Ascesis or moral discipline: Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time

Pilgrims going up to Jerusalem
Pilgrims going up to Jerusalem

Central Idea: God will help us overcome our evildoing through his fatherly discipline. Doctrine: A child of God is to become a strong doer of good through moral discipline. Practical Application: An important moral discipline is ascesis or mastery of the soul over the body.

For the Lectionary readings 123, click here.

Reading 1 Is 66:18-21

Thus says the LORD:
I know their works and their thoughts,
and I come to gather nations of every language;
they shall come and see my glory.
I will set a sign among them;
from them I will send fugitives to the nations:
to Tarshish, Put and Lud, Mosoch, Tubal and Javan,
to the distant coastlands
that have never heard of my fame, or seen my glory;
and they shall proclaim my glory among the nations.
They shall bring all your brothers and sisters from all the nations
as an offering to the LORD,
on horses and in chariots, in carts, upon mules and dromedaries,
to Jerusalem, my holy mountain, says the LORD,
just as the Israelites bring their offering
to the house of the LORD in clean vessels.
Some of these I will take as priests and Levites, says the LORD.

  • Seemingly no longer the Chosen People dwelling in the Promised Land, the children of Israel are suffering great affliction and her survivors are dispersed throughout the world.
  • Isaiah prophesizes that God will send out messengers (“fugitives”) to proclaim him to all nations.
  • This will be a time of judgment for the Gentiles, the “nations.” God will judgment them by his knowledge of “their works and their thoughts.”
  • The Gentiles, whose works and thoughts God approves of, will respond by making pilgrimages to Jerusalem. They will bear with them—like an offering—these dispersed Children of Israel.
  • God will make some of these returning Jews priests and Levites, so the proper worship of God will resume.

Responsorial Psalm Ps 117:1, 2

R. Go out to all the world and tell the Good News or Alleluia.

Praise the LORD all you nations;
glorify him, all you peoples!

For steadfast is his kindness toward us,
and the fidelity of the LORD endures forever.

  • God the Father is not just the God of the Jews but of all nations.
  • To know about God the Father, revealed to the Chosen People, is a great blessing.
  • How much more a blessing is the news of the salvation God the Son and of the sanctification of God the Holy Spirit.

Reading 2 Heb 12:5-7, 11-13

Brothers and sisters,
You have forgotten the exhortation addressed to you as children:
“My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord
or lose heart when reproved by him;
for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines;
he scourges every son he acknowledges.”
Endure your trials as “discipline”;
God treats you as sons.
For what “son” is there whom his father does not discipline?
At the time,
all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain,
yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness
to those who are trained by it.

So strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees.
Make straight paths for your feet,
that what is lame may not be disjointed but healed.

  • The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews reminds the early Jewish Christians that the difficulties they are enduring have a purpose.
  • God treats his children the way a good father treats the son he loves. That father directs his son to do what is right and disciplines him when he goes wrong.
  • Everyone who takes his Christian faith seriously will experience afflictions.
  • These trials should be seen as training or discipline to heal and strengthen us. Through them, we can grow in virtues.
  • While being experienced, God’s discipline seems a cause of pain, not of joy. But after being endured, this discipline will be for the disciple a source of joy. This is due to “the peaceful fruit of righteousness,” that is, due to having done what is right and now being even more able to do what is right.

Alleluia Jn 14:6

I am the way, the truth and the life, says the Lord;
no one comes to the Father, except through me.

Gospel Lk 13:22-30

Jesus passed through towns and villages,
teaching as he went and making his way to Jerusalem.
Someone asked him,
“Lord, will only a few people be saved?”
He answered them,
“Strive to enter through the narrow gate,
for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter
but will not be strong enough.
After the master of the house has arisen and locked the door,
then will you stand outside knocking and saying,
‘Lord, open the door for us.’
He will say to you in reply,
‘I do not know where you are from.
And you will say,
‘We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.’
Then he will say to you,
‘I do not know where you are from.
Depart from me, all you evildoers!’
And there will be wailing and grinding of teeth
when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob
and all the prophets in the kingdom of God
and you yourselves cast out.
And people will come from the east and the west
and from the north and the south
and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.
For behold, some are last who will be first,
and some are first who will be last.”

  • Our Lord is making his way to Jerusalem, where he will accomplish our salvation.
  • Somebody asks him what looks like a simple question, “Will only a few be saved?”
  • It is hard to know what the questioner had in mind, but we assume he means, How many people will receive the salvation you have come to bring us? Or, more simply, How many will go to heaven?
  • It is also hard to understand Christ’s answer, since he responds both with a parable and an entwined explanation.
  • Salvation is pictured as the kingdom of God and as an estate or home. To get in you must enter through a “narrow gate.” Inside, many are reclining at table, taking part in a meal, resting and eating and drinking wine.
  • The Lord, the master of the house, had already arisen from the feast, gone outside to the “narrow” gate of his property or the door of his home, and locked it because it was night. Outside are people just like the questioner, Jews. They have not been “strong enough” to enter through the narrow gate. They are knocking and asking to be admitted. The master refuses them entry saying he does not know where they are from. They say, we are your countrymen. He replies again that he does not know who they are and that they are evildoers who must depart. Those people who are rejected are very upset and wail and grind their teeth.
  • Christ comments that people just like the questioner will be deeply upset if they are not saved. They will see Jewish ancestors admitted to the kingdom of God but they themselves will be cast out. They will also see many Gentiles from the four corners of the earth admitted to the feast of the kingdom of God.
  • A question for us Gentile Christians is, What will exclude us from the feast of the kingdom of God?
  • The answer is evildoing. Those who are not admitted are “evildoers.” It does not matter if you are a Jew who actually heard Jesus preaching or a Christian who attends a religious service every week. Salvation comes from Christ, but if you are an evildoer you don’t know Christ and he doesn’t know you.
  • Yet there will be people from every nation and race and time who will achieve salvation and be admitted to the feast of the kingdom of God. Many of these will have higher places of honor than Christ’s immediate hearers.

Doctrine: A child of God is to become a strong doer of good through moral discipline

  • God has entrusted to his Church the message he sends out to all the nations (CCC 79).
  • This Gospel is meant for every human being. “God ‘desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth,’ that is, the truth of Christ Jesus. Christ must be proclaimed to all nations and individuals, so that this revelation may reach to the ends of the earth” (CCC 74).
  • This Revelation was promised by the prophets (CCC 75). We just saw an example from Isaiah: God will send out messengers to proclaim him to all nations.
  • “The entire Revelation of the most high God is summed up” in the person of Christ the Lord (CCC 75). As he said, and as we repeated in the Gospel verse today, “I am the way, the truth and the life . . . no one comes to the Father, except through me.”
  • Christ fulfilled Revelation in his person through his words and actions (CCC 75).
  • The apostles, by Christ’s command, “were to communicate the gifts of God to all men” (CCC 75).
  • “This Gospel was to be the source of all saving truth and moral discipline” (CCC 75).
  • Those who are “not strong enough to enter through the narrow gate” of salvation are those who commit culpable and avoidable evil. They are the “evildoers” of Christ’s parable.
  • However, we become “strong enough” through the afflictions which our loving Father sends us as reproof.
  • Thus, the Gospel includes moral discipline; that is, we must do our best to obey the moral law to become the opposite of evildoers: strong doers of good.

Practical Application: An important moral discipline is ascesis or mastery of the soul over the body. [1]

  • What is “moral discipline”?
  • Ascesis or the practice of asceticism can be described as a kind of training in order to become virtuous.
  • “Fasting and abstinence” is the common Scriptural term for this kind of spiritual discipline.
  • Self-denial seems like physical training, and it is, but it is also always a mental training. The soul—the rational intellect and the will—exercises control over the body, and the body complains to the soul, which feels it!
  • Our Lord said, “he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me” (Mt 10:38). St. Paul explains: “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:25-27).
  • Ascesis is a struggle of our soul over our animal nature. It is not that our animal nature is bad, since God has made our bodies, too. It is that our desire for pleasure and for the avoidance of pain, our ever-changing emotions, and our powerful passions, pull us in all kinds of directions.
  • As soon as we set out to do the will of God (to “enter by the narrow gate”), we have to begin to subordinate our desires to right reason and to the law of God. This is done both to avoid sin and to express love for God and neighbor.
  • If we actually do this, we begin to overcome vices and build virtues.
  • We cannot accomplish this without grace, which God gives us abundantly in the Sacraments. But unless we make the effort, this growth cannot occur. Thus, being “strong enough” to enter through the narrow gate of salvation means making the effort with the help of God’s grace.
  • Suppose you set out to avoid the sin of gossip, that is, saying negative things about someone behind his back. You have to give up the pleasure that comes from running down another person. Giving up that enjoyment is a little death. Yet by doing so, you grow in the virtue of justice, since it is unjust to gossip, and temperance because you control yourself, and prudence, because you have made a sound judgment and carried it out.
  • The minimum struggle we must make encompasses the effort to avoid mortal sin and to obey the precept of the Church (including the law to “observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church”) (CCC 2043).
  • Ascesis is all about “mastery of the will over its acts” and “freedom of heart” (CCC 1734, 2043).







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