The context of today’s Gospel of Jesus proclaiming that, “there are those now last who will be first, and those now first who will be last,” is to cautioning the crowd that there is a growing sense of the crises of faith amongst them – the Chosen race of Israel. That if they do not “try their best to enter the narrow door . . . they may find themselves, losing the gift of eternal life that God wants to give them; that God’s gift of Eternal Life; His Hospitality and Goodness may not be available forever.
There is a story of Jack who fell in love with Jane when they were studying in the same university. Jack was an average student and Jane did much better academically. Jane was conscious of this and constantly helped and encouraged Jack in his studies. Eventually, both of them graduated. Jane found a good paying job, while Jack decided to start a business. Both of them were doing well and some years later, they got married. Jane did well professionally and Jack’s business too grew in success. Soon after that, Jane gave birth to her first child; a baby girl whom she adored. As Jack’s business was doing very well, they decided that Jane should stop working and just focus her attention on taking care of their daughter, instead of living a hectic professional life and leaving their daughter in a day care centre. Later, they were blessed with a second child.
All of these went well, until Jack’s business began to face much problems, due to the economic crises. Eventually, Jack had to close his business and he found himself in a lot of debts; the banks were all after him. Jack was very distressed and began to come home late more frequently, and even drunk at times. Jane was so sad that everything that they had built seem to be falling apart. Jack no longer wants to talk much about his problems, and their relationships began to drift apart. One day, Jane overheard a conversation on the phone of Jack speaking intimately with another person. To confirm what she heard, one day, Jane checked Jack’s mobile phone messages, and she was shocked to find the intimate messages between them. When Jane asked Jack to explain, Jack denied and simply said that it was a business client and refused to talk about it. Several months later, Jack’s behaviour got worse, and he started to be abusive verbally. Jack eventually, filed for divorce, and custody of both the children. Jane was shattered; she had used up much of her savings and did not have any means to bring up her children whom she had dedicated more than twenty years of her life.
In all of these pain and suffering, Jack refused to go for counselling and have stopped attending Mass; he refused to talk to any priests when Jane pleaded with him to do so. Instead, he constantly blames Jane for all the problems. Jane’s faith in God is deeply shaken; she is confused as to what wrong she has done, to deserve such suffering.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, you may wish to know whether this is a true story or not. Let me just say that, all of us know that Jack’s and Jane’s tragic story is a common story that I have no doubts each of us have come across many times; even amongst Catholics. In fact, some of us may even be going through similar traumas in our life here and now.
Today’s Gospel that we just heard proclaimed is not only about the crisis of faith of the Israelites, but also about us. God wants to give all of us and indeed to every person in the world the gift of eternal life. However, in order to receive this gift of eternal life, we are called to live a wholesome life during our earthly life. Sad to say, as in Jesus’ time, many of us like Jack in our illustration, continue to take God’s Goodness and Hospitality for granted; we continue to be disinterested in the divine gift of eternal life, regardless of the ongoing reminders of the Good News and the Teachings of the Church to live a more wholesome and Christ-like life.
Our vocation to the priesthood and religious life is not too different. We have also heard of tragic stories of those who begin their vocation to the priesthood and religious life with great enthusiasm, but gradually, we drift into a routine lifestyle that degenerates into taking the gift of our vocation for granted. When we take God for granted, it is the beginning of an end because sooner or later, our emotions will soon have a stronger hold on us, especially, when we encounter painful challenges in our vocation. And, when this happens, our ideals of wanting to serve God will fade. Then, if this is not stopped, the predictable will happen; the secular world of gold, gratification and glory will replace our dreams of loving and serving God.
Eventually, like Jack, we will begin to blame everyone for the crisis of our vocation: the church, the bishop, the rules and regulations and eventually we tell ourselves that, for all the pain we have to bear, it is not worth serving God’s people. Indeed, this is precisely the very same reasoning that Jack would use, when he tells himself that his marriage is not worth saving because of the pain that Jane is continuing to cause him.
My sisters and brothers in Christ, in today’s Gospel, Jesus is filled with sadness because of the constant refusal of the Israelites to see the Truth of the divine gift of Eternal Life, and their insistence that there they have done nothing wrong. Jack too, like the Israelites has convinced himself that the main problem is Jane his wife.
Jack is living under the illusion that insofar as he is able to get out of his home, and be with his mistress, everything will be fine and that he can begin his life with a fresh start all over again . . . and that this time, without Jane, he would be much happier. We all know that Jack’s self-centred and wishful thinking is but a bubble that will sooner or later burst . . . and when that happens, he would have lost everything, unless he repents and returns to God.
Eternal Life as a gift from God is inseparable from our relationship with Him. If we love God during our earthly life, then we are also saying to God that we also want to live with Him for all eternity in heaven. But, if we do not love God in this earthly life, then it is a contradiction to say that we want to live with Him in heaven. We cannot “have our cake and eat it,” so to speak; neither can we manipulate God’s Love for us.
In other words, we cannot manipulate God’s Truth and Love by wanting to gain eternal life and yet, live a self-centred life that causes much harm and hurts, division and destruction in relationships during our earthly life. If we sincerely love God, we also have to love our neighbour whom God Loves equally.
However, many will argue that God’s Love is infinitely Compassionate and Merciful and He will always forgive us for all the sins that we have committed, as in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, where the Father, who symbolises God’s Compassionate Love welcomes, embraces and throws a grand banquet for his son’s return.
Yes, while this is true, we also have to remember, that the son who lived a sinful life that squandered his father’s wealth, came to his senses and repented . . . and decided to return to his father. If Jack, like the younger son, does not repent, then God’s Compassionate Love cannot work effectively in his heart. A one-way relationship does not work. God can be faithful and merciful at all times, but we have to turn back to God and return home to His Loving embrace.
That is why Jesus in today’s Gospel reminds us, “if you do not enter by the narrow door,” meaning that if we do not strive and persevere in living a God-centred life, regardless of how weak and sinful we may be, then when we “knock on the doors” of the gates of heaven, in our death, and say, “Lord, open the door for me,” we may receive the answer from behind the door, “I do not know you.” To this Jesus adds, but “then you may find yourself saying, ‘We once ate and drank in your company; you taught in our streets, but he will reply, I do not know where you come from. Away from me, all you wicked men!”
And so, as I conclude, let us once again be reminded of what Jesus said to the Israelites; the Chosen Race, who were rejecting God’s gift of eternal Salvation. He said, “There are those now last who will be first, and those now first who will be last.” In other words, Jesus is saying to them and to us, who are given the gift of eternal life that, if we continue to take God’s gift of eternal life for granted, we may lose it one day as God’s Gift may not be available forever.
If Jack in our story continues to reject God’s graces, and refuses to repent and return to his good wife and family, and if those of us who are in the priesthood and religious vocation are turning away from God through our lukewarm faith in Him by justifying our self-centred living, then in doing so, we are in effect, as Jesus says, cutting ourselves from our loved ones, and turning away from the divine gift of Eternal Life.
Eventually, the reality and Truth is that we are each answerable to God and have to take the full responsibility for the way we have chosen to live our life daily.And for the many of us who have been living a Christ-centred life, regardless of whether we are young or old, let us not drift into a lukewarm faith that begins to justify and find excuses for not facing the many challenges and not accepting the many opportunities that God continues to give us daily to grow and deepen our relationship with Him. Let us continue to live in the Joy of God’s Love and Ways, and never take for granted God’s Hospitality, Goodness and Love that offers us Eternal Life and Happiness; for without this divine Gift, nothing in our life is worth living for and achieving . . . for they will all end at our death.
Msgr Philip Heng,S.J.
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