Fr Robert McNamara
Most of us have tasted the bitter fruit of exclusion at some point in our lives. In the town where I grew up, there was a sharp distinction between the “townies” and lads from outside the town. Apparently, I fell into the latter category, although our house was only what my granny called “a hen’s race” from the centre of the town! One day, I walked into town with my dad, and met a group of my “townie” classmates building a treehouse. I desperately wanted to join them, but was firmly rebuffed by the solemn pronouncement: “you’ll never be one of us!”
God’s Word this weekend stresses that the opposite is and always will be the case when it comes to the fathomless dimensions of God’s divinely merciful heart. In the first reading from towards the end of the book in chapter 66, Isaiah offers us a wonderful vision of universal in-gathering, where, along with Israel, all the other nations of the earth are welcomed, if they are willing to walk in God’s ways. Some of them will even be made priests and levites in the Jerusalem temple! Interestingly, this motif brackets Isaiah’s book, where at the beginning, in chapter 2, we see all the nations of the earth encouraging each other to climb the mountain of the Lord, that they may walk in His ways, and turn their spears into ploughshares, a hope needed today more than ever in the conflict-points of our world. We see this aspiration echoed also in the New Testament, in Caiphas’ prophecy that Jesus would have to die to gather together the scattered children of God. (John 11:52)
Freely choosing to walk in God’s ways and then putting this into practice will result in what Jesus terms the Kingdom of God, a very different state of affairs where the last will be first and the first, last. The point to remember is that the unconditional welcome on offer for all peoples depends upon our choice to walk in God’s ways. So often, we are told that God “takes us where we’re at.” True, but only so that He can urge us to be someone and somewhere better! That’s why Jesus stretches us somewhat in the Gospel this week. Entering heaven by the narrow gate will be the result of taking time in prayer to know Him, and humbly allowing ourselves to be known by Him, warts and all. We are welcomed unconditionally into the heart of God, yes, but on His terms, not ours. If we really are to walk in His ways, there will be a need somewhere in my life story for conversion, change, and repentance.
We can apply this to the discussion currently happening about the preparations for the up-coming Synod, and the recently-submitted opinions of people regarding where the Church needs to change. We are told, rightly, that we are on this journey of faith together, laity and ordained, and that we must now be primarily a listening and accompanying Church, listening to the experiences of the excluded, listening to the lived experiences of people.
There is no doubt that, in the past, the Church as an institution arrogantly excluded sections of God’s people, and dismissed the wisdom and experience of the people in the pew, who were so often made to feel that that their role was merely to “pray, pay, and obey.”
But are the synodal discussions unconsciously being influenced by the prevailing culture of relativism, where there are no absolutes, where I have nothing to learn and nobody will tell me how to live my life, where “your truth” is as good as mine and all we need to do is to listen to each-other, where there is no sense of the numinous, the supernatural? For example, have those well-meaning people calling for change in Church teaching taken the time to inform themselves of what the Church actually teaches about a given issue, and indeed we could ask, has the Church taught clearly on these issues?
Because, at the end of the day, Jesus sent us to teach all nations. (Matt. 28:20). The Church has a deposit of wisdom to offer, which is not mere subjective opinion. It’s inspired by the Holy Spirit, and taught by some of the greatest minds in Christendom. The Church’s mission is to evangelize the world, not vice versa. So we accompany people, yes, but with a purpose: to come to that freedom and faithfulness in Christ which will enable them to make the last first and the first last in a more just world, but ultimately to gain them eternal life with God in heaven.