Do Not Seek Heaven on Earth

Douglas P. McManaman
Homily: 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time
October 10, 2021
Reproduced with Permission

In today's gospel, Jesus said to the young man: "Sell everything you possess and come follow me, so that you may have treasure in heaven". It is interesting that Jesus uses the word treasure, because one of his parables of the kingdom is The Parable of the Hidden Treasure: "The kingdom of God is like a treasure buried in a field, which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field".

That short parable says so much. First, what this implies is that the kingdom of God is something each person is to discover. Moreover, this is a discovery which takes place in this life. Christ came to establish the kingdom of God among us in the here and now, and it is not in plain sight, but hidden. When a person discovers it, everything else in this world pales in comparison to it, and that kingdom becomes the center around which his life revolves. If it isn't the center, if for me it isn't everything, then it's likely the case that I have not really discovered it.

A priest friend of mine used to visit my classes many years ago and would often ask my students: "What is it that someone like Mother Teresa has, what is it that she possesses, that would enable her to give up everything and leave the Loretto Sisters and just go out onto the streets of Calcutta, not knowing where her next meal is coming from?" What is it that St. John de Brebeuf possesses that would enable him to leave everything behind in France and come to Canada in the 17th century, facing the brutal winters, canoeing from one place to another, living on corn mush, and every day risking martyrdom?

Why wouldn't St. Thomas More just take the oath and be released from the Tower of London and have his large estate in Chelsea on the river Thames restored to him? Just declare allegiance to King Henry VIII, head of the Church of England, and he'd be back with his family and showered with untold favors and privileges. What is it that these people have that enables them to be so indifferent to the things of this world? What have they discovered? They've discovered that hidden treasure, and it is very difficult to explain this to people who have not found it. Jesus could see that this man in the gospels hadn't really found it yet; he lists a number of commandments that he's kept: I haven't killed anyone, haven't committed adultery, etc. But he hasn't discovered that hidden treasure. His treasure is still in this world. He loves the things of this world too much.

When he was locked up in the Tower of London because he would not take the oath of Parliament, Thomas More wrote a short treatise in which he exhorts us not to seek heaven on earth. He writes: " ... we must, I say, cross over the valley and stream of Cedron, a valley of tears and a stream of sadness whose waves can wash away the blackness and filth of our sins. But if we get so weary of pain and grief that we perversely attempt to change this world, this place of labor and penance, into a joyful haven of rest, if we seek heaven on earth, we cut ourselves off forever from the true happiness and will drown ourselves in penance when it is too late to do any good..." ( The Sadness of Christ , NJ: Princeton, Scepter. 1993, p. 4).

Recently I was on retreat with a number of Deacons in Mississauga, and it is quite something to take a walk around the neighborhood and see the huge mansions, some in the process of being built. I couldn't help but think of More's words from the Tower and that these people are doing just that, seeking their heaven on earth, building their palaces; by the looks of it, they seem to spare nothing on themselves. But Christ tells us not to worry about these things, that he has a mansion picked out for us in heaven, and that he is leaving to prepare a place for us. So, he tells us, do not waste time, money and energy on that right now, when time is short and there are more important things to pursue, like the kingdom of God (see Mt 6, 19-33). And that's why it is very difficult for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God, to find that hidden treasure, in comparison to which everything here pales. With so much earthly wealth with which to purchase the dream home and everything else that's included in those dreams, it is very difficult not to make those longings of ours the very center of our lives. Perhaps it is possible, but it is very difficult.

There's a line in the seventeenth chapter of John that is rather puzzling. This chapter is the high priestly prayer of Christ, which he offered just before his passion and death; he is praying for his disciples and all who will belong to Christ throughout history. He says: Father, "I consecrate myself for them, so that they also may be consecrated in truth" (17, 19). This is puzzling because to consecrate is to make holy. However, Christ does not need to be made holy, because he is the fount and source of all holiness. He is God the Son. What then does he mean when he says: "I consecrate myself for them"? In Hebrew, 'holy' means "set apart". What Jesus means here is that he is being set apart; he is leaving, that is, he is leaving something behind, just as Abraham was called to leave behind the life he knew in the land of Ur of the Chaldeans, and even as the Israelites left behind their life of slavery in Egypt to enter the desert and go to the land of Canaan. The call to holiness is always a call to move forward and leave behind what is familiar and comfortable. Christ is setting himself apart here; he is going to the Father; he is dying to this world to enter into his glory. His death becomes that glory.

Discovering that hidden treasure, the kingdom of God, puts a person on a new path, and it is a path to holiness, but holiness in the Jewish sense of that word: "set apart". The spiritual life is about gradually leaving behind this world and going to the Father, in the Person of Christ. And this is the blessing of old age--in this light, the infirmities of old age are really blessings. And in this same light, we could say that youth is in some ways a curse. Our culture has it completely backwards. We worship youth, its strength and vitality, its ability to get out there and ski, and swim, and travel, and eat at the finest restaurants--becoming more and more attached to this world in the process, that is, becoming more and more wealthy. This life, however, is supposed to be a preparation for eternity, yet eternity is not on the minds of most people. In old age, however, we start to break down, to slow down; our body doesn't heal as fast, our memory is not as sharp, our eyesight is deteriorating, we can't enjoy the same things we did when we were young, very few outside our family pay any attention to us. It's a hidden blessing in so many ways.

Imagine how difficult old age would be to someone who has no spiritual life, who has not developed the habit of prayer over the years, who does not find joy in prayer, who has been so immersed in the things of this world that these are his only "joy". Old age would be an intolerable burden--which might be why assisted suicide is becoming an increasingly attractive option for many people these days. But for someone who is consecrated in the consecration that Christ speaks of in his final prayer, old age can be seen as something that is really helping us along, gradually detaching us from this world, making it easier to leave, and the more we go with it, accept it, that is, the more we begin to willingly leave this world behind to go the Father, the more we discover a supernatural joy that is so much larger than us.

This gospel reminded me of something Alexander Solzhenitsyn documented in his classic work, The Gulag Archipelago . In it he recounts the tremendous strength that some of his fellow prisoners exhibited, who were sentenced to 25 years or more, but who lived a blissfully joyous existence, far greater than anything he's ever witnessed outside the gulags. He writes that these were people who had withdrawn so deeply into the life of the spirit that no bodily suffering could upset their spiritual equilibrium. "Being satisfied or fulfilled", he writes, "depends not at all on how much we eat, but on how we eat. It's the same with happiness, the very same...happiness doesn't depend on how many external blessings we have snatched from life. It depends only on our attitude toward them." A real irony about this life is that we really can't enjoy the things of this world unless we are indifferent to them.