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Sunday Readings for Mar. 6, 2011 (9A)
By Alex McAllister SDS
Today we come to the very end of the Sermon on the Mount as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. We are not surprised that the conclusion of this long sermon comes with an allusion to the Last Day.
The words ‘When that day comes’ are a clear reference to the Day of Judgement and the separation of the righteous and sinners here is not in the form of sheep and goats but as the man who built his house on sand as opposed to the one who built his house on rock.
This separation of those destined for heaven and hell is a common feature of the religious texts current at the time known as Wisdom Literature. Indeed it has been a very frequent rhetorical device used by preachers down through the centuries to help get the people to focus on the great decisions that need to be made in life.
Those old enough will remember fierce missions given by the Redemptorists and others fifty or more years ago who deliberately preached hell-fire and damnation. Their intention was good but their psychology was perhaps a little faulty. Heavy use of fear and guilt to achieve greater religious observance is not something anyone would advise today.
Let me assure you that modern day missioners, and the Redemptorists in particular, have rethought their whole strategy and their parish missions today are very popular and entirely positive. I was at one in Ireland led by those same Redemptorists a few years ago and the Church was packed –not with people trembling with fear but eager to hear the Good News of the Gospel and Christ’s message of love.
Here we see clearly that Jesus, good psychologist that he is, doesn’t take this hell-fire approach; but what he does do is heavily stress that a choice must be made in life.
Listening to and then acting on his words leads to eternal life; however, those who merely listen but do not act will find themselves outside the Kingdom.
And choice is what the Christian life is all about: choosing the Kingdom, choosing to accept God’s will, choosing the good and rejecting the evil one.
A lot of us, however, like to sit on the fence. We like to have one foot in both camps; we come to mass and we say our prayers but we like to dabble a bit on the side. We are overly fond of Augustine’s words in prayer to the Lord, “God, grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.”
We want to have our cake and eat it, we want to be good and holy, and ultimately to go to heaven, but we don’t want to be rid of our sins just yet. We rather like them and treat them as old friends that we don’t want to push out of the door.
Gossiping about others, cherishing attitudes that are nothing other than racist, petty pilfering, being creative with our tax returns, nursing an affection for someone we know is not available to us, fostering a grievance, extreme laziness or neglect of responsibilities —all these sorts of things feel quite comfortable to us. They might even give us a little frisson of illicit pleasure and so we don’t want to relinquish them.
We like our little ways; we don’t want to make that choice that Christ sets before us.
But there are choices to be made and a procrastinator cannot really call himself a Christian because Christianity is precisely about making a choice. We either follow Christ or we don’t, there isn’t a middle way. If we half-follow him then we are neither here nor there, in fact we are quite confused and lost.
You see Christ doesn’t want just part of us, he wants all of us. He doesn’t want half our love; he wants all of our love. He wants us to commit ourselves to him wholeheartedly. And the rewards he gives in return are truly tremendous.
Just imagine what fulfilment there is in giving one’s life totally to the Lord. Just imagine the consolation a person experiences by living their life in a way that is in total conformity to God’s will. Just imagine what fruitfulness there is in a life lived in deep prayer and close communion with God himself.
Don’t think that these things are only for weak and sentimental people —they couldn’t possibly cope with such a life. No one who is weak could manage to live this kind of life. No, the Life of the Spirit is for the strong and for the courageous. It is an extremely demanding life; but a life lived so close to God is really the only kind of life worth living.
And it is within reach of us all. But like anything else it requires training and commitment. But most of all it requires us to be uncompromising; we have to build this house on solid rock: on absolute integrity, on God’s commandments and the Gospel of Christ.
This is the life we Christians are called to; this is the life the saints have lived, this is our true vocation in life.
Don’t think that this is unattainable. It is a choice that Christ sets before us and he will not ever set anything before us that we cannot achieve.
Don’t think that living such a life will stop us from being the person we are. No, it will make us better not different; our qualities will be perfected not changed.
Don’t think that it will take us away from those we love or make them think less of us. Actually living in a more radically Christian way will make us closer to those around us; it will make us more loving and more lovable.
There are many storms ahead in life. Christ is telling us to choose the Gospel, he is telling us to commit ourselves wholeheartedly to him and if we do these things he will guide us safely though. So let us build this house of our lives well, and let us set its foundations on the rock of Christ and his Church.
I once gave an assembly at the Castle School and I told them this story, it also seems to fit our theme today.
“A rich man decided he should do something for the poor so he went to the poorest man in the village and gave him the contract to build a house. It was to be a grand house and no expense was to be spared. The rich man then went off on a long journey. The poor man thought to himself that this was his big chance to make a killing. He built the house but with the cheapest of everything, all the while submitting bills to the agent for the best of materials. When the rich man returned he was able to present him with the key to the new house. The rich man promptly returned the key to the builder and said that he would be happy if he would accept the house as his gift.”