David Cregan, O.S.A.
Amos 6: 1, 4-7
Psalm 146: 7, 8-10
1 Tim 6: 11-16
Lk 16: 19-31
Nothing comes for free, or so the saying goes.
In order to be a successful student, an award-wining athlete or an effective professional, one must put considerable effort into study, training and work-place precision. Even in one’s personal life hard work must be put to carefully cultivate friendships, lovingly tend to marriage, and to diligently protect self-care against the external demands of the world.
While dedication and diligence in most areas of public and private advancement are widely accepted, if not successfully implemented, we rarely feel that those same qualities of hard work apply to our advancement on the spiritual journey. In fact, in many contemporary churches religion and faith are perceived to be just another public service, in place to advance our own opinions and to make us feel better about ourselves and our personal worldview. In other words, religion and faith are serving us, rather than the other way around. When we receive faith without thinking it requires effort and dedication in return, we may find consolation and freely distributed grace, but we also may become lazy and self-indulgent; getting stuck in a passive spiritual rut of rote responses and well-meaning but tired fulfillment of obligations. It is a sure sign that our pursuit of holiness has become lethargic if we find our spiritual lives merely reinforcing our prejudices, rather than challenging us to change.
In today’s second reading from 1 Timothy, the scripture is using much more active verbs to encourage us to be more eager and diligent in our pursuit of God. We hear, “But you, man of God, pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness. Compete well for the faith”.
Pursue? Compete? For our spiritual lives? Yes! In order to grow in the knowledge and the wisdom of God one must be active, energetic and ambitious. These verbs translate well into virtues, and for generations the Church has taught its children the virtue of fortitude as the key to growing in holiness and faith.
What is fortitude? As a spiritual virtue, fortitude is courage to believe in the face of the challenges of unbelief. It is an unwavering commitment to return to prayer whether we feel like it or not, to actively put effort to growing and learning about faith and God, even when the dividends are not so clear in the moment. I would even go so far as to say it is a kind of greed for grace, a hunger that drives us to want to know more about the things of heaven, a longing that continually moves us to pursue Jesus above all things. Fortitude keeps us in pursuit of contemplation and prayer, when the world is pulling us towards constant distraction and self-centeredness. Fortitude invites us to lean into Jesus in our joys and our struggles, and it teaches us that when we are faithful our adversity and challenges are the very place where we find the true gold of God’s proximity: His strength, and His faithfulness to us. Practicing fortitude encourages us to pour back to God the unconditional love that He pours out to us through our constancy and our faith-filled courage.
Both the first reading today from the Book of Amos and the Gospel from Luke warn us about complacency, and connect this danger with the distractions of uncritical engagement with material possessions. Here is where the vigorous encouragement of 1 Timothy can shed light on our work on the spiritual path. Anyone who competed for anything knows that sacrifices must be made. In our times, I believe that our greatest sacrifice might be opting for simplicity. In other eras human beings have sought most after learning, or God, or exploring, or other ventures that expand human understanding and gain wisdom. Our times seem to be marked with the endless, and often mindless, pursuit of stuff or, more plainly phrased, material possessions. This empty pursuit has little virtue connected to it and it tends to overfill us in such a way that the rigors of spiritual growth are not even within our field of aspiration. The soul is overcrowded because we are always on the verge of being hoarders of things to own, experiences to have, appetites to be satisfied and endless desires to be continually entertained. We are too rich with just about everything, and it is limiting our ability to pursue or compete for the things that really matter.
Luke’s Gospel today leaves us with a nugget of wisdom to overcome the lethargy and indulgence of our times. While he is using the parable to warn the over-privileged, like us, he also encourages us to listen. In listening to the scripture, in listening in mass, heavenly wisdom has the potential to break through human folly in order to guide us towards what is best.
While the wisdom of the world suggests that nothing comes for free, the wisdom of heaven informs us that all the grace we need for our salvation does. That grace continues to flow freely to us from God, not because we deserve it but because God loves us and wants all good things for us. Let us continue to make every effort to pursue that grace, and to compete for the things that will bring everlasting salvation. To vigorously “compete well for the faith”!