Friday, August 7, 2009

If You Would Come After Me, You Must Deny Yourself and Follow Me!

In today’s First Reading, Moses speaks to the Israelites:

Ask now about the days of old, when God created people upon the earth. Has anything so great happened before, as happened to you? Did any other people hear the voice of God from the midst of fire, as you did, and live? Did any pagan god venture to take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by his strong hand and outstretched arm, as the LORD your God did for you in Egypt?

All of this, you were allowed to see so that you might recognize that the LORD is God, and him alone. You have heard his voice thundering from the heavens to discipline you. You have seen his fire upon the earth, and have heard him speaking from the midst of the fire.

It was out of love for your ancestors that he chose their descendants as his own, and led you out of Egypt by his great power, driving out of your path other nations greater and mightier than you, so as to settle you on their land, and make it your own inheritance, as it is to this day.

This is why you must know, and fix firmly in your heart, that the LORD is God in the heavens above and on the earth below, and that there is no other. This is why you must keep his statutes and commandments, which I enjoy upon you today, so that you and your children may prosper, and you may have long life in the land the LORD, your God, is giving you forever.

In the gospel, Jesus speaks to his disciples:

If you wish to come after me, you must deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me. Those who want to save their life will lose it, but those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

What good is in if you gain the whole world, but forfeit your soul? What can you give in exchange for your soul? The Son of Man is going to come in the glory of the Father, with all his angels, and then he will reward everyone according to what they have done. I tell you the truth, some who are standing beside me here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming into his kingdom.

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When something is truly yours, you are free to give it way. It is only when something is not really yours that you cling to it. A truly rich person is not someone who has accumulated more than anyone else; it is someone who has given more away. “Wealthy” people, by accumulating wealthy and amassing property, “wealthy” folks show just how poor they are. The same is true about love: it is when you give love that you show that you have love. The song says, “Love isn’t love till you give it away.”

The people of this world are always trying to “better” themselves. It starts with material things: we need to have better cars, better jobs, and better computers. It seems natural that we should also thing about trying to become “better” people. While this is a worthwhile goal, experience teaches us that it is the ego that tries to improve upon itself.

The Gospel does not tell us to become better people, but to become new people. “Better” presupposes a definition of good. Can we rely on our ego’s definition of what is good? We have good reason not to. Can we trust society’s definition of good? We should, at the very least, not take it at face value. Depending on the society in question, we can be called “good” if we are wealthy, or a heavy consumer, or a perfect conformist.

The Gospel asks us to love our life, not to improve it. Saint John Chrysostom commented, “Can you see how the wrongful preservation of life amounts to destruction as is worse than all destruction?” The Gospel goes deeper than any self-improvement program, telling us, “Those who would save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”

It would be impossible to make sense of these phrases unless we understand the distinction between the ego and our true nature. This distinction is rarely made explicit in Christian spirituality, but it is fully explicit in Zen, for example. In Zen literature, there is a parable about a monk who kept polishing an earthenware tile, day after day. Asked what he was trying to accomplish he replied that he was trying to make a mirror. That tile is oneself. No amount of polishing will ever turn it into a mirror.

1 comment:

Gabriella said...

Real food for thought, Father.
Thank you.

What hit me in today's gospel is 'take up your cross'!
Not accept it, or wait for it, but 'take it up' ...