On ‘Neither Shall You Touch’

Homily offered by Father Matthew C. Dallman, Obl.S.B., for the Parish of Tazewell County on the First Sunday in Lent, 2020.

We have now truly entered into the great season of Lent, after passing through the first four days of Lent from Ash Wednesday to Saturday, four days that are often called the “porch of Lent.” The analogy is apt: if we visit a friend out of town and upon arriving they meet us on the porch and because say it is a sunny summer afternoon you and your friend first hang out on the porch and spend time catching up, you have in a real sense arrived at your friend’s house in a meaningful way; and yet, much more emerges in your experience of the house after you finish on the porch and enter inside. The door to Our Father’s house has been opened by Christ on His Cross and we have responded to His invitation to cross the threshold and enter in.

As we reflected on Ash Wednesday upon the story of Jonah, I suggested that an apt characterization of Jonah was that he was a hot mess. He is a hot mess because he knows God’s will and yet is constantly resisting it; he is a hot mess because he knows God’s loving-kindness yet constantly overlooks it; he is a hot mess because despite constant evidence shown him that God’s power and glory reaches beyond time and space, such as should throw one into a sense of profound awe and selflessness, Jonah thinks primarily about himself, selfish and self-centered—not God-centered. And it was in interpreting the story of Jonah in these terms that I suggested that all of us are closer to being like Jonah—closer, that is, to being a hot mess—than we might care to admit. Brothers and sisters, admitting it, however, is to cross the threshold of the door opened to us by the Cross. And rather than praise the well-composed entryway or the beautiful living room of this house, the proper response as we enter into this great Lent is the response not of the Pharisee but of the Tax Collector: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” Nothing fancy, nothing complicated, nothing qualified with caveats or comparisons to anyone else: the simple words, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner,” which became through slight modification what the Church grew to call the Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner”), is the prayer of Lent, is the prayer of creature toward Creator.

The world around us confronts us not only with the beauty, truth, and goodness of God, but also with temptation after temptation. Temptations to all the capital sins: temptation to pride, envy, gluttony, covetousness, lust, sloth, and anger: these capital sins being the pattern that underlies all specific acts of sin. Adam and Eve were tempted by serpent, that is to say, the Devil taking the form of a serpent. And like Jonah, there is a clear sense overall in the narrative of the Adam and Eve’s sin with the fruit of the forbidden tree of both being well aware of God’s power yet reverting to self-centeredness. That is the basic lesson to be convicted by—we are more like Jonah, Adam and Eve than we care to admit. But there is another aspect I want us to consider.

That aspect comes when we notice a detail in the Genesis narrative that is easy to miss. The detail is what Eve adds in her dialogue with the serpent to the words first commanded by God to Adam. Eve tells the serpent that God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden,”—and then the addition, “neither shall you touch it.” God never said those specific words to Adam; He never said, “neither shall you touch.” Now, I think it is implied in what God told Adam: He told Adam he is not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and in order to eat of its fruit, one must touch the fruit and then bring it to one’s mouth. Eve adds this detail, and I think this demonstrates that she, like Blessed Mary, has been pondering God’s word, taking it to heart: not merely following an order like a robot but being a thinking human being, which is a great credit to her. She is stronger than Adam, which is why the Devil attacked her and not the man.

Eve’s fleshing out of God’s teaching brings to light truth that is useful to us as Christians facing temptation upon temptation: to notice something, to be aware of something, is not a sin. It’s the touching of it, the grabbing of it, that is the sin. Feelings, thoughts, emotions that come through our mind and heart, these are never sins. But when we touch them—that is to say, act upon them, follow through on the fleeting thought, feeling, or emotion either in word or deed—that is where the sin occurs. Eve noticing that the tree was good for good, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise—that’s not the sin. Noticing that another person is physically beautiful and attractive, for example, or that a material object would be nice to have and possess, these are not sins. “Touching them”—that is to say, committing adultery with that person (whether actually or as Our Lord teaches, even in our heart and imagination)—that is the sin. Or recognizing that new car or computer or jewelry or house would be nice to have, that is not a sin; touching these things, whether by actually stealing them or by improperly and unwisely spending money upon them that should have gone to something else—that is the sin.

Brothers and sisters, Our Lord knows that we will be faced by these temptations: the temptations to touch and grab hold of passing thoughts, feelings, and emotions that, if acted upon, are sins. And so He in His infinite love for us gives us the example of what to do: and again the method is simple—flee to Him. Bring Him to mind. And bringing Him to mind can also be through bringing to mind scripture as He did before the Devil. And this is why, in Lent as well as through the whole year, the Church exhorts us to regular and daily meditation upon the scriptures: that we will be equipped to confront temptations by our ability to flee to Christ as revealed in the scriptures. Because when we do so, the Church teaches that as they did for Christ, angels will come to us and minister unto us.

Examination of Conscience and the Capital Sins

True contrition requires an examination of conscience. But how does one make this examination? It is as simple as beginning with this: Think of yourself as God’s child and of the loss which results from being separated from your loving Father. Do not be in a hurry, and do not vex yourself because you cannot remember everything. Be honest with God and with yourself; this is all God asks of you. Write down briefly what you remember of your sins. Do not try to depend on memory. Do not fret about your sins. Remember, you are trying to recall them in order that you may be forgiven, not that you may be condemned. “A broken and contrite heart, O Lord, shall thou not despise.” Read more “Examination of Conscience and the Capital Sins”

Homily: “On Saint Mary Magdalene”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County, on the Feast of Saint Mary Magdalene, 2017.

Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. Let us ask a basic question: Who is Mary Magdalene? There is much that might be said about who she is; and in truth much already has been said, particularly if you have paid attention to popular books and movies of the last thirty years, because a person named “Mary Magdalene” has often been a major character in such works. Yet popular culture has pushed this to an extreme, has it not? As is often the case with the human condition, we tend to take things to their extremes before finally pulling back. The Church’s mechanism for such pulling back is often Holy Scripture, and making sure that our understanding about the faith accords with it. Read more “Homily: “On Saint Mary Magdalene””

Homily: “On Responding to Sin”

Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Sixth Sunday after Epiphany (the Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time) Year A, 2017.

It is always worth remembering that the Gospel of St Matthew was written around fifty years after the death of Jesus on the Cross. This writing down happened after what must have been a robust oral tradition of passing down the sayings of Jesus within the community of Apostles and close disciples. In fact biblical scholars today continue to postulate the existence of a written collection of the sayings of Jesus available to Saint Matthew as well as Saint Luke as a source for the composition of their respective Gospels. This source, of which there is no actual record but is a theory supported by a consensus of mainstream New Testament scholars, is called “Q,” which is short for quelle, a German word meaning “source.” So according to the mainstream theory held widely by scholars, it was both Q and the Gospel of Saint Mark that were used to craft Saint Matthew’s Gospel.

While the theories of biblical scholars can often make for fascinating reading, what is notable for our use as a worshiping family is that Saint Matthew’s Gospel is not a documentary, straight rendering of the words of Jesus as He actually said them in real time, but the result of an oral tradition filtered by prayer. We are to hear them, read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them, as always authoritative and definitive to be sure, but not as if we are hearing the written transcript of an audio recording, but as fruits given to us by the very first Christians, many of whom knew Jesus in the flesh, and all of whom knew Him as He lived and moved and had His being as the Risen and Glorified Lord within the life of His Body, the Church. The biblical accounts in the New Testament crystallize in literary form the experience of the living Church—and the Bible’s purpose within a worshiping community is to feed, inspire and articulate this experience.

The notion that one person can read the Bible as an individual, even an individual with many gifts, and from that solitary experience of reading the Bible live an upright and holy life within the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church is very mistaken. Bible reading can only be attempted from within the fellowship of the living Church, which includes its theological tradition, its liturgical worship and its spiritual guidance. The Bible did not create the Church, but rather the Church created the Bible in order to feed, inspire and articulate the experience of being incorporated by Baptism into the Sacred Humanity of Jesus Christ—and in the Bible is subtlety, difficulty, and mystery. Anyone who says otherwise is trying to sell you something.

What, then, are we to make of what we hear today? First, our Lord teaches about anger—while there is such a thing as righteous indignation, here Jesus is talking about the Capital Sin of Anger, the sin of denying the need for harmony with other creatures. Anger, besides being a sin, is a distraction, it impedes or prevents our ability to hear Christ, and certainly our ability to recognize Christ in the person with whom we are angry.

That leads directly into His teaching that we should not bring our gift to the Altar if we are unreconciled with someone. And here the fact that this teaching was filtered through the oral tradition of the worshipping community is central, because this passage directly defies normal emotional experience. Unless we hear this teaching through the lens of prayer, we will misunderstand Jesus’ command as seeming to say that reconciliation with the person must be complete and over before anyone can receive communion. But we all know that is not how reconciliation works—it is not a transaction but a process, and a process that can take years if not decades.

The important subtlety here is not to complete a transaction but to begin a process of reconciliation. That process begins by asking God in prayer for help, and the process continues by being able to pray for this person. When we pray for a person we affirm, perhaps despite our emotional inclinations, that God is active in your life, and He is active in the life of that other person who has something against you. This is hard to recognize when this other person has hurt or wounded us, yet until we able to name this person in prayer, we have not begun the process of reconciliation. And it is beginning the process of reconciliation that Jesus demands of us before we receive Communion. We practice this process of reconciliation—of seeing in another person Jesus Christ—when we exchange the peace. Actively experiencing what it is like to try to recognize in another person Jesus Christ is the sole purpose of the exchange of the peace.

So all of that is a difficult passage, and yet there are more in our Gospel today. We hear that lust is equivalent to adultery; that eyes should be plucked out if they cause sin; same with a sin-causing right hand. Brothers and sisters, hear in these sentences Jesus Christ having a divine sense of humor. He makes demands upon us, yet He gives us maximum aid and support in times of hardship. Let the demands of these difficult passages be soothed with the image of Jesus saying them within something of a wry smile, perhaps a dry, provocative humor. We will not make spiritual progress—that it, we will not pray better nor commit fewer sins—if we have a habitual state of imaginative lust. Take custody of the eyes, Jesus is commanding. Pluck it out, take it away, look somewhere else. And if your hands constantly are the tools for sin—for stealing, for writing sinful thoughts, for hitting someone, for knowingly misguiding people—cut them off, take it away, take custody of your hands. Recognize that Jesus intends them to be His hands, His eyes.

Being mature about our tendencies to sin with our eyes, our hands, our thoughts is how we bear our cross. Being sober and honest about how we have been wounded or hurt by other people is how we bear our cross. So let us keep our true end in sight, and let us always know that the Lord is mighty in power and sees everything; His eyes are on those that fear Him, and He knows every deed we do. He knows that in our weakness we can do nothing good without Him. Let us put our trust in Him, for He is our strength and redeemer.

Homily: “Religion and Disobedience”

Offered by the Rev. Matthew C. Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time 2016 (Proper 20, Year C).

In this story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, what kind of narrative is this? Not a narrative of events that actually happened, in the sense that there was a particular beggar to whom our Lord was referring. If there was such a beggar—and I should add, there may have been, for there is no way to prove or disprove the historicity of this beggar based on the account given to us by Saint Luke—if there was such a beggar, that is not the primary point of Our Lord’s teaching. This is not a history lecture by our divine professor.

“The narrative is a representative narrative: a narrative of what is constantly occurring under the form of a typical incident; a typical narrative of what is again and again happening — God’s judgments come on men and women for their sin.” [1] We see this all throughout the Old Testament. A classic example is the story of Adam and Eve, who because of their sin (their choices that separated them from God’s will) receive judgment. We see this dramatically in the account of the Great Flood, also from Genesis. A whole society makes choices that separate themselves from God. “Again and again teachers of righteousness are sent to warn of coming judgment and a ridiculed by a world which goes on buying and selling, using and wasting, feasting and drinking, bullying and oppressing, till the flood of God’s judgment breaks out and overwhelms them.” [1] We are back to the need to understand the role that analogy plays in interpreting Holy Scripture. We are not Adam and Eve, we are not the people that perished in the Great Flood — but we can act like them in the choices we make. Read more “Homily: “Religion and Disobedience””