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BEFORE THE CROSS | Live your life according to the Spirit, not the flesh

When St. Paul speaks of the ‘flesh,’ he refers to those worldly attitudes in opposition to God

“From now on we regard no one according to the flesh.” So says St. Paul in the readings on the feast of St. Mary Magdalene (July 22). But what does he mean by it, and what does it mean for us?

When St. Paul speaks of “the flesh” he speaks of an attitude, not the body. He didn’t think that the body itself was opposed to God. After all, the body was created by God, and Jesus assumed a human body, and the body of Jesus rose from the dead, and our bodies can share in eternal life.

But certain human attitudes — we might call them worldly attitudes — are opposed to God. St. Paul tells the Romans, “You are not in the flesh; on the contrary, you are in the spirit, if only the Spirit of God dwells in you.” He’s referring to the standard by which they judge and act. And when he tells the Galatians about the works of the flesh (immorality, impurity, hatred, jealousy, selfishness, etc.) and the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, etc.), he’s naming patterns of thinking and acting that come from God or are opposed to God.

The Gospel readings for the week give us two good examples of what St. Paul means.

In the first, Jesus is teaching when someone from the crowd tells Him that His mother and other relatives are waiting to speak with Him. The presumption is that blood relations have first priority. But Jesus responds: “Whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is my brother, and sister and mother.” Jesus doesn’t judge things according to a worldly standard; He judges according to a spiritual standard.

In the second, the mother of James and John asks that her sons be seated at Jesus’ right and left hand in His kingdom. She’s thinking in terms of worldly glory. The other apostles become angry at the request. Jesus challenges them all to adopt a new standard of thinking and acting: “Whoever wishes to be great shall be the servant; whoever wishes to be first shall be the slave.”

Jesus’ thinking and acting was shaped by the cross. According to the world — the flesh — the cross could only mean defeat. According to the Spirit, however, the cross was the path of victory and the place where God’s ultimate power was revealed.

How about us?

Most of us, most of the time, probably regard people and things according to the flesh. That is, we judge people by their appearance and by how they are right now. And we judge things according to what’s in it for us.

What’s the alternative?

The best teachers and coaches see people not only for who they are right now but also for who they can be, who God made them to be when they fulfill their potential. Likewise, the best parents and friends don’t see situations in terms of “what’s in it for me?” They see situations in terms of an opportunity to serve the good of another.

Those teachers and coaches and parents and friends give us an example of what it would mean not to regard things according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. Thanks be to God for their example!

Most of us, too, have moments of transfiguration. The veil is lifted, and we see people and things as God meant them to be. Those moments are, in part, God’s gift to us. But they’re also God’s challenge: to take those moments and make them our regular standard of thinking and acting.

May God grant us the grace to live like that more and more, to regard no one and nothing according to the flesh!

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