A junior-high teacher used to have fun introducing the idea of decision-making to his students by asking a simple question: “If there were three frogs on a log, and one decided to jump, how many would be left?” The children would invariably answer, “Two,” to which the teacher would say, “No, there would be three left. There’s a big difference between deciding to jump and actually jumping” (Barnhart, Seasonings for Sermons, p. 44). When we make an important decision, we must follow through on it, and if we keep putting it off, we risk losing the proper moment to act. Before modern dredging equipment made it possible to clear deeper channels into harbors, ships had to wait for flood tide before entering port. The Latin term for this was “ob portu,” meaning a ship standing over against the port, waiting for the moment when it could sail with the tide into the harbor. That’s the origin of our word “opportunity.” The ship’s captain and crew knew they had to be ready for that one moment, or otherwise wait for many hours before getting another chance. William Shakespeare refers to this reality in one of his most famous passages:
There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures (Cavanagh, The Sower’s Seeds, #59).
Seizing our opportunities and acting at the right moment is important in many areas of life—for instance, in terms of our health, our finances, and our relationships. However, this is most especially true when it comes to following Jesus and putting our faith into practice. Every day of our lives is another chance to grow in grace, to repent of our sins, and to deepen our relationship with Him—but there is no guarantee we’ll have another opportunity if we waste the one granted us today. Christ’s invitation to follow Him always has an unknown deadline or expiration date, and only if we respond in a wholehearted and decisive way can we be sure of having a place in His Kingdom.
Because of original sin, we human beings have a remarkable capacity for self- deception, foolish and dangerous complacency, and unwarranted assumptions. The Samaritan villagers assumed that because Jesus was heading toward Jerusalem, they didn’t need to welcome Him or listen to His teaching; they were wrongly convinced they’d do just fine on their own. James and John assumed that, in spite of their Master’s teaching on love and forgiveness, He’d want to punish the Samaritans in a dramatic way; in their self-righteousness, they thought they knew what those sinners deserved. The would-be disciples who first wanted to take care of business at home assumed they could follow Jesus on their own schedule and terms; they thought He would be so honored to have them that He’d stretch His rules in their favor. In each case, these human assumptions and self-serving acts of complacency were wrong; Jesus expected a wholehearted commitment, just as the prophet Elijah did with his successor Elisha. We’re not supposed to follow Christ because we have nothing better to do, but because we somehow sense that He alone can meet our deepest needs. St. Paul tells us that Christ set us free from sin, but we must not misuse this opportunity by giving into self-indulgence; instead, we must choose to accept the gift of eternal life, and then act upon this choice through a life of love and service.
A young man named Jim Elliot decided to give his life to Christ as a missionary in South America, and in fact, he was killed by an Indian tribe in Ecuador in 1956. Before setting off on his missionary journey, he prayed: “Father, make of me a crisis man. Bring those I contact to decision. Let me not be a milepost on a single road; make me a fork, that men must turn one way or another on facing Christ in me.” In other words, he wanted his life to be such a powerful and unmistakable proclamation of the Gospel that everyone would either have to accept it or reject it, but not ignore it. Jesus, of course, is the perfect embodiment of this idea, but He calls all His followers to strive for this same role in life. You and I should be clearly identifiable as Christians; our attitudes, values, and lifestyles must be noticeably different from those of the world—so much so that, while some people may reject us, others who are searching for a deeper meaning in life will ask for our secret, giving us the opportunity to introduce them to Jesus.
How are we to live in this manner? What must we do to take advantage of the spiritual opportunities God gives us, and encourage others to do so as well? The most important thing is to invite Jesus to be Lord of our entire lives, while asking Him to remove any obstacles within us or around us that would hinder us from living as His disciples. Only with His help will we be able to make or renew such a decision, but then it’s up to us to follow through on it—and this means coming to Mass every weekend, receiving Holy Communion regularly, going to Confession as often as necessary, spending time in prayer every day, reading the Bible or other spiritual books frequently, sharing time and fellow- ship with others who accept our values, and seeking God’s guidance in all our decisions. Living in this manner allows the Holy Spirit to lead us, and we’ll become better at recognizing our opportunities to work for God’s Kingdom as they arise, and more capable of attracting others to Christ and inspiring them to place their lives in His hands.
We easily recognize the disappointment and sometimes even tragedy involved in wasting opportunities in many different areas of life, but none of these things can even begin to compare to a failure to accept our place in Christ’s Kingdom. Jesus is personally summoning each one of us, and our eternal destiny—and, quite possibly, the destiny of others—depends upon our response.