One day in Melbourne, Australia, Mother Teresa visited a poor man whom nobody knew existed. The room in which he was living was in a terrible state of untidiness and neglect. There was no light in the room. The man hardly ever opened the blinds. He hadn’t a friend in the world.
She started to clean and tidy the room. At first he protested saying, ‘Leave it alone. It’s alright as it is.’ But she went ahead anyway. Under a pile of rubbish she found a beautiful oil lamp that was covered with dust. She cleaned and polished it and then asked him why he never lit the lamp. He answered, ‘Why should I light it? No one ever comes to see me. I never see anybody.’ Then Mother Teresa promised him that two of her sisters would visit him on a regular basis and with that things gradually began to improve. Then one day he said to the nuns, ‘Sisters, I’ll be able to manage on my own from now on. But do me a favour. Tell that first sister who came to see me that she lit a light in my life and it is still burning.’
In today’s gospel Matthew compares the arrival of Jesus to the coming of a great light that shines on those living in deep darkness. Where John the Baptist is introduced as a voice in the wilderness, Jesus is presented to us as the great light that Isaiah prophesied about: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them a light has shone.”
There is a power and magnetism to this light of Jesus that is truly astounding. How else can one explain why four grown-up men should leave their jobs and families to follow Jesus into an uncertain future? These men weren’t simpletons or jobless with nothing else to do? They were fishermen. They had livelihoods. They owned boats. They had families to support. What did their wives say? How were they going to survive without a breadwinner in the house? Also, give a thought to the father of James and John. He must have been puzzled like never before! In a patriarchal society, the father-son relationship is one of the most intimate bonds. It includes family responsibilities and family business, as well as the family inheritance. To leave their father was a serious act of severing kinship ties. All these very important considerations didn’t seem to matter. In what seems to us like madness they left all behind to follow this stranger.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor executed by the Nazis, shares his take on this. “Follow me” is exactly what those disciples did. “Until that day they could remain in obscurity…observing the law and waiting for the coming of the Messiah.” But, he says, with Jesus’ call they had to get up and go. They could have stayed as they were and Jesus could have been their friend, even their consoler, but he would not have been their Lord.
During my time in Zambia there was a Jesuit there who used to teach religious knowledge. One of the multiple-choice questions he gave every year was: ‘Were the gospels written a) to tell us what to do or b) to introduce us to Jesus? He would spend the year impressing on them that b) to introduce us to Jesus, was the correct answer. But when exam time came most of the pupils would answer a).
Perhaps there is a lesson for us all here. In our daily living are we more in the ‘a’ category rather than the ‘b’? For all our disdain of rules and moral codes, following them is much easier than engaging with a person. This is the crunch of today’s gospel. These four men had encountered Jesus. There was something about him that blew their minds. When Jesus asked them to follow him he was inviting them into a deep, personal relationship. So strong and purposeful was this invite that they could not do anything else but follow him. Christianity is therefore first and foremost about a person and this gospel passage we have just heard is putting a challenge before each one of us, namely, where has Jesus stepped into our life? Where has he asked us to follow him? The bottom line is a love relationship. It was love that brought Jesus to empty himself and assume our human condition in the first place and therefore it is only in terms of love that we can adequately respond.
To love anyone is risky. Who knows what it will involve or where it will take us? How much more dangerous to fall in love with the one who is love incarnate. Losing control of our lives is part of the game just like the apostles often lost control when following Jesus. But they quickly realised that though lost they were in safe hands. This story has been repeated down through the centuries where every saint will tell you that there is no greater freedom than that of allowing oneself to be guided by the Holy Spirit and letting Jesus enlighten, guide and direct you, leading you wherever he wills.
At the heart of Pope Francis’ spirituality is the same invitation which he states at the beginning of his Apostolic Exhortation the Joy of the Gospel: “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since “no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord”. “Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew.”
Thanks to the intervention of Mother Teresa, the old man from Melbourne ended his days with a light in his heart. Jesus is indeed the light of the world. If we want a share in that light then all we have to do is invite Jesus into our hearts and he will indeed set us free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With a deep trust in Jesus may his joy be constantly born anew in us.
Sunday, 22 January 2017