Entrace to God's Kingdom is through love

  • August 11, 2010
21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C) Aug. 22, 2010 (Isaiah 66:18-21; Psalm 117; Hebrews 12:5-7, 11-13; Luke 13:22-30)

Thoughtful reflection on our experience is our greatest teacher. During their exile in Babylon the people of Israel had much to reflect on — not only the destruction of their nation and temple but the new sights and peoples that greeted them in Babylon.

They were exposed to other religious beliefs and theological systems in a very close and direct manner. So often our knowledge of other belief systems is distorted and deficient because we don’t really know the people who believe in them nor have we taken the time to listen to their heartfelt explanations of their cherished beliefs. The Babylonian experience challenged the people of Israel to rethink the image they held of their own God. It was during this period that they encountered Babylonian creation myths. Rather than outright rejection, they reinterpreted them according to their own insights and experiences and eventually they found their way into the Genesis creation account.

It was also during this period that Israel’s collective image of God underwent transformation and this is evident in the third or latter portion of Isaiah that was written in the years following the return from exile. The rather small and limited tribal god became the universal god of all the Earth. Israel now had a universal mission, even to the gentiles. The prophetic image from our Isaiah passage brings the book to a close, envisioning a time in the future when all of the peoples of the Earth will worship Israel’s God.

Our own encounter with diverse cultures and belief systems has stretched and widened our understanding of God and has helped us to shed some of the cultural and historical baggage. Our struggle with intolerance, hatred and religious violence calls us to an opening of the mind and heart rather than a retreat into fear. God is so much greater than any word or symbol that we can ever use. Let us continue the learning process and allow ourselves to be both challenged and surprised by both our experience and by God.

To become really good at anything requires discipline, patience and persistence. We all admire the discipline of the star athlete or the great musician. But discipline is also essential in order to become a good human being. All of the spiritual principles and insights in the world avail us nothing unless we put them into practice. Trials, struggles and difficulties should be seen as God-given opportunities to hone our human skills with precision rather than as punishment or oppression. Trials and struggles are as positive or negative as we want them to be.

Belonging to a religious tradition is enriching but it also has its built-in traps. One of these traps is the tendency to take one’s spiritual status for granted. It is far too easy to wear all of the symbols and trappings of a religion without really putting its spiritual teachings into practice. Those who are listening to Jesus are shocked and incredulous at what He is telling them. After all, they consider themselves members of the right group. They know and follow Jesus and are on familiar terms with Him. What more can God want? But Jesus is quite firm: even those who are certain and proud of their religious status can find themselves shut out of God’s Kingdom. It is the “last” who will be first — the tax collectors, sinners and prostitutes.

It is so strange — in the Gospels it is usually those who are crushed and broken, whose lives are in the greatest disarray, who respond to Jesus and take His message to heart. In our own time the politics and religion of identity and division seem to prevail. We should remember that staunch and uncompromising beliefs do not carry nearly as much weight with God as walking in humility and compassion. In God’s Kingdom there are no shortcuts, reserved places, insider information or special contacts — one belongs only by love.