Sunday, November 27, 2022

An invitation to eternal life


The readings for this article are based on the following scripture passages, Zekiel 34:11-12, 15-17; Psalm: 23:1-2, 2-3, 5-6; 1 Corinthians 15:20-26, 28; Matthew 25:31-46, which are proclaimed on the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ. 

With all the commotion going on with the American election I was reminded of a story about Calvin Coolidge, the 30th President of the United States. Apparently when he was Vice President and presiding over the Senate, an altercation arose between two Senators. Tempers flared, and one Senator told the other to go straight to hell. The offended Senator stormed from his seat, marched down the aisle and stood before Mr. Coolidge, who was silently leafing through a book. “Mr. Vice-President,” he said, “did you hear what he said to me?” Coolidge looked up from his book and said calmly, “You know, I have been looking through the rule book. You don’t have to go.”

In some respects this is what Jesus is saying in the gospel today, if you live by my rule book, there is no need for you to go to hell. The rule book that I am speaking about is the eight commandments Jesus gave us in the beatitudes.

But before we read today’s gospel passage Matthew spends some time explaining what it would look like if we followed this rule book, and what it means to live the beatitudes.

Jesus takes this time because realizes that we will struggle interpreting them. For example, how do we follow the rule that says, be poor in spirit, or understand those who mourn will be blessed.

Matthew begins by describing people who strive to follow these eight rules as the salt of the earth and a light of the world. Then, using a number of parables he invites us to reflect on how our lives reflect the beatitudes.

For example, last week we heard the parable of the talents, and how the servant who fears the master buries his only talent, rather than investing it and misses out on the reward the others received.

Likely, for this reason, just before he is arrested, Jesus gathers his disciples and in very clear language graphically illustrates what it means to live out the beatitudes. Hoping to avoid any misunderstanding, he repeats his lesson four times. He tells care for the least of our brothers and sisters, by feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked, visiting the sick or those imprisoned. By doing this we live the beatitudes.

Despite this emphasis, when we hear this gospel passage about the last judgment, we remember more than anything, the threat of going to hell, a place of eternal punishment. Sadly, even some well preachers emphasize this threat. For example, one fiery Irish preacher as he reached the climax of his homily on the Day of Judgment he said: “there would be wailing and gnashing of teeth”. At which point an old woman put up her hand and said “Father, I have no teeth” The priest replied “Madam, teeth will be provided.”

Jesus did not intend that the fear of eternal punishment should shape our faith life. He begins and ends the gospel with reference to eternal life, not punishment; Jesus is hoping that his invitation to eternal life will be our memory, reminding us, as Jesus repeated four times, if we respond with care to the least of our brothers and sisters then we have cared for Jesus, who then will share eternal life with us. It is that simple. It is that hard.



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