Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Total and absolute surrender and abandoment (Living in the freedom and peace Christ alone can give)

Now someone approached him and said, "Teacher, what good must I do to gain eternal life?" He answered him, "Why do you ask me about the good? There is only One who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments." He asked him, "Which ones?" And Jesus replied, " `You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and your mother'; and `you shall love your neighbor as yourself.' " The young man said to him, "All of these I have observed. What do I still lack?" Jesus said to him, "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions. (Matthew 19:16-22)

It's hard to give things up. It’s even more difficult when what we find we are asked to give up is our sense of security and assurance about ourselves. The rich young man in the gospel reading could very well be one who was materially or financially wealthy. That is certainly something that is difficult to give up. Comfort and convenience are things that, when one gets used to them, become exceedingly hard to bid goodbye to. It isn’t just the body that finds itself wanting to be comfortable, the mind experiences the same attachment to certain things that have given it security.

The young man in the gospel was certainly a decent fellow. He obeyed the rules, followed the law, most probably to a very good degree. He certainly comes across as a devout person who was not only curious but actually eager to find something else, perhaps something greater or larger than what he’s used to. We can detect thus a desire for more in this young man. That in itself is a sign of the movement of God’s grace in a person. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, not a believer, said that the human person is an ‘insatiable desire for more’. There’s an unquenchable craving that seems embedded deep in the human heart that wants more, whether this be material or spiritual.

It’s the spark of the divine that the ancient philosophers and gnostics talked about. In truth though—to use language that is properly Christian—it is the grace of God already at work in one’s life. Our desire for something larger than ourselves, something to which we human beings want to feel part of, immersed in, is the initial workings of God’s grace. We never really lost that, despite our fallen state. It’s always there, just waiting to be awakened.

It is certainly that part of ourselves that makes us ambitious, competitive, yes, even greedy and selfish. It is that part of the human self that has built great monuments, achieved great things in science, the arts, government, literature, technology and every other aspect of life and existence. It is also that part of humanity, unfortunately, that has often been led astray. It is that part that is capable of great cruelty, of inhumanity, of destructiveness that has led to intolerable pain for many. The victims of this misguided and misdirected desire are countless, and their numbers will only grow unless human beings come to realize the true nature and orientation of this tremendous power they have in themselves.

Most human persons begin life like the young man in the gospel, having good intentions, good aspirations, good desires, not only for themselves but for others. And even if one were selfish and sought only one’s good, this still does not change the fact that the desire is there, the desire for more. It is the force that powers the universe. The mystics tapped into this power, this force. But they also knew what it was, or properly who it was. Most of us, however, do not arrive at this point. Rather, we are like the young man. We become aware—some vaguely—of this desire that is in us, but we fail to come to the full recognition of what it really is. And thus we are led astray.

While he was certainly not led astray—he was devout and religious, that’s for sure; and while he did seem to want to begin what can be seen as a ‘higher’ or more ‘advanced’ stage or level of his quest to realize the true nature of the desire he was experiencing, something stops him. He comes to Jesus asking what he needed to do to gain everlasting life. That is a sure sign that this young man had the desire to go beyond what his earthly existence, the comforts of body and mind, afforded him. Nor must we think him insincere in his questioning. This was a person who really felt the magnetism not only of the personality of Jesus, but his message as well. Something in Jesus attracted him, something resonated with a feeling he had within. Otherwise, he would not have come.

Something in Jesus whom he has heard preach, spoke to this young man’s very soul. It spoke to that innermost core of who he was, that part of him that was strong, ambitious, eager, competitive and secure. Something in Jesus spoke to this young man’s very self—that part of himself that was truly him, his very being.

And so he goes to Jesus to ask what he needs to do, not only to continue in this trajectory of selfhood, but to ask what more there could be. He is curious. What more can Jesus offer. He knew deep inside—had a very strong inkling—that there was something to this man Jesus that could give his present life of success and fulfillment the wholeness that he instinctively and intuitively felt he still needed. Not that there was something he felt he lacked. He was very successful. Being wealthy here should not be understood simply to mean material wealth. No, this was a young man who was materially and spiritually fulfilled. As far as a good earthly life was concerned, he was whole.

He said it himself, he observed the law—most likely to the full. As far as Judaism is concerned, this is a reflection of a life that is ‘good’, one that is lived not only for oneself, but for God and one’s neighbor as well. That after all, is the heart of the commandments which he tells Jesus he has fulfilled.

And so his desire for more is not something that manifests a lack in himself. There is no hint of deprivation here, neither materially nor spiritually. And his using the word ‘lack’ in his later question to Jesus must not be taken to mean that he came to Jesus with a feeling of inadequacy or want. No, he came to Jesus not from a position of weakness, but from a definite position of certainty, security and strength. This was a man who came to Jesus with a good deal of pride in himself and in his accomplishments, both externally and internally. And this isn’t a bad kind of pride. It isn’t boastfulness. It is rather, that good kind of pride that knows that one is whole and can therefore, with confidence, acknowledge that despite this feeling of wholeness and achievement, one believes or feels deep in one’s soul that one can do more.

Our achievements and our successes, especially when they become ours through acts that are good and aimed at the good, give us the confidence—we can call it trust or faith—that in fact makes us feel that we need to do something more, not because we are in want, but because we must give expression to that unquenchable and insatiable desire that is within us. To want more, to want to be more is a most human reality, perhaps the most human reality. And it is that reality that this young man brings to Jesus. It is this ‘perfect’ coming-in-touch-with-oneself that he lays at Jesus feet and says, “I have this. What more should I do?” It reminds us of the good and faithful servant who comes to his master after having done what is expected of him and says, “This is what I’ve done. Is there something more I must do?” There is no doubt about it, this was a good young man.

But he was still searching. That spark deep within needs to find expression, needs to find its freedom. And so he comes to Jesus asking for more. And Jesus obliges, in fact telling the young man, that with the goodness and wholeness he has so far achieved in life, there should be no reason for him not to take the next step, to take the leap and realize that while all he has so far achieved is good, there is an even higher goodness, an even greater achievement that is possible. The young man wanted it. That’s why he sought Jesus. This was why he had come to Jesus, to know what else there is that his heart seemed to long for. And Jesus tells him. "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."

Give up the wholeness, give up what you have achieved, give up the comfort, security and assurance that you have. Give it up, give it to me. This Jesus says. Everything that you know, everything that has so far made your life secure and safe. Every idea, every thought, every strategy that has allowed you to prosper and be the whole and good person that you are, give it up. Everything that you have, everything that you are; give it up. Give it to me. Put it in my hands and take the leap. All the lights you possess, all the knowledge and wisdom you have built up, everything that life has taught you, give it up. Give it to me. Essentially, Jesus was asking this young man not just to give up his wealth—both materially and spiritually, he was asking this young man to give himself up. He was asking him to give up that very core of his being that has so far defined him as whole and as good.

The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard talked about a ‘leap of faith’ that defines a genuinely Christian existence. This is that leap of faith. It is a leap in the dark, not knowing where one will go. It’s a leap towards an unknown, not really sure if the risk will eventually prove to be worth it. That is what terrified this young man. That too is what terrifies most of us. Imagine building something up—let’s say your faith, in yourself, in God and in other people. Imagine living your whole life with the assurances and securities that your culture, society, religion, family, schooling, upbringing have provided you. And imagine that these have actually led to your becoming a good and whole human being, one who loves God, neighbor and oneself in the way that you have been taught is right. And then all of a sudden, meeting someone like Christ who doesn’t say that what you know is wrong, that what you’ve become is bad or that the entire context that has formed you is mistaken. No, you meet a man who instead praises you and makes you feel that you have so far done well, who looks you in the eye and says you are alright.

But he then tells you that there is something more, and that this can only be yours if you are willing to let go of all that you possess—essentially all that you are. Now that is terrifying. Who would want that? That is not only having to give up material wealth. People are known to survive the loss of material wealth. People are known to survive the loss of physical wealth. People survive different kinds of losses. But what Jesus asked the young man to give up was nothing less than the core of who he was. He was asking the young man to give himself up, totally, absolutely, and then to follow him. Where? That is what really bothered this young man. Because that is hard, painful, and excruciating. Not knowing is the single biggest difficulty one encounters, especially one who is strong and who is good. The young man was both. And Jesus asked him to give it up.

What he was asking of this young man was that trust that lies at the very heart of life itself. Total and absolute surrender—that was what Jesus had asked for. And as we see from the young man’s response, it isn’t for everybody. In fact it doesn’t seem to be for a lot of people really. It just seems mad. It goes way beyond the realm of what seems reasonable. That causes panic to ordinary and normal human sensibilities. It is frightening. That is why the young man felt that what Jesus was asking from him was an impossibility. It couldn’t be done, not by human means at least. It cannot be done.

This is perhaps the most beautiful idea contained in this story—the idea that grace is met by grace. That in us which desires more, that which in the human person is that insatiable and unquenchable fire, which is none other than the grace of God that nothing can destroy, is met also by grace—that which alone can satisfy, that which alone can give a reply to that seemingly unsatisfiable invitation that Jesus gives to this young man. It is also grace that allows for that leap, that allows for the calming of the terror and fear that comes with feeling in the deepest part of one’s being, that one is simply not able. It is that grace that enables to come to fulfillment, the absolute satisfaction of that seemingly insatiable thirst.

Grace at the beginning, grace at the end. That which invites us is also that which satisfies us. That which entices is also that which gives what is sought. That which awakens in us that seemingly unsatisfiable hunger and thirst is also that—and that alone—which ultimately provides for its satisfaction. God at the beginning, God at the end. The young man had gone a long way traversing the two points, and he was right to come to Christ, because he knew deep within, that he was the answer, the key, the way, the path to making the two points meet. And Christ did not disappoint him. He showed him the way, the only way. Give everything up and follow me. Why? Because he has done it. He is it—the bridge between the beginning and the end—that which awakens and that which fulfills. That was what the young man didn’t realize. And so he left, not because he couldn’t do what Jesus had asked. But because he was all too capable of doing it. He was strong, and it was a strength he simply found impossible to give up.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)