Quite memorable in the Gospel accounts is the lengthy sermon preached “on the mount” to the disciples according to St. Matthew or preached “on a level stretch” to the crowds according to St. Luke. This liturgical year St. Luke’s interpretation will be proclaimed at Mass over the next three Sundays. Found throughout St. Luke’s rendering of Christ’s hallowed words are some examples of the Christian life viewed as a fateful choice leading to a significant result.
The path of faith perceived as a life-altering choice between good and evil is certainly not new with St. Luke. In the first reading at Mass this coming Sunday, the young prophet Jeremiah suggests weighty alternatives for the earnest believer: the barren bush versus the watered tree. “Cursed is the one who trusts in human beings, who seeks his strength in flesh, whose heart turns away from the LORD. He is like a barren bush in the desert that enjoys no change of season, but stands in a lava waste, a salt and empty earth.” Still there is another possibility: “Blessed is the one who trusts in the LORD, whose hope is the LORD. He is like a tree planted beside the waters that stretches out its roots to the stream: it fears not the heat when it comes; its leaves stay green; in the year of drought it shows no distress, but still bears fruit.” The believer cannot have it both ways. A choice must be made: infertile or fertile, bad or good.
The first psalm similarly proposes the same dilemma: “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, nor stand in the way of sinners, nor sit in company with scoffers. Rather, the law of the Lord is his joy; and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted near streams of water, that yields its fruit in season; Its leaves never wither; whatever he does prospers.” Contrast this happy scene with these ominous words: “But not so are the wicked, not so! They are like chaff driven by the wind. Therefore the wicked will not arise at the judgment, nor will sinners in the assembly of the just. Because the LORD knows the way of the just, but the way of the wicked leads to ruin.” A critical choice is again clear: follow the path of the just and thrive; or trod the road of the wicked and perish.
St. Ignatius Loyola would much later begin his honored Spiritual Exercises proposing a similar option: the celebrated two banners -- the Banner of the Lord versus the Banner of Satan. The decision for the sincere Christian is arduous but clear. And of course Moses had quite early and quite succinctly outlined the believer’s life in terms of a fateful choice: “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live.”
This theme of critical selection runs throughout St. Luke’s passages. The evangelist first contrasts blessings with woes. The poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the hated are blessed because their choices are limited. The Lord is their only hope. The rich, the fulfilled and the laughing are in a woeful state because their options are unlimited. Their many mistaken choices will be their undoing. Again the followers of Christ are offered the option of being a good tree or a rotten tree: “A good tree does not bear rotten fruit, nor does a rotten tree bear good fruit. For every tree is known by its own fruit. For people do not pick figs from thorn bushes, nor do they gather grapes from brambles. A good person out of the store of goodness in his heart produces good, but an evil person out of a store of evil produces evil; for from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.” A believer cannot have it both ways. The true believer must choose and choose wisely day after day.
St. Luke concludes Christ’s sermon on the level stretch with a final warning about making a proper, fate-filled choice: “I will show you what someone is like who comes to me, listens to my words, and acts on them. That one is like a person building a house, who dug deeply and laid the foundation on rock; when the flood came, the river burst against that house but could not shake it because it had been well built. But the one who listens and does not act is like a person who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the river burst against it, it collapsed at once and was completely destroyed.” Every day is a day of decision for the authentic Christian believer: a day of choices, options and decisions. Will the believer follow the counsel of the wicked or walk in the way of the just? Will it be life or death? Blessing or woe? Good fruit or bad fruit? Firm foundation or shaky ground? Choose now; eternity awaits.