A Matter of Life Or Death

(Homily for Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year B)

Bottom line: Following Jesus is not about making things better. It is a matter of life or death.

On this final Sunday before Holy Week, Jesus tells us, "Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat, but if it dies it produces much fruit." Then he adds these bracing words, "Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life." Following Jesus is not about making the world a better place.* Nor is it about improving one's life. No, following Jesus is a matter of life or death.

To illustrate this I would like to tell you about a book that affected me deeply. It might surprise you: the book is short novel by Leo Tolstoy, called "The Death of Ivan Ilyich." Ivan Ilyich is a 45-year-old man who has achieved a good life: He has risen to a prestigious job with sufficient income to purchase the things he wants. His peers admire him and people in general respect him. Apart from an unhappy marriage, he enjoys life - especially playing cards with his friends.

But then an illness strikes. Ivan Ilyich believes he can overcome it - as he has overcome every other obstacle. As we would say, he is a fighter. His own carelessness, he (and others) suspect, has brought on his adverse condition. By an act will, he can return things to normal. Prominent doctors examine him and make various hypotheses about what is wrong. Ilyich, however, see through their pretensions. He has done the same sort thing in the courtroom.**

The doctors speculate about "floating kidney, chronic catarrh, or appendicitis." Whether the condition is fatal, they do not want to say. Likewise his family and friends avoid that unpleasant subject. At the same time, Ilyich sense that they would be relieved if he went quickly. He is an embarrassment and a bother to them.

Ilyich longs for someone to sympathize with what is really happening to him, yet he himself cannot put it into words. One man - a peasant named Gerasim - shows genuine pity. By supporting Ilyich's feet on his shoulders, Gerasim brings some relief to the suffering. More important, Gerasim evidences concern for a fellow human facing what all must face. Through him Ilyich moves from seeing his condition as a struggle between sickness and health to what it really is: a matter of life or death.***

Gerasim's concern enables him to ask a question: "What if my whole life has been wrong?" But Ilyich dismisses the question. He has, after all, acted by the conventions of his society - and done things quite properly. But the question won't go away. Eventually it enables him to see his coming death in a different way.****

The novel concludes with paradox that the life Ilyich clung to was in fact deadly, while the death he dreaded held out something beyond his imagining.

One can read Tolstoy's short novel in a couple of hours (it is only about a hundred pages long) - and it is readily available at libraries, bookstores and even on-line. Tolstoy's insights (and satire) is as well aimed today as it was a century and a half ago.***** I recommend it as a helpful preparation for Palm Sunday and Holy Week. It illustrates what Jesus tells us today. "Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat...whoever hates his life in this world will preserve it for eternal life." Following Jesus is not about making things better. It is a matter of life or death.


*Although that can happen - and we should desire it.

**"To Ivan Ilych only one question was important: was his case serious or not? But the doctor ignored that inappropriate question. From his point of view it was not the one under consideration, the real question was to decide between a floating kidney, chronic catarrh, or appendicitis. It was not a question the doctor solved brilliantly, as it seemed to Ivan Ilych, in favour of the appendix, with the reservation that should an examination of the urine give fresh indications the matter would be reconsidered. All this was just what Ivan Ilyich had himself brilliantly accomplished a thousand times in dealing with men on trial."

***"'Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done,' it suddenly occurred to him. 'But how could that be, when I did everything properly?' he replied, and immediately dismissed from his mind this, the sole solution of all the riddles of life and death, as something quite impossible."

At a later point, he begins to see himself differently:

"He lay on his back and began to pass his life in review in quite a new way. In the morning when he saw first his footman, then his wife, then his daughter, and then the doctor, their every word and movement confirmed to him the awful truth that had been revealed to him during the night. In them he saw himself—all that for which he had lived—and saw clearly that it was not real at all, but a terrible and huge deception which had hidden both life and death."

****Jeremiah tells us today that the recognition of sin is the essential step to a relationship to Lord: "All, from the least to the greatest, shall know me, says the LORD, for I will forgive their evil-doing and remember their sin no more."

*****Of course, one needs to read Tolstoy with a critical mind. Like most of nineteenth century intelligentsia, he had a less than robust view of Jesus. In 1901 (fifteen years after writing The Death of Ivan Ilyich) the Russian Orthodox Church excommunicated him. I am hardly qualified to judge Tolstoy's faith, but his penetrating analysis of human society has certainly stood the test of time.

Intercessions for Fifth Sunday of Lent (from Priests for Life)

Spanish Version

From the Archives (Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year B):

2015: New Mind and Heart Week 5
2012: To Know the Lord
2009: A Matter of Life and Death
2006: Your Judgment on the World
2003: Now is the Time of Judgment
2000: We Would Like to See Jesus

Year A (RCIA):
Prayer and Spiritual Combat Week 5 (2014)
Revive (2011)
Overcoming Power of Death (2008)
Joining Body with Soul (2005)
He Was Buried (2002)
On Confession and Cremation (1999)

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