Have you ever, when writing a letter or email, made a joke that degenerated, unbeknownst to you, into a perceived swipe, or a compliment that turned into a patronising remark? Your innocence, so carefully cultivated, lies in ruins. Beware, then, the perils of the written word.
The Gospel today reveals all the perils of the written word. It is the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount, that great collection of Jesus' moral teachings that covers three chapters of St. Matthew's Gospel.
How happy are the poor in spirit,
begins the sermon. But its conclusion is not, at first glance, a happy ending. It's not about salvation, but about devastation.
I have never known you,
Away from me!
It is not about building up, but about falling down.
And what a fall it had.
We are God's interlocutors in this reading, and beware the perils of the written word. Because this is not just a saying about those who do not reach salvation, but about knowing the Lord.
If there are those to whom the Lord says 'I have never known you!', then there must presumably be those whom the Lord has known. There are those who have fallen under the pressure of the storms, and there are those who have survived, solidly founded on the rock. Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more (cf. Rom 5:20).
Jesus begins this gospel by backing us into a corner. If we ask the question of the rich man, 'Good master, how do I inherit eternal life?', we could answer that we do so by faith. But Jesus says the opposite. We can call out 'Lord, Lord' as much as we like, but will not enter the kingdom of heaven.
All right so, we think to ourselves, that means we get in by doing good deeds. Not so, comes the reply. For even those who do the greatest deeds, casting out demons, prophesying with divine power, working miracles, these also are left outside, grinding their teeth as the feast begins.
Silent and lonely, we think to ourselves that there must be very few people in heaven, if neither faith nor works earns us a place inside. And indeed, we are right. Only one goes in:
the person who does the will of my Father in heaven.
Nobody but Jesus himself has accomplished without qualification the will of our heavenly Father. He alone inherits the kingdom of heaven.
If the rest of us inherit it, we must go in looking like Jesus. As Jacob inherited Esau's blessing by becoming like him (Gen 27), so we inherit Jesus' promise as sons in the Son, Christians in Christ. Next to such an accomplishment, all faith and all good works pale in comparison.
Thomas the Apostle stumbles on this truth in the fourteenth chapter of St. John's Gospel, admitting that, since he does not know where Jesus is going, does not know where heaven is, he cannot possibly know how to get there. But though he doesn't know where to go, the Master assures him, he still knows the way. Jesus is the way.
After the Reformation the bishops of the Church, gathered in 1547 for the Council of Trent, stated the same idea, that
neither faith nor works merit the grace of justification(Session, VI).
Salvation is a free gift, and knowing this is the beginning of knowing how to achieve it. To achieve it is to receive it.
The Christian life, then, is the challenge to receive the gift. How do we make ourselves an open door into which Christ can enter?
God himself has already begun this process by sending us the Holy Spirit in baptism and confirmation to (somehow) give us the power to become like Jesus, and by sending us Jesus' flesh and blood to make us members of his body. The sacraments are a free gift, and no church collection can change that. Salvation also is a gift.
And he who would enter the kingdom of God must do so like a little child, receiving the gift and holding it tight against all opposition. Irrespective of the wisdom of the adult world, we treasure this gift, knowing that there's much more to it than meets the eye. And, like an eternal Christmas morning, it will take a lifetime to unwrap.