Friday, April 6, 2012

"Take courage, for I have conquered the world." (Meditations on the death of the good man, Friday of Holy Week)

"The souls of the just are in the hands of God, and no torment shall ever touch them". (Wisdom 3:1)

A number of years ago, in one of my theology classes at Providence College, we were talking about the Beatitudes where Jesus pronounced those who are poor, meek, humble, and persecuted to be blessed and proclaimed woe on the proud, vain, arrogant, and mighty, one of my students raised his hands and asked: “Father, do you think anyone who takes Jesus’ advice seriously can survive in the world?” 

He wasn’t asking a trick question or trying to be argumentative. It was a sincere question. But before I managed to give an answer, he followed up with a statement: “Good guys finish last, Father. The bad boy always gets the girl”. Everyone began laughing of course. 

On this day, Good Friday, we remember the death of the quintessential good man. We commemorate the lowest point in the story of a man who did nothing but good, whose life, spent loving people, ends in the most tragic fashion. On this day, two-thousand years ago, the world pronounced its verdict on the Son of God: he is a failure, and his mission is doomed to die with him on his cross. 

The events leading to the crucifixion are heartrending, the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ death, even more so. Abandoned by the people he had come to redeem, abandoned by closest friends, he now on the cross seemed abandoned by his Father as well. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 

Jesus the faithful Son, is now seemingly left by his Father to die a most ignominious death. What more could the world want in showing itself right by judging him a failure? Here was the final proof; even God did not want to vindicate him. Even his Father had forsaken him. Jesus was utterly alone. My student’s question thus makes terrible sense: “Do you think anyone who takes Jesus’ advice and follows him seriously can survive the world? Good guys finish last.” 

Do we believe this true? Do the good really finish last? Before giving an answer, consider that in society, most often than not, those who are cunning, devious, and clever, are the ones who succeed. Even the psalmist who wrote thousands of years ago, made that observation: “Why, O Lord”, he writes, “do the evil prosper?” 

Does the bad guy really win? That would make good guys losers, wouldn’t it? People like Socrates, unjustly condemned to drink poison, Sir Thomas More, beheaded for standing firm in his principles, Mahatma Gandhi, assassinated for his unyielding stand for peace, Sister Dorothy Stang, 73-year old American nun from Ohio, shot in the face in Peru, just a few years ago, for her defense of poor farmers, Jean Donovan and the Maryknoll sisters of El Salvador, beaten, raped, and murdered for their work on behalf of justice, Archbishop Oscar Romero, who defended the rights of the poor in El Salvador, felled by bullets while celebrating Mass, a number of Old Testament prophets, John the Baptist; the list goes on and on. 

And who, for the world, would be the winners? Stalin, Lenin, Adolf Hitler, Pol Pot of Cambodia, the Duvaliers of Haiti, the dictator Marcos, the bigshots at Enron who robbed people of their hard earned money, Bernard Madoff who stole from thousands of people in the largest pyramid scam in history? 

In a dog-eat-dog world, where the rule is “survival of the fittest”, “big fish eat little fish”, and where the basic law of evolution is “natural selection” in which the strong survive and the weak die, it would indeed seem that “the good guy finishes last”. But is there any other way? “Nature does not care for the individual”, one of my philosophy professors used to say. “Nature cares only for the species, for its survival; and it does so by favoring the strong”. 

The philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche could not agree more. This is part of the reason he called Christianity, with its commandment to love “the least” in this world, a “disease”. If all were to obey the commandments of Christ, Nietzsche argued, humanity would eventually be wiped out. Nature demands the survival of the fittest. Natural selection dictates that the strong must overcome the weak; the weak must be weeded out so that the strong may increase in number. 

If you have any doubts about this, just observe a litter of puppies or kittens, and notice how the runt fares. Already the smallest and weakest, and therefore the one needing nourishment most, it’s very smallness and weakness almost guarantees that it won’t get what it needs unless someone intervenes. 

The Renaissance political thinker, Niccolo Machiavelli once counseled would-be rulers to remember that “human beings are a contemptible lot, simple-minded and dominated by their present needs, that one who deceives will always find someone willing to be deceived”. 

One who wishes to rule over and dominate others must therefore be willing to use every means at his disposal, including falsehood and deceit to achieve his goal; failure to do so would only open himself to being the one dominated and ruled. Such is the key, in Machiavelli’s mind, not only to surviving, but to thriving in a world that makes room only for the powerful and strong. Anyone who fails to realize this and act upon it is bound to be left behind, judged a failure and a loser. 

A few years ago, a lady whom I knew since my seminary days was given an award by a Catholic Foundation for her work with the poor and needy. She shared the award and the substantial sum that came with it, with another person. Now she herself was poor. In fact, we would every once in a while help her out with her finances. When she received the check, we encouraged her to save some for herself, for her future health needs, and just to make sure she’ll have something for a rainy day. 

Instead, she went to archbishop, told him she was giving him the money and that she wanted it to go to charity. All of it! We would probably call that noble. The world would call it stupid, crazy, irresponsible, impractical, and ridiculous. And that, in fact, was how some of her relatives and friends interpreted what she did. 

When we asked her why she gave all the money away and didn’t even think of keeping some so that she’d have something to use if she got sick, her answer nearly brought me to tears: “That’s why I have you guys, right. You’ve been very good to me. I take care of other people. I’m sure there will be people who will take care of me. My life has always been in God’s hands”. Even I struggle to have that kind of faith. 

Do the good really finish last? Are they really losers? In the gospel account of the Transfiguration, Jesus is shown in his glory together with Moses (who symbolized the fulfillment of the Law) and Elijah (who symbolized the fulfillment of the Prophets). His clothes become dazzling white and the voice of God the Father is heard saying: “This is my beloved Son. My Chosen One. Listen to him”. The apostles are dazzled and amazed. 

And yet, before this particular gospel passage, comes Jesus’ words to his disciples, telling them the cost of following him. “If anyone wishes to be my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me… What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?” These were very hard and difficult words for the disciples to accept. They all wanted a powerful Savior and Messiah, not a suffering one who would be killed. They wanted glory and power. 

In the very same chapter 9 of Luke’s gospel, Peter proclaims Jesus to be the “Messiah, the Son of God”. The gospel of Matthew says that when Jesus tells Peter that he is going to suffer, Peter rebukes him. “God forbid that you suffer”, Peter tells Jesus. To which Jesus responds: “Get thee behind me Satan. Your thoughts are not God’s thoughts, but the thoughts of man”.

Even for the disciples, it was hard to understand and accept the way of Jesus. The way of the world, the way of power, wealth, and glory, remained far more attractive. Why suffer when you can be powerful and strong? Why do it the hard way when there’s an easier way? Why be the good guy who loses? Why not be the bad guy who wins? In this view, Jesus would indeed be one of the world’s greatest losers, and his mission, one of the world’s greatest failures. 

And yet on the mountain of the Transfiguration, God affirmed, once and for all, what Jesus was about to do, a task toward which he had set his heart, mind, and soul when he refused the devil’s temptations to power, fame, and glory in the desert. “You are my Beloved Son”, the Father says to Jesus, as if to tell him: “Be strong. You have chosen to follow my way and not the way of the world. And because of that I shall remain with you”.  

But it was also God’s way of encouraging the disciples, of reminding them that there is true glory for those who choose to listen to Jesus and follow him all the way to the Cross, and its the kind of glory that does not fade, that “no thief can steal, no moth can eat, and which rust cannot corrode”. The glory Christ has promised is eternal; that which the world dangles before us is one that doesn’t last. Sic transit gloria mundi. 

We can always choose the latter way, of course. We can take our chances and say, “Oh, I can have both. I’ll follow Jesus, but there’s nothing wrong with being worldly from time to time”. As long as we realize that our choices have consequences, we are free to do and choose what we want. But we must always bear in mind that when it comes to choosing between Jesus’ way and the way of the world, there is no “middle ground”. We either stand squarely with him, or we don’t. 

If we choose Jesus' way, the world will most probably judge us losers. And that can be very hard. If we choose the way of Jesus, our only reward will be this: when we finally come face to face with the God who shall judge us, we shall hear him speak the words He spoke to His very own Son: “You are my beloved child. You are my chosen one”. And on that day, it is the world that will be judged the loser, not us. For the cross of Christ, “a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks” represents the true judgment on the world and its pretensions. 

On this Good Friday, as the quintessential good man dies on the cross, the “great reversal” takes place, and the world is shown for what it truly is—not the Machiavellian or Nietzschean victor, but one whose pretensions to power and greatness are shown to be no more than a mask, a shell hiding nothing more than a defeated and rotting interior. 

On this day, the words of Jesus are spoken to those of us who choose to stand firm in our convictions, our visions, our dreams, our ideals, our fidelity to Him and all He stands for, for as long as we live: “Take courage, for I have conquered the world”. (John 16:33)

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