For the past several years, we’ve had quite a good cadre of Eucharistic Ministers who bring Holy Communion to Catholic patients at the local hospital. Because things were going so well with that ministry, I should have expected that an obstacle would arise to continued, carefree progress.
The predictable obstacle appeared a few weeks ago in the form of a change in the way that the hospital deals with our Communion Ministers. The hospital decided that all such parish ministers will now have to comply with the policies that govern the hospital’s volunteers who provide transportation, flower delivery, and other ancillary services to patients. This means that our Communion Ministers must complete a hospital volunteer screening and training process in addition to the one required by the Diocese in order to volunteer for the parish. The Communion Ministers were unconvinced of the need for yet another level of bureaucracy.
The hospital’s original plan was to have clergy complete the same volunteer screening and training requirements, but they changed their minds about that aspect of the procedural changes. Personally, I was concerned about how I would look in a Candy Striper’s uniform. As it happened, the only burden for me was to be the bearer of bad news for the Communion Ministers. This upset of the happy status quo was not a result of random chance.
Today’s first reading says, “The wicked say: Let us beset the just one, because he is obnoxious to us.” (Wis. 2:12) This section of the book of Wisdom is general guidance about how to live a happy and holy life. “The wicked” and “the just one” mentioned in the reading weren’t individuals known to the author. He wasn’t describing any particular situation that he had witnessed; rather, he was describing the usual outcome that results when someone tries to do the right thing. The usual outcome of trying to live a just life is that someone or something creates an obstacle to continued progress in virtue. The author of the book of Wisdom points out a common experience that occurs in the lives of all believers, namely, that God’s People should expect to face obstacles in the pursuit of God‘s will.
Faithful people can grow weary of following God’s will. They also face obstacles to holiness and virtue that are created by other people or the random nature of the universe. Obstacles to a person’s plans and endeavors occur even in the secular realm. It often seems that just at the point that a candidate for office, a political party, or a voting block appears to be making headway, there is some obstacle that arises to further progress.
The author of the book of Wisdom knew about this dynamic and wrote about the revilement, the challenges to gentleness, and tests of patience that await anyone who makes an authentic effort to live according to her or his convictions. Sadly, the most common responses to such obstacles to the greater good are not productive responses. The growing partisanship in politics, the increasing lack of civility in society, and the growing frustration that people feel in their personal lives are examples of how not to deal with disappointment, obstacles, and failed attempts at virtue. Jesus was very familiar with obstacles in his ministry and with the Wisdom writer’s perspective. His response to the common experience of facing discouragement is worth our attention.
When Jesus called a child into the midst of the Twelve, he was not engaging in sentimentality. Children held a place of marginal importance in Jesus’ culture; this marginal status owed to the relatively high child mortality rate and the fact that children had no social or economic power. Jesus said to the Twelve, “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.” (Mk. 9:37) Our culture is very sentimental about childhood, but Jesus’ meaning was very unsentimental. He was saying, ‘If you find yourself marginalized (like this humble child), because of your convictions, be assured that you are in God’s company.’
Our personal lives would be filled with much less anxiety if we could consistently identify our own internal resistance to on-going conversion. Politics in this country would be much less combative if the many competing voices were willing to see their lack of progress as a sign of virtue and a statement about the depth of their convictions. Public and private conversations in our society would be much more productive if disagreeing family members, disputing neighbors, and dissatisfied customers saw their disappointments as opportunities to make a stand for justice.
Good people will always experience obstacles along with path to God. Holy people will always experience resistance to their growth in holiness. Rather than defeat or failure, these experiences are signs that one’s choices and commitments are valid and worthwhile.
Meeting resistance while trying to do the right thing is not a sign of failure or weakness. Rather, it is confirmation to continue along the path one has chosen. When faced with the temptation to take the easy way out of following God’s will, to avoid giving up the selfishness or sin that obstructs the path to God, or to give in when a faithless culture denigrates religious belief, the faithful response is to stay the course and continue to practice virtue. Resisting temptation, obstacles, or malignant acts is never easy; it is neither sentimental nor affirming. It is, however, the surest, quickest, and most redeeming path to a closer relationship with God.