A number of years ago I attended a funeral. The man to whom we were saying goodbye had enjoyed a full and rich life. He’d reached the age of 90 and was respected for having been both successful and honest. But he’d always been a strong man, a natural leader, a man who took charge of things. He’d had a good marriage, raised a large family, been successful in business, and held leadership roles in various civic and Church organisations. He was a man who commanded respect, although he was sometimes feared for his strength.
His son, a priest, was presiding at his funeral. He began his homily this way:
Scripture tells us that 70 is the sum of a man’s years, 80 for those who are strong. Now, our dad lived for 90 years. Why the extra 10 years? Well, it’s no mystery really. It took God an extra 10 years to mellow him out! He was too strong and cantankerous to die at 80. But during the last 10 years of his life he suffered a series of massive diminishments. His wife died, he never got over that. He had a stroke, he never got over that. He had to be moved into an assisted living complex, he never got over that.
All these diminishments did their work. By the time he died, he could take your hand and say: “Help me.” He couldn’t say that from the time he could tie his own shoelaces until those last years. He was finally ready for heaven. Now when he met St Peter at the gates of heaven he could say: “Help me!” rather than tell St Peter how he might better organise things.
This story can help us understand Jesus’s teaching that the rich find it difficult to enter the Kingdom of Heaven while little children enter it quite naturally. We tend to misunderstand both why the rich find it hard to enter the kingdom and why little children enter it more easily.
Why do little children enter the kingdom quite naturally? In answering this we tend to idealise the innocence of little children, which can indeed be striking. But that’s not what Jesus is holding up as an ideal here, an ideal of innocence which for us adults is impossible in any case.
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