One of the most wonderful stories to emerge from the Second World War was that of Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychologist who was imprisoned in a concentration camp for several years. In the midst of the unbelievable oppression the prisoners suffered, which led many of them to mental breakdown, suicide or death from sheer exhaustion, he suddenly had a kind of revelation. He came to see that there is an inner core of freedom in everyone’s heart which cannot be touched even by the worst kind of cruelty such as the Nazis inflicted. In practical terms what that means is that we always have a choice as to how we react to anything. Even if someone is treating us abominably, we do not have to react with hatred, anger or depression: we can choose to love, to forgive or just to ignore it. This realisation literally saved Frankl’s life as he decided to survive by remembering beautiful moments from his previous life with his family, or imagining himself lecturing to his students in the future: “How I survived a Nazi death camp.”
As St. Paul puts it in our second reading today, the new life of grace works in a completely different way to the dynamic of sin. Sin operates on a cause and effect basis. You hit me and I hit you back. You give in to lust and end up damaging someone else and yourself. When we let our angry feelings out in a crude and negative way, relationships are damaged, sometimes permanently, and the real issues which should be explored get buried under a mass of emotions. On a wider scale, the result is violence between different peoples, terrorism and war. On the personal level, as someone has put it, every unconfessed sin is like a cheque written and sent off but not yet cleared: sooner or later it will be presented to your bank and you have to pay.
Grace, on the other hand, is pure freedom and pure gift. It has no cause except love. It is an expression of God’s total freedom from any cause and effect and it offers us a share in that freedom. In the first reading, the woman who feeds the prophet Elisha just freely decides to do what Mother Teresa called something beautiful for God: she builds a special room for him at the top of her house so he can rest. And what happens in return? Elisha does something beautiful for her. He prays for her to have the son she desires but is unable to conceive and she does give birth later in the story. It’s a powerful illustration of the way God works in our lives, giving us far more than we deserve or could have expected: we do something tiny like giving a cup of cold water to a prophet or a holy man, and God gives us a great reward.
And so we get caught up in the dynamic of this life of the risen Jesus St. Paul speaks about, and are set free from the cause and effect dynamic of sin. Naturally we find ourselves wanting to live is such a way as to repay God for his immense goodness to us every day of our lives, even though we can never hope to do that adequately. Jesus tells us that means something very specific: we must take care that nothing replaces him in our hearts, that we do not prefer anyone, however close, to him. This does not mean, of course, that we should not love and care for our mother and father, son or daughter. It means rather that we take care to impress on our minds and hearts every day what an immense treasure our relationship with Jesus is. Because we cannot see him physically, whereas we can see our family members and friends, this means in practice that the sacraments are of immense importance to us, sacraments by which we do in fact see, taste and touch him: the sacrament of the Eucharist above all but also the other sacraments we have received such as baptism, confirmation and marriage which we should remind ourselves of frequently. The sacrament of confession is a powerful way of bringing home to ourselves how far we still are from our goal and asking God’s grace to come to us. How blessed we are as Catholics to have these very concrete channels of God’s grace to us, in which the presence of Jesus is just as real and effective for us as it was to the people who saw him by the sea of Galilee two thousand years ago. Let us keep these sacraments constantly in our minds so that we too, every day, will try to do something beautiful for God as we call to mind the wonderful things he does for us.