Epiphany IV Year B: Puffy Or Firm?

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
I Corinthians 8:1b-13
Mark 1:21-28

What we do matters. It matters to God, it matters to us, and even though we might not know it or like it, it matters to other people, even if they don’t know it or like it. That is what Paul is talking about in our second reading. He knows that following Jesus is not about following rules, but he also knows that not everyone else knows that. He also knows that no matter how mature one becomes in Christ, we are all still human, and we all still have something in our psychology that makes us want rules. It is good that we want rules, because rules help us do good things. The problem comes when we confuse the rules with the good things we are supposed to do. In Christian life, rules are means to an end, not ends in themselves. The goal is growth in Christ. One way to grow is by lessening the frequency of some actions and attitudes, and increasing the frequency of other actions and attitudes. Maybe the most important way to grow is to always trust God more and more and rely on what we think are our own possessions and abilities less and less.

We are all different, and we all grow in different ways and at different rates. Some people need more discipline to foster growth, some people need less. Neither group is superior or inferior, only different. The trouble comes about when those who need less discipline flaunt their more relaxed lives, and when those who need more discipline try to impose their needs on others. We see this happening in church history, in political life, in families, and in monasteries. It is, of course, perfectly ok for those who need discipline to lovingly exhort others to a more regulated life. It is, of course, perfectly ok for those who need less discipline to not follow those exhortations. What is not good is when more relaxed people become smug and belittle the stricter people to the point that those who need it give up their discipline out of embarrassment or confusion and become stunted in their Christian growth. And even though the more relaxed people might not be doing it on purpose, their more relaxed ways can sometimes cause others to drift away from love of God. That happens because whether we like it or not, and whether we know it or not, we are all role models for others, and we model our lives on others.

As our first reading stated, God gives us prophets, and some of our most influential yet hidden prophets are the people we see everyday, either in person or in the newspaper. And we are influential and unknown prophets to others who see us everyday. We need to be careful about whom we emulate, and we need to make sure that we do it willingly and purposefully, not blindly as we usually do. We also need to make sure that we set good examples to those who emulate us (knowingly or unknowingly). We should not be fake about who we are, but we can be discreet about some of our actions and attitudes depending upon our audience. We do not have to act the same way around everyone – that is not hypocrisy, it is loving care for those around us.

Our gospel story mentions people who knew that Jesus had integrity in his actions. He did not flaunt his religious freedom, nor did he rebuke religious people who were truly loving God and their neighbors. He had some very religious habits (he was baptized and went to the synagogue regularly), and he did other things that made religious leaders mad enough to kill him. Yet, it seems that every time someone asked him how to have eternal life, he gave a different answer, tailored to the inquirer’s needs. He told people to follow him, not to do everything exactly as he did. He said to pick up our own cross, not anyone else’s.

So we must not succumb to a superior attitude and think that we need no discipline, nor should we be overly scrupulous and neurotic in our approach to growth in God. We should be careful in the examples we show others, and we should be careful about whose examples we follow. As Paul says in our second reading: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” May we not be bloated know-it-alls. May we instead be loving servants.   AMEN