A choice of life or death: Sunday reflection

This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 24:35–48:

The two disciples recounted what had taken place on the way, and how Jesus was made known to them in the breaking of bread.

While they were still speaking about this, he stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” But they were startled and terrified and thought that they were seeing a ghost. Then he said to them, “Why are you troubled? And why do questions arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me and see, because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have.” And as he said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While they were still incredulous for joy and were amazed, he asked them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of baked fish; he took it and ate it in front of them.

He said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the law of Moses and in the prophets and psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. And he said to them, “Thus it is written that the Christ would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day and that repentance, for the forgiveness of sins, would be preached in his name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.”

Too often, we miss the true inflection points in our lives — the choices we make that truly matter. Their import only reveals itself in retrospect when we recognize how those choices could have unfolded differently. We lacked the context and knowledge at the time to comprehend the stakes involved, and we have to pay the consequences when that blindness leads us down the wrong path.

In some cases, we describe those as life-or-death choices, usually with some level of hyperbole. In today’s readings, we have two glimpses of the actual life-or-death choice that Christ presents us in His mission. This choice doesn’t involve hyperbole, and the choice is truly existential on two different levels.

Peter explains the literal life-or-death choice in our first reading from Acts — the rejection of Christ. Whom did the Judeans trade for Jesus? A murderer, Barabbas, who had been justly condemned for his crimes. They demanded freedom for Barabbas and death for “the author of life,” as Peter calls Jesus, a truly confounding choice even under these circumstances — especially by a population that days earlier had welcomed Jesus as a king. The people of Jerusalem literally choice murder over eternal life.

Jesus challenges His disciples to grasp this in today’s Gospel as well. This passage from Luke comes after the Christ’s appearance on the road to Emmaus and the discussion of it among the Twelve. The disciples must have been skeptical about this — and who wouldn’t be? — when Jesus appeared among them. He appeared in bodily form, clearly alive, and yet the disciples remained convinced that they were seeing an apparition. Jesus tells them to recognize His life and His resurrection, and emphasizes it by asking for food and eating it in front of them.

In both passages, we are asked to choose life over death, even in the absence of “proof,” which Jesus clearly provided in this passage from Luke. This isn’t just a choice of life or death on a personal level; it’s a choice between putting eternal life at our core or a love of the fallen material world that decays and dies continually before our eyes. That is the missing context for us when we sin, either through ignorance of the Gospel or a lack of faith in the Lord’s goodness. This is the blindness which we suffer too often at these crossroads, and that leads us down the primrose path rather than the road to eternal salvation and God’s love.

And yet, as Peter says in his exhortation to those in Jerusalem, it’s never too late to choose again. Even those who condemned Jesus had an opportunity to make a better choice:

Now I know, brothers, that you acted out of ignorance, just as your leaders did; but God has thus brought to fulfillment what he had announced beforehand through the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer. Repent, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be wiped away.

This leads us to an interesting question: was Barabbas ever saved? He was clearly saved from execution by the crowd, and some literary treatments of Barabbas has him converting to Christianity as a result of his eventual shame over Jesus’ death in his place. Barabbas slips out of history entirely after the Passion, so we cannot know what his choices were — but we know he had those choices. For that matter, so did Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Christ to the temple guards. Judas could have repented of his sin, the same sin that Peter lays at the feet of all those in Jerusalem, and embraced Christ as His savior and Lord. Instead, Judas chose to stubbornly remain on his path toward death rather than choose life.

We have this same choice, not presented just once but continually. This is why Christ created the sacrament of reconciliation or “confession.” By acknowledging and repenting our sins, we reconcile ourselves with Christ and switch paths back toward our salvation. In effect, we get a “do-over” on those life-or-death choices, allowing us to regain our footing in faith and come closer to the Lord, who has remained constant all along in His love for us.

The choice of life is always before us. And even when we have erred in those choices in the past through ignorance or malice, we can take hope in that choice always being available to us — if we have the courage to grasp it, truly and completely.

 

The front page image is a detail from “Le Christ devant Pilate” by Mihály Munkácsy, 1881. On display at the Orsay Museum. Via Wikimedia Commons.

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.