Gathering around the hospital bed, the generations of Chenne’s family found comfort in the rituals of prayer. As I intoned the Our Father, both old and young voices chimed in unison with the traditional sequence of words. The family was intent on praying this “good man” into heaven. Battling a damaging stroke in 2010, Chenne was now in a hospice unit preparing for death. Having escaped from Cambodia and the clutches of Pol Pot, he and his wife became political refugees who found their way to America in 1979. He kept alive the struggle to free Cambodia from the tyranny of this dictator. Anointing him in the company of his wife, children and grandchildren became a family affair. Family members would take turns praying out loud and describing the importance of this brave man in their lives. There was no doubt in their minds that he was heavenly bound.
Getting into heaven becomes a reasonable question for all of us, and fortunately our gospel reading for the Twenty First Sunday in Ordinary Time offers us some guidelines for getting there. In this week’s passage from the gospel of Luke (13:22-30), we are tracking Jesus’ journey through one small town after another. This peripatetic lifestyle was reflective of Jesus’ expectation for his disciples: “The foxes have their holes and the birds of the air have their nests; but the son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Luke 9:58; Matthew 8:20) To follow Jesus is to accept an invitation to leave those things, places or people who would inhibit a serious understanding of what the cost of discipleship might entail. “Making his way to Jerusalem” was a metaphor for Jesus’ prediction of his own suffering and death. Concerned about the dangerous challenge of following Jesus to Jerusalem, the disciples found the courage to ask the right question: “Lord, will only a few be saved?” The disciples began to hear Jesus’ tough love message. No one can take salvation for granted.
The paradoxical responses of Jesus can be aggravating at times, especially if you want a “yes or no” answer. I am reminded of the Irish priest who went into a bar and invited all those who wanted to give up alcohol and go to heaven to line up against the wall. Dutifully, all the fellows, except for Paddy O’Sullivan, lined up. Turning to O’Sullivan the priest asked: “Paddy, don’t you want to give up the evils of alcohol and go to heaven?” Paddy replied, “Yes, of course, I want to go to heaven. But I thought you were going right now!”
Robert Frost, the great American poet, once summed up his understanding of life: “In three words I can sum up everything I have learned in life: It goes on.” Frost, a beloved but cranky poet, ended up having inscribed on his tombstone: “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.” This epitaph was taken from the last stanza of his poem entitled, “The Lesson for Today.” Being quarrelsome with the world is not a bad way to approach evil. Wrestling with worldly values that are destructive to Jesus’ invitation to be signs of peace, justice and compassion in the world must be pursued if the Kingdom of God is to be found.
Borrowing from another of Frost’s poems, The Road Not Taken, the invitation of Jesus is to take the road less taken when we are faced with choices. Taking the one less traveled by will make all the difference in this world and in the next. Is the road to heaven all that clear for you? Jesus’ sense of humor emerges when he reverses our human perceptions of the right road: “Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” Learning to see through the “eyes of Jesus” requires a willingness to let God’s grace take control of our life, to “Let go, and let God.”
As I left Chenne’s room, he was surrounded by his family who were singing hymns in Cambodian. Surviving the terrors of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, Chenne’s life would go on whether on earth or in heaven. His faith and that of his family would exemplify what the sign that greeted all who entered this hospice unit: “Together we make a family.”
Listening to the radio as I was driving home, the song We are Family, by Sister Sledge, jarred me out of my grief and set my toes to tapping and my body to swaying! I cranked up the volume and listened intently to the lyrics: “We are family, I got my sisters with me! Here’s what we call the golden rule, you won’t go wrong, have faith in you and the things you do. So get up everybody and sing, we are family!”
Fr. Joseph Gillespie, OP
The Basilica of Saint Mary