The priest was assisting an old reprobate to die “in the Lord” by squeezing out of him some expression of sorrow, contrition, a basic openness to God’s merciful forgiveness. Sensing that he was making little if any progress, and feeling very frustrated, he said to him, “Now listen to me, man! Time may be very short for you, and you’ve got to make up your mind right away. Is it going to be heaven or hell?” The old fellow’s face twisted and frowned with agonizing slowness as he found voice to say, “Ah, Father, you’ve hit on the problem I’ve been struggling with all my life. I just can’t decide. I never could: I want to go to heaven for the climate, but to hell for the company.”
A purely fictitious tale, of course, and based on some pretty bad theology; but it contains nonetheless a core of wisdom. First of all, “deciding” is a problem for many of us because often it can mean committing ourselves to a never-ending series of yeses and nos – yes to something we don’t want to do and no to something we crave. That’s difficult, demanding, wearing. How much easier to do always what pleases and gratifies us.
Difficult for another reason, too: frequently we don’t understand well enough the options offered to us for what they really are. For example: why did the old man assume that all the “fun” people are in hell and imply that, despite its idyllic climate, heaven is an awfully stuffy place? (You realize, I hope, that these images are not to be taken literally but rather that they conform to popular notions of the after-life that are more superstitions and ignorant conjecture than anything else.)
The two main readings today are about deciding. The passage from the Hebrew Bible has the prophet Joshua challenging the Israelites to “fish or cut bait,” as we might put it today. “Decide NOW,” he says, “whom you’re going to serve. Will it be the Lord God who has been revealed to us as God of eternal life, or will it be the marble gods that are honored in the pagan land where you now live? Will you be faithful to the one & only true God, or will you save your hides by submitting to the safe, the convenient, the expected worship of social idols?”
And then, in the excerpt from John’s gospel, the words of Jesus seem to imply that he is more than a little frustrated by his followers’ continuing doubts concerning his authenticity – their refusal to believe who he is and what his mission is, despite the many signs he had given them.
Our problem is not that we don’t believe in him. We do. Our problem is more likely to be in translating that belief into consistent faith behavior, faith action, wherein we set out always to do what we think Jesus himself would do in the same circumstances.
Our gods are not made of marble; they are money, success, the job, social acceptance, recognition, power, convenience, pleasure, and so many others.
No matter our age, the warning of the impatient priest in the story that began this homily is really on target: time is short, and we must allow the Spirit to move us toward fuller and less-compromised commitment to what is right and true and good.
Unless I make real progress in that direction myself this very week, my words to you today are empty and meaningless.
Spirit of God, fill us with your grace!