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Along the Way
September 25, 2005--25th Sunday Ordinary Time
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Only an empty cup can be filled...

There was once a man who had a camp up in the hills. He loved the place. It was high in the hills, with a fantastic view of the surrounding countryside. During hunting season he bagged his limit with little effort. There was a stream near the camp that was positively overflowing with fish where he spent many an hour fly fishing with great contentment. His wife and children often accompanied him to the camp and it became a place of joy and celebration for the entire family.

 

One October evening, after the children were all grown and on their own, the man and his wife were at the camp—indeed, most of their time was spent at the camp since the man retired. The man was carrying some pieces of wood to make a fire in the fireplace when there was a wrenching pain in his chest. He fell to his knees in pain and then collapsed to the ground. As he was loosing consciousness he grabbed a handful of dirt and pine bark and held it tight. This was not some instinctive reaction but done deliberately. He loved that camp and cherished all the warm memories that were built up there over the years. If he was dying, he wanted to go clinging to that symbol of a life that had been rich in joy and love.

 

Only moments later he found himself standing outside the Pearly Gates. St. Peter greeted the man and then checked the Book of Life. Smiling, he told the man that he had done well and was welcome to enter the Heavenly Kingdom. All he had to do was walk toward the Pearly Gates and they would swing open to admit him. The man did what he was told and walked right into the closed gates. St. Peter mumbled something about having the gates fixed just last week. He got up and walked toward the gates and they easily swung open. So he went back to the man who was watching all of this and told him to try again. He did so and nothing happened. St. Peter was confused and frustrated when he noticed that the man had something in his hand. St. Peter asked what it was that he had in his hand. The man explained that it was only a bit of dirt and bark from his beloved camp. St. Peter told him to let go of it, as nothing from earth was allowed in heaven.

 

The man explained that he could not just let go. The dirt and bark represented all of the best memories of his life, since so much of his life had been spent at the camp and so many of the wonderful memories of his children growing up and the closeness he experienced with his wife took place at the camp. St. Peter was sympathetic but explained that nothing of earth was capable of entering heaven. The man was adamant and would not let go. He found a comfortable tree near the Pearly Gates and sat down, stating that he would not go into heaven unless he could bring this little piece of earth. So, the man sat.

 

Hours passed and still the man sat under the tree determined not to open his hand and drop the dirt and bark. St. Peter began to worry. He couldn’t have people sitting in front of the Pearly Gates refusing to go in. He was not about to send the man to the other place but he had to do something.

 

Suddenly the sound of accordion music burst from the other side of the Pearly Gates and the sounds of people talking and singing could be heard. St. Peter called out to the man. “Looks like Octoberfest has already started. They always have a great time with that, you would really like it. Why don’t you go in and join them?” He enjoyed his share of celebrating and got up to join in the Octoberfest. Sitting under the tree made him thirsty anyway and a cold beer would hit the spot. Again, when he got to the gates they would not open. St. Peter pointed to his hand and reminded him of the dirt and bark. A determined look came over the man and he returned to the tree and sat down once more.

 

St. Peter was getting worried, so he called Archangel Michael for advice. A short time later a girl looking about four years old showed up. St. Peter pointed to the man under the tree and the girl ran over to him. When the man looked up his heart skipped a beat, he was looking into the face of his only daughter. She had died in a traffic accident when she was only four years old and the man had mourned her loss the rest of his life. Now she was standing next to him just as he remembered her! He got to his knees and hugged her and cried tears of joy. A few moments later she invited her father to enter with her into the joys of heaven. This time the man dropped the dirt and bark so that he could hold his daughter’s hand as he passed through the Pearly Gates and together they walked through those gates…I’ve often thought that what the man found on the other side of the Pearly Gates was a heavenly version of his beloved camp.

 

The Christians of the Philippian community professed their faith in Christ and were good people for the most part but they had a hard time of letting go of privilege, status, and self-interest that marked their lives for so many years. St. Paul’s letter to them was a reminder that that they had passed from death into life with their baptism and faith in Jesus Christ. They had to let go of old ways and begin acting and thinking like Christians. The name “Christian” was not a passport into heaven. Their lives needed to be Christ-like. So, what did St. Paul mean by wanting them to be Christlike? He anticipated the question and explained. “Have in you the same attitude that is also in Christ Jesus, Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” The Philippians had to become like Christ and let go of their pride, self-seeking and sense of entitlement. They had to be humble and utterly open to God. Being a Christian was not about earthly success or wisdom but about openness to God and to one another. It is only by such total openness that God can fill up their lives with his joy and purpose.


The Pharisees of Jesus time had their own ideas about how salvation came about. Jesus tried to get these men to let go of their man-made ideas and listen to what God actually wanted of them. However, they were so full of themselves and their ideas that they couldn’t let go. They couldn’t empty themselves, so Jesus was unable to get them to understand God’s will. The parable of the two sons in today’s gospel reading was a reminder to the Pharisees that even though they might claim to do what God wants of them, in fact it was the sinners and publicans who were open enough to God, in the knowledge of their own weakness, that they could perceive Christ and respond.

 

The same principle is at work today. Unless we empty ourselves of our prejudices, our preconceptions of how things must be done, our set of priorities and are open to the needs of our brothers and sisters; open to God’s priorities, they we are no better off than the son who said yes and did nothing. We are no better off than the Pharisees. Christ is not calling us to empty ourselves of all that we cling to so that we might suffer but in order that we are empty enough that Christ can fill us with divine blessing.

Also read A Course in Christian Spirituality by Deacon Shewman that is available through this link.

(c) 1997-2008. Richard Shewman. All stories, articles, reflections and other written material contained in this website are the creative fruit and property of Richard Shewman. All rights are reserved. The written material contained in this website may not be reproduced or published in any form, except for the individual and personal use of the reader, without the express consent of the author.