Workouts in God’s Gym
In towns and cities around the world today, we find spaces dedicated to the development of physical strength and endurance. With so much of the labor in our contemporary society being done with minimal physical exertion, people do not develop the same degree of physical strength as the majority even of children did in the past. For example, those who manually milk cows twice a day will typically have greater hand strength than those whose task it is to attach the cow to the milking machine and let the machine do the work, to say nothing of those who pick up a jug of milk at the store on the way home from work at a desk job. Those who must grind the corn to make the tortillas for their family’s meals will typically be stronger than those who may simply open a bag of corn bread mix and stir it into muffins or who buy a bag of tortillas at the grocery store.
Both men and women go to gyms and spas to work out and/or relax. There are machines to exercise specific muscles and others to promote general fitness. Pools for swimming, hot tubs and saunas for relaxing, free weights for lifting, and stationary bicycles are all features of these locations. For those who want to go a step further, there are classes and personal trainers to guide them to a higher level of performance.
For children, there are other options to develop strength and coordination. Schools have times for playing outside. Older grade children have physical education periods or games classes. There are the after-school sports as well: swimming, soccer, football, basketball, baseball, fencing, water polo, and so forth. Those not inclined to sports may sign up for dance classes or other physical activities, including riding their bikes or skating.
We take for granted that these activities will not necessarily be easy or non-tiring, especially if there is a coach involved, who will challenge participants to move past their normal comfort level and increase their strength.
With this need for physical activity and training in mind, the words of the author of the Letter to the Hebrews take on a different sense than if they are taken at face value. (Heb 12:5-7,11-13) At face value, it sounds as if the Lord is a hard task master, quick to punish harshly: “… those whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges.”
Part of the challenge we face in understanding this teaching is our tendency to use the word discipline to refer to punishment. I think this is an unwise practice, though it is very widespread. People are much less likely to object to disciplining a child than to punishing the child. It’s generally the same action, but discipline sounds more positive, less harsh, so we use that term.
In this reading, the word translated as discipline is also used to mean “training,” “correction,” and “guidance.” We are the children of the Lord, sisters and brothers of Jesus, who passed through a time of tremendous trial and suffering on his return journey to the Father. We too are called to learn how to be God’s children, following the model of Jesus. The Father treats us as a loving parent would, guiding and correcting our actions, so we learn better how to make right choices and live as channels of divine love in the world. In many ways, it’s like the work of a personal trainer or coach, helping us keep going and developing increased strength at each step along the way.
Now does this mean God gets mad and punishes us, as we human parents all too often do with our own children? No. God does not punish us or strike out in anger against us. God is love. All God has to offer is love and, as a result of that, the freedom to respond in love or not. When we choose not to respond in love to the people and events we encounter, we experience the consequences of our decisions. God does not jump in and put up shields to stop the response of those we have harmed or failed to help. They are also children of God, loved equally and equally free to respond with love or not. We experience the consequences of our behavior. With any luck at all, we learn better ways to respond.
Like any parent, sometimes I think God chuckles at our insistence on doing things our own way and sometimes God cries because we have hurt others or have ourselves been hurt because of our own actions. But through it all, God is there, like a good parent, coach, or trainer, helping us to meet the challenges we face and grow stronger in love and wisdom. God encourages us to hold on and keep trying. Every time we goof up and make a mess of things, God is there to provide the strength needed to try again and again.
Does God only care about a few human beings, or only those from certain cultures or genetic lines, or religions? Once again, the answer is a resounding “NO!” Isaiah speaks again and again of the fact that the God of Israel is truly Lord of all peoples on earth. (Is 66:18-21) In symbolic language, Isaiah describes the gathering of peoples from all the known world, led by witnesses of the Lord’s glory, who proclaim that glory among the nations. Peoples from all the nations will travel to the Lord’s holy mountain, Jerusalem, as an offering to the Lord. As the Israelites carried their offerings to the temple in clean, purified vessels, the animals who carry the travelers are like purified vessels. All come as offering to the Lord and they become God’s family in all senses of the word. Some will even be selected to serve as priests and Levites (assistants to the priests in the temple), roles historically limited to direct descendants of Aaron and Levi.
The circle of those who train in God’s gym or grow as God’s children increases to include all peoples of the world.
“Lord, will only a few people be saved?” How exclusive is the Kingdom? How hard will it be to be saved? Is there hope for us? St. Luke tells us Jesus addressed this question from someone he met on the way to Jerusalem. (Lk 13:22-30) “Strive to enter through the narrow gate…” Jesus replies to the questioner. It’s not easy to be a child of God. It takes practice and persistence to learn God’s ways. Like athletes in a race, it takes conscious effort and endurance to get successfully to the end of the race. Simply calling oneself a friend of Jesus is not enough. Those who reach and enter through the narrow gate will be those who act justly, love tenderly, and walk humbly with God (as we hear elsewhere from the prophet Micah 6:8). Those who enter will come from all the nations of the earth. Those with the least glory and honor in the eyes of the world, as measured by wealth and status, will be found in numbers among those entering through the narrow gate.
The journey to God’s kingdom is not easy. It is not limited to only a few. Indeed, all are welcome. But it is not guaranteed that all will be ready to enter the gate. There is much to learn as we go through life. Many lessons we must learn. Sometimes we learn easily. Sometimes we’re more hard-headed and it takes longer.
Today let us rejoice that God is a patient parent, a loving coach, who helps us grow to be true children of love – children whose lives are such that the life of God can pour through to others in our world. In those areas we find difficult, may we receive the grace to open our eyes and see the better way God has for us to open to love and share it. When we get discouraged, may we hear the Lord speaking to us through the voices of family, friends, and companions on the way. Then may we again take heart as we move forward step by step. When our hearts freeze and refuse to love, may we experience the gentle touch of the Lord’s hand, warming our heart so we can again embrace each other and our loving, divine parent: our God.
Welcome to God’s Gym. Enjoy your workout!
Find the readings for the Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time – Cycle C