One of Hans Walter Wolff’s most memorable classes revolved around the great Scripture scholar’s reflection on something which takes place in today’s first reading. “Elijah went a day’s journey into the desert, until he came to a broom tree and sat beneath it. He prayed for death: ‘This is enough, 0 Yahweh! Take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.’ ”
Though we were studying Jonah, not I Kings, Wolff used today’s reading to reinforce his comments about Jonah also praying for death. In both cases, the prophets had simply “had it” with Yahweh. They were being asked to do something they hadn’t foreseen when they first responded to God’s call. When each eventually discovers that God’s demanding he take those extra steps, each asks for death.
Wolff reflected that almost every follower of God reaches that point. “Most,” he said, “don’t actually ask for physical death. They commit ‘spiritual suicide;’ they change their faith priorities just enough to still appear to be people of faith. But they no longer follow God. Though they know there’s another door to open or another road to travel, down deep they’ve stopped going in the direction God called them to go.”
With a smile, he then got personal. “For some ministers and priests, our ‘death’ is the long siesta we take every day; a time during which God’s will for us is pushed completely into the background of our ministry.”
During my early Catholic life, I had just one goal: get into heaven. I was convinced that was all God expected of me. The most important part of my religious education revolved around learning the distinction between mortal and venial sin. The former sent me to hell; the latter, to purgatory. Though purgatory provided the same physical tortures as hell, everyone imprisoned there eventually went to heaven.
I “went to Mass” - on days other than Sunday - because my teachers guaranteed the more Masses I attended, the more grace I’d acquire. The more grace, the higher place in heaven I’d eternally enjoy.
Such theology not only isn’t scriptural, it could contribute to our spiritual suicide.
Just as the food and drink Elijah receives from Yahweh’s angel enables him to “walk forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God,” so the Eucharistic food and drink the risen Jesus provides helps us to continue our other-Christ journey through life. It helps us maintain our concentration on the kind of life he wants us to live, the life which will eventually change the world. Many state-of-grace Christians never notice that kind of life. They’re too busy concentrating on heaven. They’re so afraid of going to hell, they spend their entire earthly lives just avoiding mortally bad things. Many have no idea what good things God expects them to do. No wonder they long for their physical death. It will relieve them of the burden of getting into heaven. Such theology offers us just as much a death as the one for which Jonah and Elijah pray.
One quick glance at our Ephesians pericope will tempt us to ask for this death. “Get rid of all bitterness, all passion and anger, harsh words, slander, and malice of every king. In place of these, be kind to one another, compassionate, and mutually forgiving. . . Be imitators of God . . . Follow the way of love.. .
Does God really expect us to make all these things a priority during our entire lives? I presume if that weren’t the case Jesus would never have agreed to give us his body and blood “for the life of the world.” We won’t need the Eucharist in heaven. It’s earmarked only for those brave enough to stay alive and Christ directed in this world.