God wants friends not robots: He gives us the choice to stay or leave
Some thoughts on the readings Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year B).
God wants friends, not robots
Why do so “many disciples,” as St John puts it, decide to stop following our Lord after His explanation of the Eucharist as the “living bread,” while at the same time the Twelve stay with Him?
This question touches one of the great mysteries of our existence: human freedom.
Somehow, in the depths of the human heart, God leaves us free to accept or to reject the gift of faith. No one can manufacture faith in God, it is a gift that always begins with God, comes from God: “no one can come to me unless it is granted him by my Father.” But the choice to accept or to reject that gift, to follow Jesus or turn one’s back on Him, remains with each individual. “Do you also want to leave?” Jesus Christ is the Lord of life and history, but He refuses to impose His rule on hearts that want to stop accompanying Him, and return to their former way of life. God gives us the gift of life, but He leaves us free to adminster it as we wish, either in communion with Him, or not.
Try to imagine how Jesus spoke the words,
Do you also want to leave?St John 6:67
Try to picture His expression as He looked into the faces of His chosen Twelve. He cared deeply about them. He had handpicked them to be His closest companions. He had opened up His heart to them, and now, as other followers said “no thanks,” giving up on Him, He looked to the Twelve with a tinge of sadness, perhaps apprehension. Would they abandon Him too?
How near God draws to us in Jesus Christ! He humbles himself, makes Himself weak, almost powerless in the face of our freedom. He does not want mindless robots or heartless slaves: he wants friends, for ever.
Wisdom from the artists
Through the ages, this basic and fundamental fact of Christianity has come across exceptionally well in art. In every period of Church history, Jesus is most frequently protrayed in one of two ways.
First, as a little baby in the arms of His Mother, the Blessed Virgin Mary. This isn’t just an artistic symbol: this really is how God came into the world, as a helpless little baby. But what a strange way to depict the all-powerful Creator of the universe! And yet, from the perspective of our Christian faith, it makes perfect sense. God does not want to intimidate us into following Him. He wants to win over our friendship. So He doesn’t show up amid fire and thunder. No, He smiles at us with the irresistable charm of a child.
In pre-Christian times, pagan temples were designed to give exactly the opposite impression. To get to the central place of worship, you had to make your way through a series of antechambers, each one darker and more foreboding than the one before. By the time you reach the actual altar, where a huge statue looked down at you out of the flickering shadows, you were breathless, tense, fearful, and thoroughly intimidated. Paganism had no concept of the true God, the God who wants friends, not robots.
The second way that Christian artists have most often depicted Christ is on the Cross. There, as He suffers and dies, we see not the weakness of a wimpy divinity (after all, we know He rises from the dead), but the unconquerable mercy of the God who wanted to prove beyond any doubt that His love for us truly is personal, determined, and forgiving. This is a God who really cares about us, and cares about how we respond to His invitations.
As Pope Benedict XVI said in a Christmas homily:
Every man and every woman needs to find a deep meaning for their existence. And for this, books are not enough, not even Sacred Scripture. The Child of Bethlehem reveals and communicates to us the true ‘face’ of the good and faithful God, who loves us and who does not abandon us even in death.
Respecting others as God respects us
A mature faith is, among other things, a conscious faith. Jesus does not want us to remain spiritaul infants for our whole life. Rather, He wants us to follow Him in freedom and in love, fully aware of what we are doing. When He allows trials and tests to come away, it gives us a chance to deepen that awareness, to exercise our freedom and our love. And when we exercise them, we strengthen them. God wants mature followers, not robots, zombies, or fanatics.
If God treats us with so much respect, we ought to treat others in a like manner.
During the Last Supper, Jesus commanded His Apostles to
love one another as I have loved you.St John 15:12
Imitating Christ’s love involves being ready to sacrifice our own likes and comforts for the sake of others, as Jesus sacrificed His on the Cross for our sake.
But, it also means treating others with this deep sense of respect. When we lose our patience with the people we work with or live with, we end up failing to respect them as God has respected us. After all, when has the Lord lost his patience with us? When we try to manipulate people, tricking them, flattering them, or forcing them into giving us what we want, we end up violating their dignity as human beings. When has God forced us to do the right thing?
God knows that, in the end, only if our faith matures and deepens, if it becomes truly conscious, will we be able to weather the storms of life, and triumph over the temptations of life.
Today, as Christ comes to us once again in the Eucharist, proving His desire for our friendship and happiness, let us take His hand and promise to follow wherever He leads, knowing with absolute certaintly that He can never lead us astray.
1 Kings 8: 22–30, 41-43; Psalm 84; Ephesians 6: 10-20; St John 6: 56-69.