The requirements of discipleship cannot be reduced to mere observance of law, and a checklist of things to do. Paying tithes and keeping feast days are important, but eclipsing them in importance is loving others as Christ does. We disciples are called to bear others’ burdens, loving God and neighbor, setting aside our own honor and glory for the honor and glory of God. And we are called to do all this while not neglecting our duty to tithe and keep feast days, and all the other requirements of our religion. The disciple who loves God considers none of this a burden, and would never consider not taking care of it all.
Like many of you, when I take a vacation somewhere with natural beauty, I am always amazed at it. The last few years, my family has vacationed up in Wisconsin, on the shore of Lake Michigan. I am always in awe to see the sun rise over the lake, or after a rain, to see the sometimes double rainbows that appear. Whenever I am in awe like that, I think about our wonderful creator God who put all that in place. I am always doubly convinced that nothing like that could ever have come about as the result of chance or coincidence or random serendipity. I am reminded that God is beauty itself, and that this is a dim reflection of Eden, or perhaps just a glimpse of the beauty of the Kingdom.
So how is it that some people miss that? It’s too bad that they do, because today’s first reading seems to suggest that we will all be held accountable for God’s revelation in nature. Even if someone is not churched, they must still be able to see God in nature, and would thus be held accountable for knowing the creator God. The Church recognizes this revelation and prays that it would be a first step in bringing a person to the Gospel.
For those of us in the Church, we are responsible for acknowledging and loving the beauty of God all around us. We should see God in every created thing and in every created person. We do not then, as St. Paul warns the Romans, worship the created thing. Instead we worship and glorify our Creator who made beauty known among us and let that beauty be part of the revelation of his love for us.
We just finished hearing about the challenges and ministry of Jonah this past week. Jonah, called to preach repentance to the Ninevites, finds that he would rather not, and so attempts to get away from God. That, of course, doesn’t work because there is no where that God is not, so he ends up in the belly of a big fish for three days and nights, and is eventually disgorged in Nineveh to do the work he was called to do. This he does, begrudgingly, and the people of Nineveh repent, to the praise and glory of God.
And today we hear that no sign will be given to the people of Jesus’ time except this sign of Jonah. And that is true. Jesus is called to preach repentance just like Jonah was, although, praise God, he does it willingly. Jesus too will be covered over for three days and three nights, but this time in the tomb and not a fish. He then is disgorged in the glory of the Resurrection to give the way to repentance, which some have done, to the praise and glory of God. This is the only sign we need.
But Jesus berates the people because while the evil people of Nineveh repented, the Jews of Jesus’ day not so much. The people of Nineveh didn’t have anything near as great a prophet as Jesus is, and they repented, but the people of Jesus’ time did not. And so history and eternity will be kinder to the Ninevites than to these people.
The Psalmist today sings that the Lord has made known his salvation. This he has done, to the Ninevites, to the people of Jesus’ time, and to us. Today we pray for the softening of our hearts so that we might repent of our wickedness in the way that the Ninevites did, and so have eternal life.
Today’s gospel reading is a rather heartbreaking story, to be honest. The rich young man is obviously a follower of the law and a religious man, because he is able to talk to Jesus about his observance. But when Jesus tells him to let go of what he has in order to gain eternal life, he walks away dejected because he has so much. We don’t know what ultimately happens to the rich young man. Maybe he did go and begin the hard work of letting go, selling his possessions and giving to the poor. And maybe he just couldn’t do it. But at least he knows what he has to do.
I think that far more heartbreaking than this story of the rich young man is the story of modern men and women, rich and not-so-rich, young and old alike. I am more heartbroken for these because as much as the rich young man in the gospel story asked what he had to do to gain eternal life, too many of today’s men and women have lost the desire even to ask the question.
We too are rich men and women, young and old. Maybe we don’t think we have much, but we have way more than most people in most parts of the world. We live in one of the richest counties of the richest nation on earth, and what we have is considerable. If we too were told to go, sell what we have, and give to the poor so that we could have eternal life, most of us wouldn’t even know where to start. But to be honest, so many people are not even there yet. So many don’t even bother to ask what it takes to gain eternal life. Many more don’t bother to live the requirements of religion, and even more don’t even know what those requirements are.
We may be rich in the things of earth, but, as the story tells us, we are so very poor in the things of eternity. “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!”
I hope your heart is breaking too. These are not words of joy and blessing that Jesus is speaking to us today. They are words of challenge. He wants to light a fire under us and smack us full force out of our complacency. “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!” So many people are not with us here at Mass today. Whether it’s soccer or football or work or sloth, they are missing, and our gathering is the poorer for it. Many of them will feel guilty about missing, perhaps some of them will even confess it. But far too many of them don’t care or don’t even know that they should care. How hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!
People today, even maybe some of us gathered here today, are so greatly focused on getting ahead, becoming rich in the things of earth, skyrocketing our careers, being well thought of – we are so embarrassingly rich in all these ways. But none of those things are going to get us into heaven, into the kingdom of God. We are all being told today to go, sell those paltry, fading glory things and give to those who are poorer, so that we can all enter the kingdom of God together. Will we too walk away, like the rich young man in the gospel, dejected and depressed because we have too much to let go of it all? How hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!
In this respect life month, we might find we are too rich in other ways as well. We may cling to the way that we’re thought of and so encourage or at least look the other way when a mother ends a pregnancy. Or we’re so concerned about the value of our homes and the safety of our riches that we tolerate the death penalty. Or the care of a loved one takes us away from our work so we don’t care for those loved ones the way we should. But we are a people who are gifted with life from conception to natural death, and we are called to reverence that life and celebrate that gift. We have to let go of anything that gets in the way of that. How hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!
Taking hold of the kingdom of God necessarily means we have to let go of something. That is the clear message of today’s gospel reading. What we have to let go of is different for all of us, but clearly there is a rich young man or woman in all of us, and we have to be ready to give up whatever gets in our way, or what we will end up letting go of is the kingdom of God. And that would be truly, horribly, unforgivably heartbreaking.
“Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!”
And so what do we do? Do we give up, throw up our hands, and walk away dejected because we know it’s all too much – that what we have to let go of is beyond our capacity to do it? No. For us, truly, it may be impossible. But nothing is impossible for God. God hears that desire for eternal life in us and opens up the way to salvation. He gave his Son to live our life and die our death and rise to new life that lasts forever. That same glory is intended for all of us too. All we have to do is let go – as frightening as that may well be for us – let go, and let God worry about the implications of it all.
And Jesus points out that this will not be easy. Those who give up their riches to follow him will receive blessing, but also challenge: they will receive “receive a hundred times more now in this present age: houses and brothers and sisters
and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come.” There will be persecution in this life. Not everyone will get why we are letting go. And that makes the letting go so much more difficult. But the rewards of a hundredfold here and a googol-fold in the kingdom are worth it.
And so yes, I come here heartbroken today. “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!” But I know that God can make it possible in every person’s life. All they and we have to do is let go of those things that are of fleeting and fading glory. Because we’re going to need empty hands if we are ever to be able to hold on to the hundred-fold blessing that God wants us to have.
Have you ever been sure of the Lord’s call in your life and it just terrified you? I have. And for those of us who have been in this position, we can perhaps understand Jonah’s reaction in today’s first reading. He had been called by the Lord to preach to the people in Nineveh. Now the people of Nineveh were unspeakably evil and had long been persecuting the people of Israel. And so for Jonah, this call was a bit like being called to preach to the people of Al-Quaida or something like that. Not only did Jonah fear for his life in going to them, but, quite frankly, he also could not possibly care less if they repented and God had mercy on them.
But it’s a little hard to run away from God. He always catches up with you sooner or later. If that weren’t true, I wouldn’t be standing here today, I can tell you that! It would certainly be easier for us Jonahs if we would just give in to God’s will at the beginning and not have to do all this running. But sometimes the human heart just isn’t ready for radical change.
That was true of the scholar of the law in today’s Gospel reading. I think he’s more testing Jesus here than really wanting to be converted, but he can’t help but get caught up in Jesus’ teaching. The question is, is he ready to “go and do likewise?” The reading ends before he can make that decision, but the implication is that it will be very hard for him to really love his neighbor in the same way that the good Samaritan loved the robbery victim.
And so those of us who look a lot like Jonah or the scholar of the law today, need to pray for softening of our hardened hearts. Will it take three days in the belly of a big fish for us to finally give in to God’s will? Or can we just give in and trust?
It would probably come as no surprise to you that today’s first reading and a part of the Gospel were read at the wedding I celebrated yesterday. Obviously we left out the part about divorce, but these readings are quite popular for weddings. The reason, of course, is that the story is about how man and woman were created for each other. The totality of the readings we have today, though, are challenging. We do have that piece about divorce there, and it does present a challenge in these days when somewhere around fifty percent of marriages fail.
Apparently, the people of Israel were unable to accept the fullness of the teaching of marriage – not unlike today, obviously – Moses gave the men permission to divorce when necessary. In that society, a woman’s reproductive rights belonged first to her father, and later to her husband. So adultery could only be committed against the husband whose rights had been violated. Our modern sensibilities see this as completely wrong, and Jesus seems to agree. Jesus says that the man who remarries is committing adultery against his first wife, because she has rights in the marriage too. Jesus levels the playing field here by giving both spouses rights in the relationship, but also the responsibility of not committing adultery against one another.
In our society, we have to contend with this painful reality still. Each spouse has rights and also responsibilities, and while we are all ready to accept our rights in just about any circumstance, we are hardly ever ready to accept our responsibilities. That has led us not only to the problems we have with divorce, but in so many areas as well. We are a people very unaccustomed to the demands of faithfulness, not just in marriage but also in our work and our communities, just to name a couple.
Today’s Liturgy of the Word rejects this lack of faithfulness. Christian disciples are to be marked by their faithfulness to each other, to God, and to their communities. Faithfulness is hard and very often inconvenient. But for us, brothers and sisters in Christ, faithfulness is not optional.
In wedding liturgies I always tell the bride and groom that faithfulness will make demands of them. They will have to make a decision every day to be faithful to the promises they make at their wedding. They will have to make a decision every day to love one another. And sometimes this is easy, but sometimes it is hard to do, but either way, it’s still their calling.
The same is true for me as a priest. I have to renew my ordination promises every day. I have to make a decision every day to be faithful to my God, be faithful to my ministry, be faithful to my promises, be faithful to my own spouse which is the Church, and my own family which is the people I serve. Sometimes that’s a joy and the easiest thing in the world. But then there are the days when we have a rough staff meeting, or I’ve celebrated the fourth funeral in the last ten days, or any number of challenging and frustrating things have happened. Those are rough days, but I’m still called to be faithful.
We are all of us called to be faithful citizens. That is easy when our candidate wins the election or legislation we’ve been hoping for passes. It’s not such a joy when he or she loses the election, or we don’t get to host the Olympics, or our interests aren’t being met, or the economy is plunging. But we still are called to be faithful, doing our best to make things right, standing up for the poor, needy, and must vulnerable members of society, building the kingdom of God on earth whenever and however we can.
One of the biggest challenges of our time is something of which we are mindful in a special way this month, and by that of course, I mean the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death. It’s easy to remain faithful to that call when we don’t have to make the decision, but harder to remain faithful when someone we know is having a difficult pregnancy, or has been raped. It’s hard to defend life to natural death when a loved one is suffering, clinging rather tenaciously to life even when they’re unable to live it. It’s hard to defend life when someone in our community has been murdered and the death penalty is on the table. But we disciples don’t get to pick and choose the occasions during which we will be faithful. If our witness to life is to mean anything to the watching world, we’re going to have to be faithful always, even when it’s hard, even when it stretches us.
The little vignette at the end of the Gospel reading today almost seems out of place. I use this story at every baptism I do, and it’s easy to see why. But I also think it relates to our call to faithfulness today. Jesus promises the Kingdom of God to those who are like children. Obviously he isn’t extolling the virtues of being childish here. He is getting at, as he often does, something much deeper. He notes that children are dependent on their parents or guardians for everything. They don’t yet have rights in the society, they are unable to provide for themselves. So they depend on the adults who care for them for all of their needs for safety and care.
This is the kind of faithfulness Jesus would ask of us. We need to approach our relationship with God with childlike faith. We need to depend on God for our safety and provision. We need to be faithful to God in good times and in bad, even when we cannot see the big picture.
Faithfulness makes demands on us. The disciple is the one who is ready to accept those demands. The disciple makes a decision to love God and the people in his life every day. The disciple makes a decision to be faithful to his or her vocation, whatever that vocation is, every day. The disciple makes a decision to be faithful to God and the teachings of God’s Church every day. Some days those decisions are easy, and some days they are more than challenging. But the faithful disciple, the one who accepts the Kingdom of God like a child, has the promise of entering into it.