On September 11th each year, we remember the terrorist attacks in New York City and in the USA in 2001. In that connection, last month I reread the book Thunder Dog written by Michael Hingson with Susy Flory, published in 2011. It is the account of how a blind man (Michael Hingson) and his Seeing Eye dog named Roselle escaped from the 78th floor of Tower 1 on that fateful day.
On page 82 of that book we read how the firefighters were climbing up the stairs. They sacrificed their lives to assist others. At such a moment, a firefighter will give you emergency commands: telling you to avoid the elevator, to leave any relatives to them to care for, and to leave everything you own to walk down the stairs without panicking or running; to obey them completely, in order to save life – your own, and others.
We have that same kind of emergency demand in our Gospel passage today (Lk 14:25f). “Jesus’ words set forth three conditions of discipleship… the willingness to leave family ties, the willingness to face radical self-denial, and the willingness to give up one’s material possessions.”
So we can think of Jesus as a firefighter who speaks to us, sternly, when our house is burning down. The firefighter (Jesus), sacrificing his life, coming to rescue us, says, “Your only chance is to leave everything, and follow exactly what I say.”
To delay or to ignore the command of that firefighter would be to lose not only every person, and every possession, but also to lose one’s own self. To follow the instructions and example of the firefighter would be our only hope. Yet let us face it, many of us tend to ignore this stern demand from Jesus. Many of us tend to remain in a burning house, rationalizing why we need all our stuff.
This warning is repeated three times in Luke’s gospel; also, in Deuteronomy 30v15-20, in Psalm 1, and repeatedly through Christian history. It is the great choice of the two ways. It is a choice between faith and obedience as the one way; or the other way of clinging to material things as idolatry. It is an “everlasting choice, fraught with the destiny of life and death.”
Why would Jesus envision us as living in a burning house? Are we really living in a burning house? Perhaps there are indeed some ways in which we could see that our house is actually burning down!
One way in which our house is evidently burning down is this: On September 4 2016, the New York Times carried an article saying that the beaches of the USA are already under climate change erosion, which we can see on the sea coasts in this area (Massachusetts). Each one of us contributes to climate change through carbon fuel, when we turn on a switch, or when we buy an item which required carbon fuel to produce it. We appear to be in a vortex which cannot be stopped, and thousands of ocean side cities will drown.
Another way in which we could believe that our house may be burning is this: Consider the enormous risks of nuclear energy, both military and civilian. Nuclear energy has proven time and again to bring millions of people and the environment itself to grave straits or to death.
Beyond those two examples, we could think about our house burning if we consider the ever increasing rate and extent of warfare over the last century; if we consider the massive confrontation that is building up between religious groups in the world; if we consider the confrontation between economic disparities; if we consider the enormous buildup of garbage floating as islands in the oceans; if we consider the rate of extinction of wildlife; and more.
St. Luke thought this message was an important thing for Christians to absorb: to follow Jesus with the willingness to leave family ties, with the willingness to face radical self-denial, and with the willingness to give up our material possessions. Taken with the book of Philemon, we read of St Paul’s call to do the same, in his statement of a Christian appeal to dissolve the bonds of slavery.
Don’t invest in a house which is already burning down. The only rescue is to follow Jesus and invest in a house which will endure forever.
St Francis of Assisi and those in the religious orders through the centuries are examples of people who have carried out these words of Jesus in a literal way. We thank God for Mother Theresa of Kolkata who was sainted today (September 4 2016).
Those of us who are married or have families would find it more difficult to implement these words of Jesus literally. We can perhaps take these words of Jesus in a way which refers to our attitudes. Our attitude would be that any person, any relationship, any event, and any material good always depends on God’s will. We should never consider it “ours”, and never deal with it in a way which is detrimental to the health of the planet. We should live simply, sustainably, and generously.
St Therese of Avila (whose words have been sung by John Michael Talbot) put this same thought in a beautiful way that we can dwell upon and contemplate: Everyone who has God has everything. Do not despair, do not doubt, and do not seize upon and clutch to things. Do not fear, but have self restraint and patience. Everyone who has God has everything.