Catholic Homily / Sunday Reflection

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B)

August 23, 2009

All three readings today revolve around the basic idea of choice. In the first reading, we are presented with a dramatic call made to the tribes of Israel by Joshua, asking them to decide, that is, to make a choice between two false gods. Joshua, the same passage tells us, was clear about his own choice: “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” St. Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, illustrates as best he could, culling from the culture and practice of his times, what choosing to “live in Christ, as Christ loved us” meant. Choosing to live in Him entails, in concrete, a life of mutual fidelity to one another, a life of mutual service. Nowhere is this love of mutuality and selfless service to each other, coming closest to taking part and sharing in Christ’s paschal mystery – His death and life – as in the love that ought to reign between husbands and wives. The Gospel, for its part, presents Jesus asking his disciples after a great many from the erstwhile enthusiastic crowd of followers chose to leave – unable to take the “hard sayings” of the Lord: “Do you also want to leave?”

Today’s readings portray monumental and decisive choices made by several individuals: Joshua, the Israelite tribes, Paul, and Jesus’ disciples. All their choices were clear: “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” “Far be it from us to forsake the Lord for the service of other gods.” “Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.” “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”

All choices were made in the context of a very clear and distinct call from above. “Decide today whom you will serve,” Joshua said unequivocally to the people. “Live in Christ as Christ loved us […] This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the Church.” Nowhere is this distinct and clear call from above more evident than in what the Lord Jesus Christ told his temporarily wavering disciples: “The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and life.” Jesus, indeed, was speaking like he was presenting his case before his listeners, pleading with them to decide and choose – choose to follow Him and His words, and live!

Life-enabling choices! … This is the stuff of which these decisions and choices are made! These are choices that lead to life, to grace, to growth, to goodness, to perfection, and – ultimately – to God!

We all know what its exact opposite is – life-disabling or life-draining choices. These we do when we mistake the means for the goal, the tool for the target, the tree for the forest. These happen when we, in short-sighted fashion, “work for food that perishes;” when we substitute creature comfort and material goods for the ultimate Good, when lesser good becomes the end-all and be-all of our lives. The Bible has a name for this. It is called sin, which, among others, means “missing the mark.” It means to absolutize what is basically relative and contingent, to give them a value far beyond and above what they really all are: material, and therefore, dispensable reality.

We live in a world that is awash in choices. An endless array of options captivates our eyes each and every single day. A great many of those choices, needless to say, really do not have great impact on our lives, like the daily choices we make about what to eat for breakfast, and the like. But there are indeed choices and decisions that have a lot to do with the overall tenor of our lives. These are some kind of umbrella choices that cover for all the rest of the little, seemingly insignificant choices we make every single day. Theologians, for years, have been talking about this phenomenon, calling such a choice “fundamental option.”

This is the choice that either leads to death or to life. This is the choice that puts our life either in union or “out of synch” with that of Christ, and His Spirit who dwells in the Church. This is the sort of choice that makes us real sharers and partakers of the passion, death and resurrection of Christ Jesus our Lord.

The fact that certain choices can make or break us in the long run is easy enough for us to understand in our daily lives. No one decides one day to be fat and overweight. One simply makes a series of seemingly insignificant choices every day, choosing to eat in an unhealthy manner, choosing certain foods that make for empty calories. or choosing to live a lifestyle devoid of healthy exercise and some form of what psychologists call “eustress” or good, necessary form of healthy stress. Similarly, no one decides to be a bad man in an instant. One simply chooses to act in a way that is less than good every single day. One simply chooses to follow the call of evil, that may seem, on the short haul, as something too insignificant, too trivial, or too flimsy to matter at all. In the same vein, one does not decide one morning not to be a good and practicing Catholic. One simply decides not to live the way he or she believes on a daily basis. Daily prayer goes out the window gradually. Soon, Sunday duties take the back seat of one’s priorities, replaced by a life of sports and leisure, perhaps. And soon enough, not living the way one believes, would make one believe the way he or she lives. One simply decides to make choices that are life-draining, rather than life-giving. One makes a fundamental option, albeit subtly and unwittingly. And such a fundamental choice is not traceable to one single isolated choice in the course of one’s life, but is made up of a series of single choices all stacked together, as it were..

The Liturgy of today is a clear and distinct call for us to make the choices that matter. Our response after the first reading clinches it all when we proclaimed: “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.” Indeed, amidst the multiplicity of daily choices that we make, there are those that lead us to taste and see God’s goodness, and those that leave a bitter aftertaste in the mouth. In this pluralistic world, immersed as we all are in a sea of major and minor decisions to make, the daily little choices that we make spell life or its opposite. In and through such choices and decisions, we either draw closer to the goal of our lives, or go farther from it.

A current illustration from a popular movie based on a real story is the series of choices made by Frank Abignale, Jr. (Catch Me If You Can). Whilst the ending is a happy one, with the main character ultimately becoming reformed, successful and well-adjusted in society, his gradual descent into the underworld of professional con artists did not happen in one single instant. His defrauding society of millions of dollars, his fooling so many people so many times, were born of little choices he made along the way. Those little choices, that began when he was barely 17 years old, led him to become among the most wanted criminals in American for a long while (that is, until he found the light and reformed himself).

We become what we choose. Today, as in every other single day, we would do well to look at the choices that we make. Are they life-enabling or life-draining choices? The psalmist gives us an example to follow: “I will bless the Lord at all times: his praise shall be ever in my mouth.” The disciples give us more: “Your words, Lord, are spirit and life; you have the words of everlasting life.” It is never too late to start making choices that really matter!