Sunday, January 22, 2017

In the Christian Life, What’s Most Important is What You Take with You, Not What You Leave Behind

(Third Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on January 22, 2017 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 4: 12-23.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Third Sunday 2017]

Several years ago Randy Travis came out with a song entitled, “Three Wooden Crosses.”  It’s about three people who die in a tragic bus accident while on their way down to Mexico.  I’m sure many of you have heard it.  The refrain to that song has these lines in it: “I guess it’s not what you take when you leave this world behind you.  It’s what you leave behind you when you go.”

Now from one perspective I would say that Randy Travis is absolutely correct.

But from another perspective I would say the exact opposite is true.  In fact, from a distinctively Christian point of view, I would say that what’s most important is what you take with you, and not what you leave behind.

This is an insight we get in the New Testament, in passages like the one we just heard as today’s gospel reading.  Here, in Matthew 4, Jesus calls four men to be his apostles—his full-time, fully-committed followers: Peter and Andrew and James and John.

He calls, and they follow—immediately, without any hesitation (probably because they had already encountered Jesus at least one time previously).

Think of all they left behind in responding to the words of Jesus as they did.  They left behind their fishing businesses; they left behind their families (although I’m sure they made arrangements for them to be provided and cared for).  They left behind their friendships, their possessions, their homes.  As Peter said to Jesus later on in Matthew 19, “We have left everything to follow you!”

Obviously they left behind a great deal.

But what did they take with them?  They left behind some very important relationships and parts of their lives, that’s true, but what did they take with them when they began to accompany Jesus that day?

Very simply, they took with them A DESIRE—A HOLY DESIRE!  They took with them a desire to follow Jesus faithfully and to do his perfect and holy will in their lives!

In other words, they took with them the desire to do what’s most important in life!  Now, as we all know, this desire that they had—the desire to do God’s will—did not always prevail in them.  They were weak human beings just like the rest of us.  Sometimes this desire was overridden by things like fear (as was the case for Simon Peter on Holy Thursday when he denied Jesus 3 times) or doubt (as was the case for Thomas after the resurrection)—but it was always present to some extent.  And eventually it became the driving force in their lives.

That’s why they’re all canonized saints!  They took with them the desire to do God’s will when Jesus called them away from their fishing businesses, they lived with that desire in their hearts until they died (most by martyrdom), they produced good fruit in the process, and they took that good fruit with them into the Lord’s eternal kingdom.

There’s a great line in the Book of Revelation that says this beautifully.  It reads, “Happy are the dead who die in the Lord!  Yes, they shall find rest from their labors, for their good works accompany them.”  (Rev. 14:13)

The saints—that is to say, all those who are saved—take their good works with them when they leave this life, and those good works reap from God an eternal reward.

What’s ultimately most important is what you take with you, not what you leave behind.

This is certainly something we all need to be aware of.  But it’s also something that we need to share with others—especially, I dare say, people we know who are in public life.  I say that because their tendency these days is to reverse this truth—with potentially disastrous consequences.  Their tendency these days is to focus on what they leave behind, not on what they take with them.  Have you noticed that?  Have you noticed how many of our politicians and other public figures are focused on—some would say “obsessed with”—their “legacies”?  They’re consumed with the desire to be recognized for their worldly achievements, and with the desire to be written about favorably in history books in future generations.  That’s the driving force in their lives of public service.  And the tragic irony is that many of these public figures have promoted evils like abortion and euthanasia and “same sex marriage”—which means that even though they may be leaving behind what they consider to be a great legacy, what they’re actually taking with them is a lot of sinful behavior—sinful behavior that they will someday have to answer for.

That’s why we need to pray for our president and for all those who hold public office—every day!

So in conclusion I invite you to ponder this question during the coming week.  It’s really one of the most important questions you will ever reflect on in your life:

If I died today, what would I take with me?  What would be in my “spiritual luggage” (so to speak)?

Hopefully we will come to the realization that if we died today we would take with us the same kind of desire and good works that Peter and Andrew and James and John took with them when they left this earthly life 2,000 years ago. 

And if, perchance, we don’t come to that realization, hopefully we will get to confession in the very near future, and begin repacking our bags.