Once upon a time, there was a hermit who lived in a cabin in the woods. Each day, he would spend a good deal of time in prayer. One day at prayer he quieted himself, opened himself receptively to God, and heard Jesus speak to him. It’s wasn’t that he heard Jesus externally, speaking from across the room, but within his own thoughts. The hermit knew from experience that the Lord sometimes sends us an image, a memory, a song, or words in times of prayer to communicate with us.
The Lord said, “Go outside to the large boulder in your yard.” The man got up and went. Then the Lord said, “I want you to push this boulder for at least 30 minutes every day.” The man went about pushing the boulder every day, exerting his body in every way, but even months later he could not discern having moved the stone a single inch.
The man thought to himself, “Am I doing something wrong? Am I failing because of my sins or my lack of faith? The Gospels say that if I had faith the size of a mustard seed I could move mountains, but I can’t even move this stupid boulder. Am I failing because this isn’t really God’s will? Did the Lord really tell me to do this, or did I just imagine it myself? No I heard Him, as surely as the other times when I heard Him speak. But why does He give me a task that He knows I can’t do? Does He want me to fail?” At this the man became very angry and (wisely) took his frustration to God.
The man heard the Lord speak to Him, “Do you have reason to be angry? I told you to push the boulder, but I never told you to move it. Look at your arms, look at your legs, you have become strong because of your faithfulness and now you are ready for my next mission for you. You thought you were failing, but you succeeded in doing my will.”
In today’s gospel, Jesus turns resolutely toward His final journey to Jerusalem. He sends out advance teams to visit the towns ahead of Him and prepare His way. One of these villages is a Samaritan town and when they learn that Jesus’ destination is Jerusalem they refuse to welcome Him. James and John see this and ask, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them, like Elijah did back in the day?” Jesus turns and rebukes them; the fire of the Holy Spirit is meant for the salvation of people, not their destruction.
Why did Jesus send His disciples to that Samaritan town, instead of just instructing them to pass it by? Jesus knew what was going to happen when they went to that village–He knew by His divine insight that they wouldn’t accept Him. Remember when Jesus needed a donkey to ride on into Jerusalem? He sends two disciples to find and untie a donkey who had never been ridden before and He tells them what to say if anyone asks what they are doing. They go into the city and find everything as Jesus had described. Remember when Jesus needed a place to celebrate the Last Supper? He tells Peter and John to go into the city and to follow a man they will see carrying a jar of water, when they come to the house he leads them to, they are to ask if there is a place for the master to celebrate the Passover. They go and find everything a Jesus described, including an upper room already prepared for a Passover. Jesus knew that the Samaritan town would not welcome Him, so why did He send disciples there?
The mission may have seemed like a failure, but Jesus’ plan succeeded. Jesus knew that His Apostles would soon be preaching the Gospel to the whole world and He knew that not everyone would welcome them or their message. Jesus wanted to give them some experience in rejection to teach them how to respond; not with anger and violence, but with patience and peace. James and John learn a lesson about divine mercy. They may have thought their mission to the Samaritan town was a total failure, but the Lord was successfully achieving His goals in them.
So what does all this have to do with us? In our lives we often experience weakness, setbacks and apparent failures. In response, we often blame ourselves, even when we are innocent, or we conclude that we must not have been doing God’s will, or we get angry with God for frustrating or not helping our efforts. Yet, as long as we are faithfully following Christ, nothing we attempt is ever truly a failure.
The only true failure in the Christian life is sin, but if we repent of our past sins even these can be used to benefit God’s great plan. Scripture says, “God works all things for the good of those who love Him,” this even includes our repented sins. We are obsessed with success, but as Blessed Mother Teresa reminds us, “God does not ask us to be successful; He asks us to be faithful.”
Sometimes you will feel like you are failing, or that your efforts have been useless, but by your faithfulness you will be succeeding in doing God’s will. Let us remember that at the center of our faith is a man nailed to a cross; an appearent failure who was actually succeeding in saving the world. Jesus rolls away stones in ways we wouldn’t expect.