A sermon of St. Jean-Marie Vianney on Seeking the Kingdom of Heaven for the Twenty-Fourth Sunday After Pentecost
“Seek ye, therefore, first the kingdom of God and His justice, and all these things shall be added unto you.” — St. Matt. vi. 33.
St. Matthew tells us that Jesus, finding Himself in the company of those who busied themselves about worldly things, said to them: Do not be so anxious about these things. “Seek first the kingdom of God and His justice, and all things else will be given you over and above.” And He meant to imply by these words if they would be so happy as to strive their utmost to please God and to save their souls, their Heavenly Father would supply them with all that was necessary for their bodies. But you will say, how can we seek for the kingdom of God and His justice? How, my dear friends? Nothing is easier or more consoling: by being zealous in the service of God, which is the only means which we have to lead us to the noble and blessed end for which we were created. Yes, my friends, we all know it, even the worst of sinners are convinced that we are in this world solely to serve God and to keep His commandments. But, you will ask me, why are there so few who strive for this? My friends, the reason is this: Some consider the service of God as something too difficult. They imagine they haven’t sufficient strength to undertake it, and if they did undertake it they would not continue it. It is just that, my dear people, which makes so many worthless Christians or that turns them away altogether; instead of listening to these consoling words of our Redeemer, who in His own words tells us that His service is easy, and that if we obey Him we shall find peace to our souls and rest to our hearts.
Yes, my dear friends, whichever way we consider the service of God, whether by prayer or penance, or the frequent reception of the sacraments, by our love of God, and of our neighbour, or in our absolute self-sacrifice – yes, dearly beloved, in all these things we shall find only joy, pleasure and happiness for the present and the future, as you will soon see. Those who know their religion and practice it understand that the cross and persecution, contempt, suffering, poverty, and death itself are changed into sweetness, consolation and an everlasting reward. Tell me, have you ever pictured this to yourselves vividly? Certainly not! Nevertheless, it is, my dear friends; just as I tell you, and to prove it to you in such a way that you cannot doubt it, listen to Jesus Christ Himself, who says: “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, and woe unto the rich, for it is very difficult for the rich to be saved.”
You see, then, poverty, according to Jesus Christ’s own words, will not make us unhappy, because the Redeemer says: “Blessed are the poor.”
Secondly, the same with sufferings and trials, for Jesus Christ says: ” Blessed are they that mourn, and that are persecuted, for the day will come when they shall be consoled;” but “woe unto the world and those who enjoy its pleasures, for a day will come when their joy will be changed into tears and everlasting sorrow.”
Thirdly, nor contempt, for Jesus Christ says: “They reviled me, and they will revile you; they persecuted me, and they will persecute you; but be not cast down, but rather rejoice; for your reward will be great in heaven.”
Yes, my dear friends, even in this world, he who is true to his God is far happier than the worldly man with all his luxuries. Listen to St. Paul:
“Yes,” says he, “I am happier in my chains and my prisons, in contempt and suffering, than are my persecutors in their freedom, in their excesses, in their revelry. My heart is so full of joy that it can hardly contain it; it flows over on all sides.”
Yes, indeed, my friends, St. John the Baptist is happier in the wilderness, forsaken by all human kind, than Herod on his throne, buried in riches and a prey to his shameful passions. Then look at David. Is he not happier in his flight from the wrath of Saul, although he has to pass nights in the forest, betrayed and forsaken by his dearest friends? For during this time he was united to his God and he placed all his confidence in Him. Was he not happier than Saul in the magnificence of his possessions and his sinful pleasures? David praises the Lord for lengthening his days and giving him time to suffer for love of Him, while Saul curses his life and is his own executioner. Why is this, my friends, but because the one is zealous in the service of God, while the other forsakes it? What conclusion do we draw from this, my beloved? None other than that it is neither goods, honours, nor vanities which make man happy here below, but an abiding faithfulness in the service of God, if we have the happiness to know in what it consists and conscientiously to practice it.
The wife who is unhappy in her married life is not so because of her husband’s neglect, but because she has not faith, or because she does not practice what it commands her. Let her have a lively faith, and she will, as soon as she knows what the commandments are, not complain nor be unhappy. Oh, how happy would man be in this world if he knew his religion and had the happiness of practicing what it commands – if he would consider the good that is promised to him in the life to come. Oh, what power we have with God when we love Him and serve Him faithfully. Oh, my friends, look at one who is despised by men and who is not deemed worthy to be trodden upon. Such a one commands the will and the power of God Himself. Look at Moses, who caused the Lord to forgive three hundred thousand sinful men. Look at Joshua: at his order the sun stood still and the sun was motionless, a sight that was never seen before and may never occur again. Look at the apostles: because they loved God the evil spirits fled before them, the lame walked, the blind saw, and the dead were raised to life. Look at St. Benedict, who commanded the clouds to stand still, and they remained hanging in the air. See how he multiplied the bread, how he brought water forth from the rocks, and made the stones and wood as light as a feather. Look at St. Anthony of Padua who commanded the fishes to come out of the water and listen to the Word of God, and they obeyed him so well that they listened to his sermon. Look at St. John, who ordered the birds to cease singing, and they obeyed him. Look again at others, who without any human assistance walked on the waters. Now, on the other hand, look at the ungodly with all their great intellects and their sciences. What can they accomplish? Nothing! And why? Because they do not serve God. Oh, how powerful, and at the same time how happy is he who knows his religion and lives up to it!
Listen to me a moment, and you will see that to serve God in the midst of the trials of this life is consolation and happiness. For this purpose it is not necessary to give up your fortune or to forsake your parents and relations, so long as they do not lead you to sin. You need not spend your days in the wilderness, there to bewail your sins. No. A father and mother can serve God by bringing up their children as good Christians. A servant can very easily serve God and his master at the same time; there is nothing to prevent him; on the contrary, the work and the obedience which his master expects of him are an occasion of merit.
No, my friends, the service of God in all that we do does not necessitate any change, but, on the contrary, all we do will be done better. We shall be more industrious and careful in fulfilling our duties; we shall be gentler, more cheerful, and kinder toward all; frugal in our eating, guarded in speaking, and less sensitive at losses and insults which we may have to bear. That is to say, my friends, when we remain faithful to God, we shall do everything better and behave like good and perfect Christians. Instead of doing our neighbour a good turn from pride, or giving an alms so that we may be esteemed, we shall do these things only to please God and in satisfaction for our sins. Yes, I repeat, a Christian who knows his religion and practices it sanctifies all his works, without in any way changing what he does and without adding anything. All he does has merit for heaven. Now, my friends, tell me, if you had known how sweet and consoling it was to serve God, would you have lived as you have been doing all along?
Now I will ask you whether it is the outward form of religion which frightens you and seems so hard? Is it prayer, services, days of abstinence and fasting, the frequent reception of the sacraments, the love of our neighbours? Well, then, we shall see that there is nothing difficult in all these things.
First I ask, is it hard for you to pray? Is it not rather the happiest moment of your life? Do we not by prayer converse with God as friend to friend? Do we not thereby begin what we shall do with the angels in heaven? Is it not too great a favour for us, we who are so miserable, that the good God should tolerate us in His sacred presence and that He should console us? Did He not give us all that we have? It is, then, only just that we should adore Him and love Him with all our strength. Is this not the happiest moment of our lives, when we enjoy such ineffable sweetness? Is it hard every morning in our prayers to ask Him to bless our labours and business? Is it difficult to devote one day each week to Him? Should we not rather rejoice when this day comes, when we shall be told our duties which we have to perform toward God and man, when we are told how we should long for the goods of the next life, and how little everything else is in comparison? Do we not learn in the instructions the penalty for sin? Do we not feel determined not to sin anymore, so as to avoid the sufferings which are represented to us? Oh, my God! how little does man know his good fortune!
Tell me, is it against your inclination to go to confession? But, my dear friend, is it possible to find a greater happiness than that in less than three minutes our eternity of misery should be changed into an eternity of bliss? Does not confession restore us to the friendship of God? Does not confession quench in us the remorse which is an unceasing agony to us? Does it not restore peace to our souls and renew our hope of heaven? Does not Jesus Christ at this moment appear to unfold to us the riches of His infinite mercy? Yes, my devout children, how many more of the damned would there be, and how far fewer saints, if we had not this sacrament? Oh, how the saints in heaven thank our blessed Lord that He has instituted this sacrament!
Tell me, my friends, does fasting, which the Church commands, appear to you to make the service of God hard? Well, the Church does not ask you to do more of it than you are able. If we consider it with the eye of faith, will it not seem to us a great happiness that we can, by such slight privations, escape the fires of purgatory, which are so severe? How many are there, my friends, who undergo much greater fasts for the sake of their health, and in consequence of their sensuality and gluttony?
Although we have said, my friends, that everything in our holy religion is full of consolation, which is certainly true, still we must add that we must do good to those who treat us badly; love those who hate us; protect the good name of our enemies; take their part when we see that others speak ill of them; and, instead of wishing them ill, we must ask God to bless them. Far be it from us to murmur when God sends us trouble and worry. We must thank Him for this, like King David, who kissed the hand that struck him. We must look upon sin as our deadliest enemy. Now, my friends, this it is which appears to us as the most difficult and repellent. But tell me, do we not seek in all this our happiness on earth and for all eternity? Ah! my friends, if we knew our holy religion and what joy one experiences when we practice it, how paltry would all else appear to us! How many saints have done more than God asked of them to reach heaven! They have told us that when once they had tasted the sweetness and consolation of serving God, it was impossible to forsake Him and to serve the world with its pleasures. The holy King David tells us that one day spent in the service of God is of more value than a thousand others which the children of this world spend in their luxuries and pleasures.
Tell me, who would serve the world if they had the great happiness to know all the miseries to be found there by becoming a slave to our passions, as well as the torments which are prepared for eternity? Oh, my God! how blind are we if we lose so much happiness even in this life, not to speak of the next! And then the pleasures – or rather what has the appearance of pleasures – and joys mixed with such trouble and sadness. Look at the man who has made up his mind to amass a fortune; neither wind nor weather hinders him in his pursuit of money. He undergoes hunger and thirst, and very often is his life in danger, and he even will sacrifice his good name.
Would it not be better for us to spend more time in church than to waste hours going around gossiping about trifles? Would it not be more profitable to go to Vespers than to idle the time away at home while the praises of God are being sung?
Now, you will tell me: But one must do violence to one’s self to serve God. Yes; but I tell you that you have less to suffer in following the cross than in serving the world and its pleasures, and I will prove it to you. You think, I suppose, that it is hard to forgive an insult; but tell me, which of these two loves the most – he who forgives quickly for the love of God or he who bears malice and hatred in his heart toward his neighbours, perhaps for years? Is there not a worm that gnaws at his heart and will not let him eat or sleep? While, on the other hand, he who forgives finds at once peace and happiness. Is it not better to overcome our passions than to satisfy them? Could we ever satisfy them? No, my friends, never. After committing a mortal sin you are led to commit another, without stopping to ask if it is enough. You are a slave, dragged hither and thither.
So that you may understand this better, we will take the case of a man whose whole aim in life is to pander to his passions. Alas! my friends, if that man could have seen, before he gave himself up to debauchery, what a life he would lead, could he have contemplated such an existence without shuddering? If you had told him, My friend, you have two alternatives to consider, either to overcome your passions or to be a slave to them. Both have their pleasures and their sufferings. There they are choose between them. If you decide to be virtuous you will have to fight against temptations, and you must choose your friends among those who think and act as you do. You will read edifying books, which will help you on to love God; every day your love of Him will increase. You will pass your time profitably, and your amusements will be innocent ones which will refresh you, body and soul. You will fulfill your religious duties, not for the sake of appearances, but conscientiously. You will select a holy and learned confessor, who will lead you in the way of salvation, and you will faithfully follow his advice. That, my friend, is all you will have to suffer in God’s service. Your reward will be a heart and soul at peace always. You will be esteemed by the good; you will prepare for yourself a happy old age, free from many infirmities which afflict those who were wild in their youth; your last moments will be peaceful and quiet. From whichever side you look at your life, there will be nothing to trouble you, but everything will contribute to rejoice you. Your crosses, your tears, and all your penances will be as so many ambassadors which heaven will send you as an assurance of eternal happiness and that you have nothing to fear. If at this moment you look at the future you will see heaven opened, ready to receive you. At last you will leave this world, like a holy and virtuous dove, hidden in the bosom of her beloved. You will have nothing to leave, but everything to receive. You will be for all eternity with God.
If, however, you neglect the service of God to follow the world and your evil ways, your life will be spent in desiring and seeking without ever being satisfied. No matter what you do, you will never reach the goal. You will have to begin by banishing from your mind all the good precepts of your childhood. You will not read any more those good books which nourished your soul and helped you to avoid the wickedness of the world. You will not mortify your passions any longer; they will lead you wherever they will. You will make a religion of your own; read bad books, which breathe only contempt for sacred truths, and you will tread the path which they point out. You will never recall the past when you practiced your religion and it was a pleasure to you to approach the sacraments. You will go so far as to deny everything and become more and more ungodly. You will give free rein to your passions and say that as everything ends with this life you will enjoy yourself while you can. Blinded by your passions, you will fall from one sin into another without knowing it. You will, in fine, sacrifice rest, fortune, health and honour, and even your life. I won’t say your soul, because you don’t believe that you have one. You will be the talk of the parish and regarded as a monster. People will avoid you and be afraid of you. You will suffer in body and mind, your health broken down, and a miserable old age will be yours. During life you forsook your God; now at your death the light of faith will glimmer again, which you had extinguished by your bad life. You have forsaken God and He will forsake you, and you will be delivered over to everlasting torments. Then you will feel the remorse of conscience which you have persistently stifled, and you will be powerless to stay the gnawing at your heart. Everything will be despair and perdition.
The world, which you so dearly loved, whose displeasure you were afraid to incur, for which you sacrificed your God and your soul, despises and rejects you. You obeyed your passions, and now when you stand in need of assistance, you will be left to yourself. Your only help will be despair. Still worse, you will die, and in falling into hell you will say, The world deceived me; but you will see your miserable state too late.
Now, my brethren, what do you think of all this? These are the pains and the joys of those who lead a virtuous life and of those who lead a life of sin. Oh, my dear friends, what a misfortune for those who only live for the world and who put on one side the salvation of their soul! Oh, what a great happiness, to seek only the love of God and the salvation of our soul! How peacefully our life passes! How many pains less in the service of God, and how many more joys! How much remorse of conscience we shall escape at the hour of our death! What agonies for all eternity avoided! Oh, my friends, what a change comes over one who is so happy as to seek God alone on this earth! If a husband or wife are unhappy in their family relations, persuade them to dedicate themselves to God’s service, and you will see that their unhappiness will vanish and peace and concord reign between them. Yes, let us confess it, a person who practices his religion does not live for himself alone, but to do good to his neighbour.
Let us come to the conclusion, my dear friends, which we must bear in mind, that if we follow the world, and thereby satisfy our own will, we shall never be happy and never find what we are striving for, while, on the other hand, if we are faithful in the service of God, all our wants will be satisfied, or at least turned to joy and consolation, by the thought that we are working for heaven. What a difference between the one who dies after a wicked life and the one who dies after a good life! The latter has heaven for his portion; all his trials are at an end; his happiness, which he tastes beforehand, begins for him, never to have an end. Amen.