Have you heard the story of the young man who'd just received his plumber's papers and was taken to see Niagara Falls by his parents? He took a long look at the Falls and said "I think I can fix this."
I'd be just as unrealistic if I said I could tap the wisdom that pours from our readings this Sunday. Last night at supper Father Xavier told me, "You won't have any problem finding something to say tomorrow. The hard part will be knowing when to stop."
But let's focus on the up-front message of the first reading from the Book of Sirach. Talk about plain speaking: "If you choose, you can keep the commandments, and they will save you… to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice."
Not a text that most of us would like to tattoo on our arms. Much easier to whine that our moral failures are the fault of someone or something else; that was the whole point of the article we ran on the front of last week's bulletin. The commandments promise us life, but they require us to be accountable and responsible for our own actions.
People in every generation failed at discipleship. Sin has been with us from the start. But as far as I know, we're the first group that's trying to redefine discipleship, trying to shift the burden. We can't admit we failed to meet the challenge Jesus offered. We can't just say, as people used to, "I messed up. I'm sorry."
Instead, we say Christ's teachings are unreasonable or old-fashioned; we shout that the Church is out of step, the Church is unfeeling, the Church is oppressive.
The wisdom of the world has stolen our attention. It's a new gospel that says we don't need to change; Christian teaching does.
St. Paul's words to the Corinthians could have been written yesterday. He's telling us two things: first, that the wisdom of this world is deceptive. In his homily at the 9 o'clock Mass last week, Deacon Bryan Duggan quoted Pope John Paul: the world's wisdom, the Pope said, offers "the illusion of finding life by excluding God, of finding freedom by excluding moral truths and personal responsibility."
God's wisdom isn't mere common sense: it's a secret and hidden and wholly marvelous wisdom, something no eye has seen, nor ear heard. It's wisdom that opens a path to life with God for those with the spiritual maturity to hear and respond to it.
Deacon Bryan also quoted the stirring challenge that Pope John Paul gave at World Youth Day in Toronto: Christ's message "is an urgent call to choose between life and death, between truth and falsehood… He tells us who we are as Christians, and what we must do to remain in His love."
So far the readings have taught us that the truth is something we are free to choose, that the commandments are something we are able to live, and the consequence of doing this is something greater than even the deepest longing of our hearts.
Today's responsorial psalm contains a pretty good plan. It starts by summing up what we've already said: "They are happy whose life is blameless, who follow God's law." If you think you're going to be miserable taking the way of discipleship, if you think serious Christian living is a formula for unhappiness, you'll have a very hard time of it.
So the first thing is to become convinced. If you're not, it's time to learn more about the life-giving Good News of Jesus Christ. Some do this by deciding to read one of the Gospels cover to cover—which you can do in less than an hour and a half.
And the second thing is to pray—even if you're not convinced. The psalm contains at least five very specific prayers. In various translations they are" "O that my ways may be steadfast in keeping your statutes," "Deal bountifully with your servant so that I may live and observe your word," "Open my eyes, so that I may see the wonders of your law," "Teach me the demands of your statutes," "Train me to observe your law."
Thus the psalmist prays for strength and constancy, for God's blessing on the journey, for open eyes to see God's commands as wonderful, not oppressive, for divine teaching, so he will know what God wants, and for training—insight and understanding make it easier to follow the commandments.
The whole emphasis is on God's action. Sometimes nothing can seem more impossible in our world than to step off the treadmill and choose the path of life. It's almost beyond our ability to tell our boss we won't work on Sunday, or to tell the coach we won't play on Good Friday, or to tell the kids they won't be seeing a particular movie.
God did not make it overly difficult for us to obey him and receive his blessings. What would be the point of that? The Book of Deuteronomy argues the point well. "Surely, this commandment that I am commanding you today is not too hard for you, nor is it too far away… No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe." (Dt 30:11, 14).