26th Sunday of Ordinary Times

Life is full of needs and demands. Our relationships, careers, health concerns, finances, and even our faith life require our energy and attention if they are to be rewarding. Sometimes we don’t have enough time and energy to give them the care they need to flourish. They all seem to demand our attention 24/7. We must sacrifice something, and when we make a choice, we feel guilty. When is enough enough? That is a question we struggle with often in life.


Are we good enough for heaven is an earnest question and concern for us in our spiritual lives? We have been taught good people go to heaven, and bad people go to hell, but what is good enough for heaven? How bad do you have to be to go to hell?


If we talk to people, everyone believes they are going to heaven or at least to purgatory and eventually on to heaven. Everyone seems to think they’re doing at least enough good in life not to be condemned to eternal damnation. If you talk to some, that is where they want to stay. People seem to want to live life balancing a scale where they are just good enough to get into heaven but not so well behaved they miss out on what they consider to be the fun of life. They tend to envision salvation as working on a sort of points system. They want to earn just enough brownie points to get to paradise.


The truth be told, we don’t know if there is a sort of rewards system we can follow to gets us to heaven. Does holding the door for a little old lady with a cane earn us three points? How about being patient with your wife when she is shopping? How many points for that? Smiling through a weekend with your mother-in-law must be worth at least twelve.


Working our way to heaven seems confusing because we don’t have a clear-cut system for evaluation. In school, we have grades. In sports, there are scores. There is no end to the feedback telling us we are doing something right or wrong in married and family life. Getting into heaven seems to be more tricky. As good as we are and try to be, are we really good enough for heaven?


Doing just enough to get by is a sign of failure in life. Just meeting the bare minimum of what is required shows a lack of commitment to our purpose. Going above and beyond the lowest standard is necessary to reach a sense of fulfillment in life. Setting our goal for being just good enough to get to heaven doesn’t make sense either. Being just good enough to get into heaven isn’t an appropriate goal of the spiritual life.


What should be our goal in the spiritual life if it isn’t to just make it into heaven? In today’s reading from Mark’s gospel, Jesus opens a discussion with the apostle John about heaven and hell. In this conversation, Jesus explains it can be easy for anyone to end up in either destination.


John confronts Jesus with the case of a person, not a follower of Jesus, who cast out demons in Jesus’ name. We will remember that Jesus gave the apostles the ability to preach and cast out demons before sending them out to the towns and villages he would visit. They had been successful at it and came back excited about their success. Now, John seem to want to hold on to that ability jealously.


Mark wrote:


At that time, John said to Jesus,

“Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name,

and we tried to prevent him because he did not follow us.”


John is upset, but Jesus tells him to chill. He wants John to back off. He warns John not to stand in the way of good just because it isn’t his idea. Jesus says that anyone doing good in his name is on their side, even if they aren’t in his company of followers. All good comes from the love of God and is to be encouraged. Good doesn’t only come from the work of Catholics, other Christians, or members of other faiths. People with no belief can accomplish good. Everyone can do good. So, we shouldn’t impede it in any way.


Jesus said:


Do not prevent him.

There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name

Who can at the same time speak ill of me,

For whoever is not against us is for us.


It is no more complicated than that. To emphasis the point Jesus, says “Amen.” Amen is a word that says it is absolutely true. There is no doubt about it. Jesus declared that God desires a relationship with everyone who wants to show love. Acts of service done by anyone have tremendous and eternal power to show God’s love in our world.


That is the key to being a saint. Saints realize doing extraordinary things is good, but even little gestures of love have a tremendous impact. St. Augustine was a great preacher and one of Christianity’s greatest theological minds. St. Terese of Lisieux was a young nun set on doing simple acts of love in her convent. One doesn’t outrank the other in heaven. Pope St. John Paul II was a pope, but he doesn’t occupy a seat closer to God than young Bl. Carlo Acutis.


Little things are important things for God. Jesus told John:


Anyone who gives you a cup of water to drink

Because you belong to Christ,

Amen, I say to you, will surely not lose his reward.


If you want a reward in heaven, then do good works here on earth. Remember though good works don’t get you into heaven, they gain you rewards in heaven. A drink of water offer to the thirsty isn’t the key to heaven. It doesn’t win you a ticket to paradise but only rewards you if you get there. Jesus still hasn’t told John what to do to be good enough to get to heaven.


Jesus actually tells John worrying about sin and damnation should be of more concern to his followers. Sin is something that Jesus takes seriously. It is cause for damnation. Leading others into sin is to be feared, even more, Jesus proclaimed. Leading a young person or an innocent soul to sin is worse than undergoing a violent death.


Jesus takes sin so seriously he tells his listeners it would be better to mutilate themselves than suffer the consequences of sin. Using hyperbole recognized as extreme even in Jesus’ day, he warns of the tragic consequences of sin that separate us from the Father and God’s love. It isn’t any of our extremities that are the real cause of sin. No, sin comes from our hearts. To rip out our hearts would mean certain death, and so the consequence of sin is death. Death to our relationship with God and the end to our hope for God’s welcome to heaven.


While we know what can cause us exclusion from heaven, we still don’t know what is or isn’t good enough to get us to heaven. That is consistent with Jesus’ preaching. Time and again, he seemed to raise the bar on what is demanded of those who desire heaven.


The rich young man came to Jesus asking what he needed to do to gain everlasting life. Jesus told him to follow the commandments. The man asserted that was what he did. Then Jesus raised the bar. He told him to sell all that he owned and follow him. Again and again, Jesus ups the ante for virtue and charity while reassuring the most public sinners of God’s compassion and mercy towards sinners.


Honestly, the question, how good is good enough for heaven is the wrong question. Jesus never preached that good people go to heaven and God automatically sends sinners to hell. Jesus didn’t preach that God intended to give people what they deserve or earn out of life. God wants everyone to get to heaven. That is why God sent Jesus Christ into the world. God sent Jesus to redeem all sinners so they could spend eternal life in God’s glorious presence.


God is willing to grant life eternal to everyone, saint and sinner alike, who is ready to receive forgiveness through Jesus Christ. That is why the Father asked the Son to endure the cross, its suffering, and pain to restore our value before God. Because of that, even our smallest actions carry weight and help bring us to heaven. They bring us closer to heaven not because they are weighted in our favor on some cosmic scale but because we do them for the love of Jesus Christ, who died for our sins. Every time we do a virtuous or charitable act, we gain rewards in heaven and become more Christ-like.


So stop worrying about being good enough for heaven. You don’t need to concern yourself about earning your way there. Jesus, through his death on the cross, has already gained you your place in heaven. The lesson we need to learn today is not how to be good enough for heaven. Our lesson to leave with today is that it isn’t good people who go to heaven, but forgiven people.