The Width of the Door of Faith, Catholic Online Year of Faith Homily Series, August 20, 2013

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Catholic Online Homily Series for the Year of Faith
August 20, 2013

In his letter announcing the Year of Faith, Pope Benedict encouraged us all to pass through the “door of faith” anew, reminding us that that door is always open for us, ushering us into the life of communion with God and others.

A door is always a symbol of a passage from something to something else. We leave something behind in order to embrace something new. There’s a cost but there’s also a greater reward.

Today in the Gospel, Jesus describes for us the width of the door of faith, what we leave behind on the outer threshold, and what we gain when we pass through the portal.

Jesus first compares the breadth of the door of faith into his kingdom to the width of a needle’s eye, declaring to the astonishment of his disciples that it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person, like the Rich Young Man we encountered in yesterday’s Gospel, to enter the kingdom of heaven.

The disciples, few of which would have been wealthy by material standards, nevertheless took Jesus’ words personally, asking, “Then who can be saved?” They knew what Jesus meant, which is to pass through the door of faith into his kingdom we must be willing to detach ourselves from our possessions, to do what the Rich Young Man didn’t believe he could, to live the first beatitude and acquire true spiritual poverty because we find our wealth in God’s kingdom. We cannot serve both God and mammon. Either we leave our attachments mammon to pass through the door of faith into Christ’s kingdom or we hold on to the mammon, like the Rich Young Man and remain outside.

There’s a story that an African priest tells about how hunters catch monkeys in his country that illustrates this central truth very well. The hunters start by slicing a coconut in two and hollowing it out. In one half of the shell they cut a hole just big enough for a monkey’s hand to pass through; in the other they place a large orange. Then they tie the two halves together, hang the coconut from a tree, and retire into the bushes to wait. Sooner or later a monkey swings by, with his superior olfactory capabilities detects the smell of an orange inside the coconut, and slips his hand through the hole trying to extract his prize. Naturally he fails. While the monkey is struggling with the orange, the hunters approach and capture the monkey by throwing a net over it. As long as the monkey keeps its fist wrapped around the orange, the monkey is trapped. The animal is not smart enough to realize that he cannot have both the orange and his freedom. He could save himself simply by letting go of the orange. But the animal is trapped by his own greed.

No matter what tax bracket we’re in, all of us have similar oranges that we need to let go of in order to live by faith. “The love of money,” St. Paul tells us, “is the root of all evil.” It’s not the money itself that is the problem, but the fact that it comes to possess us rather than the other way around. Pope Francis has been speaking out forcefully since the beginning of his pontificate about what he calls the “ferocious idolatry of money” that corrupts our relationships with God, with others, and with the material world, leading to a “spiritual worldliness” that places our faith, hope and love in material securities rather than in God. Rather than true worship, the cult of money just reinvents the worship of the golden calf of old.

That’s why, to live by faith in God, we have to be willing to let go of our oranges, because we can’t really fit through the door of faith if we continue to grasp on to them.

What do we gain let go of the orange and grasp on to God’s hand leading us across the threshold? That was St. Peter’s question. “We have given up everything and followed you,” the Rock declared. “What will there be for us?” This was not a selfish question, but just a question of whether even after leaving “everything” out of faith in Jesus, that faithful sacrifice would be enough.

Jesus swore an oath in response indicating that those who have followed him, who have placed him above houses, family and lands, will receive one-hundred times as much and eternity. Like with Job who lost so much only to gain so much more after his test of faith, so those who give detach themselves from the blessings of this world that can occasionally become idols in order to attach themselves fully to God are promised unfathomable dividends.

He finished by stating, “But many who are first will be last and the last will be first.” Many of those seem rich will be poor and many who seem poor will be rich, because they are rich in God.

The validity of that principle was seen in the first reading about Gideon. Gideon was the last candidate any headhunter would have identified to serve as a judge and save the Israelites from the Midianites. He was the least of his family and his family the least of Manasseh, but God always chooses the weak to shame the strong. Later in the story God whittled Gideon’s army from 32,000 down to 300 in order to take on 135,000 Midianites. It was like David versus 450 Goliaths, but Gideon still prevailed.

St. Bernard, the great twelfth century doctor of the Church whose feast day we celebrate today, is another example of someone who gave up so much to pass through the door of faith and gained so much more. He was born of a rich, noble family, but left it all behind in order to enter a new community of strict followers of the Benedictine Rule living in complete austerity, called the Cistercians, in the woods of France. In its first 15 years the community seemed to be going nowhere and was down to only two members when one day Bernard arrived, with 28 others. The community, built on faith, started to experience an incredible growth, more than 100 fold in monasteries, monks and lands, but most importantly in those who were living a life destined to lead them to an eternal inheritance.

St. Bernard is one of the greatest preachers in the history of the Church on the love of God. He would preach so powerfully about the riches of God’s love that parents who didn’t want to “lose” their children to a religious vocation would try to prevent them from going to listen to him. So often the life of faith — especially the life of total commitment to God as lay people in the world, as religious or consecrated, as priests — is looked at mainly in terms of what is being up rather than being gained. Especially today in an age of growing secularism and fear of commitment, the Christian vocation is seen primarily a path of renunciation that the world believes cannot really deliver happiness. For that reason, people stay on the outside of the door of faith, perhaps entering for a visit but staying as close as they can to the door as an “exit strategy.” St. Bernard showed a different way by focusing on all that we gain from a life of closer union, so that we would enter through the door of faith and keep moving into the various stages of the interior mansion where Christ wants to guide us to the treasures that the IRS can’t tax or rust corrode.

During this Year of Faith, the Church is calling us, like God called Abraham, to leave our own Ur of the Chaldeans and follow him on a journey. She’s summoning us, like Christ called the apostles, to leave behind so many good things of the world in order to purchase the pearl of great price. She’s moving us, like she moved the heart of St. Bernard and through him so many others, to connect faith and love and pass definitely through the eye of the needle, taking with us the only thing that can fit, generous deeds of love for God and others.

If Abraham, Gideon, the Apostles, Bernard and so many others have made it, we can, too.