Sunday, April 18, 2004

Jesus, St. Paul, and Popeye


One of the most shocking things about the teachings of Christ is his expansion of the Jewish Law. Take a look at the Sermon on the Mount, which, if you can read it without being scared to death, you aren't reading it correctly. The Jewish law was directed to the external acts of man--don't kill, don't commit adultery, etc. The new law of Christ doesn't relax the old law, but makes it tougher, adding internal rectitude to the external act. Look at the following passage:

Mat 5:21 "You have heard that it was said to the men of old, 'You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.'
But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, 'You fool!' shall be liable to the hell of fire.


How are we to take such a thing? I'm not even allowed to be angry with my brother, or anyone else, for that matter. What might Jesus have in mind? I think he may have been thinking of Popeye. Do you remember the Popeye cartoons (the early ones) where Popeye would keep up an on-running monologue under his breath, saying all sorts of caustic and funny things that only the audience could hear, but that Olive couldn't hear? I love Popeye, but I think he was breaking Christ's command in the Sermon on the Mount. I do the same thing.

For example, consider that it's a Sunday afternoon. I've just finished cleaning the dishes from brunch, and am settling down on the couch to watch baseball and take a nap. My wife says "Could you help me fold clothes?" Perhaps on the outside I say "Sure," but on the inside I'm Popeye: "Darn it, I was just settling down to take a nap. Can't we fold clothes later? I like them wrinkled anyway." I do the external act, but all the time on the inside I'm resenting it.

What difference does it make what my internal state is, as long as I fold the clothes? Certainly harboring such resentment will damage my dealings with my wife. If I have habits of resentment, eventually I'm going to do something hateful in the external act as well. This applies to the other commandments of Christ in the SOTM as well: if I continually and habitually look lustfully at women, I'm far more likely to do lustful things.

But I think even the internal act is sinful as well. There is a modern cliche about sin, calling it "brokenness"--the priest at an old parish of mine used regularly to adlib in the mass about the sin of brokenness; I was tempted to go to confession and say "Bless me Father, for I have been broken six times." It is a cliche, but like most cliches, has some truth to it. Plato noted in the Republic that wrongdoing is damaging to the person that does it, primarily because it brings about disorder in the soul. Our mind says "fold the clothes," but our appetites say "stay on the couch." By indulging the appetites, even in the internal monologue, we set our minds and hearts to fighting, and that makes us less good than we ought to be. We become at war with ourselves. Our public acts, which may be in accord with all ten commandments, nevertheless are a sham, hypocrisy, nothing more than acting. That's not good.

Where does St. Paul come into this? He recommends to us the solution to this problem of melding the internal and the external: 1Th 5:16 Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

Pray constantly, rejoice always, give thanks always. This is the will of God! So, when my wife asks me to fold the clothes, I should already be praying (since Paul says "constantly"), and I should rejoice and give thanks to God for the opportunity to do such a good action. This is the way to act in accord with the Sermon on the Mount, to act not just without killing and adultery, but without even anger or lust. Let's return to my situation on the couch and see how it should happen:

Athanasius' inner monologue, while sitting on the couch, watching baseball and getting ready to nap: "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner! Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner. . . ."

Mrs. Athanasius: "Could you help fold clothes?"

Athanasius' thoughts "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner. . . Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner. . . Thank you Lord for my beautiful wife, and the beautiful daughter whose clothes (thanks for those, too!) I now get to fold. . . Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me a sinner. . . ."

Athanasius' words: "Sure!"

Isn't that better? By the way, that's the genius of the Jesus Prayer. If you practice it, eventually you can get to the stage where the name of Jesus is constantly running through your mind, no matter what you do. This is a sure defense against such Popeye problems as Christ warns against in the Sermon on the Mount.



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