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February 17, 2019
I often think we read the Gospels with blinders. We hear what we want to hear and ignore what we do not. We think of Jesus as wanting to usher the greatest sinners into the Kingdom of God, and there is much in the Gospel that demonstrates his great mercy and love. But we do not like to think of the warnings he gives, such as “Woe to you!” that we hear in today’s Gospel. We like to think of the scene of the Last Judgement in Matthew 25 in which the King welcomes into heaven those who give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, and so on; but we do not like to think of the rest of the passage in which Jesus says to those who do not do these things, “Out of my sight, you condemned, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Yes, we are aware that he said that, but we tend to sanitize it, and to take the teeth out of these very biting and challenging things that Jesus says to us.
It is essential for us to remember that Jesus loves us, since he is God, and God is love. But we often think that love is always affirming, accepting, and non-judgmental. Yet Jesus loves us enough that he is not above challenging us, telling us things we would rather not hear, and sometimes being a little “in your face” as he was in the second part of today’s Gospel when he warns us of the dire consequences of not accepting the sufferings of life for the sake of truth, goodness, and right. After all, we need to remember that Jesus was not crucified because he made everyone feel good. No one said, “He is so kind, forgiving, and accepting. Let’s crucify him!” No, he was crucified because he said things that upset people. And so we Catholics proudly display the crucifix in our churches. We do so because we know that because Jesus accepted the sufferings of life, and rose from the dead, he can help us accept the sufferings of life and still be filled with joy.
I believe in many ways our culture shuns suffering. And because of it – true to Jesus’ prediction of a paradoxical outcome – we actually multiply suffering in the world.
Life is hard, and so many people try to soften it by escaping to alcohol or drugs. These can easily become addictive and can be destructive. While a social drink is not a bad thing, we see so much suffering in domestic violence, sexual abuse, and the consequences of drunk driving. While pain killers are good for managing the pain that comes from surgery or injuries, we see that the use of opioids has become epidemic. This masking over of suffering with chemical euphoria actually causes more suffering. We want comfort now, rather than later, so we put off a commitment to solve our problems in favor of an easy way out. Even as our legislature is considering ways of tightening up on drunk driving and the health hazards of vaping, they are also considering legalizing recreational marijuana, thus opening the way for more impaired drivers and more health issues. Jesus, however, tries to shake us out of the notion that satisfaction now is the best thing for us. Putting up with the suffering that comes with life now will strengthen us to enjoy life even more fully. We do not need to anesthetize ourselves against every suffering. Jesus did not, and he rose from the dead to show us that ultimately suffering can be transformative.
Sometimes a parent just does not want to deal with the hassle of disciplining a wayward child. When such disciple is put off for too long, however, the child is likely to suffer much more. I always contend that if we do not learn that we are not the center of the universe in the loving environment of the family, we will surely learn that lesson in some very unloving environments. Here again, Jesus is very clear that being poor, hungry, sorrowful, or hated for the sake of doing the right thing may not bring us immediate gratification, but in the end we will be like that tree planted by the water that survives the heat and the drought.
We often fall into this form of escapism with regard to life issues. If we find ourselves with an unexpected pregnancy that will demand some sacrifice in terms of money, career, or reputation, we can often take the easy way out by committing the horrible (but civilly legal) crime of abortion. If we have a terminal illness, we think the suffering and lack of independence we may experience give us permission to take a pill to end our lives on our own timetable. Jesus, however, warns us that if we try to become gods ourselves, rejecting the law of the living God, we may think we are escaping suffering, but the eternal (which means forever!) suffering that may await us is not worth the risk.
So often we skip over the difficult things Jesus says in the Gospels, because we just want to see the nice things. But he loves us enough to challenge us out of our complacency, to accept the sufferings of life as he did, and to know that in the end, fidelity to God will bring us life, as it did for him in the resurrection, which is the basis of our faith. And, though we would rather skip the cross and go straight to the resurrection, he teaches us not to be afraid, but to follow his path to eternal life and joy.