6th Sunday of the Year, Year C

Today’s responsorial psalm is Psalm 1, chosen by the religious leaders of the Jewish people to stand at the head of the Book of Psalms. It presents each one of us with a choice.

We can spend our life being smart, self-reliant, wearing masks that fool ourselves if they don’t manage to fool others. We can chase after reputation and distract ourselves with petty ambitions. We can be among the cynics who knock religion as being something for weak, dependent people who can’t stand on their own feet and make a go of it on their own. We can scoff at mystery and disregard whatever we can’t fit into our tiny minds.

If we make that choice, the psalmist warns us that our lives will be sterile. We might think of ourselves with some importance, but we are being blown about like chaff and our lives are just as useless. By choosing to live separated from the only source of life, we will miss out on real life here – the life of the heart, the life of prayer, the life of real love – and we will close ourselves off from life eternally.

Speaking of those who make this choice, God says through the prophet Jeremiah: ‘When I wanted to gather them, says the Lord, there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree; even the leaves are withered, and what I gave them has passed away from them’(Jeremiah 8:13)

God gave us the gift of life, and continues to offer it to us. But as Paul says, writing to the community in Rome, there are people who chose the path of self-reliance and who obstinately persist in despising God’s love. They fail to realise that God is being patient with them, hoping to bring them to a change of mind and heart. By refusing to open their heart to grace, all they are doing is setting themselves up for an eternity of being closed in on themselves, unable to give or receive love (Romans 2:4-5). As he writes to community in Thessalonica: ‘These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord’(2Thessalonians 1:9).

It is difficult for us to think of hell, but there are times when it is important to remind ourselves of the fact that reaching the goal of life is not something automatic. We have choices to make and our choices are important, eternally important. Jesus knew that and gave his life that we might realise it too and choose life. The Church remains faithful to Jesus’ teaching. We read in the recent Catholic Catechism: ‘To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called ‘hell’’(n.1033).

Notice that it is a self-exclusion. It is not a punishment from God. It is just the inevitable result of a choice to live a life of selfishness. The Catechism says: ‘God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a wilful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end’(Catholic Catechism n.1037). At the same time, we are reminded never to forget the power of God’s love - for us and for everyone whom he has made. The Catechism reminds us: ‘God ‘desires all to be saved’[1Timothy 2:4], and for him ‘all things are possible’[Mat 19:26]’(Catholic Catechism n.1058).

This brings us to the other choice which we can make -  a choice that fits with our deepest yearnings, a choice to which all God’s love will never cease directing us. We can choose ‘not to follow the counsel of the wicked, not to stay locked into a life of sin, not to join in with the cynics’(Responsorial psalm). We can choose to belong to the community of the ordinary, struggling, real people who know that they are dependent on God for life, and who place their trust in God’s grace, and hope for his love. In the midst of the complexities of life, we can try to keep our minds and hearts open to listen to God’s word as it comes to us through good people who are close to God and through the wise traditions which such people have left behind them. We can make space to listen to God in the silence of our hearts. We can strive to be obedient to God’s will, to trust in God’s love and to look to him for guidance and grace.

The psalmist likens such people to a tree planted by a river. Jeremiah has the same image: ‘Blessed are those who trust in the Lord. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit’(Jeremiah 17:7-8).

The first reading from Jeremiah and the Gospel also speak of these two choices. Jesus speaks of the first group as the ‘rich’ - meaning those who attempt to find meaning in their life from their own personal resources and their own possessions. Jesus’ heart goes out to them in profound sadness as he warns them of the futility and emptiness that they have chosen. He speaks of the second group as the ‘poor’, meaning those who recognise their need and cry out to God in their distress and place their trust, not in their own fickle and impotent selves, but in the creator of the world, the one who gives them life and who promises them love.

Such trust is no guarantee against suffering, painful feelings, disappointments or death. From his own experience, Jesus speaks about being hated, driven out, abused and denounced. It will often be necessary to take a lonely stand against the pressure of the cynics and against the contagion of sin that threatens to engulf us. But he promises them that their longings will be satisfied and that their tears will be wiped away.

These readings make sense to us, but only if we refuse to limit our thinking to this life that we now experience - the life that is cut short by death. And so the second reading focuses our attention on heaven. This is not an escape. Quite the contrary - it is the goal to which our lives are directed. As Saint Augustine says (Confessions 1): ‘You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless till they rest in you.’ Saint Paul writes: ‘No eye has seen, no ear heard, nor can the human heart conceive what God has prepared for those who love him’(1Corinthians 2:9).

And in the Book of Revelation, Jesus is compared to a Bridegroom gathering the Bride to himself in love: ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more’(Revelation 21:4). The Book of Revelation, the last book in our Bible, ends with a plea to everyone to respond to the call of the Bridegroom and to come to him, for he wants only to offer love. We are asked to come as we are, for the offer is free. We have only to open our hearts to receive it (Revelation 22:17).

So what does this mean for us. The Church in today’s readings, is asking us to look carefully at our lives, to check the direction in which we are headed. We are being reminded of the folly of self-reliant pride and petty ambition. Let us spend some time today reflecting on the wonderful people who have inspired us, and recall what it is about them that has inspired us.

Let us look at the life of Jesus and remember his love. let us reflect on Paul’s words to the Corinthians that nothing else matters except our love (1Corinthians 13). John of the Cross reminds us: ‘At the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love’[John of the Cross,, quoted in the Catholic Catechism n.1022].

Finally we might make our own the Prayer of today’s Mass in which we ask God to ‘help us to live in your presence’.