HOMILY for 3rd Ordinary Sunday
In 1939 Nicholas Winton was in Prague and realised that the Nazis would soon be invading and that many Jewish people faced a horrible fate. We might well have thought “It’s terrible, but what can I do?” Nicholas was not like that. He managed to arrange a series of trains to take 669 children to safety in London. Some might say “What about the thousands he didn’t save?” But the point is he did something. Even the smallest actions that do good are worth doing, and Christians are meant to have their eyes open all the time for such opportunities.
So St Paul in our 2nd reading today (1 Cor 7:29-32) reminds his listeners in dramatic style that they are not to sit around having nice spiritual feelings about the fact that God loves them. All of us need to realise that, as St Paul says, “Our time is growing short.” Even if we are only a teenager or a young adult, we never know when death will overtake us. But how do we do this? A young man asked me this on the Internet recently. Clearly his job is not obviously of service to others, and as a Christian he therefore wondered how it fitted in with what God wants him to do. My answer was this.
Most people will not be able to find jobs that provide instant help to others, as doctors or nurses, as teachers or care workers, or as a priest. Often they will simply have to do a job that happens to be available, and which may not be all that exciting or rewarding. Work, for them – for many of you – may well not be the thing in which they get much fulfilment, much sense that they are serving God. Nonetheless it is valuable in the sight of God. First of all, unless the work is sinful, because it contributes to the common good of society as a whole. This in itself is a good thing to do. Secondly, it is the way they make a living for themselves and their family if they have one. Then, because of that, it allows them to spend any spare time they have in other worthwhile ways -caring for their family, of course, or for others, and supporting some charity or community project, and working for their Church.
Most of us may not be able to take the dramatic action to save hundreds the way Nicholas Winton did, but every kind action, however small, matters to God. It is simply not Christian to sit around lazily saying “Oh there’s nothing much I can do.” Now we may be like Jonah in our 1st Reading. (Jonah 3:1-5.10) For if you remember, the first time God asked Jonah to speak for him, Jonah said what we can sometimes say, “Oh what’s the point? Nobody will listen to me.” This lovely fairy story makes the point very dramatically, because Jonah ends up swallowed by a whale and pushed back to where he came from. Then the next time God says “Up! Go!” He ups and goes. No more whales for him. Yes, God gives all of us more than one chance to respond to him, so we should never give up, if sometimes like Jonah we fail.
As you know I tend to avoid naming the sin that is the opposite of the virtue I am speaking about. But today I will. The sin is laziness – sloth! Now be careful here! This too can be easily misunderstood. We can end up, as some do, thinking we have to be endlessly doing things, being productive, and never give ourselves time to rest. This is where we should remember the commandment about the Sabbath. The literal interpretation of this is to keep one day a week as a rest day. But Jesus taught it differently. Remember how some people tried to stop Jesus healing on the Sabbath. His response was, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” So it is not the day itself but proper and regular rest that Jesus thinks is essential, not to work and fuss and fret as Martha did. She had to be told that Mary, sitting quietly at his feet, had chosen the better way.
St Benedict teaches this in his Rule for Monks, where he insists that they have a right balance in their lives. There are times when they must work. Times when they must pray. And times too when they must rest. For monks that can be laid out in a fairly strict timetable, for rarely is the regularity of their day interrupted. For us, it will be different. But it is still true that all of us should try to create some regularity in our lives in which we fit in the right amount of time to rest and relax, the right amount of time to pray, and the right amount of time to work in one way or another as I have already described.
Working out a pattern of life, what we sometimes call a Rule of Life, that suits us, is of course far from easy. I might well ask : Am I doing too much resting when I sit and watch the telly : or Am I working too hard if I get involved in some activity that goes on and on and never seems to stop: or Am I spending enough time, or too much time, in prayer? Anyway, our Rule of Life should not be something too hard for us. It is better to plan for 2 minutes prayer last thing at night, than aim for half an hour that we manage once, and then end up guilty because we never manage it again.
Here is a fierce warning from St Paul for the lazy! He writes “If any one will not work, let him not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies” (2 Thess 3:10-11) Even the retired need to remember this, & find useful and productive things to do, or if they are sick or housebound, to turn prayer for others & support by phone or over the Internet, as their work for God. Jesus said “You will know them by their fruits. Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matt 7:20-21) Yes, that’s the heart of what I am saying today. He calls us to follow him, to be active in his service in one way or another. Those fisherman in our Gospel (Mark 1:14-20) had no idea they would change the world; and we too should never underestimate what we can do if we get on with things, and allow God to work in and through us. This is the way to glory