Thursday, May 19, 2011

Taking The Gospel Seriously

The Gospel scares me.

I like the part about God's love, mercy and forgiveness. I like the assurance, "I will be with you always." I look forward to the banquet in the heavenly kingdom. These benefits make it "Good News" indeed.

What bothers me is the cost. This thing about taking up your cross, this expectation of poverty (especially this being "poor in spirit"), this requirement of loving one's enemies, this directive, "Take nothing for your journey" --all these seem anything but good news.

For 2000 years Christians have stumbled over and struggled with Jesus' radical teaching about "turning the other cheek," about "selling what you have and giving it to the poor," about "being the servant of all." Can he really mean it? Wasn't he exaggerating to make a point? Don't we have to be reasonable, measured, and cautious about how we interpret and respond to his message?

Some have said that St. Francis of Assisi is the only person in the past twenty centuries who was fully and genuinely Christian. He heard the Gospel and took it literally. He put his trust in God's care, he lived a life of poverty, he shied away from power and prestige.

And as a result of his efforts to live the Gospel as well as believe it, we have publicly hailed him as a great saint and privately whispered, "He was nuts."

Theologians and spiritual writers have put forth noble and even persuasive efforts to explain away the starkly demanding nature of Jesus' directives. But every time we hear the Gospel or meet someone living it more faithfully than we do, we are challenged to ask ourselves, "Am I really following Christ?"

I've tried to make peace with Jesus' imperatives by persuading myself that living the radical Gospel is the ideal and I shall always fall short. I can justify having a closet full of clothes, a nice car to drive, more than adequate shelter, and plenty of food by assessing these goods as necessary for my carrying out my ministry as a priest.

Of course I need a computer --it helps me spread the message and stay informed and in touch. Of course I need library shelves full of books --I can be accurate in my exegesis and creative in my preaching. Of course I need my CDs and DVDs and trips to Gettysburg --I must have distractions that will let me unwind and relax.

The world in which I live does not begrudge me these things, but I wonder how these blessings would strike my "foster child" in Nicaragua or the homeless in Cincinnati's Over-the-Rhine. Most people in Haiti would think they had died and gone to heaven if they had half of what I have.

And sometimes I wonder how these possessions strike Jesus.

I know what he said: "Blessed are the poor in spirit...Take nothing for the journey but a walking stick --no food, no sack, no money in your belts...Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself...Give to the one who asks..."

On occasion I acknowledge that some natural disaster or fire could take away all that I have. Then where would I be? On occasion I admit that someday I shall die. What will my survivors do with my precious junk? On occasion I hear the echo of Jesus' parable, "And where will all this piled up wealth of yours go?"

I have not yet reached the point where I can honestly say, "I don't care about my possessions" or "The Lord gives and the Lord takes away --blessed be the name of the Lord."

I console myself with the thought that I need these things right now, and when death approaches I can pray, "Here, Lord, all that I have I give to you!" And Jesus will smile at the contrast between what I offer him and what he has in store for me.

In the meantime, however, the Gospel still scares me.

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