Jesus asks a fundamental question in today’s Gospel, His question is: Who or what are you putting your fundamental trust in?
That question could be put in different ways: Where is your hope? Where is your investment? Where is your heart? Where is your greatest love? Where is your God? Is it in this world or the next? Is it in the pleasures and powers and wealth and success that you have here and now, that are all doomed to death? Or is it in your relationship with God, your faith and hope and love of God, which is destined for eternity? As Jesus says in Mark’s gospel: ”What profit is there for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (Mark 8:36). As the Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft puts it: “this is the most important principle of economics, the science of profit and loss. The greatest economist of all time was Jesus”.
There is a fundamental dividing line that runs throughout the whole of Scripture, Old Testament and New Testament both. It is the division between those who put their ultimate faith and trust in themselves, or in others, or in human things, and those who put their faith and trust ultimately in God alone. Such a chasm is there between these two groups of people, that the Bible calls one group “cursed” and the other “blessed”. So Jeremiah declares in our first reading today: “Cursed is the one who trusts in mere mortals and makes mere flesh their strength, whose heart turns away from the Lord” before he goes on to say: ”Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord”. The same idea is expressed succinctly in our responsorial psalm today, Psalm 1: ”Blessed is the man who does not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord … in everything he does, he prospers”, whereas “the wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away, the way of the wicked will perish”. As I say this comes from the first psalm, which basically provides a way of approaching and understanding all of the psalms, indeed all of Scripture.
I don’t think I ever saw that division more clearly shown than in a conversation I had with a man I met when I was a seminarian. I used to visit an old woman, who was his neighbor, and we had some great spiritual discussions. One day, this man, her neighbor, came in and he started quizzing me about my desire to be a priest. His opening question was: ”How much does it pay?” I said I didn’t know, and I wasn’t interested in knowing either, because I definitely wasn’t in it for the money. Well, I could see that this answer threw him for a loop, and he continued to question me along the same lines: how are you going to live, who pays your salary, and what kind of retirement plan do you have? He seemed to think that my only worth lay in what I earned, and, once I was not able to work anymore, that was the end of my usefulness, and I should be thrown on the garbage heap.
I have seen that kind of thinking at other times in my priesthood. I worked in a parish in London, where there was a big hospital, and one of the priests was the hospital chaplain. He showed me a form he had to fill in from the hospital administration, asking him to quantify his ministry in financial terms. He said to me: ”Bob, how am I supposed to put a price on spending hours sitting with a dying patient, accompanying them with my presence and my prayer? What price do you put on getting up in the small hours of the morning to go and give the last rites to someone? Should I avoid consoling families of those who are sick, or counselling the hospital staff, because the hospital says they can’t afford it?“ It is the failure to see value in the poorest and weakest members of society, because they are not financially productive, to judge that the unborn and the sick and elderly should be killed off, because they are a drain on society’s resources, it is the wish to punish people who do not agree with you by cutting them off from the basic resources of life. I remember reading about Henry Kissinger, who was President Nixon’s Secretary of State back in the 1970s, and who decided which third world countries would receive foreign aid from the United States depending on whether or not they were politically useful to America. If they weren’t useful, they could go ahead and starve, for all he cared.
Such a mindset is incapable of making sense of Jesus’ words in our gospel today. “Blessed are you who are poor, who are hungry, who are weeping, who people revile and exclude.” Who would agree with that. It doesn’t make sense, not in today’s world? “Woe to you who are rich, who are full, who are laughing , who are well spoken of“. But isn’t that our worldly standard of success?” Jesus seems to take our human understanding, our human valuing, of what is important to aim for in life, and turn it on its head.
It is important to understand that Jesus is first and foremost addressing these words to his disciples. Disciples are not followers, or necessarily church-attenders, or nominal Christians. Disciples are those who come under the discipline of a leader. We are called to be disciples of Jesus. He is our leader. I was going to say there “our spiritual leader”, except we are people of body and spirit. We discipline both our body and spirit according to the instructions and example of our leader, Jesus. The word “discipline” in the Bible should actually best be translated as “trainer”. We, as disciples of Jesus, follow the training regime set down for us by Jesus. We adopt his values, his priorities, his goals. We are called to become “other” Jesus’ in our world. And it is clear from the gospels, such as our passage today, that in so many ways, Jesus’ values, priorities and goals are utterly different from the world’s, especially our Western world today. And Jesus did not send us out in his Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20 to make followers, or church-goers, or nominal Christians, but to make disciples. How are we doing with that, brothers and sisters?
I’m not saying at all that it is wrong to put your trust in people or things. We do it all the time in our everyday lives. We trust that the electric light is going to come on when we turn the switch in the morning, that the coffee-maker and toaster are going to work, that the car will start or the bus will turn up , that teachers will be at the schools when we arrive to drop off our children, that there will be food and other essentials in the stores and that there will be people to serve them to us. We expect that the oven and microwave will be operating normally when we prepare our meals in the evening, and that the bed will support us when we climb into it at the end of the day. We put our trust in our bank systems, our first responders, our service industries, our employers, and so on. But where does our fundamental trust and faith lie? Yes, we have money in our banks and our purses, but it should not be that which gives us security for our provision day by day. We have health insurance, and a health care system, but it is not to be these things that we look to ultimately to keep us safe and well. We pay into insurance programs, but in the end it is not this which we should trust to protect us. I try to keep my car in good shape, and be careful and prudent when I drive, but I always pray for God’s protection on the roads during each trip I make. When I get sick, I take my doctor’s advice, I take medication, but I am also praying to God for his healing (Sirach 38).
In psalm 42, the psalmist in exile laments that his captors are mocking him continually and asking derisively “Where is your God?” (Psalm 42: 3). It is a question we might do well to ask ourselves, and to answer honestly: ”Where is my God?” Is he in the money I have in my bank account, the roof I have over my head, the spouse or partner beside me, the political party running the country, in my possessions, or good name, or popularity? Or is my God the Creator of all things that exist, the One who became incarnate in human form to save me and deliver me from hell, the One who lives within me, the Divine Breath within my body? Take a moment now to feel the ground underneath your feet, to really feel it. How important is it that we can always feel that ground beneath us? What would happen if that ground was simply pulled out from under us? Now ask yourselves: ”Who or what is the ground of my very being, such that if it were pulled out from under me, I would be lost?
Whose side are you on?
We have heard those words in different situations many times in our lives, I am sure. We know that it is virtually impossible to avoid taking sides on a number of issues so long as we live and interact with other human beings. In the book of Exodus, just after the incident with the golden calf, Moses stands before the whole people of Israel and challenges them: ”Who is on the Lord’s side?”, forcing them to choose between the God of Israel, or the gods of the Egypt they have just been rescued from (Exodus 32: 26). In Joshua 24, once Israel has entered into the Promised Land, and the country is divided into territories for each tribe, Joshua, Moses’ successor, gathers the people together one last time and says to them: ”Now, if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, among the different pagan gods; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” In 1 Kings 18, it is the prophet Elijah’s turn to stand and challenge the people of Israel, after they have forsaken their God, Yahweh, and started worshipping the pagan god Baal instead And Elijah stands before them all and declares: ”How long will you go back and forth between two different stances? If Yahweh is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him” (1 Kings 18: 21). In John’s gospel, after Jesus’ uncompromising teaching on the necessity of eating his body and drinking his blood for salvation, many of his former followers turn away and leave him. And Jesus looks at his twelve apostles, and challenges them: ”Do you also wish to go away ?” (John 6: 67)
I have often wondered what it must have been like to be one of those twelve disciples at that moment. You see all those people, probably friends and family among them, leaving Jesus, and in your heart you would like to go with them, to go with the crowd, do the popular thing, be considered to have made a wise decision, not like those other idiots still standing with Jesus. But here is Jesus giving you the freedom to do just that, and all he offers is a journey to Calvary ahead, and a call to take up your cross and follow him. Well, I have a strong conviction that very soon, within the lifetime of most of us here, we are going to find ourselves in the place of those twelve apostles. The two roads spelled out in our responsorial psalm today, and in our first reading and gospel, will be presented to us, and we will have to make our choice.
“Enter through the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. But the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 8: 13 – 14). These words of Jesus from Matthew’s gospel haunt me , disturb me, challenge me, brothers and sisters, how about you?