Sunday, April 02, 2006

What does Jesus mean when he says, ‘Whoever LOVES HIS LIFE loses it, and whoever HATES HIS LIFE IN THIS WORLD will preserve it for eternal life’?

(Fifth Sunday of Lent (B): This homily was given on April 2, 2006 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read John 12: 20-33.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fifth Sunday of Lent 2006]

“Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.”

It’s a strange statement, isn’t it?

What exactly is Jesus getting at here?

I mean . . . It almost sounds as if he’s saying that this earthly life is bad!

But isn’t this earthly life a gift from God?

Aren’t we supposed to be grateful for it?

Aren’t we supposed to treasure it and be good stewards of it—taking care of our physical and emotional health and not abusing our bodies in any way?

The interesting thing is, Jesus would answer all those questions with a resounding Yes: yes, this life is a gift from God; yes, we should be grateful for it; yes, we should treasure it and be good stewards of it. But then he would add, “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.”

And Jesus would know that in giving us this answer he would not be contradicting himself!

How can that be?

Well, perhaps I can clarify the matter somewhat by paraphrasing this troublesome text for you. (I trust the Lord won’t mind me doing this. If, perchance, a lightening bolt should strike me in two seconds, you’ll know I was wrong!)

Here’s the paraphrase: Jesus said, “The person who lives his earthly life as if it were his only life, will not experience eternal life in heaven; but the person who values his life in this world less than he values eternal life, will experience eternal life in heaven.”

Let me now compare this paraphrase with the text itself.

When Jesus says, “Whoever loves his life loses it,” he is not implying that we should detest the natural life that God has given us on this planet. Not at all! Rather, he’s warning us not to act as if this life is the only life there is! He’s reminding us that this life only has relative value.

Do you believe that? Do you REALLY believe that?

If you do, then I would say that you’re probably in the minority right now—at least here in the United States (and in most other places in the western world). From my observation, people who currently live in western, technological societies like ours tend to be extremely passionate about activities like making money, getting ahead in the workplace, buying lots of stuff, and having a good time. That’s where their focus is. God, morality, spirituality—if they’re in the mix at all—tend to get put on the back burner. And if you don’t believe me, just ask our religious education director, Chris Magowan. She’s heard every excuse in the book in the last couple of years as to why students can’t fulfill their basic CCD obligations. And we don’t ask that much of them! For many—even here in our own community—anything and everything comes before Jesus. That’s just the way it is.

“Whoever loves his life loses it.”

In the same way, I think we all know of men and women who are also extremely passionate about their physical health—who wouldn’t miss a workout at the gym, who get all kinds of plastic surgery, and who are incredibly strict about their diets—but who almost totally neglect their souls. If you ask them about reps, calories, or good plastic surgeons, they can go on for hours; if you ask them about the last time they went to Mass or Confession, or the last time they read Scripture or prayed seriously, they scratch their heads. You might as well be talking a foreign language.

“Whoever loves his life loses it.”

Within reason, of course, it’s good to be concerned about our earthly needs and our physical well-being. It’s good to eat properly, and exercise regularly, and get a yearly physical. To use a biblical image, it’s good to take care of our “temples”—our temples of the Holy Spirit.

But when we start to act as if this life is the only one, chances are we will make too much of the physical, and miss out on our ultimate spiritual goal, which is heaven.

The new Catechism says it well. In paragraph 2288 it says that “life and physical health are precious gifts entrusted to us by God. We must take reasonable care of them, taking into account the needs of others and the common good.”

But then, in the very next paragraph, it reminds us that the “life of the body” is not an “absolute value”. If we do make it an absolute value, then we end up embracing what the Catechism calls “the cult of the body,” where we idolize physical perfection and become willing to sacrifice everything for its sake.

So you want to know why we have a steroid problem in the sports world right now? You want to know why so many women—and men—experience eating disorders these days?

It’s because we live in a society where the “cult of the body” is literally everywhere!

Jesus said, “Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life.”

From everything I’ve just shared with you, the meaning of the word “hate” in this passage should be now clear: it doesn’t mean “to detest”; rather, it means to “value to a lesser extent”. As I expressed it in my paraphrase a few moments ago: “the person who values his life in this world less than he values eternal life, will experience eternal life in heaven.”

This means that nothing else—absolutely nothing else—should be more important to us than getting into God’s eternal kingdom after we die! Saving our own soul, in other words, should be our top priority while we’re living on this earth!

Does that sound a little selfish to you? Perhaps it does, but it shouldn’t! In fact, it’s not selfish in the least! Because if my greatest concern is to get to heaven, then I will make every effort to live a life of charity—and mercy—and compassion: the kind of life that will keep me united to Christ; the kind of life that will get me through the Pearly Gates someday! And you—and everyone else—will benefit greatly from my kindness and generosity!

This, of course, is the meaning of life as the old Baltimore Catechism defined it, in answer to the question, “Why did God make me?”—“He made me to know him, to love him, and to serve him in this life, and to be happy with him forever in the next.”

I asked a teenager a few weeks ago to tell me what the meaning of life is, and he just shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t know.” He’s not alone. Many adults nowadays would do the same thing.

And that’s a very big part of the problem! Let’s face it, if you don’t know—and believe—that the goal of this earthly existence is heaven, you’ll probably value your earthly life too much. That is to say, you’ll value it much more than you value eternal life.

And we all know what Jesus said about that!

One more point needs to be made concerning this line of Scripture, and I’ll conclude with this thought: Jesus said these important and challenging words less than 7 days before his crucifixion and death. This means that he first spoke them, and then he went out and lived them! And this is verified for us in the letter to the Hebrews, chapter 12, where we are told “For the sake of the glory that lay before him [in other words, because of the goal he wanted to attain, namely heaven], Jesus endured the cross, heedless of its shame.” (Hebrews 12: 2)

We’ve been redeemed by the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, because our Lord valued heaven more than his mortal life here on earth.

But we will only be saved and end up in heaven ourselves, if we follow Jesus’ example, and put our values in that same order.