When I was working on my creative writing degree, I had one teacher who was the toughest one I had during my entire collegiate career. I ultimately ended up getting a B+ in his class. Looking at the letter grades, you might erroneously assume that I didn’t work as hard in his class as I did in all my other writing classes, where I got straight A’s. And that would be incorrect . . . because the purpose of my difficult professor was not to bolster my ego or make me feel good about myself, but to make me a better writer. By challenging me to become better — and being willing to call me out when I wasn’t giving what he felt was my best effort — he ultimately provided more writing instruction than any other teacher I’d had.
I was reminded of this, tangentially, as I reflected on today’s readings. Perhaps most striking about these readings was how blunt Jesus was in his condemnation of those “hypocrites,” the scribes and Pharisees. Christ’s words were as harsh as they were evocative: “You are like whitewashed tombs, which appear beautiful on the outside, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and every kind of filth.”
One thing that is so refreshing about hearing Jesus speak – encountering his words via the Gospels – is that you always know where you stand with Jesus. He really wasn’t the sort to say what people thought he should say, or to sugar-coat his message or meaning to make it go down easier. If he thought you were doing something good, he would laud your efforts or insight, like how he praised the Canaanite woman: “O woman, great is your faith!” (Matthew 15:28).
If he knew there was something you needed to do better, you can be sure he would say so. He didn’t coddle his disciples: “O you of little faith” was a common admonition to those following him. Even to Peter — who we know Jesus loved – Christ said, “Get behind me, Satan!” when he disagreed with Peter’s statement.
The Church encourages us to have a close, meaningful relationship with God. And one aspect I think many of our Protestant brothers and sisters get wrong about a relationship with Jesus is how challenging he could be . . . not because he doesn’t love us but – like my difficult writing teacher – because he does love us so dearly and wants us to be as good as we can. I get the sense that too many of our non-Catholic friends feel Jesus would say to them, “Gosh, I can’t think of anything you need to do differently; you believe in me, and that’s all that you need!” But I can’t imagine that’s what Jesus would really say; reading Christ’s words – and his interactions with those who loved him, believed in him, and tried to learn from him – has led me to understand that he’d have some choice words for most of us.
Since I came into the faith, I have tried to know, love, and serve God. I would say “to the best of my ability,” but I know that’s not true. I can think of many times I’ve fallen short, and many admonitions of Christ would apply directly to me (though, I pray, not the rebukes of today’s Gospel readings). When I think of Christ’s words and mannerisms, I’m struck by how closely today’s first reading — from the First Letter to the Thessalonians – applies to that outlook: “As you know, we treated each one of you as a father treats his children, exhorting and encouraging you and insisting that you walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into his Kingdom and glory.”
In 1902, humorist Finley Peter Dunne noted that newspapers (paraphrasing) “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I’ve often felt that applies to how Christ often interacted in his teachings. He challenged crowds of the powerful while advocating for the powerless. He wasn’t afraid to defend a woman who was guilty of adultery from an angry crowd and provide her some small comfort, only to immediately turn around and challenge her: “Go, [and] from now on do not sin any more.” (John 7:53-8:11)
Someone who really cares for you and your well-being is willing to tell you things you don’t want to hear . . . if it’s things you need to hear to become a better person. It was a lesson I learned in my professional career from my writing professor, and it’s one I’ve internalized in my moral life. If you have a personal relationship with God, that’s amazing and wonderful! But be careful you’re not closing your ears and heart to those lessons of Christ you may not want to hear. If you’re willing to listen to everything he has to say, your life can only improve . . . along with your relationship with Christ.