Today’s readings are pretty harsh! And I suppose they should be. Their meaning is very important, if pretty simple: stuff is not the way. From the first reading we get the idea loud and clear that stuff will not last. Whatever stuff you have, it will not stay. Material things cannot save us. And even in the first reading we are getting to the next idea. Not only can things not save us, things can in fact condemn us. Too many people get their things at the expense of others. If you have cheated others to get your stuff, and many people do, the Lord will hear their righteous cries. Too many people have spent their lives getting stuff, and in the end that’s all they have. And you can’t take it with you. I’ve often wondered how some business executives can live with themselves the way they treat their employees. But this reading leaves no doubt where they will end up.
It’s hard. We’re earthy. We have worldly desires. We like soft clothes and nice shoes. We like the stuff. It’s hard not to. Stuff is cool and fun. And it is tempting to do whatever we must to get nice stuff, but Jesus says if our bodies crave material things so much that we are tempted to sin to get them, we need to do whatever we must to stem that desire. If our feet crave fancy shoes so much that we would steal or cheat to get them, we would be better off to get rid of the feet than to sin to get the shoes. We’ll be happier in heaven on stumps than whole and in hell.
Today is also the feast of St. Polycarp. As a martyr he lived this advice. As an old man he was arrested for being Christian and would be sentenced to death. The arresting soldier felt for the old man, and said, "just say that Caesar is Lord, whether you believe it or not, and save your life." But Polycarp would not. He valued truth above all, and he would not renounce his true Lord even in the face of death. I’m sure his tongue was longing to sin to save him from a trip to the burning stake, but he would rather cut out his tongue than let it lead him to sin. He refused to renounce Jesus – he said Jesus had never done him wrong his whole long life, why should he betray Jesus now? And so he was sent to be burned alive. But according to legend he was not burned. The flames surrounded him but did not burn his flesh. The soldiers had to stab him to death and then burn his body. He would have been better to cut out his tongue than to let it blaspheme. Better to go to heaven mute than whole to hell. He took the hard road, and so do we everyday. Sin is tempting, and the earthly rewards seem great, but the heavenly rewards for the steadfast are greater still.
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