12 Feb 2017
6th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
“Jesus said to his disciples: ‘I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.’” In other words: If you want to get to heaven, don’t behave like the scribes and the Pharisees. But, of course, what if you don’t want to get to heaven? What if the kingdom of heaven isn’t even on your wish list? Well, then, I suppose you can do whatever you want.
When Jesus spoke those words to his disciples, it was a different time. People believed in God (or in many gods). They had a sense that they were part of something bigger than themselves; they had a more cosmic understanding of reality. And there was no life other than a life of faith. Now, that’s not to say it was a perfect time in human history; it absolutely was not. But the essentials were there: belief, community, and a sense that they were going somewhere.
And so, Jesus could talk about “the kingdom of heaven,” and people were on board with him. He didn’t have to say “if” you want to get to heaven. He was already speaking their language. But today in the 21st Century it’s a different story.
In 1972, a Dutch priest, Fr. Henri Nouwen, wrote a little book called “The Wounded Healer.” And in it he describes his experience of a young man named Peter. He writes: “As we talk, it becomes clear that Peter feels as if the many boundaries that give structure to life are becoming increasingly vague. His life seems a drifting over which he has no control. He does not know whom he can trust and whom not, what he shall do and what not, why to say ‘yes’ to one and ‘no’ to another.
“It seems that Peter has become a prisoner of the now, caught in the present without meaningful connections with his past or future. He finds no answers to questions about why he lives and where he is heading. Peter does not look forward to the fulfillment of a great desire, nor does he expect that something great or important is going to happen. He looks into empty space and is sure of only one thing: If there is anything worthwhile in life it must be here and now.”
And Peter’s story is increasingly common; to the point that it almost characterizes what it means to be a person of the 21st Century. And this is a reason why, when Jesus starts talking about “the kingdom of heaven,” the eyes glaze over and people stop listening. For many people, heaven is sheer fantasy; it has no basis in reality. And it has nothing to do with “my life here and now.” Heaven is quite irrelevant, and so, why would I care about what it takes to get there?
It’s a fascinating problem we face today as a church and as a society: If the goal of human life is just a fiction, well, then who cares about rules? Who needs God’s commandments, even the most basic ones: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself? And if there isn’t any real goal to human life, if heaven is just imaginary and there is actually only the here and now, well, then the past is irrelevant too. There’s no point to tradition; in fact, tradition itself is a foreign concept.
If the only reality is “my life here and now,” then everything else is just nonsensical. But, you know, as a church, a lot of our focus is on the “everything else.” We focus on: the kingdom of heaven, eternity, tradition, passing on what we have received, the law of God, God’s glory, mercy and forgiveness, love . . . . A lot of what we’re trying to “sell,” 21st Century Man doesn’t really want.
For many people, the Catholic Christian faith is like a commercial on TV: they just turn it off, or walk away. They’re not interested in heaven; the kingdom of God has nothing to offer them. It’s a fascinating problem we face today: If the goal of human life is just a fiction, well, then who needs God? What’s the point of faith? And who needs what the church has to offer?
Maybe those are questions we can relate to; maybe we have those sentiments from time to time. Or maybe those questions sound like someone we know; someone who just thinks that faith and God and all that have nothing to do with reality. The story is very different today than it was when Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Today, Jesus would almost have to say, “If you believe in the kingdom of heaven, and if you want your life to head in that direction, then your righteousness must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees.” And that’s a major shift because now, today, the essentials aren’t always front and center—the essentials of: having faith and a sense of mystery; accepting the fact that my life is interwoven with everybody else’s life; and looking both backward and forward to see that life is a journey, that there is an overarching story to life, and that we’re definitely going somewhere.
And those essentials—belief, community, and a sense that we’re going somewhere—aren’t just basic to the Christian faith; they’re basic to human life. If we want to really live “my life here and now,” then we have to branch out. If I really want to live, then: I have to belief, I have to be a part of community (in my own unique way), and I have to see my life as part of the bigger human and divine story—a story which has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The essentials are just that—they’re essential.
And that’s the great challenge of our age: to reclaim the human spirit; a spirit with wide open eyes and insatiable curiosity; a spirit that finds belonging with others and is not isolated; a spirit that longs to see endless happiness, fulfillment, and completion. That’s the great challenge of our times, in the church, in our society, and within ourselves: to reclaim the human spirit. So that heaven will never be a question of “if,” but a question of “when, where, how, and with whom.”