Besides this you know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. (Romans 13:11)
Several years ago, I was on a long drive across Ohio in my pickup truck, listening to one of my favorite old radio programs on satellite radio, Lights Out. As usual, the program began with the announcer saying, very slowly, in a droll monotone, “It … is … later … than … you … think.” This is an edited version of chapter fifteen from my book, Life From Our Land. It seemed like such an obvious example of Red Zone Thinking, I felt it was worth sharing again.
This vaguely reminded me of a Scripture text. At a stop sign, with no traffic in any direction as far as the eye could see, I reached over to my Bible and, using the concordance, found the text in Romans:
“Besides this you know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed” (13:11).
Translated into the slogan of that old radio show, this becomes:
Salvation … is … nearer … than … you … think!
If for each one of us salvation is nearer than we think — if, say, we were told we only had five years to live, or maybe only a year, or a month, a week, or what if “the Master came home tonight,” and we found ourselves standing before God — then what is it, when all of our lives are laid before us and before Him, that is most important? What is it that will make any eternal difference from this life into the next?
As I kept driving across Ohio in that pick-up truck, enjoying the beauty of the endless rolling farmland on both sides of the road, corn easily up to my truck’s roof, all expressions of the endless efforts of farmers, farmhands, and their families, I reflected on that verse from Romans, and an analogy came to mind, one I call the “Parable of the Game.”
Parable of the Game
Imagine that a highly respected, wealthy neighbor invited you to spend an evening at his mansion playing a board game, and you accepted. All evening, the game proceeds as usually played, and you and your opponents experience the usual wax and wane of material success. Drinks and snacks are passed and shared. At times, the game becomes quite heated as players bicker and barter for progress, position, and power. In the end, you are quite successful, but when your host declares the evening over, all the board money and game pieces are put away in the box, and you and the other players leave and return to your separate lives.
To what extent do the successes and failures that you attained in playing the game affect the rest of your life?
If we made millions of board game money and acquired acres of board game property, thereby gaining great board game influence, power, and prestige, or, on the other hand, if we lost everything and spent most of the game in Jail, what difference does any of this make to the real lives we lead once we’ve put all the game pieces back in the box, closed it up, and placed it back up on the shelf?
At first thought, “nothing.” Nothing we accomplish or accumulate in the playing of a board game — successes or failures, gains or losses — carries over into real life outside the box.
Yet, this is not exactly true. It seems to me that there are at least seven things that do carry over to real life:
1. How we treated those we played with. If we acted like jerks, cheated, lied, and generally, in our self-centeredness, stepped on everyone else in the game, we may find that none of them will want to speak to us again. They may never see us the same way, and the host will certainly not invite us back.
2. How our actions indirectly affected those we played with. There is something in gaming called a “zero sum gain”: if we are winning, someone else has to be losing; if we are gaining stuff, someone else is losing stuff. If in the playing, we were driven by the goal of accumulation and power, with no concern for how our actions were affecting the others around us, again, we may find that we have lost friends, gained a less-than-shining reputation, and nixed any future invitations to the Mansion.
3. How we ourselves changed from what we learned about ourselves in the playing. In the process, did we discover any flaws in our character, and then did we try to change? Were we any different when the game was over, or just the same?
4. How we treated the game area. Was there a ring of trash around our playing area? Potato chip crumbs, popcorn kernels, spilled beer, crumpled and torn board game money, chocolate on the tablecloth, mud on the carpet? If so, none of those friends, let alone the host, may ever invite us to their homes.
5. How we enjoyed the playing of the game. Were we always angry, complaining, bitter, discontent, depressed, or did we seek the joy in the very experience of having been invited and having the opportunity to enjoy the time with friends, even if we spent the entire game in Jail?
6. How others remember how we played the game. This is the issue of legacy. When the group gathers in the future, how do they remember how we played? Did we leave an example to follow, maybe a better way than has ever been played, or did we leave an example that everyone swore to avoid?
7. How grateful we were to the host. Did we storm out without a word to the host, or were we thankful for the privilege of the invitation?
A Parable of Life
This “Parable of the Game” is a parable of life. In the Parable, “playing the game” represents life in this world, and the “real life outside the game” represents our eventual life in the kingdom of God.
Once the game of this life is put away in the box, what remains and affects our life in the kingdom?
Our Lord proclaimed to His Apostles that, if we are in Him, we are no longer “of the world, even as [He was] not of the world” (Jn 17:14). Anyone in Christ has become a citizen of the kingdom, “with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph 2:19), and is called by Christ to become detached from the things of this world. Thomas à Kempis wrote:
Here you have no abiding city, and wherever you may be, you are a stranger and pilgrim; you will never enjoy peace until you become inwardly united to Christ. What do you seek here, since this world is not your resting place? Your true home is in Heaven; therefore remember that all the things of this world are transitory. All things are passing, and yourself with them. See that you do not cling to them, lest you become entangled and perish with them.Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, (New York: Penguin Books, 1982), p. 68.
This was built upon the words of our Lord: “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (Jn 12:25); “For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?” (Mt 16:26). These seem like harsh words, but they warn us not to become inordinately attached to this world.
If this is the danger, then it might seem to have been better if Jesus had immediately taken His followers home with Him. But that was not God’s plan. These new citizens of the kingdom had an important job to do: to be messengers in this world (Jn 17:11–18), or as St. Paul described, “ambassadors” (2 Cor 5:17–21), to help others, those lost in this world and attached to it, to discover their need to become citizens of the kingdom, through faith in Jesus Christ and Baptism into membership in His Mystical Body, the Church.
What does it mean practically, though, that we are children of God, citizens of the kingdom, and not citizens of this world, of this “box,” this “game”? Did Jesus leave us in this world to become successful and powerful? To accumulate riches and property, so that we can spend what time we’ve been given here in comfort, luxury, and easy living? To eat, drink, and be merry, because when life is done, we leave it all behind us anyway?
No, for as Our Lord said in His Sermon on the Mount:
For all the nations of the world seek these things; and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things shall be yours as well. Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Luke 12:30–34)
When our time in this world is over, when all we have accomplished and accumulated in this life is put away in “the box,” then what? St. Paul warned that, “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body” (2 Cor 5:10). The same warning was given in the Apocalypse:
And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, by what they had done. . . . And if any one’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:12, 15 [emphasis added])
Our Lord explained this even more clearly in a parable:
“Take heed, and beware of all covetousness; for a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” And he told them a parable, saying, “The land of a rich man brought forth plentifully; and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns, and build larger ones; and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God. (Luke 12:15–21)
Parable of the Game Revisited
When all is done, and we stand before God, when the Book of Life is opened, when the fruit of our lives is examined, what will be important? I believe, given that “salvation … is … nearer … than … you … think,” that it is crucial that we consider the importance of those same seven things, but in a slightly different order:
1. How we loved God. This is summarized in what is called the Great Commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength” (Mk 12:30). How grateful are we to the Host, to the Father through Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, for all that He has given us, which means everything, every opportunity to know, love, and serve Him?
As an Evangelical minister, I would have expressed it this way: “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?” Maybe surprisingly, this is precisely how Pope Emeritus Benedict put it: “And this, dear brothers and sisters, is true for every Christian: faith is first and foremost a personal, intimate encounter with Jesus; it is having an experience of his closeness, his friendship, his love. It is in this way that we learn to know him ever better, to love and follow him more and more. May this happen to each one of us!”Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, Oct. 21, 2009; http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/audiences/2009/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20091021_en.html.
As Pope Francis also said, “True wealth is love of God, shared with others … Who experiences this does not fear death, and receives peace of heart.”Pope Francis, Angelus message, Aug. 4, 2013; http://www.asianews.it/news-en/Pope-calls-on-young-people-to-counter-daily-vanity-of-consumer-society-28655.html.
This is a consistent theme throughout Scripture. For example, after St. James reminds us that as “the sun rises with its scorching heat and withers the grass; its flower falls, and its beauty perishes … [s]o will the rich man fade away in the midst of his pursuits,” he then affirms: “Blessed is the man who endures trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life which God has promised to those who love him” (Jas 1:11–12).
A chapter later, St. James makes it even more clear, saying all of this in but one simple sentence: “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him?” (Jas 2:5).
2. How we loved. This is what is called the second Great Commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” and our Lord added, “There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mk 12:31). When all the great industrialists, bankers, inventors, and investors die, what will ultimately matter will not be all the great things they made, accumulated, and accomplished, for all that will stay in the box. Rather, what will matter is how they loved their wives, children, families, friends, and neighbors, as well as the people they worked with. As a Kempis wrote: “Without love, the outward work is of no value; but whatever is done out of love, be it never so little, is wholly fruitful. For God regards the greatness of the love that prompts a man, rather than the greatness of his achievement.”Kempis, Imitation of Christ, p. 43.
This, too, will be the measure of our lives. As St. Francis of Assisi once said, “Men lose all the material things they leave behind them in this world, but they carry with them the reward of their charity and the alms they give. For these they will receive from the Lord the reward and recompense they deserve.”St. Francis, from a letter written to all the faithful, in Opuscula, edit. (Quaracchi, 1949), pp. 87–94, quoted in The Liturgy of the Hours, vol. 4, Office of Readings for Oct. 4, Feast of St. … Continue reading
3. How we indirectly loved. How does the way we spend our money, invest our time, and apply our talents affect other people in this world, people we don’t even know? If our ambition for power, position, prosperity, and wealth caused us to step on even one person, I believe that when the books are opened in the end, and everything we have done in this life is examined, that person will be there in the judgment, pointing, as Nathan did to David, “You are the man!” (2 Sam 12:7).
How many people around the world, whom we will never know personally, have been affected by how we have spent our money, by what we have said, or by what we have done in this life? Or maybe what we haven’t done?
4. How we grew in grace. What have we learned about ourselves, if we were listening, and how have we responded? Changed? Or has our life been one continual disclaimer that we are without faults (cf. 1 Jn 1:8) or that it was “always someone else’s fault”? As St. Paul warned, “Put to death what is earthly in you …” (Col 3:5f.).
5. How we cared for what we were given. When St. James warned that “friendship with the world is enmity with God” (Jas 4:4), he did not mean a Gnostic rejection of this world, but a rejection of sinful attachments. This world was created good, and our temporary life in this world is a good that we have received as a gift from above (Jas 1:17). Everything we have been given is good, including technology. Mankind has created nothing; we have only discovered how to use the gifts, treasures, knowledge, techniques, and abilities placed in creation for our use. The question will be, how did we use, take care of, share, invest, and improve what we were given? When we take care of creation, we live out the divine life we have been given, and share with God in His creative activity in this world.
Pope Francis said in one of his general audiences, “Cultivating and caring for creation is an instruction of God which he gave not only at the beginning of history, but has also given to each one of us; it is part of his plan; it means making the world increase with responsibility, transforming it so that it may be a garden, an inhabitable place for us all.”Pope Francis, General Audience, June 5, 2013; http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/francesco/audiences/2013/documents/papa-francesco_20130605_udienza-generale_en.html.
In the parable of the talents, the departing King gave his servants “talents” (or maybe more accurately “resources”) according to their abilities. At the end of the parable is a strange statement: “For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (Mt 25:29). Does this seem fair? To the wealthy and gifted more is given, but to the poor and less gifted even what they have is taken away?
There are various explanations, but I prefer this: God has given to us everything we have, but everything also brings with it more responsibilities, often far more than we ever expect! If we want a lot of stuff, then we are free to go for it, but are we able and ready to accept and manage all the responsibilities that come with ownership? Buy a house, buy a hobby! Buy a farm, and you’ll never have a moment when your work is done!! Want to be the President of the United States, or the richest man in world—go for it! With either of these, we can accomplish much good, but can we handle it? Can we handle the temptations, the attachments, the responsibilities, the pressures? St Francis, once a rich young man, recognized that he could not handle the responsibilities of anything, so he gave it all away! The truth is that even the little we have, in the end, will be taken away and left in the box.
6. How content we were. Jesus told His followers to “abide in my love … [so] that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (Jn 15:10, 11). When our lives are over and we look back, will we see that our lives were full of the joy of Christ, or of anxiety, bitterness, and regret? Did we seek to imitate St. Paul who, though in chains, claimed, “Not that I complain of want; for I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content” (Phil 4:11)?
7. How our lives inspired others. Imagine having your name for all time in the New Testament as one who was so “in love with this present world” that you deserted St. Paul (cf. 2 Tim 4:10). When our children, grandchildren, and those who knew our deeds and words remember us, will how we lived these seven things be a legacy worth imitating?
But Isn’t This Just Work’s Righteousness?
As my truck left the sparse farmlands and entered the busy suburbs of my destination, several countering questions came to mind:
Some might complain, “But isn’t this just works righteousness? And besides, what does it truly mean to love?” To avoid confusion and disagreement is the reason why, when good players gather to play a board game, they don’t make up the rules as they go along, but look first at the instructions inside the lid of the box. And that is why Christ gave us, not only His Word, the Scriptures, or Sacred Tradition, but His Church as “the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15), guided by the Holy Spirit (Jn 16:13).
As to the relationship between works and righteousness, faith and love, the “instructions inside the lid of the box” state that “faith apart from works is dead” (Jam 2:26), or as a joint Lutheran-Catholic statement put it: “We confess together that good works — a Christian life lived in faith, hope and love — follow justification and are its fruits. When the justified live in Christ and act in the grace they receive, they bring forth, in biblical terms, good fruit. . . . Thus both Jesus and the apostolic Scriptures admonish Christians to bring forth the works of love.”Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999), no. 37.
This is quite profound and important. Certainly, throughout the history of Christendom, millions of sincere believers, regardless of their particular theologies, have been moved by the words of Scripture and the model of Christ to live out their faith in love. But the danger of some of these theologies has been to draw believers off into imbalanced and incomplete priorities: for example, an over-emphasis upon faith alone can detract from the necessity of holiness, sacrifice, suffering, and selfless love.
On the other hand, the Catechism of the Catholic Church warns that Catholics safely home in the Church can still miss the mark: “Even though incorporated into the Church, one who does not however persevere in charity is not saved” (no. 837). Essentially and succinctly, as put by Thomas Howard:
There is only one agenda for all of us Christians, namely, our growing into conformity to Jesus Christ, that is to say, our being made perfect in Charity. We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, and at that tribunal there is not one test for Protestants and another for Catholics. All of us have arrived there by grace, and all of us are “washed in the blood of the Lamb”, and all of us are to have been configured to Christ.Thomas Howard, On Being Catholic (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997), p.147.
To a very significant extent, all sin is a failure to love; all divisions and schisms are a failure of charity; and all abuse and misuse of God’s Creation is a failure to love Him.
From the earliest days of the Church, men and women have tried to augment, qualify, simplify, and, if nothing else works, replace the central message of the Gospel. In response to Galatian believers, who had been lured away by just such a “different gospel,” St. Paul wrote: “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified?” (Gal 3:1) Since it is highly unlikely that any of the Galatians had been present in Jerusalem at the crucifixion, then what was St. Paul referring to except that which has been displayed in the front of Church sanctuaries throughout Christendom ever since: the purest example of charity “publicly portrayed” — a crucifix.
When Christians denigrate the crucifix because they think it denies the resurrection of Christ, they sadly are missing the point, for a crucifix would be meaningless except for the presumption of the resurrection. And when modern Catholics replace the suffering Christ with a resurrected Christ, they, too, can be missing the point. Certainly St. Paul believed in the resurrection when he said, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2).
The reason, however, for the constant insistence of the public portrayal of the crucifix is not just to remind us of the self-emulation of Christ on the cross, but to confront us with the true meaning of love. Faith in Christ means looking upon the “publicly portrayed” image of His sacrifice, and being willing to do the same for Him. This is precisely how Jesus defined what it means to be His follower: “This is my commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (Jn 15:12–13). Elsewhere in Galatians, St. Paul would confess what this radical love means for him:
I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. … But far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (2:20; 6:14)
Faith in Christ means loving in the same way He loved us. That hits particularly at home, for this is how St. Paul defined how I, as a husband and father, am to love: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25).
It Is Full Time To Wake Up
As I pulled into my destination, I reconsidered that opening verse from Romans: “Besides this you know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed” (Rom 13:11).
And then I thought of another verse that reminded me that it was high time to quit procrastinating and start acting!
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1–2)
These “witnesses” are not just the heavenly hosts, angels, martyrs, and saints, who are watching and cheering us on, but our spouses, children, grandchildren, friends, neighbors, co-workers, even the viewers, hearers, and readers of our high-sounding words(!) — all of these are waiting to see whether we live out faithfully all of the things we ought, or as St. John said in those letters to those churches, whether we “conquer.”
May God grant us the grace and mercy to (1) know, love, and serve Him, (2) love one another, (3) consider how our actions, our lifestyles affect people we will never know, (4) grow in holiness, (5) respect responsibly the things we have been given, (6) be content with, yet detached from, a minimum of things, and (7) leave behind a model for our children and grandchildren to follow, in Christ, amen.
|↑1||This is an edited version of chapter fifteen from my book, Life From Our Land. It seemed like such an obvious example of Red Zone Thinking, I felt it was worth sharing again.|
|↑2||Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, (New York: Penguin Books, 1982), p. 68.|
|↑3||Pope Benedict XVI, General Audience, Oct. 21, 2009; http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/audiences/2009/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20091021_en.html.|
|↑4||Pope Francis, Angelus message, Aug. 4, 2013; http://www.asianews.it/news-en/Pope-calls-on-young-people-to-counter-daily-vanity-of-consumer-society-28655.html.|
|↑5||Kempis, Imitation of Christ, p. 43.|
|↑6||St. Francis, from a letter written to all the faithful, in Opuscula, edit. (Quaracchi, 1949), pp. 87–94, quoted in The Liturgy of the Hours, vol. 4, Office of Readings for Oct. 4, Feast of St. Francis of Assisi.|
|↑7||Pope Francis, General Audience, June 5, 2013; http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/francesco/audiences/2013/documents/papa-francesco_20130605_udienza-generale_en.html.|
|↑8||Lutheran World Federation and the Catholic Church’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (1999), no. 37.|
|↑9||Thomas Howard, On Being Catholic (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1997), p.147.|