RonRolheiser,OMI

Our Struggle with Riches

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A number of years ago I attended a funeral. The man to whom we were saying goodbye had enjoyed a full and rich life. He’d reached the age of 90 and was respected for having been both successful and honest.  But he’d always been a strong man, a natural leader, a man who took charge of things.  He’d had a good marriage, raised a large family, been successful in business, and held leadership roles in various civic and church organizations. He was a man who commanded respect although he was sometimes feared for his strength.

His son, a priest, was presiding at his funeral. He began his homily this way: “Scripture tells us that seventy is the sum of a man’s years, eighty for those who are strong. Now, our dad lived for ninety years. Why the extra ten years? Well, it’s no mystery really. It took God an extra ten years to mellow him out! He was too strong and cantankerous to die at eighty! But during the last ten years of his life he suffered a series of massive diminishments. His wife died, he never got over that. He had a stroke, he never got over that. He had to be moved into an assisted living complex, he never got over that. All these diminishments did their work. By the time he died, he could take your hand and say: ‘Help me’. He couldn’t say that from the time he could tie his own shoelaces until those last years. He was finally ready for heaven. Now when he met St. Peter at the gates of heaven he could say: ‘Help me!’ rather than tell St. Peter how he might better organize things.”

This story can help us understand Jesus’ teaching that the rich find it difficult to enter the kingdom of heaven while little children enter it quite naturally. We tend to misunderstand both why the rich find it hard to enter the kingdom and why little children enter it more easily.

Why do little children enter the kingdom quite naturally?  In answering this we tend to idealize the innocence of little children, which can indeed be striking.  But that’s not what Jesus is holding up as an ideal here, an ideal of innocence which for us adults is impossible in any case. It’s not the innocence of children that Jesus praises; rather it’s the fact that children have no illusion of self-sufficiency. Children have no choice but to know their dependence. They’re not self-sufficient and know that they cannot provide for themselves. If someone doesn’t feed them they go hungry. They need to say, and to say it often: “Help me!”

It’s generally the opposite for adults, especially if we’re strong, talented, and blessed with sufficient wealth. We easily nurse the illusion of self-sufficiency. In our strength we more naturally forget that we need others, that we’re not self-reliant.

The lesson here isn’t that riches are bad.  Riches, be that money, talent, intelligence, health, good looks, leadership skills, or flat-out strength, are gifts from God. They’re good. It’s not riches that block us from entering the kingdom. Rather it’s the danger that, having them, we will more easily also have the illusion that we’re self-sufficient. We aren’t.  As Thomas Aquinas points out by the very way he defines God (as Esse Subsistens – Self-sufficient Being) only God does not needs anyone or anything else. The rest of us do, and little children more easily grasp this than do adults, especially strong and gifted adults.

Moreover the illusion of self-sufficiency often spawns another danger: Riches and the comfort they bring, as we see in the parable of the rich man who has a beggar at his door, can make us blind to the plight and hunger of the poor. That’s one of the dangers in not being hungry ourselves. In our comfort, we tend not to see the poor.

And so it’s not riches themselves that are bad. The moral danger in being rich is rather the illusion of self-sufficiency that seems to forever accompany riches. Little children don’t suffer this illusion, but the strong do. That’s the danger in being rich, money-wise or otherwise.

How do we minimize that danger?  By being generous with our riches. Luke’s Gospel, while being the Gospel that’s hardest on the rich is also the Gospel that makes most clear that riches aren’t bad in themselves. God is rich. But God is prodigiously generous with that richness.  God’s generosity, as we learn from the parables of Jesus, is so excessive that it’s scandalous. It upsets our measured sense of fairness. Riches are good, but only if they’re shared. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus praises the generous rich but warns the hoarding rich. Generosity is Godlike, hoarding is antithetical to heaven.

And so from the time we learn to tie our own shoelaces until the various diminishments of life begin to strip away the illusion of self-sufficiency, riches of all kinds constitute a danger. We must never unlearn the words: “Help me!”

God’s Command to Kill the Canaanites

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In his autobiography, Eric Clapton, the famed rock and blues artist, shares very candidly about his long struggle with an addiction to alcohol. At one point in his life, he admitted his addiction and entered a rehab clinic, but he didn’t take his problem as seriously as was warranted. Returning to England after his stint in the clinic he decided that he could still drink light spirits, beer and wine, but would give up hard liquor. You can guess the result. Before long he was again enslaved inside his addiction. He returned to the clinic, to appease friends, but convinced that he was still strong enough to handle his problems on his own.

But grace intervened. Just before his second rehab stint ended, he had powerful experience within which he was shaken to his very soul by the recognition of his own helplessness and the mortal danger he faced from his addiction. On the basis of that grace, he finally gave himself over to the program with his whole heart, accepting that he could never touch alcohol again. He has retained his sobriety since.

His story can be helpful in understanding the meaning of certain texts in scripture which, when read literally, can give us the impression that God is arbitrary, cruel, and murderous.

We see such texts, for example, in the Book of Exodus and the Book of Joshua where, before entering the Promised Land, God instructs Israel to kill all the people and all the animals who at that time inhabit that land.  Why such a command to exterminate others simply because they’re living in a certain place?

Obviously we need to ask ourselves: Is this really the word of God? What kind of God would give this kind of command? And what about the people being killed, aren’t they too God’s people? Does God play favorites? What about the Canaanites whom Joshua is asked to exterminate, don’t they count? What can be behind this kind of command?

These texts, though divinely inspired and rich in meaning, clearly should not be taken literally. This command, while not exactly metaphorical, is archetypal, meaning that it’s not meant to be taken literally as a command to kill what’s foreign to us, but rather as a counsel teaching that when we’re trying to enter a new way of living we must take all the necessary measures to ensure that we can properly enter that life and sustain it. Metaphorically, we need to “kill” off every element inside us and around us which, if left unaddressed, might eventually compromise and choke off the new life we’re trying to live. Jesus, in fact, gives us the identical command, except he employs a softer metaphor: Don’t put new wine into old wineskins.

People in Recovery Programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous tend to more quickly understand what’s asked of us in these texts. Like Eric Clapton they’ve learned from experience that to enter the promised land of sobriety demands that one kill off all of “the Canaanites”, that is, accepting that all half-measures won’t work but that some brute, raw, bitter renunciations have to be made.

This biblical image, the command from God to kill the “Canaanites”, can serve us well too in other areas of our lives, particularly, I believe, in our struggles with making commitments and being faithful to them.

For example, consider someone entering a marriage. Like Israel they’re entering the “promised land”, but for them to establish this new life and remain faithful to it, they need to kill off a good number of things, namely, former romances, old relational habits of promiscuity and infidelity, the propensity to flirt with attractive temptations, the belief that one can have one’s cake and eat it too, and the long standing habit of putting one’s own needs first and worrying mainly about taking care of oneself.

Every choice is a series of renunciations. To have a life-giving marriage means renouncing a lot of old habits, otherwise these old habits will eventually sabotage the marriage. There are things one must do before entering a marriage or any serious commitment.

But what about those “Canaanites” that already inhabit the land we’re entering? Who might they be today?

In terms of threatening to contaminate a marriage, I would submit that what must be killed off today in order to have a life-long, life-giving marriage is our present cultural ethos about sex, namely, the belief that sex need not be confined to monogamy, permanent commitment, and marriage. If we don’t kill off that ethos as we enter a marriage, we will not sustain ourselves life-long in that Promised Land.

To live lives of sobriety, commitment, and fidelity demands more than half-measures. An alcoholic in recovery knows that he or she cannot have it both ways. The same is true in terms of sustaining ourselves in any life-giving commitment. New wine must be put into new wineskins and this demands some bitter renunciations.

God’s commands, properly understood, aren’t harsh and arbitrary. They’re wise and universal.

Achievement versus Fruitfulness

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There’s a real difference between our achievements and our fruitfulness, between our successes and the actual good that we bring into the world.

What we achieve brings us success, gives us a sense of pride, makes our families and friends proud of us, and gives us a feeling of being worthwhile, singular, and important. We’ve done something. We’ve left a mark. We’ve been recognized. And along with those awards, trophies, academic degrees, certificates of distinction, things we’ve built, and artifacts we’ve left behind comes public recognition and respect. We’ve made it. We’re recognized. Moreover, generally, what we achieve produces and leaves behind something that is helpful to others. We can, and should, feel good about our legitimate achievements.

However, as Henri Nouwen frequently reminds us, achievement is not the same thing as fruitfulness. Our achievements are things we have accomplished. Our fruitfulness is the positive, long-term effect these achievements have on others. Achievement doesn’t automatically mean fruitfulness. Achievement helps us stand out, fruitfulness brings blessing into other people’s lives.

Hence we need to ask this question:  How have my achievements, my successes, the things that I’m proud to have done, positively nurtured those around me?  How have they helped bring joy into other people’s lives? How have they helped make the world a better, more-loving place? How have any of the trophies I’ve won or distinctions I’ve been awarded made those around me more peaceful rather than more restless?

This is different than asking: How have my achievements made me feel? How have they given me a sense of self-worth? How have my achievements witnessed to my uniqueness?

It’s no secret that our achievements, however honest and legitimate, often produce jealousy and restlessness in others rather than inspiration and restfulness. We see this in how we so often envy and secretly hate highly successful people. Their achievements generally do little to enhance our own lives but instead trigger an edgy restlessness within us. The success of others, in effect, often acts like a mirror within which we see, restlessly and sometimes bitterly, our own lack of achievement. Why?

Generally there’s blame on both sides. On the one hand, our achievements are often driven from a self-centered need to set ourselves apart from others, to stand out, to be singular, to be recognized and admired rather than from a genuine desire to truly help others. To the extent that this is true, our successes are bound to trigger envy. Still, on the other hand, our envy of others is often the self-inflicted punishment spoken of in Jesus’ parable of the talents wherein the one who hides his talent gets punished for not using that talent.

And so the truth is that we can achieve great things without being really fruitful, just as we can be very fruitful even while achieving little in terms of worldly success and recognition. Our fruitfulness is often the result not so much of the great things we accomplish, but of the graciousness, generosity, and kindness we bring into the world. Unfortunately our world rarely reckons these as an achievement, an accomplishment, a success. We don’t become famous for being gracious. Yet, when we die, while we may well be eulogized for our achievements, we will be loved and remembered more for the goodness of our hearts than for our distinguished achievements. Our real fruitfulness will flow from something beyond the legacy of our accomplishments.

It will be the quality of our hearts, more so than our achievements, that will determine how nurturing or asphyxiating is the spirit we leave behind us when we’re gone.

Henri Nouwen also points out that when we distinguish between our achievements and our fruitfulness, we will see that, while death may be the end of our success, productivity, and importance, it isn’t necessarily the end of our fruitfulness. Indeed, often our true fruitfulness occurs only after we die when our spirit can finally flow out more purely. We see that this was true too for Jesus. We were able to be fully nurtured by his spirit only after he was gone. Jesus teaches this explicitly in his farewell discourse in John’s Gospel when he tells us repeatedly that it’s better for us that he goes away because it’s only when he’s gone that we will be able to truly receive his spirit, his full fruitfulness.  The same is true for us. Our full fruitfulness will only show after we have died.

Great achievement doesn’t necessarily make for great fruitfulness. Great achievement can give us a good feeling and can make our families and loved ones proud of us. But those feelings of accomplishment and pride are not a lasting or deeply nourishing fruit. Indeed the good feeling that accomplishment gives us is often a drug, an addiction, which forever demands more of us and sets loose envy and restlessness in others as it underscores our separateness.

The fruit that feeds love and community tends to come from our shared vulnerability and not from those achievements that set us apart.