The Ultimate Test of Character – Mark Lopez, SJ

Luke 16:19-32, 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time

I sometimes wonder how many people will actually be allowed into heaven. And I wonder, what if, just what if, we were to be judged according to ways that we behaved in circumstances we thought didn’t really matter.

For those of us who can drive a car, what if, in the final judgment, we were to be judged according to the way we drive? According to how generous and forgiving we are to other drivers, that is, or how merciful we are to pedestrians. (A scary thought for most Filipino drivers, I bet!)

Or what about, how we behave when waiting in a very long line. What happens to us when those in charge aren’t as efficient as we want them to be. And worse, what happens to us when people start to cut the line? Are we the type to stave them off with our self-proclaimed righteousness? Or do we jump in and join the mayhem to get ahead of everyone else?

Or, how about the way we react when we’re in the middle of a good meal at our favorite street food shop, and the beggar with her children manages to come to your table before the attendants finally shoo her away.

Don’t worry friends, if you’ve ever been guilty or “failed” the mercy test in any of the above – welcome to the human race! I’m willing to bet that all of us struggle with such circumstances. And so you’re in very good company.

But seriously, I think in the end, we can trust that our loving God will also be fair and just, and not petty and trite. Meaning, I think we can hope that we will be judged not just for our failure in single, isolated circumstances. Rather, we will be judged based on our character, on what kind of people we have become in the end.
And so this is not to say that these little things like the way we drive or treat everyday people won’t matter in the end, because if we’re talking about character, then all these little things do matter all the more, don’t they. Because everything that we do shapes us, and what kind of person we are is seen in what we do. All the choices we make (or do not make) can build up (or destroy) us in the end.

Sorry folks, whereas in the past, it was easy enough to just repent at the hour of death and that was it, today we think differently. We know how some Roman emperors even thought they could live-it up in sin until their final days when they would ask for confession, and thus expect an easy way into the pearly gates. Some people also still think of St. Peter’s book as an accounting ledger, with good and bad and totals and net merits, whereby the goal is simply to have done more good than bad in the end. Sorry to disappoint you, but that’s no longer how most modern day theologians think we will get to heaven. Nobody can say for sure, of course. But if we believe in a just and omnipotent God, then we can trust that he will consider character – the kind of people we are, the stuff of our interiority, given our attitudes and all the choices that make up our life.

How, then, to look at today’s readings?

Today’s Gospel, then, is the ultimate litmus test of character, at least according to Jesus. For what kind of people, after all, can live in such opulence, when the poor lie dying of hunger at their doorstep. This is an ultimate litmus test because the Gospels are unequivocal on this point. Remember the similar parable in Matthew, when the goats are separated from the sheep and the “goats” will say “But when did I ever see you hungry, or thirsty, or naked and not help you Lord?” Think about it, what kind of person turns down a hungry, thirsty naked human being? What kind of person denies the other of such kindness amidst such great need?

For Jesus, character is about how we treat people whom the rest of society does not see and value. And it is by this that we will be judged in the end.

There’s another point in the Gospel, which I think is worth praying on today. And it’s about lifestyle. Note that nothing per se, or singularly, not one of his single acts on its own was counted against the rich man in the story. Rather it was his lifestyle – such opulent living, dressed in purple garments and fine linen and sumptuous dining that got him in the end.

And take note, this rich man was not even said to be corrupt. There was no hint of him having earned his wealth by dishonest means or by cheating others. He may have worked hard and fairly for this, for all we know. And yet, that did not excuse him in the end. For he was, as the first reading warns, complacent.

And so this thing about lifestyle should be a point for all of us to ponder, me included. Beyond singular acts that we are capable or not capable of doing, let’s think and pray today about our lifestyles that apparently do matter in the eyes of God. Our lifestyles do build our character, and do make a difference, and can be scandalous when we consider where such wasted money could be better spent in helping the poor. Someone coined this as the invitation “to live simply, that others may simply live.” I think that’s a beautiful way to put it.

Finally, if you find it hard to believe in a loving God that punishes some, so seemingly without mercy in the end, here’s a thought for you. Yes, we believe that God is all-loving, slow to anger and abounding in compassion as scripture tells us. He is a Prodigal Father for those who seek to come home. He is the Good Shepherd. All of these are true images of God. And this God of love, has throughout history, manifest his love, most especially for those in greatest need – for poor wandering tribes, for slaves, for outcasts, the weak, the forgotten. Those therefore, who are drawn to this love, those who accept God’s invitation to be united with God, are those who are drawn to love as God loves.

And so the person who does not bother to love those whom God especially loves, in effect, denies God, denies God’s way of loving, denies God’s invitation to union. In the end, hell is not about God punishing us. It is rather about facing the consequences of our choosing or not choosing to be one with this Love.

Let’s pray today then to be able to choose wisely. To be mindful of the things which make up who we are, our character, in the end. To be mindful of Jesus’ ultimate litmus test, of how we treat people whom the rest of society does not see and value, and to be inspired by the Spirit to move us beyond our oftentimes complacent, comfortable living, toward the frontiers of loving. Amen.

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