Be prepared! The Boy Scouts have known this for a long time. It turns out, Jesus does too. In fact, it’s the main point of today’s gospel reading. Jesus told his followers: “… stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
I would say this makes great sense. I mean who would argue with the logic here? If we could track a major tropical storm perfectly… knew its intensity, wind velocity and the precise time when it is going to touch down, then we would be prepared. Batten down the hatches, have spare food and water ready, make sure our loved ones are inside and safe. But if we have absolutely no idea when that storm is going to hit, then we would need to stay in a perpetual state of readiness. We must remain diligent.
Makes sense. For tropical storms. But I’d like to ask the question: why? What actually motivates us to be in a state of perpetual readiness for the coming of our Savior? That is: for our passage from this world to the next? For eternity?
Let me use the example of two different sets of parents. One set does a very good job of setting boundaries with their children. Of making sure rewards and punishments are clearly understood and those parents are consistent in the application of them. The children know that when they do their chores, they will be rewarded for doing so. But when they do not, watch out. There will be you-know-what to pay.
The second set of parents are also pretty clear about expectations, but they do not always seem as consistent when it comes to rewards and punishments. In this family, the parents and children are very close, love each other, care about each other… and so those kids are inclined to do their chores, regardless of the immediate rewards or punishments. They do so because of love.
I’m not casting any judgments here on parenting styles… but in the first example, the family abides by transactional rules. If I do what I should – I get a cookie. If I don’t – no Netflix for me. Simple. Cause and effect. It’s about transactions.
In the second example, it’s about relationship. It’s about trying not to disappoint and rather hoping to please. It’s about caring and concern.
I think many of us relate to God in one of these two ways. And I believe we are being challenged today on whether we have only a transactional relationship with the Lord. Whether we follow the commandments, heed the beatitudes, go to Mass and participate in the sacraments and pray… only because we seek the eternal reward and fear the ultimate punishment. Only because we are looking out for our own best interests.
I watched the new Fatima movie recently and was fascinated by the challenge that those three young children who saw the apparition of the Blessed Mother in Portugal in the early 1900s faced. Lucia, Francisco, and Jacinta did not have an easy path, especially after the first few months when their families, the local clergy and governmental officials bitterly accused them of lying and having ulterior motives. Additionally, their neighbors who were losing their own children in the war or due to severe illnesses, taunted the children, asking why the Blessed Mother had not answered their prayers. They demanded to know why God had abandoned them personally.
I saw a lot of transactional thinking in those scenes and I see it played out a lot in our culture. People we know, perhaps our good friends and family members, ask us: how could God allow such and such a thing to happen, if he really does exist? Or we might hear, as with those Portuguese villagers from long ago, that someone has prayed but did not receive an answer… or the specific answer they had hoped for… and so, therefore, they conclude: “I’m out… there is no God for me here!”
Those who have a transactional relationship with God tend to seek miracles and signs and to relate to him based on our needs and our wants. We make ourselves primary. In the driver’s seat. Many of us do this. In a way, it’s human nature because it’s easy to feel that we are the centers of our own universes and look out only through the eyes of our own needs.
But God calls us to live in his grace and mercy, to be willing to not make ourselves the center or first, but rather to surrender to him. And to do so because we love him and want to please him.
He tells his followers to pick up a cross to follow him, not as some type of rite of passage or fraternity or sorority style hazing… not to show we can pass a test. He asks us to follow him down a difficult path because we want to be with him.
We should remain prepared, sure, because there is an eternal reward. But we should also be prepared because a life filled with love and surrender to God is a better life. And we are called to a better life… someday… and to a better life… today.