The great and obvious lesson of Septuagesima Sunday is that life is serious. We have a choice to make, and little time to make it. We are asked to choose between ourselves and God, between our comfort and hard work, between our dreams and reality.
St Paul teaches us in the epistle that life is comparable to a race in which, if we do not run to win, if we do not compete manfully, we will lose. That competition is not to make more money or to be more popular or to find an easy way out; it is to save our soul. As historical precedent and prophecy of what he is saying, Paul points out that even though all the Israelites left Egypt thanks to the stupendous miracle of passing through the Red Sea, most of them did not make it to the promised land, but died in the desert because of their sin, their disbelief, their lack of confidence in God’s grace and providence. Their bones remained in the desert and they never saw the ultimate fruit of their labours.
The comparison with us is easy. All Christians have crossed the Red Sea when they received baptism. Baptism justifies us, it gives us God’s grace, it makes us God’s children. But it does not guarantee that we will attain eternal life. Faith is essential, but keeping the commandments and performing good works are also essential. No one can avail himself of the grace of his baptism as if it were entitlement to Heaven. No, there is work to do, and if you do not run the race as if your salvation depended upon winning it, then you will not make it. In other words, God has given you the tools, He gives you grace to win, but if you do not make the effort to exert yourself, you will lose. He wants you to be an actor in your own salvation. As St Augustine said: God created you without you, but He will not save you without you.
In the Gospel parable of the workers of the vineyard, we have the exact same message. In every age, God calls souls to labour for the eternal kingdom. Most spend all their time in idleness, either not hearing the call at all, or too preoccupied with themselves and their own ambitions to give it the consideration it deserves. And there are those who, even though working in the vineyard, sometimes for a long time, simply have not learned anything in the company of the Master of the vineyard. They fail to learn that He is good, because they themselves are all about facade, position, promotion and pay. They too are at risk of losing salvation.
The double conclusion leaves no room for doubt: It does not matter how long you may have been in the service of God or baptised, or confirmed or ordained, or consecrated, or how much you may know, or how many books you may have written, or how many applaud what you may say or write or preach, or how many television interviews you may give, or how many likes you may get on your Twitter posts: you may be superseded by others who have been around for much less time, who are much less gifted, who get no applause, but who have learned, sometimes very late in life, what it’s all about: how to truly love and serve God and neighbour with a humble and contrite heart; how to accept what He says and not dilute it with their own inane concoctions.
Furthermore, to rely on a false and distorted notion of Divine Mercy, to imagine that Hell is empty and that everyone goes to Heaven, or even that most souls go to Heaven when the Lord Himself tells us the exact opposite, is to live in illusion; it is to mock God who does not waste words, who never makes a poor choice of words, and who expects us to know that and to take His words seriously. It is simply to delude oneself.
The Lord is clear, never confusing. And here is the clarity, the one word that we have forgotten, that we no longer preach, because we are too caught up in our own self-promotion and comfy inertia, too terrified of what people will think; the one word that we need to contemplate with utmost care and that will set our hearts at rest, for within it are all the words we need to know about what to do and what not to do, for it is so very simple, if only we have the humility to acknowledge it and follow the divine instructions:
Enter ye in at the narrow gate:
for wide is the gate, and broad is the way that leadeth to destruction,
and many there are who go in thereat.
How narrow is the gate, and strait is the way that leadeth to life:
and few there are that find it!