Wednesday, June 11, 2008

St. Barnabas

Today's Memorial: St. Barnabas, Apostle

Today's Readings:
Acts 11:21b-26; 12:1-3
Ps 98:1-6
Matt 5:17-19

What motivates true obedience?

Why do we obey laws? Usually it's the fear of punishment. In today's Gospel reading, Jesus wants to place our focus on the goal of God's laws: love, which replaces fear. He's laying the foundation for the rest of the Sermon on the Mount. Being children of God means growing up into the likeness of Christ, rather than remaining as immature kids who comply with goodness only because of the penalties for breaking the laws.

His non-literal view of the law caused confusion among his listeners, so Jesus explained it, saying in effect: "The interpretation that I give to the Law does not mean that the laws are invalid. Rather, it shows that you are not even fulfilling the Law if your so-called obedience isn't motivated by love for God and love for neighbor" (as he detailed in Matt. 22:35-40).

When Jesus spoke of heaven and earth passing away, he did not mean a literal end of the universe. The Jewish listeners knew he was referring to Isaiah 65:17, which is God's promise to create a new heaven and earth by sending the Messiah. They didn't know it yet, but the passing away of the old was going to happen when Jesus completely fulfilled the true meaning of the Law. As the Messiah, he had to undo every sin, provide the love that was missing, and make up for everything lacking in the way humankind obeyed the Law.

And he invited us to greater maturity. As grown-up Christians, we're responsible for inviting others to obey the laws for the same reason, not by forcing them through fear and guilt, but patiently and compassionately encouraging them to grow. Did other Christians ever treat you unlovingly because of their legalistic approach? Even when the motivation is love, focusing on the rules can hide the true nature of God. Jesus started his sermon with a list of blessings, not warnings.

For example, consider the Church law about attending Mass every weekend. We could try to make inactive Catholics get back to church by warning them that it's a sin to skip Mass, or we could invite them to a wonderful experience of Eucharist and Christian community, letting the Holy Spirit work on their hearts for as long as it takes to inspire a genuine desire. He wants a relationship, not grudging obedience. Legalism has produced a lot of Catholics who sit through Mass without truly experiencing it.

Holy obedience results in a greater love for God and neighbor. Holy obedience makes a difference in how we love. The bottom line and ultimate goal is always love. This is what makes us "great in the kingdom of heaven."


Barnabas, a Jew of Cyprus, comes as close as anyone outside the Twelve to being a full-fledged apostle. He was closely associated with St. Paul (he introduced Paul to Peter and the other apostles) and served as a kind of mediator between the former persecutor and the still suspicious Jewish Christians.

When a Christian community developed at Antioch, Barnabas was sent as the official representative of the Church of Jerusalem to incorporate them into the fold. He and Paul instructed in Antioch for a year, after which they took relief contributions to Jerusalem.

Later, Paul and Barnabas, now clearly seen as charismatic leaders, were sent by Antioch officials to preach to the Gentiles. Enormous success crowned their efforts. After a miracle at Lystra, the people wanted to offer sacrifice to them as gods—Barnabas being Zeus, and Paul, Hermes—but the two said, “We are of the same nature as you, human beings. We proclaim to you good news that you should turn from these idols to the living God” (see Acts 14:8-18).

But all was not peaceful. They were expelled from one town, they had to go to Jerusalem to clear up the ever-recurring controversy about circumcision and even the best of friends can have differences. When Paul wanted to revisit the places they had evangelized, Barnabas wanted to take along John Mark, his cousin, author of the Gospel, but Paul insisted that, since Mark had deserted them once, he was not fit to take along now. The disagreement that followed was so sharp that Barnabas and Paul separated, Barnabas taking Mark to Cyprus, Paul taking Silas to Syria. Later, they were reconciled—Paul, Barnabas and Mark.

When Paul stood up to Peter for not eating with Gentiles for fear of his Jewish friends, we learn that “even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy” (see Galatians 2:1-13).


Barnabas is spoken of simply as one who dedicated his life to the Lord. He was a man "filled with the Holy Spirit and faith. Thereby large numbers were added to the Lord." Even when he and Paul were expelled from Antioch in Pisidia, they were "filled with joy and the Holy Spirit."


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