TO THE NEXT LEVEL: A HOMILY ON THE FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT, YEAR C
One phrase that every Nigerian can understand is ‘Next Level’. This was the motto of President Buhari in the just concluded presidential election. With this phrase, he promises to take Nigeria to what he calls the ‘Next Level’. His supporters are excited about the idea of ‘Next Level’ while his oppositions are wondering what ‘Next Level’ really means. Some have jokingly said that ‘Next Level’ does not necessarily presuppose a level forward. On the contrary, it could mean a level backward. Now that he has won the election, it is up to him to vindicate himself. As we begin this parish retreat, we will adopt this as our motto for this retreat. God is inviting us to allow Him to take our spiritual life to the next level. He is inviting us to allow Him to take every aspect of our lives to the ‘Next Level’. Are we going to be like the Jews? Are we going to be like St. Paul? Are we going to be like the Corinthians? Are we going to be like the younger brother? Are we going to be like the older brother? It is up to us.
In those days: The Lord said to Joshua, “This day I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.” While the sons of Israel were encamped in Gilgal they kept the Passover on the fourteenth day of the month at evening in the plains of Jericho. And on the next day after the Passover, on that very day, they ate of the produce of the land, unleavened cakes and perched grain. And the manna ceased on the next day, when they ate of the produce of the land, and the sons of Israel had manna no more, but ate of the fruit of the land of Canaan that year: If we take this story backward, we will realise that the Israelites had gone through many levels to come to where they are now. They were slaves in Egypt and this is their lowest level. But when God brought them out of Egypt, many of them complained and even expressed to Moses their wish to return to Egypt. God respected their wish by the fact that none of them, including Moses made it to the promised land. In this reading, we see Joshua, a man whose name means the same thing as the name of Jesus, a man who images Jesus to us in so many ways. He is the one who led the Israelites to the next level. At this level, they no longer need the manna. Egypt is gone and even the manna in the desert is gone. Now they are at the next level, eating the fruit of the promised land. God has made us many promises, but sometimes there is a desert between Egypt and the promised land. This desert can make us wish to go back to Egypt, so much so that we prefer to go backward instead of forward. What a shame this can be. The period of Lent proceeds Easter to remind us that we have to go through the desert to reach the promised land. Even in that desert, God will not leave us without help. He will send us the manna to sustain us. But we should not be like the Israelites who were so afraid to enter the promised land that they had to lie about the nature and people of the promised land, just to discourage themselves from entering it.
God is giving us this retreat as a promise that in spite of whatever desert we may be in, He has sent us His son, Jesus (Joshua), who will take us to the next level. Jesus gives us the manna to (Eucharist) to sustain us for now. But when we really see God face to face and enter into His beatific vision, the Eucharist and every other good thing we enjoy in this world will no longer be necessary. Many people will wonder if there is food in heaven, if one can be married there, if there is alcohol, etc. The level we will be at in heaven is such that all these things will be rendered unnecessary. Nobody can see God face to face and be capable of desiring anything else. God always wants to take us to the next level, but our major problem is giving up the level we are at now. God wants to take us to the promised land, but we want to return to Egypt. How can we go to the next level, while clinging to the old levels? Many of us may feel that we are so faithful to God, and so we have nothing to repent from. But there are two directions towards which we can be lost.
THE PRODIGAL SONS
At that time: The tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, “THis man receives sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “There was a man who had two sons; and the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that falls to me.’ And he divided his living between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took his journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in loose living. And when he had spent everything, a great famine arose in that country, and he began to be in want. So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have fed on the pods that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants.”‘ “And he arose and came to his father. But while he was yet a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ “But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And the began to make merry. “Now his elder son was in the field; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what this meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has received him safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Behold, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command; yet you never gave me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your living with harlots, you killed for him the fatted calf!’ “And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead, and is alive, he was lost, and is found.”‘: Here we have the story of two sons. The younger brother felt that being with his father is being backward, so he demanded a share of his inheritance and went as far as possible from his father. Many of us over the years have gone far from God and far from where we should be. This is a time for us to decide between feeding pigs or returning to the Lord. For such people, this retreat is a time when God the Father is running to meet them halfway, to embrace them and to kiss them. Imagine an old man running on the street. This is the image of the God who is running to meet you. It means God cannot wait to meet you. For these kinds of people, salvation is easier than they thought. This boy expected a long process, but his father made it very easy.
But the biggest problem in this story, believe it or not, is the eldest son. He is you and I in church today. We are praying, fasting, giving alms, etc. But why? The worse temptation we will face in life is not the temptation to do something wrong. It is the temptation to do the right thing for this wrong reason. It is a bad temptation because those who fall for it usually do not think anything is wrong with them. They think that by going to church regularly and keeping the commandments, they are now at the highest level. But this high level can make us to see those who do not do the things we don’t do and we get angry with God for blessing them. We start comparing our lot in life to theirs and we start getting jealous, to a point that we will think they are being rewarded for doing evil. At this point, we would have degenerated to a very low-level without knowing it. One way to know we have come to this level is when we no longer see the so-called sinners as our brothers and sisters. He refered to his brother as ‘this son of yours’. But his father said to him ‘your brother’. If you see a known criminal, a known prostitute and you avoid them, then you are like the elder brother.
The level of the younger brother was the level of autonomy, where we want the freedom to do what we like. This is very dangerous as we have seen. The level of the elder brother is the level of heteronomy, where we are obedient to authority. As good as this is, the danger of it is that it can lead us to self-righteousness. The level we need to be is the level of the father, who sees beyond the faults of his children and runs towards the disobedient one, and walks to meet the obedient one. This level is the level of theonomy, it is the level where our hearts become like the heart of God. What we want is not to be a bad person. What we want is not even to be called a good person. What we want is to become like God. That is the level where God wants to take us.
ST. PAUL AND THE CORINTHIANS
Brethren: If any one is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. So we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.: The Corinthians believed that if someone is truly a servant of God, that person should not experience any suffering in his/her life. For this reason, it was hard for them to listen to St. Paul, who was always in one problem or another. St. Paul on the other hand wrote this letter to explain to them the true meaning of following Christ. They looked at him as someone whose level had deteriorated. But he is writing to explain to them that whoever is in Christ is on the highest level. Old things have passed away and new things have come. One of the new things that comes with following Christ is a new way of seeing things, even a new way of seeing suffering. The most important thing for St. Paul is to be reconciled to God. So, when we talk of next level, let us look at it from every aspect of our lives. Let us think of next level in our work-place, next level in our family life, next level in our relationship with God, next level of conversion and repentance, next level of drawing closer to God, next level in our attitude towards life, in our understanding of suffering, next level in how we see the next person. Let us come to the next level of saying ‘I will arise and go to my father’. Let us come to the next level of seeing that terrible person and instead of saying ‘this son of yours’ say ‘this is my brother/sister’. Let us come to the next level of running to meet that person. In what aspect of your life do you need to get to the next level. Jesus (Joshua) can take you there.