26 August 2013
"We need to talk..."
Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time
At the end of our life, standing before the judgment seat of God, we don’t want to hear, “‘I do not know where you are from,’” coming from the mouth of Jesus. That means that what comes next is not good news, and we should be prepared for the afterlife elevator to go down, rather than up. So it makes sense that the person might say, as Jesus has them saying in today’s Gospel, “‘We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.’” But then they hear something even worse: “‘I do not know where you are from. Depart from me, all you evildoers!’” These probably sound like pretty harsh words from the Divine Person who is supposed to be a loving Shepherd.
But both last week and this week the Church presents for us what can seem like the harsher side of Jesus. Last week Jesus was saying how following Him will split apart families. This week, He’s talking about eternal salvation and how many will be saved. When we hear passages like the one we heard today, perhaps we try to theologize it away, by highlighting other passages from Scripture which talk about how God desires the salvation of all. And certainly we take those very seriously and must read today’s passage in light of those. But more often than not, we don’t read this passage in light of those other Scripture passages, we just ignore today’s and pretend that the one’s about God’s desire for all to be saved are the only passages that are important. But we do so at our own peril.
Because while God does desire all to be saved, God also tells us with great sobriety that “‘many…will attempt to enter [through the narrow gate] but will not be strong enough.’” Enjoying eternal bliss is not the automatic destination, even one of one who is baptized. It’s the destination God programmed into us, but sin so often takes us off course. Just because we’re baptized doesn’t mean that we’re going to heaven. Salvation is not a gift that is offered once for all and accepted or rejected in one moment, but is a gift that is offered to us each day that we have to receive each day in order for it to become our eternal reality. Just because I lived a holy life yesterday, does not mean that I will today. In fact, I could be particularly evil today, which could undermine all the good I did yesterday.
If you think about it in an academic metaphor, we don’t start class off with a 4.0, and then only lose it if we don’t turn stuff in, or answer questions correctly. Rather, God offers us opportunities to respond to the love He first showed us, homework assignments and quizzes and tests, and if we do well, we can get that 4.0. Or, if you prefer, think about it in terms of lifting weights. We don’t start off with buff little bodies. We need to work out in order to keep a good, muscular physique. When we don’t, our muscles get weak and they appear smaller. I’m living proof of that. If muscles just came, I’d be pretty buff. But because I never lifted weights or did any kind of muscle conditioning, I have these little scrawny arms. Now, good grades are not the most important things in life, nor are muscles. But what is true with getting a 4.0 and getting big muscles is true about salvation: it doesn’t just happen without any work.
It is not enough to be around Jesus, as if salvation comes by way of osmosis. We might as well sleep with textbooks beneath our pillow in the hopes of learning the material. The people in Jesus’ words today were around Jesus. They ate and drank with Him and He taught them in their cities. And yet Jesus says He does not know them. It is not enough simply that we are baptized. Each day we are called to respond to God’s love that He give us first, and the opportunities that He sends our way to share that love with others. Each day we are called to offer to God the sacrifice of our lives as we seek to do His will in all things. We discipline ourselves to choose God not ourselves; to choose love, not hate; to choose generosity, not selfishness; to choose truth, not lies. Baptism is not a Get Out of Hell Free card. It is, rather, a catalyst that can be used to propel us towards heaven. Or it can just sit on a shelf and collect dust.
The work of the New Evangelization is to reenergize our own faith, and to bring others back into the practice of the faith in which they were baptized, to work out those spiritual muscles. And our impetus in doing so is because we want them to go to heaven, just as much as we want to go to heaven. And we know for them, as for ourselves, that the gate to heaven is not wide, but narrow, and the way to heaven is not the easiest path, but often is the hardest, and that new life in God comes only through death to ourselves. It means that we form our minds around what God has revealed to us, rather than doing our own thing. It means we go to Mass every Sunday and Holyday; we give of our time, talent, and treasure to the Church; that we talk about our faith in public and pass it on to our families and friends; that we live a life of chastity; that marriages for Catholics happen according to the laws of God and the Church; that we feed the hungry and give drink to the thirsty; that we do all this and more according to our abilities. I pray that I, and all of us, and all those to whom we as a parish are called to evangelize, are not spiritually lazy, but do the hard work of responding to God’s love in everyday life, so that when we die, we will not hear, “I do not know where you are from. Depart from me, evildoers!” but, “Come, my good and faithful servant; share your Master’s joy.”