Once there was a wife and mother who was having a very hectic day. She had a husband, who was off at work, and ten children, all of whom were at school–except for Lennie, who at age four was the youngest. The mother was trying to do all the housework, but Lennie kept getting in the way. It seemed every time she turned around, he was literally on her heels, and she kept bumping into him or accidentally stepping on his feet. She turned around from loading the dishwasher and there he was; she stepped away from filling the washing machine and bumped into him; she moved back and forth with the rhythm of the vacuum cleaner and kept getting the cord tangled up with him. She tried several times to get rid of him in a nice way, saying for instance, “Wouldn’t you like to play on the swing outside?” or “Why don’t you go and see if your friend Timmy is home next door?” However, each time Lennie smiled sweetly and answered, “That’s all right, Mommy; I’d rather be in here with you.” Finally, however, after stepping on Lennie’s toes for the fifth time, his mother demanded, “Lennie, why are you acting this way?” With a perfectly innocent face, Lennie looked in her eyes and said, “Well, Mommy, my Sunday school teacher told me to walk in Jesus’ footsteps. But I can’t see Him, so I’m walking in yours” (Chicken Soup for the Christian Soul, p. 108).
As you might imagine, the mother was deeply moved with humility and love, and she swept her son up off his feet in a tight embrace. A four-year-old boy had given her an important lesson or reminder on one of Our Lord’s most important teachings. We must take up our cross each day, no matter how simple or challenging, how extraordinary or routine, it may be, and follow in His footsteps. However, an essential part of this Christian duty–one which we often overlook–is that of providing a good role model for others and of helping them hear and answer Christ’s call. Our moral and religious decisions affect not only ourselves, but many people around us–and one of the deepest signs of our commitment to Christ is our desire that others come to know Him, too.
A few years ago a pro basketball star complained about being criticized for bad behavior, which was influencing young people; he said, “I didn’t ask to be a role model.” In effect, he didn’t want to take responsibility for his influence on others. This attitude is what St. Paul warns us against in his Letter to the Romans (12:1-2), in which he says, “Do not conform yourselves to this age, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, so that you may judge what is God’s will.” What does this age say? Its message is, “Look out for #1; take care of yourself; if others can’t handle life, that’s their problem.” This is the attitude we’re supposed to outgrow and reject, for it’s God’s will that we show genuine concern for the salvation of other people–even to the point of self-sacrifice practiced by the prophet Jeremiah. As we see in Jeremiah (20:7-9), he had been chosen by God to warn the people that unless they repented, national disaster would befall them. In response, the prophet encountered mockery, laughter, and hostility–so he decided to give up preaching. After all, he was a righteous person; if a national calamity occurred, it wouldn’t be his fault. However, God’s word was overpowering, and Jeremiah was compelled to share it, almost against his will. He found that he had to speak the truth, no matter what it cost him; in this, he foreshadowed the coming of Jesus Christ. Jeremiah had been relatively sinless; Jesus was perfectly sinless, and He certainly didn’t deserve to die. He more than anyone could have said, “It’s not My fault people can’t enter heaven; they’re the ones who are sinning, not Me.” Instead, however, He freely accepted His cross so that all might be saved. When Jesus explained this to His apostles (Mt 16:21-27), they couldn’t understand or accept it; Peter in particular tried to dissuade Him. After rebuking Peter, Jesus made it very clear that following Him means accepting our share of His sufferings, for this will bring peace, healing, and spiritual growth to ourselves and also to others.
Years ago the chief of an African tribe said to a missionary, “I can’t read the book you call the Bible, but I believe the words of it because I have watched you and the other missionaries for two years now. You have told me no lies about anything else, so when you tell me this book is God’s Word I believe it; I believe that Jesus died for me, and I am going to follow this Jesus” (Knight’s Master Book of Illustrations, p. 68). This is a wonderful reminder of how we can have great influence on others–even to the point of bringing them to salvation. Walking in Christ’s footsteps, as the missionaries did, can help other people find the way to heaven. Our children and family members, our employees or co-workers, our friends and neighbors, and even complete strangers, see what we do, hear what we say, and and evaluate the truth of the Gospel based on our example. We–like the busy wife and mother–might not have a little boy practically walking on our heels, but oftentimes there are people who are following in our footsteps; we–like the selfish pro basketball player–might not like being role models, but this responsibility was given to us when we decided to follow Christ. Jesus was willing to pay any price involved in doing His Father’s Will–even that of dying on a cross; today He reminds us that we can find true happiness only through a similar willingness to surrender our lives to God. Peter and the other apostles needed time to understand and accept this; eventually they did, and they helped many other people discover the path to eternal life. If we honestly desire to travel this path ourselves, we must pray for, invite, and welcome those who wish to join us.
REVEREND JOSEPH M. ESPER is a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit and pastor of Immaculate Conception parish in Anchorville, Michigan. He received his Master of Divinity degree from St. John’s Provincial Seminary in Plymouth, Michigan. Through the years, Father Joe has lectured at Marian conferences, appeared on EWTN, spoken on Catholic radio, and written more than a dozen articles for This Rock, The Priest, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, and other publications. He is also the author of numerous books, including Saintly Solutions, More Saintly Solutions, After the Darkness, Lessons from the Lives of the Saints, and Why Is God Punishing Me? In addition to Amazon, many of his most recent books are available through Queenship Publishing.