Are We Reachable?
One of the hardest tasks we face is the conversion of our ways. Wouldn’t we all like to walk out of church on a Sunday morning feeling compelled to change our lives for the better? To feel so inspired that we are willing to give up anything and do anything for the Lord?
It always comes down to the same thing: Unless our hearts are touched, we won’t change. We’re looking for a compelling reason to give up what we’re used to, to refrain from what we don’t need, to reach out to others at inconvenience to ourselves. And until someone puts his finger on our hearts, it just won’t happen.
But today’s gospel shows that if we have ears to hear, it can and will happen (see John 7:40-53).
“No one has ever spoken as this man speaks” (Jn 7:46).
These words come from an unexpected, unlikely source: the Temple guards. Of all the people who heard our Lord speak, they are the ones whom you would least expect to be open to anything He said. But they were listening.
The Temple guards were probably not looking to be inspired—they were just following orders (“the chief priests and Pharisees sent officers to arrest him”). Perhaps they were curious as to why they were being sent to take a Rabbi into custody. But they were also normal men with human hearts and minds, reachable on some level by the voice of the Son of God. If the time will come, as Jesus says, when those in the tombs will hear His voice and come out, then even the most ‘impenetrable’ among the living cannot be entirely closed off to grace.
The guards could not bring themselves to lay a hand upon the Rabbi, so moved were they by how He spoke. Their hearts had been touched, and it’s no small thing to touch the hearts of men like this. Strong men in armor, carrying swords and chains, perhaps with tough and hardened faces—paid to carry out orders from the Temple authorities, accustomed to crowd control, moving people around and keeping order by force and intimidation—these are the men whom our Lord stops in their tracks.
They’ve had an encounter with God. They can’t articulate what just happened to them, but their feelings are enough to tell them: We just couldn’t put this man under arrest. They couldn’t comply with what Jeremiah says bad men would do to the gentle lamb:
Let us destroy the tree in its vigor; let us cut him off from the land of the living, so that his name will be spoken no more. (Jeremiah 11:19)
The power of Jesus’s words, the divine and infinite look in His eyes, softens their hearts, and turns them back empty-handed. They have to explain themselves to the chief priests, why they “failed” their mission. They went out with one serious purpose, but the Lord gave them another one. Now they are unwitting witnesses to the power of Christ.
It’s the same kind of encounter as happened at Jacob’s well to the Samaritan woman—another unlikely candidate to hear the word of God and have her heart touched by it. Just like the Temple guards, she comes to the well not expecting to leave empty-handed, nor looking to be inspired. She’s running an errand, doing what she’s got to do to survive. And what happens? “No one has ever spoken as this man speaks…. Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did.” And her jar, still empty, stays put at the well. But a fire has been lit.
You never know what’s going on inside a person’s heart. But God always does. Sometimes all people need is to see or hear just the right thing and they are never the same again. God alone knows what that right thing is. In unknown ways, God had been preparing the Temple officers for this moment of grace all along, just as He readies us in many unseen ways to receive our own moments of grace—moments not only of insight, but of motivation to change.
Have you ever received a grace from a surprising source or in unlikely circumstances—like the guards, the Samaritan woman, the centurion beneath the cross, or the good thief? From God’s house to a well to an execution site, from officials to shady characters, grace knows no bounds, because God is love, and love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things,” goes everywhere and reaches out to everyone.
Extraordinary moments when people change “on the spot” are obviously not the norm, but serve to highlight the norm: God is already using every means at His disposal to draw us along the way of conversion and perfection. When He seems to ‘break into’ our routine like a thief, we are meant to see that He was always there to begin with. Jesus wants vigilance from us, which is why He says that He will come like a burglar.
That’s not a consoling idea. It’s not supposed to be. Thieves break in and take your valuables by force. If you want to know where you are right now, where the Lord-Thief might find you, ask yourself what your valuables are: “What am I afraid of losing?”
This will also tell you how God is speaking to you right now. It will reveal what you should listen for. It will explain why He probably keeps sending you the same messages each day. When something keeps happening to us and we can’t figure out why; when people keep telling us the same things about ourselves and we can’t believe it; when certain events or circumstances beyond our control keep occurring and annoying us; when we keep trying to do something and keep failing and feeling frustrated; could it be the Lord banging on your door? I stand here and knock, and I’m not going anywhere.
Almost daily the Lenten liturgy confronts us: “If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts” (Ps 95:7-8). How reachable are we? Do we walk into each situation of daily life seeking God’s will, listening for His voice?
Today we meet a band of men who were apparently not, yet God reached them. What will God do for those who seek Him with all of their hearts?