Heaven costs everything. This is made plain by the parable spoken by the Lord in today’s Gospel:
The Kingdom of heaven 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. Again, the Kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it. (Matt. 13:44-46)
The most common interpretation of this parable is that we have to be willing to forsake everything to obtain heaven. But more radically, the parable isn’t saying we have to be willing to forsake everything, but that we WILL forsake, or at least lose, everything. The question is, will we do this willingly and even with a kind of joy, or will be do so resentfully and die with a hardened heart?
The truth is, there is absolutely nothing that you now have that you will not be required at some point to give up. No thing you think you own is really yours. It is God’s and you and I will give it back. There is no person you love whom you will not have to give back to God.
It has been my experience that I spent most of the first 25 years of my life acquiring but ever since I have been giving back. I have given back my youthful energy, much of the hair on my head, my slender figure, my almost perfect health. Little by little my eyesight and hearing are diminishing. I have had to say goodbye to my grandparents, then I buried my parents. My sister too I have given back to the Lord.
Now the question for me is, do I do this resentfully or with gratitude and acceptance? We live in a time where loss and difficulty in this life is not easily accepted. Loss has never been easy to accept but I am convinced we are especially challenged by the notion of loss and decline. This is because we have obtained a level of comfort and ease unknown to even our most recent ancestors. Electricity, air conditioning, indoor plumbing, endless labor saving devices and abundant consumer products, cheap and widely available, have all brought forth an expectation from most of us moderns that life is supposed to be pleasant and easy. When it is not we are quickly resentful and sometimes even threaten lawsuits. We live so comfortably today that it is rare to hear people in the general population speak of a longing for heaven.
The Older View – Our most recent ancestors often spoke of life as a valley of tears, as an exile. The Salve Regina says, “The thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve, to thee we do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears…..after this our exile show unto to us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus.” This prayer, and others like it were written out the the experience that this life was often unpredictable, filled with sudden turns and sorrows; life could be brutal and short until very recently. In many parts of the world today it still is. This climate produces a much deeper longing for heaven and a sober understanding that this world is not all that fabulous. Even in the affluent West we have to admit, if we sober up for a moment, that life is difficult and that the party we are so “privileged” to be in will end.
Prosperity Gospel? – An old spiritual says, “Soon I will be done with the troubles of this world, going home to live with God.” But most people today in the affluent West, even committed Christians, inebriated with the world’s comforts, speak little of heaven. Often when we pray it is generally some prayer that God make this world a better place: Please Lord, fix my finances, fix my health, get me a better job. It is not wrong to pray for this but when that is all we pray for it is almost as if we were saying to God, “Give me enough comfort, health, and resources and I’ll just stay here forever.” We’ve all been a little infected with the “prosperity gospel.” But when in our prayer do we long for God and to be with him in heaven? When do we ask him to make us holy and prepare us to meet him? It is natural to have a fear of death but in the end, if we are faithful, death is also to be a longed-for moment that we prepare for with both sobriety and longing, for it is then that we go to meet God, our heart’s truest longing.
In this sense our comfort and affluence have not blessed us, they have cursed us and made us much harder to save. The Lord remarked how hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom of heaven (cf Luke 18:24). And we in the affluent and modern west are very rich. Even the poorest among us live like royalty compared to the poor elsewhere. We are much harder to save for we are stubbornly attached to this world and most of us are exceedingly unwilling to sell everything we have for the Kingdom of God. We enjoy our creature comforts far too much to be willing to easily part with them. Paradoxically our losses and suffering can be blessings for us in that they can begin to loose this world’s strong attraction and restore in us a greater longing for heaven and a willingness to leave this inferior kingdom for the greater one. It is strong medicine to be sure and we are not asked to like it but we must learn to accept it.
And acceptance is the key for the medicine to work. That we accept it does not mean we have to like it. Loss is always painful, giving back is hard. But accepting that, in the end, we will one day give back everything we have to God brings a paradoxical serenity. God has something better for us, but it means we have to trust Him and leave here, having given everything back. It is the refusal to accept this that brings a bitterness, a resentfulness that hardens our heart and makes us very hard to save.
The fact is, the Lord must root from us every attachment and vestige of the world before we can obtain heaven or even want it sufficiently. In the end we will get what we want: heaven at the price of all this, or eternal separation from the God we have grown to resent because we consider the price too high. But the choice is ours. The Kingdom of GOD is like a man who found it and out of JOY goes and sells all that he has. Pray for detachment and a serene acceptance. The price is high, but God has something far better than this valley of tears.
Here is a sermon I preached on this this morning: http://frpope.com/audio/17%20Wed.mp3