In this past Sunday’s Gospel, we heard Jesus issue a challenge to an earnest young man who wanted to know how to secure life beyond the grave. First, he was reminded of the Ten Commandments. The young man assured Jesus that he was keeping these. Considering this, Jesus upped the ante, telling the man to sell his belongings and give to the poor. But Jesus didn’t stop there. He concluded by saying, “Then come, follow me.”
Many commentators and homilists focus on the second part of Christ’s response to the young man (and rightly so). The message is not that wealth is bad, but that all manner of attachments can limit our ability to fully embrace the Cross. Moreover, we need to be reminded from time to time of the beautiful arithmetic of our faith. Adding treasures on earth may actually result in a net deficit in the heavenly realm.
Yet, this week, I am less focused on the challenge to live simply or to detach from possessions, and more on the three words of invitation. Presumably following Jesus would mean living like the disciples lived. They moved from place to place. They relied on support from others for their food and lodging at times. And they had to slow down the pace every time a hurt, broken, or anxious person wanted to ask Jesus for guidance or healing. Consider this: at the very start of the Gospel reading, we find the men on their way to something else: “As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up…” They were interrupted yet again.
I couldn’t find much context for where Jesus and the disciples were headed that day. It seems like earlier in the Gospel they had progressed from one side of Judea to the other. Not being a Biblical scholar, I don’t know how long this took; if it was a cross-country road trip or a short jaunt to a neighboring town. But I do know that the frustration that I feel when interrupted on the way to do good work is one of my worst failings. I’m going to guess that fiery men like the Apostle Peter probably found the interruption aggravating too. I can picture Peter slapping his forehead in dismay when he saw the young man run up to Jesus, perhaps even muttering under his breath about these constant stops and starts. A big crowd could be waiting to hear his leader’s profound message of salvation. Maybe there were some influential Pharisees to wrangle with. The last thing they needed was another pause on the way to the main event.
I have served as a full-time volunteer with an income well below the poverty line. I have embraced simple living and cast off belongings in order to take mission-minded jobs. I have not come to terms with the part of the invitation to discipleship that asks me to welcome interruptions. Christ’s way of being in the world suggests I do more than deal with interruptions with a strained smile. The call to follow seems to imply that I intentionally create space for the unexpected demand. Like many busy professionals, I see efficiency as a hallmark of competency. I schedule conversations with my significant other on how travel logistics can be arranged to maximize the short weekends that typify a long distance relationship. I stay late for the silence of an empty office to avoid the humanness that hinders my flow.
At the end of June there was an article in the New York Times that rocketed up my Facebook feed faster than “Binders Full of Women”. Author Tim Kreider talked about the “self-imposed” busyness that is rampant in our modern culture. My friends and I paused long enough to scan it, repost it, and even to mention it in a faith-sharing group. It felt good to de-busy ourselves over the summer and almost seemed like we achieved a bit more sanity. Then September returned with full force. We slipped back under the tide of commitments and appointments, fundraisers and networking events, Bible studies and choir practices that leave little room for deviation from the schedule.
I’m not only speaking of the unanticipated errand of replacing a burned out headlight that will result in a ticket if I put it off for too long. I am also referring to the pause on a walk from one side of the parish to the other when I am often stopped by a parishioner wanting to know if they can schedule a room in the center, right there, in the parking lot, while I am clearly on my way to do something else. Or the moment that happened yesterday, when I decided that maybe my persistent headache was resulting from a lack of food and I decided to stop for five minutes before my next appointment to make a sandwich. Isn’t that the moment when the rectory doorbell rang and my visitor arrived early?
If I had done what I usually do when interrupted, I would have missed the best part of my day—actually of the week. Thankfully, Christ’s invitation to follow him was still ringing in my ears. Instead of one peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I made two. Then the visitor and I sat in the old rectory kitchen talking about school and family. The young man grew up in a different faith tradition, something similar to the one I was raised in. Out of his curiosity and my convert’s zeal, the discussion touched on some of the misunderstandings that plague the Catholic Church in America. The priest stopped in to say hello and in his own generous way underlined my claim that authentic, dynamic faith is alive and well in the Church. We eventually got around to discussing the purpose for his visit, a college service-learning assignment, and walked over to the center to work on the project.
Absent the early arrival, absent the room in my schedule for a shared meal, I would have sped right past a graced space where the Spirit was at work. During this Year of Faith, the call to enter into a deeper relationship with Jesus means that I must seek to understand how he lived as a human person on earth. He lived with the same twenty-four days that I do and the same need for sleep and sustenance. Yet he also exercised a powerful ability to be fully present to the persons around him. If I am to offer the world “the gifts of faith, hope, love and new life in Christ” that are a part of the New Evangelization, then I must welcome the very interruptions that mysteriously create the space to do so.