Today’s Gospel text from Luke’s account reminded of an experience I had as a teenager in a Benedictine boarding academy. The Dean of students was a woman I greatly admired and liked, but one Friday afternoon I needed to go into town to buy some materials for a theater production we were working on. Students had to secure permission for the use of a car and the keys from the Dean who was not in her office after classes that day at the appointed hour, so I cooled my heels outside her door with rising impatience. One of my fellow students came by and asked what was taking so long, and I made an unsuitable, disparaging remark in a loud voice about the Dean and her tardiness. At that very moment the woman who was the object of my displeasure walked through the door and heard it all. I was suitably embarrassed and apologized – but all she said quietly was: “from the fullness of the heart, the mouth speaks.”
In the context of the Gospel Jesus is referring to one who is ordered to goodness (one holds a “store” of goodness in one’s heart) or toward evil. Sister’s point was not hard to ascertain. While I did not store a great deal of animosity toward her (quite the contrary), the quality of impatience and rudeness that I exhibited did arise, I suspect, from a combination of arrogance, competitiveness and certainly adolescent self-centeredness.
Most of us are fairly certain that we are neither an entirely “good tree” nor a completely “rotten tree” but a strange combination of both. One way to approach Jesus’ message is to recognize that we cooperate with God’s Spirit in building up that which is authentic, or we fail to respond to his Spirit so that which is evil invades our hearts. Joseph Tetlow, S.J. develops a way of describing this reality in his outline of four dynamics that attract the human heart’s loyalty. He describes these four attractions as evil (the dark) whether from our own brokenness, the culture or personified forms of evil; the ego – my own will to be and do “my own thing” no matter what; humanity – an attraction to service of the human community because I am deeply embedded within it; and God – the Trinitarian, personal presence that creates and sustains all of reality. In a way these are uneven attractions, of course, but each operates to attract us to itself. When one is attracted toward self or even humanity, one may make some good choices but ultimately for selfish and broken reasons which will corrupt whatever good resides within the choice. When one chooses the dark one chooses the way of anger, cruelty, violence and destruction, and can do no good. Only if one chooses God – for God’s sake – can one be said to cooperate in bringing about the good. Our habits of choice in small matters establish the attractions within us. We rarely respond to the great demands until our heart is “ordered” by constant or habitual response to the smaller things that we engage in every day.
If one habitually chooses to be petulant, demanding, impatient, judgmental, or mean-spirited, one’s heart is moving toward the dynamic of the dark. If one regularly chooses friends and associates, jobs and cars, shoes and groceries with one’s own pleasure in mind one is drawn toward self idolatry. Only in curbing our impatience, thinking of other’s good first, respecting and honoring the goodness of life because it is God’s creation, managing our appetites for pleasure or power in small ways will our hearts become storehouses of goodness which produce good fruit in the world. Whether we are in traffic, with family or friends at dinner, at prayer, or while making life or death decisions in the voting booth or at work, the heart will produce the fruit of true good or very real evil from what is stored there by our choices in grace or disgrace.
Paul reminds us similarly that participating in acts of collaboration with forces of evil is a way of offering sacrifice to the demonic. When we do so, we become incapable of participating in Jesus’ self sacrifice – which is life for us. To enter into the Eucharist is to join our lives as donation within Jesus’ life – in large and small ways. It is by such authentic participation in the ritual of Eucharist and in the daily acts of grateful following of Jesus’ way that our lives bear the fruit of God’s Kingdom on earth as in heaven.
“To You, LORD, I will offer a sacrifice of praise” (Ps 116:17)
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