Every now and then someone will come past my door and request parish services of some sort. Maybe it’s to plan a wedding, a baptism, or a funeral; maybe it’s for money! And then I look at him or her and say, “Who are you?” (since I don’t recognize the person). “Oh, well Father, you don’t know me but my grandmother goes here; this is our family Church.” “Oh, I see, but where do you go to Church?” I usually ask. The response is usually something like, “Well, you know how it is Father, I don’t get to Church too often … but my mother goes here.”
Well, I’ve got news for you: your Mama’s faith isn’t going to save you. You gotta have your own faith. You have to know Jesus for yourself. There are some things you just can’t borrow. Once, you depended on your mother and ultimately the Church to announce the True Faith to you. But at some point you have to be able to claim the True Faith as your own. Your mother can’t go to Church for you and she can’t believe for you.
On another occasion, a man came up to me in the parking lot of the local food store and began to talk to me as if we were old friends. Perhaps he saw the puzzled look on my face as I awkwardly wondered if I had ever met him. He was mildly offended and said, “Gosh, don’t you know who I am?” “No,” I admitted with some embarrassment. He went on to explain that his family had been one the “pillar” families who had helped build the Church and that I really ought to know who he was. “Do you come to Mass often?” I asked. “No, but I was there at the last funeral, the one for my grandmother, whom YOU buried. Perhaps you know who I am now!” I said, “No. I certainly knew your grandmother, but I can’t say I know you.” “That really hurts Father, ’cause if it hadn’t a been for my family the Church wouldn’t be there.”
Eventually I got the man to admit that he hadn’t been going to Sunday Mass for over 20 years, from the time he graduated from the parish school, and that his only real attendance was for funerals and a few weddings. “Consider this a dress rehearsal,” I said, humorously but with ironic seriousness. “You may be angry and disappointed that I don’t know you, but it will be a lot worse to hear Jesus say ‘I don’t know you.'”
Indeed, one of the judgment scenarios has Jesus declare that he does not “know” some who seek entrance to heaven:
- Many will say to me on that day, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?” Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (Matt 7:22-23)
- Someone asked him, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?” He said to them, “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’ But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’ Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’” (Lk 13:23-27)
- Later the other virgins also came, saying, “Lord, lord, open up for us.” But he answered, “Truly I say to you, I do not know you.” Be on the alert then, for you do not know the day nor the hour (Mat 25:12-13).
We may wonder how the Lord cannot “know” someone. Is he not omniscient?
Here it helps to understand that the “knowing” as understood in Scripture does not have the modern Western notion of simple intellectual knowing. To “know,” in biblical terms, more richly describes knowing through personal experience. Hence it implies an intimacy, a personal experience of another person, thing, or event. Sometimes the Scriptures use “knowing” as a euphemism for sexual intercourse (Gen 4:17,25; lk 1:34 etc).
Hence the Lord, who does not force us to be in an intimate relationship with Him, is indicating in verses like these that some people seeking entry to Heaven (probably more for its pleasures than for its supreme purpose as a marital union with God) have refused His invitation to intimacy. He does not “know” them because they never wanted to be known by Him in any intimate way. They may have known OF Him, and even spoken and taught of Him. But they did not want HIM. They may have used him for their purposes, but Him they did not want. Jesus stands at the door and knocks; He does not barge in and force Himself on anyone.
Thus, we must personally and individually accept the Lord’s invitation to enter our lives and transform our hearts. We cannot simply say, “My family built the Church,” or “I went to Catholic School,” or “My mother goes there.”
Remember the story of the wise and foolish virgins? (Matt 25:1-13) They were waiting for the groom (in those days you waited for the groom, nowadays we wait for the bride) to show up for a wedding. Five were wise and brought extra oil for their lamps, while five were foolish and did not not. But the groom delayed his coming and so the foolish ones said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil.” The wise ones then told the foolish that they could not do this because there was not enough oil for all ten of them.
You see, there are some things you just can’t borrow and some things you just can’t lend. You can’t lend your readiness to meet God to someone else. You can’t borrow someone else’s intimacy with God.
You know what happened in the story. The foolish bridesmaids went off to buy more oil and missed the groom’s arrival and then were not able to enter the wedding feast. In those days, when a wedding feast began, the doors were locked and no one else could enter. When they finally arrived, the groom said that he did not know them.
The bottom line is that you have to know Jesus for yourself. You can’t borrow your mother’s intimacy, relationship, or readiness. You have to have your own. No one can go to Church for you. You can’t borrow someone else’s holiness.
There is an Old Gospel hymn that says, “Yes I know Jesus for myself.” It’s not enough to quote the pastor; it’s not enough to say what your mother said. You have to know Him yourself. Do you know Him? I didn’t say, “Do you know about Him.” This is more than intellectual knowing; this is the deep, biblical, experiential knowing. Do you know the Lord Jesus? Have you experienced that He has ministered to you in the Sacraments? Have you heard His voice resounding from the pulpit and in others you meet? Do you know Him? Don’t be satisfied that your mother or grandmother knew Him. You are called to know Him for your very self.
Here are a couple of renditions of the old Gospel classic I mentioned. The first is from the St. James Mass Choir. But then, lo and behold, the second version is sung by a choir from a Polish Girls’ School! See the original and then enjoy a very different version, as the song leaps the Atlantic Ocean and lands in Eastern Europe. What a wonderful world! Despite crossing oceans and cultures, the message remains the same: Yes, I know Jesus for myself.