by Luis CASASUS, General Superior of the men’s branch of the Idente Missionaries.
Madrid, August 22, 2021. | XXI Sunday in Ordinary Time
Book of Joshua 24: 1-2a.15-17.18b; Letter to the Ephesians 5: 21-32; Saint John 6: 60-69.
Let me begin with a personal experience. Not long ago, a person asked me: Have you never thought about the possibility of abandoning the path you are trying to follow after Christ?
I answered: Oh yes, certainly. Every day. Neither that friend’s question was driven by trivial curiosity nor did I want to make a joke with my answer.
Perhaps at that moment I did not think of what Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel: For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by my Father, but I understood then and now that authentic perseverance (not formal, but that of the heart) cannot be explained with our human strength and virtues.
The ways in which these rational doubts about vocation come to my poor intelligence are usually twofold:
(i) How is it possible that after my infidelities and poor faith, God still calls me?
(ii) How can it be that he has not called the people I know who are compassionate, valuable and more capable than I am?
In reality, today’s Gospel text contains the deepest possible answer to these questions or to others perhaps better elaborated: No one can come to me unless it is granted him by my Father. This should make us think that having faith is not a prize that we deserve nor a gift for personal enjoyment, but to share it with those who would make fruitful use of that faith and bear fruit, some thirty, others sixty, others a hundred.
Today’s three Readings deal with a radical way of looking at our lives, a question that must be answered sooner or later and that decides every aspect, every dimension of our existence: Whom shall I serve? We, human beings from an individualistic culture that exalts independence, may have the impression that the essential question is rather, am I going to live an independent life or a servant’s life? This is so because of the naive and individualistic idea of freedom that dominates the world. But this freedom is not real, it does not respect our personal, social or spiritual nature. Perhaps it is appropriate to recall here the words of Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) the famous German born physician, theologian, musician, philosopher, and scholar: I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.
To serve someone, will I choose God and others, or my self? In the first reading, Joshua poses the challenge this way, If it does not please you to serve the Lord, decide today whom you will serve. As a leader he sets an example declaring, As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord. And the people, recalling God’s many blessings to them and his great faithfulness time and time again, join Joshua in his choice, pledging We also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.
In a world of individualism, the needs and happiness of the individual takes precedence over others. The spirit of self-sacrifice is no longer attractive to the modern generations. Such an attitude is reinforced by the loss of the future for eternity. Today, people without faith in God live only for this world and this life, for to them there is no future, no life after death. So no one is willing to sacrifice his present happiness for the sake of a future that is uncertain. We want to grab all we can before we take our permanent exit from this world. Hence, we can understand why the Church’s teachings on contraception, indissolubility of marriage, unity of marriage and marriage as between a man and woman do not hold water for the self-centered pragmatic person.
Many of us serve two or more gods in our life. Many even fall into syncretism, that is, a mixture of other religions, values and practices. Those values that we agree with, we practice. Those that we disagree with, we just dismiss as irrelevant or inconsequential. Perhaps because it is something we do not consider important or serious. St Augustine warns us against taking such an attitude of selective acceptance of the teachings of Christ. He wrote: If you believe what you like in the gospels, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the gospel you believe, but yourself. Of such disciples, the evangelist remarked, Jesus knew from the outset those who did not believe, and who it was that would betray him. Indeed, insiders who are traitors are worse than those without.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus looks at the doubts of his closest collaborators, born of fear and lack of understanding of the scope of the vocation received. But there is more. They, in the midst of their weakness, had the impression that nothing, or rather, no one, could give true meaning and content to their lives. Pope Francis put it this way:
He does not say “where shall we go?” but “to whom shall we go?” The underlying problem, is not about leaving and abandoning the work undertaken but to whom to go. From Peter’s question, we understand, that fidelity to God is a question of fidelity to a person, to whom we bind ourselves, to walk together on the same road. And this person is Jesus. All that we have in the world does not satisfy our infinite hunger. We need Jesus, to be with Him, to be nourished at His table, on His words of eternal life! (Angelus, 23 August 2015).
St. Paul issues a similar challenge in the Second Reading saying: Brothers and sisters: Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ. He places this challenge in the context of married life. Husbands and wives are asked to decide whether they will choose to serve themselves or their spouse, and by extension, their families. But the challenge extends to all relationships, friendships, employers and employees, fellow believers, even the people hurrying to the checkout line at the store. In choosing to serve others before self, we are ultimately choosing to put God first in our lives. That is stewardship.
We are confronted to make a radical decision for our Lord. As disciples of Christ, we must obey all teachings, especially those that are difficult for us to accept. Indeed, the teachings of Christ are in contradiction to the values of the world. The Beatitudes are the reversal of the attitudes of the world.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus continues His instruction on the Eucharist. Many of his own disciples cannot accept His teachings and instead return to their former way of life, abandoning Christ altogether. Jesus turns to the Apostles and asks them to choose with the question: Do you also want to leave? Peter speaks up for the Twelve responding: Master, to Whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.
The demands of a stewardship way of life can be difficult. And the teachings of Christ can be hard to accept. How can we keep going when it gets tough?
We have two ways, which in reality are graces of the Holy Spirit, which we call Beatitude (certainty and awareness of His company) and Affliction (awareness of being able to share in the same and demanding mission of Christ).
The people’s response to Joshua’s challenge in the First Reading, and Peter’s response to our Lord in the Gospel show us these two ways.
When Joshua asks the people to decide whom they will serve they pause and call to mind all the blessings the Lord has given them and His unfailing faithfulness. Filled with gratitude to God, they choose Him. When the going gets tough for us, we too, can pause and remember the many blessings God has given and the many times He has shown His care for us. In gratitude, we are inspired to put Him and others first even when it is difficult.
Peter’s response to the choice Jesus poses shows us a second way to stay true to a service way of life. Looking at himself and the world around him, Peter comes to a realization. To paraphrase, he says, I don’t really see any better options, Lord. I’ve tried life with you and it’s hard. But I’ve tried life without You and it’s harder. I choose You, Lord. Peter knows he doesn’t have all the answers. And so, he humbly chooses to rely on God. When the going gets tough, we can keep going by relying on God and trusting more deeply in Him.
To remember the blessing of his presence (Beatitude) and keeping gratitude for God’s unexpected and demaning trust in us (Affliction), two keys to help us choose whom we will serve. Two keys to a beautiful and holy way of life.
Serving Jesus means putting everything we possess at the service of his kingdom. I hope the following short story (by Ralph F. Wilson) will help us to remember that.
Simon looked up from mending his nets to see a tall man touching his boat. It was Jesus, whom he had first met down in Judea where Simon had been listening to John the Baptist’s teaching. Jesus himself was a teacher these days, Simon had heard.
Jesus was fingering the joinery of Simon’s boat, admiring the handiwork. Very smooth, he said.
Benjamin the boatmaker finished it last fall, said Simon. Last boat he made before he died.
Jesus ran his hand over the planks along the side of the craft. It looks tight, he said, Mortise and tenon joinery. Must have taken a long time to make.
A long time is right! Simon put down his nets. Talking was a lot more enjoyable than mending. Benjamin and his son took seven months. I thought they’d never finish. And he charged me a pretty penny. But then, I probably have the best boat on the lake. Simon got up and came over to the boat pulled up on the rocky beach. You look like you know something about wood.
I’m a carpenter like my father before me, Jesus said, extending his hand. Good to see you again. Mind if I look at the stern?
Simon hesitated for a split second. It was a new boat, and he didn’t want just anyone clamoring all over it, especially someone not used to boats. But his pride got the better of his anxiety. Sure, just be careful not to trip over those ropes.
Jesus climbed into the boat and examined it carefully: rudder, oarlocks, sail mount. Benjamin built you an excellent boat, he said as he climbed out. By the way, I’ll be teaching this evening along the beach. I was wondering if you could assist me getting the crowd seated tonight. I need a helper, if you’d be so kind.
Glad to help, Jesus. He liked to be needed, and he liked the fact that a carpenter had pronounced his boat the masterpiece Simon knew it was.
That evening, after an attempt at crowd control, Simon sat enthralled. The blind man who had been healed before him, made him understand that the kingdom of heaven was before him.
When Jesus got to Peter’s house, his mother-in-law was healed from her fever, and the house was used as Jesus’ base-of-operations and the site for many teachings and healings. The boat, too, was used to transport Jesus and the disciples on their mission in Galilee. What do you possess that can be useful to Jesus and your neighbor?