Jesus calls us to follow him, change our lives

by Thomas Gumbleton

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As you may recall, last Sunday we began Ordinary Time, beginning to listen to the lessons of the Gospel that will tell us about the public life of Jesus. Last Sunday, John the Baptist reminded us that Jesus is the Lamb of God and that the Spirit of God had come upon Jesus and now Jesus was to share that spirit with the community he was to call together. Today we hear the first preaching of Jesus. The message is simple, really, and very clear: The reign of God is at hand; change your life.

Then Jesus goes out and begins to have people follow him; he calls his first disciples. To get the full impact of the message of Jesus, it's important, first of all, to get a sense of what we mean by the reign of God. In Luke's Gospel, at the beginning of his public life, Luke records Jesus as proclaiming the same message: the reign of God is at hand. But then he has Jesus spell that out because Jesus, in the synagogue at Nazareth, takes the scroll and reads from the passage of Isaiah 61, "The Spirit of God is upon me. God sends me to proclaim good news to the poor, to give the blind new sight, to heal the brokenhearted, to set the downtrodden free, to proclaim God's year of Jubilee."

Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Isaiah 8:23-9:3
Psalms 27:1, 4, 13-14
1 Corinthians 1:10-13, 17
Matthew 4:23
Full text of the readings

That's the reign of God — where the poor are lifted up, where the poor are cherished and loved, downtrodden, those treated with injustice, bound up, and the manacles of injustice are set free, the blind have new sight, and the year of Jubilee, a time when everyone has access to all we need for fullness of life, where all the goods of God's creation are shared by all and not kept by a few. That's the reign of God, and Jesus says it's at hand, it's ready to break forth. His coming is now the time when God's fullness of reign could happen.

But the important thing is "change your life." So Jesus begins to call disciples, people who will follow him, change their lives. When he says those words, "change your life," every commentator on the Scriptures says you have to know that word "change" is something very profound. It isn't just a matter of wearing a different style of clothing or something like that; it's a profound change in your whole life, radical change. The reign of God could happen, it's at hand, but it does depend on those who say we follow Jesus and are willing to change our life.

I think it's important to realize when Jesus calls disciples, he's not calling them to join the church. Yes, we belong to the Roman Catholic church and that's important, but he's asking them to follow him; it's something very personal. I think if we're going to change our lives, the first thing we have to do is to commit ourselves to listen carefully every week to the gospel where we learn who Jesus is, and we come to know Jesus, and know him deeply. He becomes our friend; we begin to want to imitate him. That's what it means to be a disciple — to come and follow him.

But then also, when we think about changing our lives, what does that mean? There are many, many ways, I'm sure in which every one of us could think about how if I'm going to be a better person, I could change my life. But we're talking about maybe more profound values that ordinarily we might not think of. It means a radical change, and it means to change your life by imitating Jesus. There are many aspects of his life that we could begin to dwell on and to understand how I must change in order to be like Jesus. We can't do them all today, but over the year as we listen to the Gospel, we'll hear more and more ways that we must change our lives to be like Jesus.

Today I thought to suggest just one profound way and an important way for us to live in what is truly the richest country in the world. It's a country where we glorify wealth to a great extent. The goal of many people is simply to accumulate more and more material goods, to become wealthier and wealthier. It becomes the ideal for many people. But that wasn't the way of Jesus. Two people in the Gospel, I think, show us clearly what it means to follow Jesus.

The first is the story about a young man. It's recorded in Matthew, Mark and Luke. This young man was someone who was attracted to Jesus, and so he wants to become his follower. One day he goes up to Jesus and says, "Lord, what must I do to gain everlasting life?" Jesus said, "Keep the commandments." The young man says, "I've done that." Then Jesus said, "Go, sell all you have, and come follow me." He was asking something profound of that person — to change his whole attitude towards his wealth and be ready to follow Jesus wherever that led.

That was a young man who had kept all the commandments, but in the Gospel we learn he went away sad because he had great wealth that meant more to him than following Jesus. He wasn't willing to change his life. But then there's another story and it's quite extraordinary. It's about a publican, a tax collector, someone despised and looked down upon by the ordinary people. Tax collectors were thought of as public sinners. This tax collector, Zacchaeus is his name, decides he wants to know Jesus.

You probably remember this story. He is a man who's short in stature and there are crowds following Jesus; it's at the end of his public life, and so Zacchaeus can't see Jesus so he runs ahead of the crowd, climbs up a sycamore tree so he can see Jesus when he goes by. When Jesus gets to that point, he looks up and there's Zacchaeus. Probably everybody was laughing; here's this rich man up in a tree trying to see Jesus. What did Jesus do? He said, "Zacchaeus, come down. I must have dinner at your house." Zacchaeus was amazed, "I'm a sinner and here he is inviting me — he wants to come to my house."

Zacchaeus was much more ready, even though he hadn't been following the commandments very well. He really wanted to know Jesus, so he came down from that tree, stood before Jesus, and said, "Look, I'm ready to give half my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone, I will pay them back four times." Then he welcomed Jesus into his home. He was willing to change his life and become a follower of Jesus.

Now I think it's important for us to consider, and maybe just on that one value of Jesus, his teaching about wealth, how it's important to have enough, but we don't have to keep on trying to have more and more and more. We don't have to become rich. We want to have enough so that we can have a fullness of life, so that wealth can be spread and there isn't this extraordinary gap between the rich and the poor that gets wider and wider.

What do I have to do to change my life? Just in that one point, that one value that Jesus sets forth, "Blessed are the poor; theirs is the reign of God." I hope as we continue into this Ordinary Time of the year and we listen to the Gospel each week, every one of us will begin to say, "How must I change my life to be a follower of Jesus, to respond to the call that he gives in today's Gospel to Peter and John, to James and Andrew?" They dropped everything to follow him. Zacchaeaus changed his life dramatically to follow him.

Will I be willing to continue to look into my life, see how it matches up to the values of Jesus, and make the changes that are necessary? As each of us does that, we will be working with Jesus to make the reign of God happen so that the poor will hear the good news, the downtrodden will be set free, the blind will be given new sight, and God's year of favor will happen so everyone has a full human life. As we make the changes in our lives, the reign of God will break forth more fully in our world.

[Homily given at St. Philomena, Detroit, Mich., Jan. 22, 2017. The transcripts of Bishop Thomas Gumbleton's homilies are posted weekly to Sign up here to receive an email alert when the latest homily is posted. Jan. 26 is Bishop Gumbleton's 87th birthday.]

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