St. Martin Divides his Cloak for the Beggar, Church of St. Martin, Tours, France.
[Jesus said] “Give to everyone who asks of you, and from the one who takes what is yours do not demand it back.” Luke 6:30.
Well of all Jesus’ teachings, we might have reached the most demanding today. Never ask anything back from someone who has taken what is mine? If I lend money, I should not expect repayment? Turn the other cheek to someone who has just struck me? Pretty clear you would think. Yep, that’s what the Lord said. Isn’t this letting anarchy into my life to live that way? What if I become known as a soft touch? And so on and on. Very challenging, and expressly pushing us to think hard and deep about what it is to be a Christian. But take a look at St. Martin, pictured above. He was a 4th century Roman centurion, presumably the opposite of a soft touch wouldn’t you think? He is universally famous for dividing his cloak in the depth of winter to help clothe a man who had nothing. Not exactly the world’s image of a centurion (remember the movie of the same name?). Martin also gave up his career as a soldier to become a priest-hermit, but his holiness became well known and ultimately in 371 he was appointed third bishop of Tours in France. Now wouldn’t you think that he had taken Jesus’ words to heart in doing all that, giving up a life of power, honor and even privilege to be a hermit, dedicated to God?
It looks like Jesus is putting flesh onto his teaching proclaimed in last week’s gospel, the Beatitudes. Someone probably asked what do those exhortations mean in real life; today’s gospel is the answer. And what an answer! As I have mentioned before, I believe here that the Beatitudes and their meaning are counsels of perfection, Jesus is teaching us what the perfect Christian life is. Remember that in such a perfect life, everyone is behaving in this way, so there would be no ripping off, no bullying, no-one taking advantage of anyone or anything. In a sense, we would be heaven now, not later! But we’re not in heaven now, not by a long way. But we have been given the ground rules here, and it is up to us to try and incorporate them into daily living. I once was principal of Gonzaga College High School in Washington, DC. One of the resident Jesuits there at that time was Fr. Horace McKenna. He was a humble man, extensively active in the neighborhood, which at that time was very challenging. He cared nothing for the perils of the place, and did all in his power to alleviate them. He even carried a pile of quarters in his pocket to deal with the numerous times he was approached by mendicants. Here was a man doing his best to embody the meaning of the Beatitudes and live by them, and is remembered to this day because of such.
So even though we might think Jesus’ teachings are unattainable, there they are. They are like, as it were, a USGS/OS map of the Himalayas. There is Everest, clearly laid out, with correct contours and possible ways to the top.
Mount Everest, Carto-grafia.com.
Yet how many have successfully conquered that challenging peak? Well, the Beatitudes could be said to be infinitely higher, more challenging even than Everest. In fact, they are a road map stretching to heaven itself. But, unlike conquering Everest, the Beatitudes and their meaning can be tackled by all of us. We don’t need money, equipment, sponsors, dedicated followers and team mates (though all of that helps); we need faith and fortitude and love, all of which links rather neatly to last Sunday’s gospel. So with Martin and Horace as examples of the Christian life, so are we asked to align our own pathway through life with today’s teachings. Not easy, but worth the effort, so that we can stand before God when our time is over, and sincerely state that we tried our best. If at the moment we cannot do that, then God has given us some time to do something about it!
St. Martin and the Beggar, El Greco, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, USA.