26th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Most of us remember Charleston Heston playing Ben Hur in the movie of the same name.  His full name was Judah Ben Hur, and his family were rich, prosperous, and prestigious.  Though the family was Jewish, they commanded the respect of even the Romans.  As you may remember, a series of misfortunes led to the loss of their privileged position and Ben Hur’s mother and sister were sent to the dungeons where they contracted the dreaded leprosy.  Judah Ben Hur was himself condemned to a slave’s life under hard labor in the galley ships of the Romans as an oarsman.  Placed in chains with other slaves, he was marched through the countryside on the way to his execution.  On the way, they paused at a small village to rest.  A local villager gave a cup of cold water to Ben Hur, and when he looked up to see who was being so kind to him, he found himself gazing directly into the face of Jesus Christ.  He never forgot the cup of water brought to him in his need.

            As things will happen in the movies, a few years later, Ben Hur won back his honor and prestige, and returned to Jerusalem to his old family house.  One day, he heard a loud commotion outside, so he went outside to see what was going on.  He saw a condemned man being pushed and manhandled on his way to execution, carrying a cross.  He fell down, and Ben Hur instinctively went over to help him.  Their eyes meet, and once again Ben Hur was gazing into the face of Jesus Christ.  That little cup of water Jesus gave Ben Hur taught him to be compassionate to others, no matter what the cost.

            And as you may remember, on the way, Jesus’ shadow fell across two leper women in the crowd, of course, as this is the movies after all, Ben Hur’s mother and sister.  They were instantly healed of their disease.  The family became whole once again.

            Now, this story was from a novel, a made-up fictional story, and was not in the Gospel.  But I think it illustrates perfectly the words that are in Mark’s Gospel today: “If anyone gives you a cup of water to drink, he will most certainly not lose his reward.”  The kindness of Ben Hur to Jesus, which he of course had learned those years ago from Jesus himself, caused the shadow-healing of two people very dear to him.

            Jesus is telling us in the Gospel that every good deed, even something as seemingly inconsequential as bringing a cup of water or saying a kind word or two, will bring good not only to the receiver but also back to us, too.  But Jesus is also saying something here that takes noting: he reminds us that every evil deed brings harm, and teaching others to do evil, even by thoughtless bad example, is the worst of the worst in God’s eyes.  “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were put around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.”  Further, he warns us, in dramatic language, that any part of our bodies that may cause us to sin should be cut off rather than risk eternal loss of one’s soul.  I’m not sure Jesus meant that literally, because then none of us would be walking around with all of our parts.  But I know he does mean this: even if something is very near and dear to us, a habit, money, maybe the Internet or what’s on cable, if it causes us to sin, we must be willing to change things around.  That’s what a firm purpose of amendment means in the Act of Contrition.

            Fortunately, those cups of water we give out in charity, together with the frequent reception of the sacraments, go a long way to wiping out our offenses.  Jesus is a funny God: he forgets our sins if we display true repentance but remembers the good we have done for others always.

            If you are anything like me, every time you get the mail, there are three, four, five very legitimate and worthy charities all asking for your contribution.  As we know, we can’t possibly help out all who ask us, we’d go broke and have no time for anything else.  But that doesn’t mean we can ignore the willingness to be Christlike to help others.  It may be that special charity, it may be the cake or pastry you bake which gets sold to make money for the parish’s needs, it may be whatever you have volunteered to do here to help out.  It may be the time you spend with children or spouse, time that you’d rather use for some solitary activity but don’t out of love; it can be any one of a host of things.  Not one of us can save the world by ourselves, but as Jesus reminds us, if each one just does a little thing each day, the rewards to mankind and to us personally will be huge.

            The trick is to recognize and punch through the selfishness that can so easily creep up on us if we don’t keep vigilant and look upon others as if  they are Christ carrying his cross in great need of human compassion.  If we can see the face of Christ in the other person, if we can empathize with our brother or sister’s need, and try to help.  Perhaps all we can offer is a kind word and a prayer; that may be all that’s needed.  The rest we leave up to God.

            Sadly, today, we seem to be living in a world gone crazy with selfishness.  Sometimes it is so ingrained that it is virtually impossible for the person to see it in him- or herself.  The spreading of evil is also, as we know, rampant.  The worst kind of evil is evil that masquerades as good, that’s the Devil’s ancient technique: confuse to conquer.  Many millstones I think are at this very moment waiting to be claimed.  It is time for all of us to listen to the words of scripture today and not to ignore them or think they apply to someone else.  St. James warns us that those who are rich will weep and wail over their impending miseries.  I don’t think that James is talking about money; I think he talking about anything that fills our hearts that shouldn’t be there.  Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel: “Blessed are the poor in Spirit, for they shall see God.”

            Just one cup of water can make all the difference.  Then think what a lifetime of such little charitable acts all strung together can bring about.  Love of neighbor in the name of Christ: that is our Christian duty, but, more so, that is our Christian privilege and pleasure.

May God bless you.

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