I am not a parent in case you didn’t know. Yet a good many people I meet will address me as “Father.” So, I take the opportunity to let you know that “Father” is not my given name. While among Catholics addressing a priest “Father” has historical precedence and is primarily a title of affection, the actual title I received at ordination was “Reverend.” But don’t call me that. It’s really only used in formal correspondence and exclusive social circles. That said, I have never passed on my DNA. I am legally bound by affinity only to my parents, my siblings, and their children. And I am not currently or in future paying for anyone’s college education. My claim to any kind of fatherhood which many consider spiritual has a number of significant limitations. For instance, if I impose challenging demands even of a spiritual nature and especially in matters governed by canon law, I am aware you always have the option of getting a second opinion or ignoring entirely what I say. We ultimately have the same option with our biological parents, so I am not particularly troubled. But recall that biological parents have far significant and lethal powers than I do. So don’t press your luck.
In the reading today from Hebrews, the sacred author draws an analogy between God’s parenting style and that of human parents. This is not at all unprecedented. Jesus did the same on occasion in the gospels. But the most memorable images are his claims of God’s love for himself and for us, a love that is all at once excessively joyful, tender, welcoming, unconditional, non-judgmental, forgiving, nurturing, healing, and self-sacrificing by all human measure. He called God “Abba” which is more familiar than what his contemporaries would have done. Instead, they called on God as “Adonai” or “Lord,” a more formal and appropriately distant title. We embrace this easing of protocol since it lifts a tremendous burden off us of having to constantly walk on eggshells as though a petty vengeful God could blow a gasket without warning, until we remember that Jesus embraced his cross in obedience to his Father’s will. Then on top of that he tells us we must do the same if we wish to follow in his footsteps, causing some in his audience to pause, reexamine their options, decide whether or not they would rather live without that kind of stress, and stay or walk away.
“But I’m one of the good ones,” we might whine in protest. “Why does God have to pick on me?” The discipline of the Lord, which sounds a bit grim, should not be misunderstood primarily as punishment. Instead, discipline is about teaching not just any one particular lesson but a much broader way of thinking and manner of living. You might remember specific lessons your parents tried to teach you over the years, like picking up after yourself, saying please and thank you, getting along with others, minding your manners, being thrifty, truthful, considerate, respectful, honest, helping those in need, defending the vulnerable, living by the rules, saying your prayers, going to church. Now clearly some lessons will tend to stick more easily than others, or we learn them more willingly. But it was really about more than just any one lesson. It was about growing up to be the kind of person you could be proud of, and they could be proud of, an upstanding member of society, productive, independent, reliable, and one who strives sincerely to live up to their baptism and their dignity as a child of God.
And all those annoying scuffles with difficult people, challenging life circumstances, financial troubles, bad choices we and other people make and their consequences, bad weather, physical and mental health issues, even the laws of nature like gravity and inertia and natural death, no matter the situation, the most important lesson is living true to who we are and to whom God calls us to be. That requires we first know who we are and whom God calls us to be. Then we need to desire it bad.
Perfection in Christian life will take time and much patience and practice, the way athletes discipline their bodies for competition. When you taste success, you know you worked hard for it. And that question someone in the crowd asked Jesus, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” acknowledges that we are not saved just by our wanting it. Rather salvation is something God alone does. Yet God calls us to do our part in our own salvation. It’s not about any one thing we do or don’t do, but that in this lifetime we become more like Jesus in the way we think and the manner we live our discipleship. The narrow gate doesn’t open for just anyone. And the master of the house will not be impressed that we witnessed authentic and intense Christian living from a safe distance but were never ourselves transformed by it. Besides, there will be many who do take this endeavor seriously. And if they strive harder than us, they will gain their place at the wedding banquet in the kingdom of God. Baptism is a good starting point. But simply claiming to be Christian or going to church when convenient or dropping spare change in the collection is far from the commitment Jesus is asking. That’s like expecting to compete in the Olympics after occasionally training if there’s nothing worthwhile on TV. This has to be intentional. Either you’re in or you’re not.
So here I am giving you fatherly advice of a spiritual nature, which you can take seriously or ignore entirely. Authentic Christian discipleship requires a fair measure of humility and self-discipline. There is no whining, no moaning, no groaning just because things aren’t going your way. Jesus won’t be impressed that you shook Mother Teresa’s hand or you went to World Youth Day with John Paul II or that you pray the rosary in Latin every day on your knees. If you’re not training to enter eternal life through the narrow gate, you seriously need to up your game. It won’t matter how many are saved if you’re nowhere near qualified to even step on the playing field. Lose the spiritual flab. Be nourished with deep prayer and fruitful sacrament. Grow strong in the practice of charity and service to your neighbor. Simply desiring salvation won’t cut it. We need to be that disciple of Jesus we claim to be, that child of God after God’s own heart. Anything less won’t get us into the wedding banquet, much less anywhere near the narrow gate. And I’m not a parent like mom and dad are. So, what do I know?
Rolo B Castillo © 2022