Father Steve Grunow offered this homily at Mass today, cutting to the heart of this Sunday's challenging scriptural readings to help us realize that the true spiritual life is not a mere "affirmation of our desires." They are far too small. Vocation is a greater reality calling us beyond our perceived riches into the happiness of a life lived in imitation of Christ.
Our scripture readings for today commence with a selection from the Old Testament Book of Wisdom.
The content of the Book of Wisdom represents Israel thinking through the implications of its faith in the God of Israel. The author of this book begs questions and answers as he thinks through what it means to believe in God and to live in a unique culture that accepts that God is at the center of life and the activities of culture.
Today, the author ruminates on the question of what is most needed or important in life- is it wealth, security, power? No. Is it fame or honors? No.
What is needed most in life is wisdom. What is wisdom? Wisdom is discernment, particularly a discernment of God's will and purposes for one's life. With this discernment comes clarity, a clarity that is not just about practical matters, but about what is most important.
Without wisdom we settle for the satisfaction of nothing more than immediate need or we fixate on the ephemeral, mistaking ancillary goods for the most important Good that is God.
Our second scripture is an excerpt from the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews.
The Letter to the Hebrews is a curious and mysterious text. It is not so much a letter as it is a kind of theological essay and it represents, like the Book of Wisdom, a thinking through of what of the implications of Christian faith and belief.
Whereas the Book of Wisdom examines the unique way of life that is the Israel of the Old Testament, the Letter to the Hebrews examines the unique way of life that is the new Israel, the Church of the New Testament.
Remember, the Church is not just a religious discussion club, non-for-profit charity, or merely an extension of your family of ethnic identity. The Church is the new Israel- it is a people called forth by God in Christ from all the nations that is meant to display to the world through its unique way of life that God exists, God matters, and that humanity is invited into relationship with God through Christ.
This is what the Church is. This is who we are.
Today's excerpt from the Letter to the Hebrews presents God's word as akin to a sword or knife or razor. It is sharp and like a surgical instrument that can be wielded to heal, but not without at times, discomfort or leaving a scar.
If our perception of God's revelation is that it is merely pleasantries meant to create in our minds a sense of comfort, we are mistaken. The Bible is not a Hallmark card and if we think that it is or that it should be we are mistaken.
God's revelation will most often arrive in our lives by insisting that there is a truth that we must face, but that we refuse or find difficult to accept. It will cut through all our defenses and excuses and then compel us to a decision. Do we belong to God or not? Is the manner in which we are living in conformity with God's will and purposes or not? Do we draw others into the divine life that Christ has given to us through our words and actions or do we seize his blessings and grace for ourselves and leave nothing for others?
Our culture often construes the spiritual life as being about affirmation of our desires. We want God to ratify our decisions and say yes to what we want. If not, we become hurt and disappointed that God does not conform to our expectations. We demand our worship be entertainment and proclamation be soothing to the ego. Conversion is not a matter of personal change in response to Christ's call, but of getting the Church to change its beliefs and practices so that they are more palatable to modern sensibilities.
We decry "religion" for its failures, while extolling "spirituality"- by which we really mean a religion in which God is merely a projection of my best self and the spiritual life a means of getting what I believe that I deserve. All this is contrary to God's true revelation. And God's revelation in Christ will cut through all this like a sword, a knife, a razor- getting through our self deceptions and revealing the truth!
Finally, there is Christ's Gospel...
A rich young man comes forward and offers his life to Christ, but there are conditions to his offer- let me keep my wealth. Christ insists that this is a deal breaker and the rich young man goes away sad.
All this leads to Christ offering his insights about how worldly riches inevitably distract us from the mission that he gives to his followers. We would rather have wealth, and the comfort and security it affords, than take risks and take our chances with the demands of the Gospel, especially when there might be little or no material reward for our efforts.
The heart of the matter in this Gospel is the mysterious and demanding call of what the Church calls vocation, particularly the call to priesthood, religious life and what the Church understands to be marriage. Vocation, be it priesthood, religious life or marriage, is a call from Christ to accept a way of life that will make the person called holy- which means they will be Christ-like.
No vocation, if accepted, will offer guarantees of worldly riches or honors, especially in a culture that is indifferent or hostile to even the idea that God knows better than we do what our lives are all about.
The Church is now filled with generations of people who are like the rich young man- we want the benefits of Christ's way of life, but are unwilling to make the sacrifices.
To soften the blow of the demand of vocation, priesthood is construed as a job, middle management in the Church bureaucracy. Religious life is social work. Marriage is a romantic adventure. We lower expectations thinking that less people will refuse, but all this does is increase the sadness.
And in a startling reversal of today's Gospel, if our young people do accept the sacrifices of a vocation to priesthood and religious life, we think that it is sad or a waste of a life.
In all this there is a forgetting of what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is all about and what the Church is meant to be...
The Gospel is an invitation to a risk, to give one's life to God in imitation of God in Christ who gave his life to us. And the Church is meant to be a unique way of life that challenges the assumptions that the world makes about what it takes to truly be happy...
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.