August 23, 2010
ORDINARY 21 (C)
Lord, will only a few people be saved? – Luke 13: 23
At an evangelical conference, a man was late & arrived to find a huge auditorium packed to the brim until he spotted a chair way up front. He slowly edged his way up so as not to disturb the speaker, leaned over to the woman next to it & whispered, “Is this chair saved?” She whispered back, “No but we’re praying for it.”
The issue of exclusivity, about who’s saved & who’s not, who’s in & who’s out, is a fruitless & irrelevant question. Our Lord’s response was to say bluntly, forget the arithmetic & check your own behavior. God calls every human being to salvation & so the real issue is not numbers or trying to find out if we’ll be in the final count, but fidelity. How have we embraced God’s invitation & have we calculated the cost?
As the man replied when asked if he were saved, “I’m still trying to figure out how to be spent!” Spending is the Gospel issue, not saving. Claiming kinship or proper credentials earns a withering, “I do not know you!” The crucial question is, How did you spend yourself in service to others? Or was everything saved for your self? Mouthing “Lord, Lord” or claiming that you shared a few drinks is not going to cut it.
Here is a concrete example: Matt Talbot was an Irish alcoholic born north of Dublin in 1856 to very poor working-class people during very hard times. He went to school off & on & at the age of 12 took his first job & his first drink. It wasn’t long before he was coming home drunk. Matt’s father, himself a heavy drinker, beat him to no avail.
Matt later went to work at a brickyard & proved to be a good worker. Now in his late teens with his steady pay, he, like so many others, headed for one of Dublin ’s 2,000 pubs. Alcoholism was a major problem in Ireland at that time, & one record from 1865 showed the police had arrested some 16,000 Dubliners for drunkenness, a third of them women.
No wonder alcohol was called a demon. Although the clergy preached temperance, it was uphill because the laborers were paid in the pubs & so the paycheck seldom left there. Matt Talbot was in the forefront wasting his pay on drink, money desperately needed at home. His addiction was such that sometimes he sold his boots or his shirt for a drink. To feed his habit, once he shamelessly stole a fiddle from a blind man who earned his living playing in the streets.
No one knew then that alcoholism was an illness, a terrible craving arising from a complex disease involving heredity, emotional factors, & the makeup of the brain. One Saturday night Matt & his hard-drinking friends went to the local pub. They were broke but expected their drinking buddies to treat them. They refused. Matt was so angry that he left in a huff & trudged home & told his mother that he was so mad he was going to take the pledge & stop drinking. His mother said, “Go in God’s name, but don’t take it unless you intend to keep it.”
Keep it he did. From that point on he never took another drink. Withdrawal, nausea, & all of the horrible aftermath followed but Matt held fast. There was no Alcoholics Anonymous in those days. Matt had to go it alone, but not quite. He had God & a devotion to Mary.
Up to this point Matt had been a nominal Catholic, but after his conversion he drew close to God. He started going to daily Mass & would kneel on the steps a half hour before the church opened. He gave money to the poor, & he followed ancient penitential practices, like sleeping on a plank instead of a mattress. Although barely literate, he did spiritual reading & found a wise spiritual director in Msgr. Michael Hickey. A reformed alcoholic & a quiet saint on the streets of Dublin , he had no time & less patience about who was saved or not. Just prayer & service were his concerns.
At the age of 65, on Trinity Sunday 1925, Matt fell on the street & died on his way to church. He only had a rosary & a prayer book on him, & when he was undressed at the hospital it was found that he was wearing chains, an old form of Irish monastic asceticism. People at the hospital were astounded & word soon got out. Stories of his holiness spread eventually right to the Vatican . He is now the Venerable Matt Talbot.
To the question, “will only a few people be saved?” Jesus said, “It’s a non question, for people will come from the east & the west, from the north & the south, From Cape Cod & Dublin, & will recline in the kingdom. We’ve been invited. How we respond, how our life is spent, not saved, is the only issue. End of discussion.” AMEN!