Monday, June 26, 2006

A Life of Extremes in a World of Stability

I am beginning to fear that maybe Jesus really did mean what he said. I am a product of comfortable American thought and theology – product of the western world’s approach to Christianity. But the problem is, the Jesus I see in scripture is quite consistent in his teaching and that teaching consistently does not line up with my self-interest.

We see this played out most clearly when Jesus is confronted by the Rich Young Ruler. While Jesus told the rich young ruler to “sell all that he had,” this wasn’t the only thing said in the story. When the rich young ruler came to Jesus, he questioned Jesus, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” This question is coming from someone who has it all. He is young, in his prime, full of vigor and life. He is rich with the house, job, and income that define his life and allow for good meals, wine, leisure. He is titled a “ruler” suggesting authority, power, respect. He has it all . . . and yet. And yet he comes to Jesus asking “what must I do to inherit eternal life.” This is not a question that comes out of satisfaction with one’s existence. It is a question that comes out of some quiet whisper, hint that there must be more than this – more than his current state of contentment.

Even at this point, Jesus does not respond with the famous and confronting “sell all that you have . . .” Instead, he tells the young man, “Obey the commandments . . .” With these words, the man’s context is further established. He is religiously educated, at least enough to know the commandments and to be aware of the basic concerns of the God of Israel. But still, the young man wants more clarification, suggesting what we later learn to be true, that he has been keeping them and it still isn’t satisfying him.

“Which ones?” the young man asks.

Jesus responds, “Do not murder (that one’s pretty easy). Do not commit adultery (more difficult, he probably thinks, but yeah, I’ve been good there). Do not give false testimony, honour your father and mother (tick and tick). Love your neighbour as yourself (Ooh, that one’s hard. But yes, I have honestly loved my neighbour as myself.)” The young man affirms that he has been faithful, “all these I have kept since my youth.” And Jesus does not challenge him on this affirmation of faithful living. The young man isn’t even a cynical, lapsed man of faith but a dedicated man who upholds the commandments and follows God’s laws, even the difficult ones! And yet, despite his devotion to God and his clear desire for God, as evident in his approaching Jesus, something is still missing.

Church attendance isn’t enough. Keeping God’s law isn’t enough. Approaching Jesus and seeking him isn’t even enough. Not to mention that money, power, and youth aren’t enough. Apparently, this young man is still hungry for more. Hopefully many of us are still hungry for more.

“One thing still you lack. Sell your possessions. Give the money to the poor. Come and follow me.”

Of course, this isn’t a call simply to a life of poverty. Anyone can take a vow of poverty and join a monastery in the Himalayas. And many have. No. This is a call to radical and transformative community. This is a call to an Acts 2:42-47 community. This is a call to living in real and uncomfortable ways with other believers. This is a call to an extreme life of self-sacrifice, and in that sacrifice, it is a call to finding a real, passionate life, filled with God’s Holy Spirit, truly alive with his grace and presence. This is a call to life redeemed. Life transformed. Life unending.

How can I say this? We must remember who Jesus was and what he was doing at the time. He was traveling all over Israel, with his friends and those committed to him, and he was preaching the Good News of God’s grace for his people and the world. We know from Luke 8 that some of those with Jesus helped support Jesus and the disciples through their own finances. We know that, while they were itinerant, they were often being invited into various homes to stay the night, share a meal. We also know that they celebrated important religious festivals together, as if they were family. This isn’t a call to poverty or homelessness. This is a call to a community where the rich young man would have to give up his self-determination and autonomy in order to be part of the larger community of Jesus’ followers. He had to give up his riches because they were what defined him. He also had to give up his riches because in Christ’s Kingdom there is neither rich nor poor, slave nor free, male and female.

A vow of poverty is merely a spiritual choice, part even of the sort of balance that the Buddha himself taught. Jesus never taught balance. He never taught an individual spiritual path. He never calls us into a personal faith. Jesus calls us to an extreme life. He calls us individually into a community of faith. He calls us to a life that he defines and directs as a part of his body, which is all who choose to follow him, all who believe and act on his call.

“Come and follow me . . .”