Spiritual Life

What we do in this world must be directed to the next

There’s an old saying about focusing so much on the trees that one loses sight of the forest. I remember learning this lesson many years ago as a seminarian during the summer between my third and fourth years of college.

Assigned to work at Boys Town, one of my responsibilities was to supervise a small group of young people for their afternoon work sessions at the Boys Town farm. Ostensibly, we were weeding and irrigating gardens, moving haybales, walking beans and so forth. Our principal responsibility, however, was not the farm work but to put into practice the interpersonal and relational skills that the kids needed to work on.

Nevertheless, because it is easier to measure one’s progress in doing chores than in teaching life skills, there was always the temptation to focus more on completing our tasks than on assessing what the kids were learning. The things of the world always have a way of wanting to drown out the things of the spirit.

For those of us concerned about building up the kingdom of God as our principal mission, this is a lesson we are continually having to learn and relearn. In this Sunday’s readings, we are reminded that our thoughts and ways are nothing like those of God (Is 55:8). Too often, the things that seem to be most important to us here in the kingdom of the world do not amount to much in the kingdom of heaven. Yet, because the stuff of the world is so much more tangible and perceptible than the things of the kingdom, we may find ourselves losing focus on what is most important.

St. Paul speaks of the tension between laboring in the world and being at rest in God’s kingdom in his letter to the Philippians: “I long to depart this life and be with Christ, for that is far better. Yet that I remain in the flesh is more necessary for your benefit” (1:23b-24). The apostle’s words remind us that what we do in the world must be directed toward what is eternal. The things that pass away, while captivating to the senses, do not deserve our attention, unless they help to build up the kingdom of God.

In his parable about the laborers in the vineyard (Mt 20:1-16a), Jesus challenges our sensibilities about the relationship between the world and his kingdom. As hearers of this story, we might be tempted to question Jesus’ commitment to justice, fairness and the rights of workers. His story, however, is not about economic policy. Rather, it is about how God will go out of his way to call people to himself and to bestow upon them his incredible generosity and love.

The policies, politics, and ways of the world are important, for sure, but only insofar as they advance the kingdom of God and bring people to Jesus. If we lose sight of our mission to make disciples and to be instruments of God’s mercy in the world, then we have lost sight of the forest in the midst of the trees. The temptation might be to build the kingdom of God on earth, forgetting that God’s kingdom is not of this earth. While it is our duty to be good stewards and agents of God’s love, we cannot hope to rebuild paradise here. Ultimately, the world will pass away, and so, even as we work for peace and justice, we know it will not be fully realized until Christ comes again.

Father Jeffery Loseke is pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Parish in Gretna.