Imagine you are playing in a game of Jeopardy. The category is “Who Said This?” And, the clue is, “This saying is hard; who can accept it?” You are unfamiliar with Scriptures so you make a guess: “Someone’s mother? The moderator of Are you Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? St. Benedict?” You’d be partly right. Your mother probably told you more than once, “It’s good for you or it builds character.” And, St. Benedict did say “… we hope to set down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome.”
But this is Jesus. Jesus offers no comfort, no wiggle room and no grading on the curve. He offers us a choice: “This saying is hard; do you want to leave?”
We used to have a superior, who will remain unnamed, who minced no words. She’d calmly say: “If you like, you can pack you little black bag and go home.” It got to be a way of making light of a situation to repeat her words. Or, because we read the Martyrology (for the newer people, the Lives of the Saints) for supper table reading, we would slough it off with, “Oh, well, I’ll just put it in my martyrology!” That got two of us is trouble when a newer member believed us and reported to the superior that that we were writing our own martyrology!”
Will you walk away? The choice is ours each day, every hour: Accept the grace of the moment or turn our backs on it. Each person must make her own judgment about who Jesus is and determine the way of life that she will follow. We get the same invitation but each person must respond to the grace of God in her own unique way. When truth is revealed to us, there are only two possible reactions to it: It can be received, or it can be rejected.
Jesus never panders to his would-be followers. He neither strokes the fickle nor pampers the undecided. He fully knows that the way he offers is a most difficult path – this saying is hard – costing the disciple everything, He is willing for the one in front of him to walk-away, literally, should they so choose. What tremendous trust binds Him to his beloved! He holds us in his hands, but without grasping.
It used to be part of the ritual just prior to the liturgy for the final vow ceremony, that the abbot would take the scholastic aside and question her in private: Are you sure you are doing this of your free will? No one coerced you or promised you anything if you make vows? It was a little late, perhaps but it was the moment of truth. This is Jesus asking: Will you, too, leave me?
Imagine how Jesus must have felt when the reaction of some was: “This is a hard saying. Who can accept it?” And, they walk away. Not just down another path to the truth – but away, they leave him and his way!
What is more astounding in today’s Scripture is Peter’s memorable immediate and fiercely honest reply: “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.” In other words: “Walk away? How can we walk away? What do you mean? Where else can we go? We’ve nowhere left; we’ve given up everything! We’ve burned all our bridges!”
It’s the teaching, not the words of Jesus that are HARD. The words are not difficult to understand, but the meaning is hard for some people to comprehend. A young man from the city was visiting a dude ranch and wanted to appear as if he was used to the surroundings. So he went out walking with one of the hired hands. Going through the barnyard, the visitor tried starting a conversation: “Say, look at that big bunch of buffaloes.” The hired hand replied, “Not ‘bunch’ but ‘herd.’” “Heard what?” “Herd of buffaloes.” “Sure, I’ve heard of buffalo. There’s a big bunch of ‘me right over there.”
No, the words aren’t hard. The teaching is – hard on our pride, hard on way of life, hard on our ego.
This definition of a Christian fits here: “A Christian really is one who cannot walk away.” Parents worry when their teenagers and young adults seem to walk away from their faith. But very often, it’s more like they’ve taken a holiday. A personal crisis or break in a relationship or a family tragedy has them calling out for God’s help. The foundation was firm. How many young parents return to the church of their childhood when they have children to be baptized? A Christian is one who cannot walk away!
The liturgies this week have prepared us well for this weekend’s Scripture. The Gospel verse on Thursday, “If today you hear his voice” with the hymn “Here I am Lord.” Noon Prayer on Tuesday “You have solemnly declared ‘With my chosen I have made a covenant. Of this I am sure – that your love lasts forever.” The Gospel of the missing wedding garment, the day-laborers who earned a day’s pay for an hour’s work, hearing the disciples question “Who then can be saved?” and Peter’s direct gut-wrenching question: we’ve given up everything to follow you. What’s in it for us?”
All these strands come together tomorrow when Jesus asks us: Do you also want to leave? Firm in faith, we answer with Peter: To whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”