August 24, 2003
Do we follow Christ out of obligation or out of self-interest? It’s surprising to note that we follow Christ for both reasons. Christ is our Master and Lord, and so the things that he teaches us are things that we as disciples are obliged to obey. Yet, we would be seriously misled to imagine that the teachings of Christ are some arbitrary set of rules set out to measure our fidelity. Christ’s teachings are not some hurdle that we are meant to jump over or some obstacle that we are meant to get around. In fact, the very things that Christ asks us to do are the means to goodness and joy. Christ does not direct us to do one thing or another just to make our lives difficult, but rather so that we might become whole and healthy people. The teachings of Jesus are given to us for our own good.
When I was in the fifth grade my teacher was Sr. Philomena and she had a very strong interest in promoting the scapular. I don’t know if all of you know what a scapular is. It is a religious article that you wear like a medal, but it’s made out of cloth in order to mirror the habit of a religious brother or sister. There are different kinds of scapulars, but Sr. Philomena was particularly attached to the scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel. She told us that Mary had promised St. Simon Stock that those who wore the scapular would never die without first having access to a priest who could hear their confession and forgive them of their sins.
So with this information, my good friend Henry Bockal and I came up with a plan. Very contrary to the intentions of Sr. Philomena, Henry and I decided, we would wear the scapular and live lives of crime! We figured that we could lie and cheat, we could be unkind and tease all the girls in our class, we could steal what we needed from the store, disobey our parents, and indulge our every desire. Yet because we wore the scapular we would know that before we died we could confess all our sins and go straight to heaven. It seemed like a very good plan at the time. But from my viewpoint today it was flawed on several levels. First of all it treated the scapular like some kind of magical token. Second, it certainly abused the whole notion of the sacrament of penance. But perhaps its most fundamental flaw was the presumption that living lives against the teachings of Jesus would somehow make us happy. We imagined that if we were criminals and selfish, indulging our every desire, we would have a fuller and better life. We thought that we were clever by finding a way to avoid those things that seemed so difficult, but we were totally ignorant of the fact that the very teachings which we sought to avoid were given to us precisely to lead us to happiness and joy.
This is the big insight of Peter in today’s gospel. When the other disciples left Jesus because they thought his teaching was too difficult and Jesus asked whether they should want to go also, Peter responded, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” What Peter was really saying was that there is no choice. You could find a way of living that asks less of you, but you could not find a way of living that offers more to you. The very things that Christ asks us to do are for our own benefit. Avoiding them does not in the long term make sense. It is not in our own self-interest.
This is something I think we should keep in mind as we live this week, as we make decisions in the future. Is it at times difficult to love others, to place their interest and good before our own, to be flexible and willing to compromise, to be generous with our time and resources? Of course it is difficult. But being unkind, being selfish, being ungenerous, is not going to bring us joy. The deepest joy in life is in knowing that we have loved and are being loved in return, that we are kind and generous persons. That is what will make us happy and that is why Christ commands it. Is it difficult to forgive, to put hurts behind us and move on with life? Of course it is. But refusing to forgive is not going to bring us freedom. It will only assure us slavery to our anger, to our hurt and resentment. Forgiving another is in our own self-interest and that is why Christ commands it. Is it difficult to be a person of integrity, to be true to our word, fair to others, responsible to those who belong to us? Of course it is. But one of the greatest satisfactions in life is to know that we have the respect of others and that we are a person of character. That is what brings us happiness and joy and that is why Christ commands us to be such a person.
What Christ commands us to do, he commands us to do for our own good. Ignoring the teachings of Jesus is not some clever way of avoiding an obligation. It is working against our own self-interest. There really is no other way. If we want happiness, if we want fullness of life and joy, there is no other path to choose. For we believe that Christ has the words of eternal life.