In the Gospel last week Jesus announced, “I have come to set the earth on fire.” He was referring to the global purification that was, in common Jewish belief, to accompany the
coming of the Messiah. This week the disciples follow up on his statement by asking, “Lord,
will only a few people be saved?” In the Jewish way of thinking, Jews would be saved from the fire of the purification because of their special place with God and their fidelity to the covenant. The Gentiles would not find a place in the Kingdom.
Jesus challenged this way of thinking. Jews, as well as Christians, sometimes coast on automatic and depend on their religious fellowship to carry us along the spiritual road. But eventually each one of us has to negotiate “the narrow gate” for ourselves. Jesus told his disciples that being a member of the chosen people wasn’t enough to get them into the Kingdom. “The gate to the Kingdom is narrow, and the per- son who enters it needs to be strong.” Entrance into the Kingdom is not guaranteed to
anyone. It’s a rough road to the Kingdom. The disciples will better understand how difficult it is after the resurrection. The narrow gate to the Kingdom may lead to Gethsemane. The narrow gate may lead to the cross.
Many things can block the way to the Kingdom. Sometimes we focus all our energy on being
“happy,” to have a life with no worries, no illness, no anxiety. This is perhaps one of the most common blocks to the narrow gate. Jesus didn’t promise this kind of “happiness” to any of us. Remember, the rich young man who turned away from Jesus’ invitation to follow him because he wasn’t strong enough to separate himself from his possessions. But there’s more involved than merely letting go of our at- traction to possessions. Entering the narrow gate involves dying to self.
As Jesus himself modeled for us, dying to self doesn’t need to involve penance or mortification. St. Paul explains dying to self in this way. Speaking of Jesus, he wrote, “His state was divine, yet he did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave and became as men are. He was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:7) Dying to self means pouring one’s self out for others. Or, as Jesus put it, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)
We walk the path to the narrow gate every day of our lives. Each day affords us opportunities to empty ourselves for others. It’s easy for us to give up smoking or drinking, or chocolate or carbs. Divest- ing ourselves of our self-centeredness, our ego, is a difficult challenge. To enter the narrow gate, we might even have to sweat blood.
Are we celebrating “Conflict Sunday?” Look at the three scriptures for our reflection! We firsthear of poor Jeremiah having to prophecy that the Babylonian army would soon conquer Jerusalem. Hearing this, the military leaders petitioned King Zedekiah to have the prophet put to death for demoralizing the soldiers defending the city and the people Jeremiah was thrown into a muddy cistern and left to die. The king eventually rescued Jeremiah, but Jerusalem still fell to the Babylonians. Jeremiah would continue to be asked to speak harsh prophecies against the hard-hearted people of Israel. His suffering continued throughout his ministry.
We then listen to the letter to the Hebrews. “Persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus,” and reminds us that “in your struggle against sin you have not resisted to the point of shedding blood.” Was this bombshell of a statement meant to help them, and us, commit more deeply to the Christian way?
Finally, in the Gospel passage Jesus hits his disciples with a harsh and frightening prophecy. He shares that he was commissioned to begin the great purification. “I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it was already blazing.” He assures them that it will not be an easy task. It will involve a baptism of suffering for him. “How great is my anguish until it is accomplished.” He warns his followers that conflict and division will follow them.
We’re reminded in each of the scriptures today that the Christian way is difficult. It stands in opposition to the sin of the world – injustice, the idolatry of fame, wealth and power, bigotry, inequality, revenge and retaliation. Our call is noble and powerful but never easy. Let’s end with Jesus’ words at the Last Supper. “If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own; but because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you.” (John 15:19)
Lord Jesus, as I approach your table today, I beg you to cleanse my heart with the fire of your love. Give me that strength and courage I need to commit myself to the work you have begun. I cry to you from the depths of my heart: may your Eucharistic Kingdom come.
In today’s gospel passage Jesus assured his disciples that his Father was pleased to give them the kingdom. They were looking forward to that great day when the kingdom of God would materialize, but their thinking about God’s kingdom was tainted by their ideas of worldly kingdoms, so Jesus gave them some things to think about.
He began by presenting them with a challenge. “Do not be afraid…Sell your belongings and give alms.” He was telling them that when they opened their hearts to the kingdom they would find themselves questioning the value of the things and the possessions they cling to for “security.” He stressed that their hearts must be firmly rooted in the values of the kingdom of God, not in the illusions of strength and security that the kingdoms of the world so boldly offer. This teaching led to an important related topic, the mindset of the disciple.
“Gird your loins and light your lamps and be like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding ready to open immediately when he knocks…be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.” Here Jesus was teaching his disciples that, as children of the kingdom, they had to conduct themselves as if each day was the last day of their lives and the day of final judgment. They must never coast along. They must be prepared and ready to serve the kingdom every moment of their lives. Jesus continued by assuring them that they would be rewarded for their loyalty and perseverance. The reward would be quite extraordinary. The Son of Man will have them recline at the table in the kingdom of God, and he himself will wait on them!
Peter then asked Jesus if the teaching was meant for the inner circle of apostles or for all disciples. Peter was speaking from his old mindset that the kingdom of God would function like a worldly kingdom. The “top brass” would be treated differently from the rank in file. Jesus couldn’t let this go by. He addressed Peter’s question by asking, and answering, another question. “Who, then, is that faithful and prudent steward whom the master will put in charge of his servants.” Jesus answered his own question by painting the picture of an unfaithful and imprudent steward.
In Jesus’ day the steward was a household slave who was given the authority to manage his master’s entire household and estate. He was very powerful. This particular slave thought that, because his master was away for an extended period of time, he had free reign to do whatever he wanted. He mistreated and beat the other slaves and went on a drinking binge. He was so very foolish to forget that a day of reckoning would inevitably come. His master would return and that steward would be severely punished for his lack of judgment and reckless behavior.
Jesus ended this series of teachings with a warning to his inner circle. The Father was most happy to give them a place in the kingdom. However, there are no “privileged” people in the kingdom. The children of the Kingdom are expected to devote themselves completely and wholeheartedly to the work of the Kingdom. They must never forget the fundamental principle of the Kingdom of God: “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with much more.”
“What profit comes to a man from all the toil and anxiety of heart with which he has la- bored under the sun? All his days, sorrow and grief are his occupation; even at night his mind is not at rest.” Our reflection this week begins with these words of wisdom from the Book of Ecclesiastes.
A friend shared a family fact with me re- cently. He said that for many years his rela- tives, who lived in Spain, would come to the United States to visit during the summer. How- ever, a few years ago they stopped. The reason for their decision was quite interesting. They found our driven pace of life exhausting. They said that their relatives’ inability to stop and rest was off-putting to them. They didn’t enjoy vacationing in a place where people didn’t know how to stop to smell the roses. I understand exactly what they were saying because I’m the perfect example of the work-driven American.
Jesus addressed this very topic in the Gospel passage we read today. The pas- sage begins with someone in the crowd shouting out to Jesus, “Teacher, tell my brother to share the inheritance with me.” Jesus’ answer must have been very jarring to him. “Take care to guard against all
greed, for though one may be rich, one’s life does not consist of possessions.” Jesus seemed to have looked into the person’s heart but, instead of seeing a genuine de- sire for justice, saw greed.
It’s no secret to any of us that the distri- bution of an estate can become a family trauma. I knew a person who died in 2013. The estate still hasn’t been settled because of family squabbling. Everyone in the family is well-off financially, but everyone feels they deserve a larger piece of the pie.
Jesus was trying to redirect that man in the crowd. He saw that he was drowning in his desire for wealth and possessions. Je- sus was throwing him a life-jacket. By tell- ing him the story of the wealthy farmer, he was telling the man that he couldn’t take his wealth with him, and that true inner life could not be replaced by possessions.
I marvel at the super rich who so often act as if they need more money and possessions to be happy. They may have ten million, a hundred million, a billion, fifty billion dollars in assets, but it’s never enough. Would a few hundred homes make them happy? Would owning a thousand cars eventually make them happy? Jesus is teaching that wealth, though it can make us famous, and though it even has the potential to give us great power over the human family, isn’t permanent. The day will come when our wealth and power fades away with our last breath.
At the moment of our death we will free- fall into God’s hands without our wealth and fame, without our possessions. Will God look into his hands and ask, “What happened to you? What happened to the magnificent child I created? Where is the love I planted in your heart? Where is your glory? On that day God will look into his hands and weep for a life unlived.
Rich and poor and everyone in between, let’s end this reflection with Jesus’ greatest teaching.
“How happy are the poor in spirit – the kingdom of heaven is theirs. And how happy are the meek and the pure of heart, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. And how happy are those who mourn for others and are merciful to others. And oh, how happy are the peacemakers – the children closest to my heart. Rejoice and be glade, your reward will be great in heaven.”