Have you ever stood in line, say, at a county treasurer’s office, waiting to register a new car? You have gone online, assembled all the documents that you are required to present. At least, you hope so.
A woman, 15 spots ahead of you, has just turned away from the counter because one of her documents refers to her by a different surname. She is in new car purgatory, banished from this line to some other. Who knows where she is going and what she must prove in that other line by way of documentation? You pray you have got it right, but you will not know for another half hour when your turn at the window comes.
Whether you think of the final judgment as something God pronounces or as something that is evident to all, even to yourself, when that extraordinary moment finally comes, either way, some criteria of suitability for the kingdom of God will be applied to you. So let us ponder what matters to God, the criteria Christ taught us.
Clearly, all of us who say that we believe are living according to some perhaps unexamined notion of what matters to God and what does not. Decide which of them you think will count for more in the end.
What if my priorities about what matters to God are wrong? After all, I am a sinful person, aren’t I?
And no cop-out by saying, “You just need to be a good person.” That is a tautology. Our question is, “What makes a person good?”
I have set aside sins. We can disagree endlessly about them, but we all agree that they should be avoided. Consider instead this list of positive criteria. The Catholic Church teaches that all of these are essential to our lives as disciples, though not equally so. Rather than debate them, just rank them for yourself in terms of importance. Try, really try, to refrain from arguing for your opinion.
I have started with the works of mercy and included the commandments of the church. Together they seemed to cover the scriptural exhortations that came to mind. And even if you are not Catholic, I suspect your own denomination has similar expectations of you.
- The corporal works of mercy: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick, visiting prisoners, burying the dead and giving alms to the poor.
- The spiritual works of mercy: counseling the doubtful, instructing the ignorant, admonishing the sinner, comforting the sorrowing, forgiving injuries, bearing wrongs patiently, praying for the living and the dead.
- Attending Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation and resting from servile works.
- Observing the days of abstinence and fasting.
- Confessing your sins to a priest at least once a year.
- Receiving the Eucharist at least once a year during the Easter Season.
- Contributing to the support of the church.
- Obeying the laws of the church concerning matrimony.
- Participating in the church’s mission of evangelization
Even when God is revealed to us in Christ, we still struggle to understand, to prioritize and to comply. We read in Wisdom:
Who can know God’s counsel,
Or who can conceive what the Lord intends?
For the deliberations of mortals are timid,
And unsure are our plans (9:13-14).
Blaise Pascal famously proposed that it was better to bet on God’s existence than nonexistence. His reasoning was simple enough. If God does not exist, observant Christians will still have lived rather happy lives. On the other hand, if God does exist and you have done nothing to respond to God, you have got a lot to lose.
Here is a variant. What if my priorities about what matters to God are wrong? After all, I am a sinful person, aren’t I? Therefore, I am somewhat blinded by sin, prejudiced in all my judgments. I may be a good person, but I certainly cannot command the wisdom of ages. Nor can I completely step free from the culture in which I have been raised. I also tend to associate with those who share and reinforce my judgments. What if I am in the wrong group?
Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me
Cannot be my disciple.
Which of you wishing to construct a tower
Does not first sit down and calculate the cost
To see if there is enough for its completion? (Lk 14:27-28).
Here is a thought, perhaps, timely in a culture and a church that continue to erect walls between us, who are right, and others, who are wrong. What about resolving to reexamine the criteria listed above, paying special attention to those that seem to you to be less important? Perhaps in prayerfully pondering them, even trying again to observe them, they will come to seem more important, even quite important. You never know. And that, of course, is the point. None of us do. “Who ever knew your counsel, except you had given wisdom and sent your holy spirit from on high? And thus were the paths of those on earth made straight” (Wis 9:17-18b)