Introduction- Part 1
Hi! My name is Joe Reilly and I will be your new host every Monday in this time slot. Recently, I retired from 39 years of teaching: three years in CatholicHigh School, thirty six in the Philadelphia Public Schools, and for three years, I also taught in the evening on the Graduate level at St. Joseph's University. During my teaching career, I developed a course called the Sane Society, which to a Christian is just another name for the Kingdom of God. For five years, I had a weekly radio program for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which was based on the material from this course. The course draws on religion, philosophy, psychology, sociology, anthropology, history and my own personal life experiences and reflections. It was based on a provocative question that was asked by a famous psychologist, Eric From, in his book called "The Sane Society." He asked, "If you were born in an insane asylum, grew up in an insane asylum and never left the insane asylum, would you know that you were insane? Obviously, you would not, no more than a fish that lives in water knows that he is wet.
The point of his question was that we all share a common human nature which, just like a flower, can bloom or die according to the type of soil in which it is planted. God made us to operate according to certain laws and principles, and when they are violated, we fail to become what He meant us to be. Thus, many of us live our entire lives without ever finding out who we really are or who we were meant to be because we were born or planted into poor soil, which stunted our growth and development.
I have chosen for my theme for this series of talks, Jesus' statement that "the Truth will set you free," because it implies somehow that we get entrapped or imprisoned in ways that we don't fully understand. As someone, trained in Sociology and Psychology, who has witnessed both of his parents live lives of failure and despair, it has occurred to me that many people are entrapped in lifestyles and cultural mind sets that limit them from experiencing the "fullness of life," that Jesus promises us in the Gospel. The reason, I believe, is that many of us have been born into cultures and subcultures that contained, at least in part, insane qualities that destroyed the lives of those that followed them. By insane behavior I mean that it is out of touch with reality or Truth because we keep on repeating the same destructive behavior while expecting different results. As children, we accepted these behavior patterns from our parents as being normal because they were part of our culture even though they destroyed those around us. In other words, we can't see the Truth, which would set us free, and not only do we destroy our own lives but we pass these behavior patterns on to our children, just as they were passed on to us.
At the beginning of the new millennium, the Holy Father declared a jubilee year, which in the Bible, is a year of new beginnings in which all debts were forgiven and slaves were set free. What the Pope was reminding us of was that this was God's way of assuring us that our conditions, no matter how oppressive, would not last forever. The slate would be wiped clean every fifty years and we could start over. And that is what I hope that you will receive from my talks. It is never to late to learn and to start over. Jesus is the Truth and every time we face it, we get set free from the destructive patterns, which keep us from experiencing the 'fullness of life.'
I would like to begin my topic first by sharing with you something about myself, my background, and how the Lord has been instrumental in my life.
I was born in an Irish Catholic working class neighborhood in South Philadelphia known as the 'Devil's Pocket.' As you might guess from its name, it was a pretty rough neighborhood, which had its good points and its bad points. It almost seemed to produce an equal number of priests and criminals. The people were generous and loving among themselves. Almost everyone was Irish, and Catholic, and sometimes it almost seemed that everyone was related. I never ceased to be amazed when my uncle, who was only three years older than myself, told me how various people were distantly related to us through marriage. There were a dozen homes that I could stop at and get a drink or a sandwich. If your mother went into the hospital, they washed your clothes, cooked your food, and cared for your family and they watched out for and protected each other's interests.
I can remember one incident when I was twenty-one and had just gotten out of the Navy. I had been away from the 'Devil's Pocket' for many years and I decided to visit my aunt Mary, who was still living at the family homestead on Christian St. As I drove down Christian St. toward her house, I saw her ten-year-old daughter, Donna, coming up the street. I blew my horn and stopped and Donna came over to say hello. Suddenly, an arm reached through the driver side window and grabbed my steering wheel. It was Mr. Devers, an older man of the neighborhood, whom I had not seen since I was a kid. While holding my steering wheel firmly, he asked, "What do you think you're doing?" I tried to identify myself but it was obvious that he didn't recognize me. Finally, Donna came to my rescue and explained to him who I was. Can you imagine that happening in our neighborhood's today? Most people, even if they were vigilant enough to see it, would turn the other way and say, "It's none of my business", and another little girl might have been molested or killed. Nobody harmed anyone in the Pocket without someone else caring.
On the other hand, they were in many respects what some people refer to as clannish, because, as nice as they could be to each other, they could be vicious with "outsiders." No stranger ever went into "The Pocket" unless he knew somebody who could provide a mantle of safe passage. Graysferry Ave. was the boundary line that separated "The Pocket" from the "Black Community", only we didn't call them "Black"; we had another, less polite name, and there was an ongoing war taking place between "us" and "them." If we crossed the boundary line, they "kicked our butts", and if they crossed the line, we kicked theirs.
I can still remember an incident that happened one summer's day, when I was a kid. All the neighbors were sitting on their steps trying to get some relief from the overbearing heat. Suddenly, everyone was looking and shouting at a young, black, teenage boy, who was running for his life as five neighborhood teenagers were in hot pursuit. The poor kid was running in the wrong direction because he was going deeper into "The Pocket', rather than towards his own neighborhood. The adults on the steps were cheering and shouting, "Kill the nigger!"
I never found out what happened to him but one of my aunts on my mother's side of the family told me that when my mother's family lived in Schuylkill, which is a similar type of neighborhood just off of South St. Bridge, she saw the neighborhood guys beat a Black man to death for a similar offense of being in the wrong neighborhood.
What amazes me now is that it all seemed so natural and acceptable to me at the time. I didn't see anything wrong with it because none of the adults or even the priests ever spoke out in condemnation of the hostility that existed between the two communities. And yet, despite our unchristian like behavior, we all believed ourselves to be very religious. Every Saturday afternoon, Graysferry Ave. had a parade of parishioners going to and from confession and, the next day, on Sunday, the parade was repeated as one Mass left out and another began.
Sometimes, we so-called Christians are blind to how we have participated in and contributed to the hostilities and hatreds in the world. Take a look at places like Yugoslavia, where the Blessed Mother is reported to have been appearing at Medjugoria. Yet, even there, professed Christians are capable of some of the worst atrocities in the name of "ethnic cleansing." Or how about Northern Ireland, where both sides, who claim to be followers of Christ, carry on an unending war of injustice, violence and retaliation. And, of course, here in the United States, it was in the Bible Belt of the South where Black men were lynched by Bible quoting Ku Klux Klaners. Sometimes I wonder whether any of the people on the steps that day who cried for the death of that young, black, teenager, ever asked for God's forgiveness in confession. I didn't because, at that time, I didn't see anything wrong with it.
We all know that God calls us to love and, as the song says, people should know we are Christians by our love. But sometimes we mistake the natural affection that we have for the people that we know for the type of love that Jesus calls us to practice. Yet, the Gospel is clear that the test is not how we treat our friends, but, rather, how we treat those that we don't know and even our enemies. And so, without even noticing it, we sin against Love, which is just another name for God.
The toughest sins for God to forgive are the ones that we don't recognize as sins because, when He calls us to repentance and reform, we look at Him with a puzzled face and ask, "of what?" Perhaps this is because we don't fully understand what sin is and what salvation is. God is a God or order, beauty, and harmony and sin is a disruption that leads to chaos, ugliness, and disharmony. The Greek word for sin in the New Testament of the Bible comes from a word used by Greek archers and it means to "miss the target or mark." Thus, when they shot their arrows at the target and missed, they sinned.
The true nature of sin was brought home to me a few years ago when my friend, Dom Latteri, asked me to take charge of the youth program at a Catholic unity conference, which he was organizing. Although I agreed, I really didn't want to do it because the children under my care were much younger than the high school students that I usually dealt with. What was I going to do with them? I'll teach them about sin. But how? Then the Holy Spirit inspired me.
I went to a Dollar Store and bought a felt target with little ping-pong balls covered with Velcro strips. At the Saturday morning session, I explained to the kids that sin meant "to miss the target or mark', and then I showed them the target, which I had hung on the wall. How many thought they could hit the target from five feet away, I asked. All of the hands went up. One by one, I invited them to try but, before each attempt, I placed a blindfold on the volunteer. On each blindfold, I wrote the name of a sin, such as injustice, hatred, revenge, lying, stealing, or selfishness. Then I spun them around. Needless to say, they all missed the target. They all protested that it wasn't fair because they were unable to see due to the blindfold. I agreed and told them that there was a man in the room named Jesus- played by one of my assistants- who, if they asked Him, would remove their blindfolds so that they could see the target.
After all the blindfolds were removed, they began to hit the target. However, sometimes they missed, but I informed them that it was okay because, so long as they could see the target and were attempting to hit it, Jesus would allow them to pick up the ball and try again.
Then we brought on a young boy, whom we had instructed in what he was to do. Over his eyes we placed a blindfold with the sin of Pride written on it. After spinning him around, we gave him a ping-pong ball and told him to hit the target. When we all yelled that he missed, he turned towards us, and in accordance with our instructions, defiantly stated that he didn't. He claimed that he had hit the bull's eye. We protested that he couldn't have because he couldn't see. He claimed that he saw perfectly. We said that Jesus would remove the blindfold if he would ask Him. He said that he didn't need Jesus to remove any blindfold because he didn't have one. There you have it. He was stuck in his own sin and would have to repeat it for eternity because he refused to admit that he was "missing the target."
Pride, which was the sin of the devil and the Original Sin of Adam and Eve, is the only sin that God can't forgive because it will always justify and make excuses for its behavior. Therefore, because it refuses to see or admit that it "missed the target", it will never repent, and therefore, never reform. And repentance and reform are the only ways to be saved from sin. Because, you see, God, who is Love, wants to save us from "missing the target" because, when we do, we bring chaos, ugliness, and disharmony into our own lives and the lives of those around us.
Many of us fail to see this because we keep repeating religious slogans without any understanding of what they mean. I call it religious algebra. Do you remember when you first came into contact with algebra and were told that "A minus B equaled C." I was completely befuddled. I didn't know what "A" was; I didn't know what "B" was, so how could I possibly know what "C" was, and, yet, the teacher assured me that it was true that "A minus B equaled C."
I accepted it on faith but for years algebra was a mystery to me. I could follow the formulas and come up with the right answers but I didn't understand why they were the right answers.
Then, years later, while working on my checkbook, it all fell into place. If "A" was the money that I earned, and "B" was the money that I owed, then "C" was the money that I had left over to spend or save. It really was true: "A minus B did equal C." My mind opened that day and for the first time I really understood algebra.
In similar fashion, we say that Jesus will save us from our sins. The Church tells us that this is true and we accept it on faith, just as I accepted my algebra teacher's assurance on faith. However, most of us don't really understand what this means. Many of us think that it means that Jesus will save us from the punishment for our sins and, to our immature human nature, that sounds like a good deal. But just as "A minus B equaled C" is true in algebra; and 'Jesus saves us from our sins' is true in theology, neither make any sense until you replace the symbols with what they really represent. And what do they represent?
Jesus, says the Church, is the Incarnate Wisdom of God who knows the true purpose of everything according to the Will of His Father. Sin, says the Church, is the disruption of God's Will which occurs when we "miss the target", which is God's true purpose for things. When we sin, we destroy the beauty and harmony of God's creation and set ourselves in opposition to His Will. So, if Jesus is really Wisdom, and sin is really "missing the target or mark", then we can restate our belief by saying that "God's Wisdom (Jesus) will save us from "missing the target" (sin) by removing the darkness of ignorance and misunderstanding, which blind us, from our eyes.
Thus, God's purpose for sex is reproduction, but our sinful nature, which is blinded by ignorance and lives in the Kingdom of Mental Darkness, believes that it is pleasure. In our blindness and ignorance, we fail to understand that the pleasure involved is simply an inducement to lead us to the real purpose. Thus we sin or "miss the mark" when we treat a reproductive mechanism exclusively as a recreational activity through fornication, adultery, homosexuality, masturbation, or any of the other sexual activities, which "miss the target." In like manner, the purpose of speech is to communicate information. When we lie, we "miss the target" by communicating misinformation. A society that replaces reproduction with pleasure or information with misinformation is a society that is about to collapse because of the chaos caused by its sinning.
Our problem is that sin, which seems to benefit some of us in the short term and on the individual level, really harms most of us in the long term and on the societal level. God's order is not seriously threatened by our occasional small, individual white lies- although they might lead to a more serious pattern of habitual lying. What really upsets God's order is when a major part of society accepts lying, stealing, fornication, killing etc... as general patterns for behavior. When this happens, we have committed the most serious sin of all, which is to lose our "sense of sin" by acting as though the abnormal is really normal. The Old Testament puts it this way: "Woe to him who calls evil good and good evil."
To lose our "sense of sin" is the only unforgivable sin because it sins against the Holy Spirit of Truth by pretending that a lie is really true, or the abnormal is really normal. That is why the devil is called "The Father of all lies" and Jesus is called "the Truth that will set us Free." Once we stop resisting a sinful behavior and start to justify and pattern it into our lives, we no longer see any reason to repent or reform, which are the preconditions for God's forgiveness. Remember, He wants to save us from our sins because they bring disorder, ugliness, and disharmony into our lives and those around us but He can't save us from what we have come to accept as normal. Consequently, without intending it, the sinful behavior is passed on to our children, grandchildren, great grandchildren etc., who, because they depend on us to teach them what is normal and abnormal, have no way of knowing that the patterns that we are giving them are destructive to their own happiness and fulfillment. Thus, they will keep on repeating the same behavior, while expecting different results. That is why the Bible says, "the sins of the parents will be passed on to the children to the seventh generation.
Hopefully, at that point, the seventh generation will be able to see the disastrous consequences of the behavior and break the pattern by repenting and reforming.
It is better to be sinners who confess their sins and make a lifelong effort to avoid them, than to be sinners who deny their sins and make no effort to avoid them. The first are like the children who, even after their blindfolds were removed, occasionally missed the target, but were allowed by Jesus to pick up the ball and try again. There is hope for them because at least they know what the target is and, eventually, God will honor their effort and save them because they never allowed their sin to become part of their heart. The second group is like the youngster blindfolded with Pride who acts like he is "hitting the target" when in reality he is missing it. Their situation is hopeless because they have embraced their sin and it has become part of their heart. Even God can't save them because they don't know, or refuse to admit, that they need saving. Ultimately, as they grow in number, the society that is stupid enough to surrender its moral values, will start to see the confusion and chaos that results when we turn on back on the Good Shepherd, Jesus, who is the Wisdom of God and Truth that will set us free, and follow that false shepherd, the devil, who is the Father of All Lies.
Suppose every time that we hit the target we could see the order, beauty, and harmony enter the world and every time that we missed it, we could see the chaos, ugliness, and disharmony which resulted. Then we would see how, through our sinning, we contribute and are responsible for much of our own misery. Values that are not defended will become extinct by values that are defended.
As Christians, we believe that God understands our weakness and ignorance because the Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus, shared our human flesh and knows its temptations, weaknesses, and failings. He also understands the misery that sin brings to the human condition. Thus, He came into the world to save us from the misery of our sins and to lead us away from the Kingdom of Darkness into the Kingdom of Light and Understanding where the light of Wisdom and Love will reign. To be saved from our sins is to be saved from 'doing them' and thereby from the consequences. Jesus' message was salvation, not condemnation.
There's a story about the Last Judgment that I heard years ago that makes this point. The world had ended and all the human beings who had ever lived were standing before a stage on which sat the throne of God. They were all waiting for Jesus to arrive, ascend the throne and to begin His Last Judgment of the human race. The people grew impatient and they began to mumble. "Where is He? When is the Judgment going to begin?" Suddenly a rumor started to spread throughout the crowd. It began as a whisper and grew to a roar. "Did you hear what that guy just said? Everybody getting in! Nobody is going to hell!" A rage of indignation began. "What do you mean?" asked one center class woman. "Do you mean that that whore over there who used to stand underneath the El with her dress over her head trying to get money for her next 'fix' is getting in with me even though I was a faithful wife and mother for forty years and resisted all temptations to cheat on my husband? It isn't fair!" she protested. Then a businessman spoke up. "Do you mean that that embezzler over there who stole money from the company while I had the same opportunity and resisted it, is getting in along with me. It isn't fair!" he shouted. A third person spoke up, a young teenage boy who had been an Eagle Scout. "Does that mean that the kid at school who was into drugs and sex and wild living is getting in with me after I avoided all those things and spent my time in the Scouts and other productive activities? It isn't fair." Then suddenly, some trumpets blew and Jesus appeared on the stage in all His Divine glory. The good people cheered and asked Him when the judgment was going to begin, while the bad people shrank back in terror. Jesus responded and said, "The judgment is already over. All of you who were so anxious to throw your brothers and sisters into hell have failed because my message was love and salvation not judgment and condemnation. I came to save sinners, not to condemn them." In Micah 6, it says,
"God has shown thee o man what is good and what does the Lord require of thee, but to do justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God."
Now I will not vouch for all of the theological conclusions that one might draw from this story. For example, I believe that there really is a hell and that sinners really do go there. However, the story makes a couple of interesting points. First, the just people assumed that in their goodness that they had denied themselves while the sinners were having all the fun. The housewife, by her remarks, was saying that the prostitute's life was happier and more fulfilling than her own. Therefore she should be rewarded for avoiding sin and the prostitute should be punished for doing it. The businessman implied that stealing, rather than honesty, would have been a more enjoyable life and that the embezzler should be punished because he was the one who was having all the fun in this life. And the Boy Scout assumed that the kids that were involved in drugs, sex, and wild parties were having a greater run at life than he was. What Jesus was saying is that none of them realized that "virtue is its own reward" and " sin brings its own punishment." If virtue, which is just another name for wise living, really does result in the long term and on the societal level in order, beauty, and harmony, then why should it be rewarded? And if sin, which is just another name for stupid living, really does result in disorder, ugliness, and disharmony, why should it be punished?
All throughout the Old Testament of the Bible, God is complaining about the Hebrew People being hirelings, who would only do His will if He paid and rewarded them, or slaves, who would only do His will if He threatened to whip or punish them. What He yearned for were sons and daughters who understood Him and realized that to follow Him and His laws meant life, while to follow sin meant death. In other words, God wanted us to love the Good because it was "good", which is just another way of saying that God wanted us to love Him because, you see, God is just the Good, with one "o" removed. How may of us realize that "Goodbye" really means, "God be with you."
Do you remember the old catechism answer to "Why did God make you?" God made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him in this world and to be happy with Him forever in heaven." Now listen to it when we restate it, without the algebraic symbols. "God, the Highest Good, made me to know the good, to love the good, and to serve the good and to be happy with him, the Highest Good, forever in heaven." Or how about this? God made me to know the Truth, to love the Truth, and to serve the Truth and to be happy with the Truth forever in heaven. Now consider this. God in his basic nature is the True Good or True God, and everything else is a False Good, or false god. So we are called to follow the True Good that leads to life and avoid the False Goods that lead to death.
Do you remember the parable of the Pharisee and the publican in which the Pharisee was bragging to God about his own righteousness, while the publican stood over to the side and, with lowered head, beat his breast and said, "O God be merciful to me a sinner"? Now it probably was true that the Pharisee was a more moral person than the publican, and that he really did do all that he claimed, but that's not the point of the parable. God's standards are very high and impossible for us to reach without His grace. Therefore, we all fall short and sin in knowing and unknowing ways. When the standard is perfection, the only reasonable attitude is to be always open for change and improvement, and that is why Jesus praised the publican and repudiated the Pharisee. When he was here on earth, Jesus had plenty of patience for prostitutes, like Mary Magdalene, and tax collectors, like Zaccheus, because they knew they were sinners and that something had to change in their lives. But he had no patience for the self-righteous Pharisee, who thought that they were without sin. Filled with Pride, they thought they had arrived and didn't realize the emptiness that still remained. God was not finished with them yet but they were, as the Irish say, "full of themselves.' and there was no room for God.
A similar point was made in the incident involving the woman caught in adultery. No doubt she was wrong, and Jesus never said that she wasn't. In fact, He told her to go and sin no more. However, when the self-righteous Pharisees demanded that she be stoned to death, Jesus, knowing the hidden sinfulness in their own hearts, demanded that "those who are without sin among them should throw the first stone." God knows that if we stoned every sinner, the earth would be stripped bare of stones and there wouldn't be a person standing. So sin is our human condition, and it is responsible for all the chaos in our lives. Its only cure is God's grace, which comes through repentance and reform. We are not called to judge sinners, because, "There, but for the grace of God, go I." Rather we are called to declare sin to be sin and to encourage each other to repent and reform.
I think that sometimes we miss the total message that the Gospel is giving us because we tend to interpret it in terms of the flesh instead of the spirit. For example, when the Gospel speaks of poverty or hunger, we tend to limit it to physical poverty and hunger, and our first instinct is open up a "soup kitchen." Certainly, that is one way it can be interpreted and it is a laudable response. However, there is a deeper spiritual poverty and hunger that are just as valid, if not more so. For example, the Beatitudes says "Blessed are the poor in spirit, not the poor in bank account, for theirs is the Kingdom of God." or "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice sake for they shall have their fill." And Mary, in her Magnificat, says, "He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent away empty." The publican in the previous parable was, in his spirit, poor and full of humility and hungered for the touch of God in his life and God was able to feed him. However, the Pharisee was, in his spirit, "rich or full of pride" and lacked any hunger for more in the spiritual life, and he was sent away empty. So if you want God in your life, you don't have to empty your bank account, just empty your spirit.
Well, I see that my time is up.