Tuesday, August 28, 2012

What Do I Still Lack?

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen. In today’s gospel lesson [Matthew 19:16-26], a man came to Jesus seeking his salvation. Although the encounter doesn’t end well, there is still much to learn from it. We heard that from childhood this man had kept all the commandments of God, and thus it is safe to assume every other requirement of Judaism, faithfully. Because of this, God had been faithful to him, stirring up in his heart a sense that something was still lacking, and leading him to Christ that he might discover what that “something” was. Can we see the great mercy of God in this? Though we ourselves may be far from perfect, if we are at least faithful to what has been given to us and obedient to what we know, God will also provide us opportunities to find what we may be lacking in the pursuit of our salvation. This is a very good thing, indeed! In this man’s case (and perhaps in ours as well) what was missing was a spiritual understanding of the divine intent and purpose behind the law and the prophets--or for that matter, our Christian Orthodoxy--which is to lead men into the love of God and one’s neighbor as oneself. Our Lord’s instruction to him to sell all he possessed and distribute to the poor and to follow Him might seem harsh, but it was the exact prescription he needed to discover this love. The problem was that his wealth had insulated him from the needs and struggles of his neighbor, and had also given him a false sense of security and strength that took the place of dependence upon God. He wasn’t necessarily a lover of money like Judas, but in place of the love of God and his neighbor this man loved the comfort, the independence, and the freedom that his wealth provided him. Without his realizing it, wealth had become his idol, the false god he looked to and relied upon for his sense of well-being. And we all know how God feels about idols. However, as is normally the case with our Lord’s teachings, behind every literal interpretation of a thing, there is often found a spiritual interpretation that hits much closer to home for all of us. In this case, besides literal financial wealth, there are other kinds of wealth that also distance us from the love of neighbor and a steadfast trust in God. Take for example the wealth of ego. Without our realizing it, we can become very dependent upon an inner storehouse of treasures that make us feel strong and independent, robbing us of mercy and love. Among these “false riches” we must surely include the habit of always putting ourselves, our perspectives, our so-called “rights,” and even our feelings, first above all else. These things make communion with God and neighbor impossible, and are among our most valued possessions that we must dump if we are to follow Christ. Love requires sacrifice. In a marriage, love requires the sacrifice of a self-centered approach that breeds conflict with one’s spouse. Marriage should not be a perpetual battle of wills between two individuals each fighting for his own needs to be fulfilled, his own viewpoint to be respected, his own will to prevail. It is inevitable that these struggles should take place early in a marriage, for we do not surrender our wealth easily, nor do we eagerly make ourselves poor in self-will that we might learn to serve the other in humility. For a marriage to succeed however, we must surrender our self-wealth (our “wealth of self” if you will) and become “poor of self” that we might become rich in love for the other. The same is true in families, and--guess what?--the exact same is true in parish communities. It is inevitable for conflicts to arise in any parish. However, these conflicts are never born out of our poverty, but always out of our wealth. We have a wealth of opinions and convictions and sensitivities--and also passions--that we have spent a lifetime accumulating within us like a vast savings account. The saints regarded these things as flaws and blemishes upon our humanity that must be purged through long and careful repentance. We tend to regard these things as strengths, and if anything try to cultivate and entrench ourselves in them as characteristics of a strong and independent personality. For this reason we often find ourselves in conflict with our neighbor and in opposition to God, though we seldom see it that way. We only see ourselves as being “right” and thus close the door on yet another God-given opportunity to pursue our salvation by the avenue of meekness and self-denial. While to some extent a healthy ego can be a good thing, fueled by pride most of us go way overboard and acquire so much “wealth of self” that we can scarcely grasp why it might be a good thing to go the other way and become “poor of self” or what the gospel calls poor in spirit. Jesus not only said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” but He also said, “Learn from Me, for I am meek and lowly of heart”. With many similar teachings and His own wonderful example we can see that Christ has called all of us to embrace the voluntary poverty of self for the sake of gaining the kingdom of heaven. The person who is poor in spirit will face all the same conflicts and difficulties in life as anyone else, but he will focus first on changing himself rather than on changing the people or circumstances around him. He will not complain about the offenses of others, nor fight for his rights or opinions to be respected. He will accept conflict as revealing his own flaws and will thank God for the opportunity to correct them. This is where the cross becomes real for each and every one of us. Which “riches” are we unwilling to surrender to follow Christ? Which personal opinions are so sacred, which deeply-held convictions are so inviolable that we will not abandon them at the prompting of the Holy Spirit? We aren’t talking about becoming spineless wimps, though at first we might take it that way. What rich man called to forsake his wealth does not take it as the end of life as he knows it? What we are talking about is the abandonment of false riches, the idolatrous “wealth of self,” to gain the true wealth of the love of God and our neighbor as ourself that belongs only to the poor in spirit. I encourage us to be on our guard lest we walk away sad when Jesus calls us to embrace the voluntary poverty of self. It is difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, even when our riches have nothing to do with money. Our “wealth of self” must be abandoned if we are to inherit the meek and lowly heart of Christ. The cost is great and we are so seldom willing to pay it. Yet the things impossible with men are possible with God. If we will look more to gaining the love of God than to protecting our riches, the impossible will become possible even for us. +To the glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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