19th Sep 21, 25th of the Year
What is the point of life? It’s one of those questions that is given a fancy title: philosophers might describe it as existential, meaning it’s deeply related to our purpose and why we exist at all. It is a deep question - what is the point of it all? - and perhaps not one to discuss over a chilled evening dinner, but we do need an answer to it. Our answer as Christians is that the point of life is to love God and know God’s love for us. That was why we were made.
I’m sure we could agree that some answers given by others ti the question are wrong. Those who say, “There is no point to life,” are walking a dangerous route to despair. If there’s no point, no reason, no purpose there can only be emptiness. Life cannot be appreciated if there is no point. If there was no point to life, murder would be something we could do as the mood took us.
Others might say that the point to life is trying to live well, to be happy, to stay healthy. We might think of this as do-goodery, believed by kind people, but those who have no faith. Our Christian faith cannot agree with this for we see what the point of human life is in Jesus. Jesus’ humanity was utterly perfect in a way no one else’s has ever been, because in Christ God and man are united. Yet, Jesus dies on the Cross feeling abandoned, crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (St Matthew 27:46); most of His friends, the disciples, have abandoned Him, the crowds have shouted out, “Crucify Him!” He’s being mocked even by one of the thieves crucified with Him (St Luke 23::39-43). The life of Jesus is not one that ends healthy or happy. It’s not been plain sailing before then either: rejected in His hometown (St Mark 6:1-6), weeping at the death of His friend Lazarus (St John 11:35), seeing the plight of the crowds who were like sheep without a shepherd (St Matthew 9:36). Jesus’ life was not always happy but it is the best life possible. The point of life cannot be to be happy.
Some make choices that look for popularity or fame. I’ve just finished reading Rudyard Kipling’s short story, “The Man who would be king,” where two ex-soldiers want to conquer a small territory bordering Afghanistan in the nineteenth century. They even sign a pledge to live virtuous lives so as to achieve it, but the brief spell of impressing the locals ends abruptly. It sounds like an admirable ambition - to have power and influence - and some are undoubtedly called to exercise it, but making decisions and being influential is not the point of life.
Some would say the point of life is to enjoy ourselves. We can agree with that to some extent: joy is a gift of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22) and our Lord came that we may have life in abundance (St John 10:10). Often what people mean though when they say they just want to enjoy themselves is that they don’t want to have to think about the consequences of their enjoyment on others. It’s what’s called hedonism, which is selfish and unloving. In contrast, our joy in the world God has created will mean we thank God for it and ensure others are able to enjoy it too. Hedonistic pleasure is to squeeze as much out of the world as possible for our own benefit not caring whether others enjoy it too or not.
These lessons about thew point of life we discover in our Bible Readings today. We heard from the book of Wisdom, one of the deuterocanonical books (meaning Protestant Bibles will omit it). It paints a scene of the godless rubbing their hands and trying to catch out the person who is just, who is trying to be godly. They will make life difficult for the person who is godly by trying to undermine the beliefs of the devout. We will I fear almost certainly have people in our life who this very week will try to weaken our resolve to be faithful to God though they would say they love us very much. But because we know the point of life is not ease or success, our faith will not be shaken. Remember the example of Job’s faithfulness in the midst of suffering and losing everything. Remember Jesus going to the Cross.
In our Gospel today our Lord gives us the excellent reminder that when we ponder what the point of life is, it must be a definition that could equally be applied to children. Our Lord takes a little child, sets the child in front of His listeners, puts His arms round the little child, and says to them, “Welcome this child for thus you welcome me into your life.” There’s always a danger that we think children are not yet human, that they can’t hear what we’re saying, that they won’t be offended if we just do stuff on our phone rather than pay attention to them. Our Lord was a child. He has hallowed that existence by being one year old, two years old, three years old, etc. Our Lord grew up, went through puberty, His body changed in weird ways as He got older. This is part of human life hallowed by God. Children are already humans and fully alive to the gifts of God.
Anything necessary for salvation must be open to children. The Church must always be a place where children are welcome for the Church is the Body of Christ. At St Mary’s we have a depiction of the Lord teaching us this on another occasion in the wall painting behind the font and at the Good Shepherd it is inscribed on the font itself. Do have a look at on your way out. It has the old translation of Jesus’ words, “Suffer the little children,” meaning, “Let the little children come to me.” (St Matthew 19:14). Children make noise: quite a lot of noise and quite often when you don’t want them to be. Now, I want children to be well behaved and quiet, but more important than that is that they are here whether they’re quiet or not. After all, we let naughty adults in, some of whom can’t sit still or without talking during Mass or checking they phones! So we are to welcome noisy children into our church too. It’s not that they’re the future, it’s that they are an essential element of the present.
The quest to discover what’s important in life is at the heart of second reading, where we continue to read through the letter of St James. If we get our priorities wrong about what is important it will inevitably lead to jealousy, such as described by the author, the Son of Thunder, the brother of St John. He speaks of the “desires fighting inside your own selves … You want something and haven’t got it; so you are prepared to kill.” The solution to the problem, James writes, is to alter our prayer life. “Why you don’t have what you want is because you don’t pray for it; when you do pray and don’t get it, it is because you have not prayed properly.” Let’s finish off this morning looking in a bit more detail at this.
St James is not referring here to some secret formula that needs to be adopted in our prayer life so as to convince God that He should give us what we need. The point of prayer is not to change God’s mind about things, otherwise we couldn’t call God good, He would just be some sort of Uber eats driver who delivers what we ask Him for. Those of you prepared by me for Confirmation will be familiar with the oft-used four part checklist of our prayer life: A-C-T-S adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication (which means asking for things). Prayer isn’t just about asking for stuff but there is an element of intercessory prayer and it is an important ministry to pray for others and for the things they need in life.
So, let’s think of things we might ask God for: someone to love, to do well in exams, money to pay the rent, for our children, guidance on what to do in life, for the gift of faith. When we bring these issues to the Lord one of the first things we will have to try and work out is whether what we’re praying for is in accord with God’s will or not. When we’re cross with someone, we might want something not very nice to happen to them but hopefully we’ll pretty quickly realise that God’s not going to punish folk just because of some petty squabble with us and so this isn’t a valid prayer. If we want to win the lottery so we can be millionaires, is that something we can really say God wants? Does God really want us to get 100% in the exam if we’ve not done any work and we’re not very bright? Does God want us to fall in love with someone if that means we’re going to spend lest time worshipping God or serving the poor? These considerations help us work out whether the prayer is valid or not.
It’s a very good thing to pray on the bus and in the kitchen but far better to pray here in the presence of Jesus Christ, hidden under the sacramental forms of Bread and Wine. This is how God wants us to remember His Son, as we’re told at the Last Supper. We tell Jesus here the things on our heart and He tells us what’s on His heart. Through our prayers then, my brothers and sisters, let’s remain focused on what the true point of life is - worshipping God - and ask for the grace to unite ourselves more clearly to the Lord.