much on things that are on earth?
Some of the temptations are not easy to identify. Jesus tells us to lay up our treasure in heaven, and that seems to rule out thinking about bank accounts. But is that always true? My children are in college and tuitions bills need to be paid. It’s irresponsible for me never to think about my bank account. “Sorry, Rachel, meant to pay last semester’s tuition, but I laid up my treasure in heaven instead.” No, that won’t do. Whatever Jesus meant when he said that we must be ready to hate our mother and father, brother and sister, he wasn’t giving us an excuse to neglect our responsibilities to our families.
The same holds for our duties as citizens. There is something very wrong about investing politics with ultimate significance. As Jesus taught us, his kingdom is not of this world. He reigns from above, not in the halls of congress.
It's a question I struggle with. How should I as a Christian engage the world? Should I just meet my most basic responsibilities to my family and my church and my job and devote the rest of my time to prayer and devotional activities? I don't know.

Reno answers, from his perspective:

But by the same token, elections matter, and not just a little. Deciding who sits on the United States Supreme Court makes a life and death difference for the unborn. It makes a difference for the future of marriage. Our solvency as a nation may very well turn on who gets elected to public office. The moral character of society is shaped by those in positions of public influence. There are many, many things on earth that rightly engage our minds. It would be irresponsible for us never to think about how to best serve the common good.
I agree. But by the same token, the desire to do good in the world, while laudable in specifics, can be dangerous in generality. Our hearts must be with God, and the world can pull us away from that. We must take care not to become servants of worldy recognition or engagement. This forms the basis for Jesus ' excoriation of the Pharisees.

Reno concludes:

I often find myself humiliated at Mass by the awareness that my mind is preoccupied. Many, many times during the prayers of consecration I’ve caught myself thinking about how I’ve got to solve this or that problem. Money, reputation, politics: I’m in the temples of the gods of this world, propitiating them, negotiating with them, raging at them. 
Then, suddenly, everyone around me is saying “Amen” and starting to rise for the Lord’s Prayer. I’m jarred out of my distracted preoccupations, my mental list-making, my ardent problem-solving. As I said, it’s a humiliating moment. The mystery of Christ made present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist is in front of me, and I’m off in my mind worshipping the gods of this world whom I tacitly presume control my future. 
In that painful moment I try to follow St. Paul’s advice. I don’t stop thinking about my responsibilities. Instead, I refer them to Christ, asking him for guidance. And who better to know the answer? “He is before all things,” St. Paul writes earlier in Colossians, “and in him all things hold together.”

T.S. Elliot understood:

The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.

1 comment:

  1. “Should I just meet my most basic responsibilities to my family and my church and my job and devote the rest of my time to prayer and devotional activities?”

    Yes, please.