Once there was a farmer who wanted to teach his twelve-year-old son how to plow a field one spring day. This happened over a hundred years ago, before there were tractors or other mechanical devices; a plow would be hitched up to a horse, and the farmer would walk behind the plow, guiding the direction of the horse and making sure the soil was being turned over properly. It was important to plow the first furrow or row as straight as possible, since all the other rows would be based on it, so the farmer told his son, “Keep your eye on some object at the other end of the field and aim straight toward it. For instance, you see that cow lying down over there? Keep your eye on her and plow in that direction.” Then the farmer left his son and went off to take care of some other chores. When he came back a while later to check on his son’s progress, he was shocked to discover, not a straight row, but a furrow that looked something like a question mark. The boy had obeyed his father’s instruction; the problem was, the cow had moved (Green, 1500 Illustrations for Biblical Teaching, #133).
That’s how it is when we choose the course or direction of our lives: if we focus on any worldly thing—money, success, popularity, power, or pleasure—we are going to be led astray, because in the long run these things cannot be relied upon. Only by keeping our eyes on Jesus can we be sure we’re traveling the path that leads to eternal life and happiness.
One of the signs of wisdom and maturity is the ability to admit that because we don’t know all the answers and because we can’t handle everything on our own, we need someone to help us. To be a Christian means that we know Who this Someone is: Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior. However, we can only be saved by Jesus if we’re willing to admit our need for a Savior; we can only be forgiven our sins if we’re humble enough to admit we’re sinners, and we can only be made worthy of eternal life in heaven if we honestly recognize and admit our own unworthiness. The readings for the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time give us three examples of people who were willing to do this, thereby making it possible for them to do great things in God’s Name. In the Book of the Prophet Isaiah (6:1-2, 3-8), upon seeing a vision of God’s glory, the prophet immediately thought of his own sinfulness. However, because he was honest and humble, the Lord had an angel purify his lips, making it possible for him to be a divine messenger and spokesman—and Isaiah went on to become perhaps the greatest of the Old Testament prophets.
St. Paul (1 Cor 15:1-11) had a similar experience; not only was he unworthy to be an apostle, but he had actually persecuted the early Church. Following his miraculous conversion, however, Paul was completely transformed; his profound awareness of his own sinfulness convinced him that only through Jesus can we be saved, and his intense gratitude for God’s mercy helped him become the greatest missionary in all history. St. Peter’s (Luke 5:1-11) experience of conversion was less dramatic, but in some ways even more profound. After the miraculous catch of fish, Simon Peter fell at Christ’s knees and said, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man”—in other words, “I am not worthy to follow You.” Peter, as we know, was only speaking the truth, for he was brash and impetuous by nature, capable of bold words and cowardly deeds—even to the point of later denying his Master after proudly insisting he would be willing to die for Him. Jesus was aware of all these failings, but He chose Peter anyway and made him the leader of the Church—and upon receiving the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, Peter fulfilled his calling as the first and greatest of all the popes. The Lord God always makes a point of choosing imperfect instruments to carry out His plan—for as long as the people He chooses acknowledge their sinfulness, His grace has the opportunity to transform them in wondrous ways. This was true for Isaiah, for St. Paul, and St. Peter—and it can also be true for us.
Let’s imagine that same farmer and his twelve-year-old son once again—but this time it’s winter, and that same field is covered with a thick layer of snow. The farmer knows where he’s going, so he doesn’t have to pay attention to exactly where he walks—but the boy is very careful about where he puts his feet. Being smaller than his father, it’s harder for him to walk in the deep snow—so he makes a conscious effort to walk in his father’s footsteps. This creates only one set of footprints in the snow—and eventually they lead to the safety of the farmhouse (Green, op. cit., #146). This is how it’s supposed to be with life; if we go off in our own direction, we’ll become lost, and if we try to create our own path, we’ll eventually find that the snow and other obstacles are too deep for us. We’re called to follow in the footprints of Christ—for because of our own unworthiness, that’s the only way we can ever reach heaven.
There was a time—perhaps up until twenty or thirty or forty years ago—when following Jesus would have been considered relatively easy; our society was aware of its Christian roots, and more or less respected religious values. That’s no longer true today—at least not in terms of popular culture and the news media and the entertainment industry. Today, if we want to take our faith seriously, it will often feel as if we’re swimming against the tide; if there are certain things we refuse to do because they contradict Christ’s teachings, we may draw negative attention to ourselves and make ourselves unpopular and unwelcome—whether this occurs in school, on the job, or in the neighborhood. The world tells us to do whatever we want with our lives; Jesus invites us to surrender our lives to Him. The world tells us that life is about fulfilling ourselves; Jesus teaches us that life is about preparing for eternity. The world tells us to give into temptation; Jesus calls us to resist it. The world tells us to get even with our enemies; Jesus tells us to forgive them. The world tells us to love only those people who love us; Jesus commands us to love everyone without exception. There will always be a conflict between the changing values and opinions of this world, and the unchanging truth of Christ. As we plow the field of our lives, we can aim at a moving target, or we can focus our eyes on the One Who can always be relied on and Who will never fail us; as we journey through life, we can struggle along on our own, or we can follow in the footsteps of the One Who has gone ahead of us to prepare our place in heaven. This is the most important choice we’ll ever make, and we need to confirm or renew it each day of our lives. Jesus invites us to work with Him in making a difference in the world—and we can be sure that if we answer His call, we’ll never regret it.