The Christmas before I left the diplomatic service of the Holy See, I received about 100 Christmas cards from colleagues. The Christmas after I left, I received the sum total one from those same colleagues, and that one did not know that I had left! To be fair, I only sent a dozen or so myself both before and after leaving the service, and that stopped after a few years.
I cite this example, and you could probably cite others, to illustrate how relationships are not always sincere. They often do not go beyond being used for advantage. It’s also true that not every relationship is intended to be anything more than professional or functional. There would be something weird, not to say impossible, about wanting a profound personal relationship with everyone. Possibly in eternal life that will be the case by virtue of God’s power, but for now we have to settle for a small number of deeper personal relationships.
What’s awful, though, is when any such deeper relationship does itself turn out to have been insincere. Think of the man who marries for money or the women who marries for social position. Think of the betrayal of a close friend out of fear or, as was the case of Judas, again for money. Then there are the opportunists. When you are well, rich and famous, you are top of the pops. If you get in trouble or lose your position, no-one wants to know you. The wisdom literature of the Old Testament tells us that true friends are scarce; whoever finds one has found a rare treasure.
It seems to me that all three readings of the Word of God today put to us the question: how sincere is my relationship with Jesus Christ? We can be opportunists in regard to Jesus, all over Him when we are in trouble but otherwise heedless of Him. In a culture which denigrates Him, we keep quiet about Him. We want His mercy, but not His truth. We want His love, but not His judgment. We turn our minds to Him when we come to Mass, but how close are we to Him during the rest of the week? We love His wit and wisdom in the parables, His power in his miracles, His humanity and generosity in His gestures of forgiveness and love. But we are less sure of the Cross, baffled by the Resurrection, and we most certainly don’t want Him anywhere near our moral lives, from the bedroom to the office, from the computer to the bar.
But Isaiah admonishes us: Seek the Lord while He is still to be found, call to Him while He is still near. In other words, don’t leave sincerity too late. Don’t presume upon His willingness to forgive and show compassion and go on living in a way that contradicts them. St. Paul puts it this way: avoid anything in your everyday lives that is unworthy of the Gospel of Christ. “Anything”, meaning that there is nothing in your life which should be exempt from examination for its worthiness of Christ. “Everyday” means not just Sunday, but precisely every day. In the Gospel, the men who had worked the whole day questioned the sincerity of the landowner when they grumbled at him. They expected him to act according to their standards (we should get more than we agreed because we worked harder) whilst the standard of the landowner was both just and generous (just in giving the agreed amount to those who worked all day; generous, in giving the same amount to those who had worked much less). But in questioning the landowner’s sincerity they are in fact showing their own greed and envy. “Why be envious because I am generous?”
But there is a question underlying all three readings today from which we cannot shrink. St. Paul in his passionate description of his relationship with Christ brings the question implicitly to the fore. Remember that Paul had been given a vision of the Risen Christ on a journey he was making to Tarsus to persecute Christians. That vision shook Him to his foundations. The encounter with Jesus seemed to place deep in his mind and heart a vast treasury of grace, wisdom and insight on which he would draw for the rest of his life and ministry. He was given a privileged knowledge of Jesus, a knowledge not just of the mind but also of the heart. That is why he seems delirious when he talks about not himself living but Christ living in him, wanting to be dead to be with Christ but being torn to stay alive in order to preach Christ.
For Paul, Christ is quite simply everything. To avoid what is unworthy of the gospel of Christ is the same thing as saying to avoid what is unworthy of Christ Himself. Paul is so engrossed with Christ that he wants us to be equally engrossed with Him. He wants Christ to be our holy obsession. He wants Christ to be constantly present in our hearts and minds in the way a person’s beloved is always present to them during the day and night, be it physically or mentally.
So here is the question which Paul puts before us: do I want to know Jesus Christ with my heart and mind, truly and sincerely? Now, of course, we will not be given a vision of Jesus like St. Paul’s, but we do have Paul’s witness to that vision. Paul witnesses to us that the Risen Jesus is real, that He can have such an impact on a human being as to turn him from raging persecution to passionate lover of Christ and of those who believe in Him. Paul’s testimony is not just a private recitation of something that happened to him. It is a living power which is communicated to us as the Word of God. Paul’s testimony is the Word of God and therefore conveys the power of which it speaks. In other words, to some degree which we will not know unless we are open to it, we, too, have access to the profound and personal knowledge of Christ given to Paul. For each person it will be different, but it is there for the taking if we first look for it.
Hence, we must stir ourselves to ask for that grace. This means persevering prayer. “Lord, that I may know and love you as did St. Paul. That You would reveal yourself to me in a way that I am able to receive you.” It means reflecting on our lives with Christian intelligence to identify whatever in our everyday lives is unworthy of the Gospel of Christ. It then means taking decisions to let go of those things, all the while asking for the grace to do so, “Lord, let your love and power so take hold of my heart and mind that I will want to let go of what is not worthy of you. Prompt me to seek you and call upon you while you are still near. Deliver me from presumption and procrastination. Grant me the same urgency for You as You constantly show for me.”
What all this can lead to is the transformation of the way we think and evaluate. We will to these from within the mind and values of Christ. This leads to the transformation of how we choose and act. We are prompted to choose what alone is worthy of Christ and live the same kind of life as He did. In turn, we thus contribute to the transformation of the Church and of the world, because we bring to them hearts and minds infused with the glory and grace of Jesus, Head of the Church and Creator of the world.
I invite each of you today to stop and ask yourself about the sincerity of your relationship with Jesus Christ. Don’t stop at statements or declarations such as, “I believe sincerely in Christ.” Look rather with a kind of ruthless honesty at the actual reality of how you live, your priorities and preferences, your scale of values, how you take decisions. If there is anything in these which is unworthy of Christ, surrender it to Him so that you may know a little more something of the passion for Jesus which moved the great heart and mind of the great St. Paul. Christ also calls us to greatness. Let us respond to Him while he is still near.