In our Gospel Acclamation for today, we cry out to God, “Let your face shine upon your servant; and teach me your laws.” In the Responsorial Psalm we make a similar prayer: “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart.” We ask God to teach us his ways because we recognize, as the first reading so eloquently describes, that we can hardly even understand the things of this world, and can never know the things of God unless he reveals himself and his ways to us.
Someone might ask, though, Why should we be concerned to learn about the things of God anyway? Many people in this world spend all their time focused only on the things of this world. Should that not be enough for us? St. John Paul II gave us a most beautiful answer to this question in his Encyclical Letter, Redemptor Hominis:
“Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it. This … is why Christ the Redeemer ‘fully reveals man to himself.’ If we may use the expression, this is the human dimension of the mystery of the Redemption. In this dimension man finds again the greatness, dignity and value that belong to his humanity. …. The man who wishes to understand himself thoroughly – and not just in accordance with immediate, partial, often superficial, and even illusory standards and measures of his being – he must with his unrest, uncertainty and even his weakness and sinfulness, with his life and death, draw near to Christ. He must, so to speak, enter into Him with all his own self, he must ‘appropriate’ and assimilate the whole of the reality of the Incarnation and Redemption in order to find himself.” (RH 10)
We were created by God in his own image and likeness. We were created to share his very life with him. Thus, there is no distinction between the “things of God” and the “things of human beings.” God is our beginning and our end. He is our meaning and our purpose. God is love, and as St. John Paul II tells us, our lives are incomprehensible to us unless we know love – unless we know God. Only in the light of God can we ever truly know ourselves.
In the Gospel for today, Jesus is answering our prayer to be taught the ways of God. He teaches us that anyone who wishes to follow him into the fullness of life with God must renounce his family, his possessions, and even his own life. This strikes us as a very hard word. Jesus is asking us to make great sacrifices. But Pope Francis tells us in this week’s Spiritual Reflection that what Jesus is actually doing is explaining that we must let go of lesser things in order to make room in our hearts and lives for the much greater things which God wants to share with us: “With these demands, the Lord, as he walks towards Jerusalem, asks us to lift our gaze, to adjust our priorities and, above all, to make room for God to be the center and axis of our life.” Of course Jesus does not mean that we should not love our family, but we must not love them more than God.
Jesus is leading us towards our final destiny of sharing in the very life of the Trinity in Heaven. What seem like harsh demands to us are actually words of great love warning us against clinging so tightly to lesser goods that we run the risk of losing out on the greatest good. Thus, Pope Francis tells us, “The demands that Jesus sets before us cease to be burdensome as soon as we begin to taste the joy of the new life that he himself sets before us.”
Although this week opens with a Gospel which speaks of great sacrifice, we will see that the readings throughout the week repeatedly exhort us to rejoice in the Lord. For example, we read in today’s Psalm, “Fill us at daybreak with your kindness, that we may shout for joy and gladness all our days.” Perhaps we are reading these very readings and this meditation at daybreak. The Lord is indeed filling us right now with his kindness – the kindness of answering our prayer for him to teach us his ways. He teaches us that he loves us with an infinite, merciful love, and that he wants to show us the way to be united with him eternally in Heaven. The right response, then, is not to be dismayed at what the Lord is asking us to sacrifice, but to “shout for joy and gladness all our days” at what he is offering us.
St. Paul, in the second reading, shows us a good example of how to live the words of Jesus in a practical situation. He is imprisoned because of his witness to Christ, but he is not focused on his own hardship. In fact, although he says that he would have liked to have kept Onesimus with him to help him, he is instead sending him back to Philemon. Paul is not trying to cling to persons or possessions for his own benefit, rather he does all that he does out of love, seeking to serve as Christ served. In giving of himself in love in this way, he finds his joy – “the joy of the new life” that God himself sets before us.
Am I more concerned about worldly things than the things of God? Why? What are the things I am clinging to for my own benefit? When have I experienced the joy of new life?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 18, no. 7. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.