My father was a mild mannered man, well able to control his emotions. It took a major breach to provoke an angry response from him. The rest of the time a glance from him was sufficient to register his displeasure with something said or done. That being said, when he did erupt it was memorable.
How old was I that day? I couldn’t have been more than a third grader in elementary school. Dad and I were walking down an avenue not far from home. I held his hand. What possessed me? I saw the man sitting, leaning his back against the Woolworth store. A scruff of beard showed on his face. His clothes were well worn and in need of repair. He had a cup in his hand to accept the offerings of people passing by. What struck me as funny’? Why did I laugh? From this vantage point, I cannot recall. I do remember that my father paused in front of the man and inquired about his health, shook his hand, and dropped something into the cup. Dad and I continued passed for a few paces. Then he stopped and turned toward me, demanding my full attention.
“Listen to me, Young Man. And I hope I never have to repeat this. I am very disappointed in what you just did. What gives you the right to hold another person up to ridicule? (I don’t think I knew what ridicule meant then.) You laughed at that man. Do you think you are better than he is? Do you know the troubles he has dealt with in his life or the sorrows that have happened to him? Never forget that God loves that man the way God loves you. He’s family.
“You think about what you did just now. When you get home, I want you to tell me what you are going to do to make sure nothing like that ever happens again. Do you understand me?”
He did not have to raise his voice. He did not have to spank me. The hurt that registered in his eyes was more painful than a shout or a slap. Even as I write this these many decades later, I can hear his voice and feel the pressure of his hand holding mine. The lesson etched itself indelibly in my consciousness.
I think of that childhood memory in the context of your Good News for this Sunday’s Liturgy of the Word. You teach about humility. I wonder if people might miss the point you are making if they concentrate on the instruction to take the lower place at a banquet table. The possibility of being shown to a higher place by the host and being the recipient of the adulation of the other guests, awed by the obvious importance of the one being reseated just might translate into a temptation to vanity. Of course there is the possibility that noticing the person in the lower seat, the host might think the person chose aptly. Then imagine the chagrin.
Isn’t this lesson meant to take us deeper, to challenge us to act differently from what our natural inclinations might incline us to do? Isn’t this meant to confront our natural perceptions regarding self in relation to others? That child that I was laughed at the beggar because instinctively I thought I was better than he. My father apprised me of the truth.
It is not easy to be a Christian. You never said it would be easy to be your disciple. We are back to the narrow gate, the eye of the needle through which the heavily laden camel can only enter with great difficulty. Through Luke, you challenge your disciples to see others through a different lens. Among your disciples, the poor, the disabled, the lame, and the blind, all those easily ignored or overlooked by the societal elite, those are to have primacy of place. They are to be welcomed to the Table. Hosting this class of people and the publicly denounced sinners with them opened you to ridicule and became the source of charges leveled against you, charges that led to your rejection and crucifixion. If I am going to be your disciple, I have to be the host of that kind of banquet that you hosted and number the same kind of people among my friends.
I struggled with the community where I worshipped. Looking around the Assembly, I saw only the comfortable Caucasians. Other races and ethnic groups were not in evidence. I should have taken my lead from the parking lot. Luxury cars occupied most of the slots. Inside, everything was pristine with padded pews too soft. I lasted a few Sundays before I went on a search for a place that told me: All are welcome here!
I knew I was home when I witnessed the severely disabled woman struggle with dignity to ascend the stairs to the Altar area, there to receive your Body and drink your Blood and then to struggle down the steps to begin her Eucharistic Ministry. There was a young man with Cerebral Palsy in a motorized chair. His Amen came a little later than those of the rest of the Assembly. I saw Hispanics and Blacks and Asians. On my way into the worship space, three people at different times welcome me and told me how happy they were to see me. All are welcome here!
Pope Francis is a herald, isn’t he? But just as eyes rolled when you proclaimed this lesson, his calling for a poorer church to serve the needs of the poor angers some. How dare he challenge the shepherds to shepherd among the sheep, much less to smell like them? His is a difficult message but one that must be heard if the preaching of the Gospel is to ring true in the ears of the hearers of this generation.
I wonder about the padded pews. I wonder about the elitism that seems evident in some assemblies. A collection for the St. Vincent de Paul Society is not enough to counter act those first impressions. God help me if I should look about me and dare to think that I belong among the elite, much less, recognizing the poor and the disabled, think, thank God I am not like the rest of men or even like these.
I don’t think I have to sit in the lowest place. I certainly don’t want the place of honor. I just want to make myself available to wash feet.
There are times when I tremble at your words. I do not know where you are from. Depart from me, all you evildoers. I hear what you say even as I hear the response of that first audience that declare themselves to have eaten and drunk in your company, and listened to your word. That sounds like an outline for the Liturgy. A people come together as the Assembly to listen to the Word and be formed by it and to eat and drink at the Table to be transformed by the Bread and the Wine. What was missing? What didn’t happen? I do not know where you are from!
Are you talking about formation and transformation that didn’t happen? In other words, are you saying that mere attendance at the meal isn’t enough? To have eaten and drunk with you, to have listened to your instruction implies the possibility of a degree of intimacy – table fellowship being what it is. I have come to understand that intimacy with you demands an openness that allows you to enter, take possession of the heart, and dwell there. It is not enough to toast, or even to take the morsel from a shared plate. Even an embrace and kiss fall short unless the possible communion expresses itself through works emanating from the one who has reclined at table with you and his/her going forth to be your other self in the market place. By their fruits you shall know them. Is that what is missing. Is that why you say to those who, in the exterior darkness, knock at the door, I do not know where you are from?
The question that initiates your remarks is one that always strikes me as odd. Lord, will only a few people be saved? Do those who ask that question think of salvation as a static thing, something of a moment that is an end in itself? Have you been saved, Brother? Sometimes I want to shout in response, yes. I’ve been baptized. But were I to answer that way without further explanation, I would give evidence of what I think is the error to which you allude when you say: Depart from me all you evil doers. Aren’t you saying, “Where is the evidence of your conversion, of my primacy of place in your life?”
What is the satisfaction that comes from musing on the possibility of only a few being saved? Even 144,000 aren’t that many. I wince when I hear of people being denounced and numbered among those who will not go to heaven. You know the various categories into which people can be sorted. People can be judged outside salvation because of their race, their color, their creed, their gender, their sexual orientation, and any other classification that some find repugnant. For what purpose? Is their satisfaction in thinking that they belong to an elite group? Do some think that with salvation comes the possibility of looking down long noses at those outside the pale and see them as shunned by God? How do such judgers deal with the universality of God’s love, with God’s desire that all people be saved?
Come to me all you who are thirsty and I will refresh you. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me! It seems to me that a hallmark of those on the way to salvation is their universality of acceptance. All are welcome here. The Table is not a place where the elite gather. The bread is broken for all who feel called to participate. The Cup is not reserved for a few. All are welcome in this place.
What are the evil deeds of those in your parable that results in their being left in the exterior darkness? Of course there is such a thing as sin. Most of us can name the seven deadly ones. Am I wrong in thinking that those who feel powerless in their sinfulness are the objects of your special love? After all, they did say about you that you welcomed sinners and ate with them. It is a curiosity that those sins are judged to be the worst by those who feel no temptation to commit them. Gluttony is heinous in the minds of those who have moderate appetites, intemperance, by those who have no strong attraction to alcohol or drugs.
Those who cry out their guilt of any or all of the seven deadly sins can be forgiven. Some people forget that there is nothing God loves to do more than to forgive. Isn’t that at the heart of your Good News? I wonder if to begrudge forgiveness may not well be the telltale sign of the unforgiven. Are they the ones who stand in the exterior darkness and knock?
So, I wonder if what you are looking for, what would enable your recognition of those who knock, isn’t their willingness to go out from their encounter with you and be willing to do what you do. If they will be your disciples, there must be evidence of that fact in what are their works. You want them to be about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, sheltering the homeless and burying the dead. You want them to love those they are tempted to think of as unlovable. That is the narrow gate through which you challenge your disciples to enter.
That is why you challenge us to remember our ancestors in the faith, the communion of saints, those who walked the walk and talked the talk and imitated you in loving. And rather than being shamed, we ought to be inspired by those latecomers to the community who live the Good News and become the first to enter the Kingdom.
As I listen to you this Sunday, I hear Pope Francis and his call for reform. He is challenging us to throw of the splendor and the elitism, and become a poorer church that serves the needs of the poor. We are not to consider ourselves over others; rather we are to serve in the midst of others. It should be about mercy. It should be about love. Is that how others outside, so to speak, experience the church?
Lord, will you recognize my knock at the door? I tremble as I ask. I know that I cannot enter by the narrow gate on my own. You must strengthen me. I need you to show me the way. Will I come to understand and say with St. Paul that I can do all things in you who strengthen me?
People are used to thinking of John the Baptist as a fire-and-brimstone, repent-or-perish kind of preacher. You are portrayed popularly as the soothing, calming influence, the bringer of peace. Your words in today’s Gospel should set the record straight. Of course, it isn’t that you are threatening to call down fire from heaven upon those who are in your audience that fail to respond to you. You rejected that kind of vindication sought on another occasion by James and John as a payback for a perceived insult. Here it seems that you want those who are considering becoming your disciples to have no illusions about what they would be getting into, should they opt to go with you on the Way.
From this perspective it is difficult to imagine, much less appreciate, the difficulties incurred by converts in the early Church. Couldn’t life go on pretty much the same after as it had before Baptism? Some people seem to think that is possible today. Wasn’t the important thing the new relationship with you? Wouldn’t it be all about faith put into practice? How can the present generation comprehend the totality of the death died in the Font in those early days following your Resurrection? The shedding of their old clothes, their being stripped naked as they stood at the edge of the Font in preparation for being plunged into the depths was the sign of that death. They would be plunged into the depths of the waters and there die to all that was, and so rise to newness of life in you. As they came out of the font, the neophytes were clothed in white garments that symbolized their putting on Christ. It is more than being clothed with, isn’t it? The reality is that the baptized are identified with you, entered into the community of love that is God, and loved by God with the same love God has for you. What could be more wonderful?
That was only the beginning, wasn’t it? That is why you voiced the cautions and challenge would-be followers to consider the consequences of what they do. Just as they were stripped of their old clothes before entering the Font, so, in many cases were they stripped of former occupations incompatible with their new life. Jewish converts were thrown out of the synagogue. If they were the only members of their families to take up the new way, they would have to be willing to endure being rejected by their families in order to follow you. Was it better that they be warned that they could find themselves suddenly at odds with everything they had held familiar before they went any further, lest, putting their hands to the plow, they would regret their decision once they began to experience the implications?
I talked with a friend recently about the process of preparation for Baptism. My friend asked me why the process had to be so lengthy and complicated. Why should someone have to spend a whole Liturgical Year in the RCIA (The Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults)? Isn’t that asking too much? Shouldn’t it be sufficient that the person wants to be baptized? Why should s/he have to spend the time in process, pondering the Scriptures, journeying through a full Liturgical Year, journeying with a sponsor and discerning in the midst of a faith community before being able to take the plunge, so to speak?
I prayed before I answered. I wondered if you would agree with what I said. In effect I came back to the readings for this Sunday. Look at Jeremiah in the first reading. Jeremiah was the reluctant prophet, the one who thought he was too young for the prophetic role. Initiating the relationship, summoning Jeremiah to a faith walk, God touched Jeremiah’s lips and gave him the words to speak. Faithfulness to his calling and to that word, and his announcing an unpopular message resulted in his being cast into a cistern. Would he have taken up the role of the prophet had he known what he would have to endure because of his fidelity to God and to his vocation? It might be better not to no what the future holds.
I told my friend that you, on the other hand, while not revealing the future to your disciples, wanted them to be aware of the implications of accepting your invitation, of responding to the gift of faith the Spirit placed in their hearts. You do not want people to leap into the Font only to regret and retract their decision when trouble ensues. You woo for a time, as do lovers in their period of engagement, that time to get to know each other, to deepen and intensify the bonds of friendship, and so be sure that this other is the one and only. Then they stand before god to pledge the love and fidelity to each other that they will live for the rest of their lives. I told him the RCIA was like that period of engagement. The one feeling the call to Baptism spends time getting to know you and the experience of you through your body the Church. Engagement can be a time of emotional highs when reason is muted and the couple feels indomitable. Some marriages begun in haste unravel in short order. The commitment evaporates. The thing of beauty that is meant to mirror the community that is God dies and is no more.
It is a matter of commitment with you, isn’t it, a commitment to you and to the people you form and call your Body? You want the person coming to faith and Baptism to make that commitment and keep it for all eternity. You set yourself as the example of the commitment and fidelity as described by the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews: For the sake of the joy that lay before him he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right of the throne of God. For the sake of the faltering faithful, the reading continues: Consider how he endured such opposition from sinners, in order that you may not grow weary and lose heart. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood. You want the neophyte to know that s/he might have to resist to that same point – and beyond.
We paused over our second cup of coffee and I realized that I had been caught up in the emotion of the telling. As I stirred the fresh cup, I looked at my friend and wondered what difference all this would make to him? Would it discourage him from jointing in the pursuit? I said, “Don’t be afraid. You won’t be alone on this trek. The Lord who has given you this desire will support you along the way, and so will the people among whom you now gather to hear the proclamation of the Good News. With them you will devour the Word broken for you. You will continue in the formation process until the Night of the Great Vigil. Then the whole Church will attend as the heavens open over you and God calls you, Beloved.”
Then, do you know what happened as silence wrapped us? I remembered the Font. I remembered standing by it, watching the waters in motion and thinking of that day when the waters parted for me. I looked up from the font and saw the Table where your people, having passed through the waters, gather to Break the Bread and Share the Meal. Had I known then what would happen along the way and where following you would take me, would I have entered the waters that would be my tomb and my mother? If that is what it would take to be part of you and your people, what do you think my answer would have been?