13 Pentecost Year C Episcopal Church at Yale
Tommy Schacht P’20 September 8, 2019
Perfection: The Idol
I have long been told that college is a place to experiment, to try new things. So naturally, like any good Yalie, upon my matriculation to Yale University, I became a communist. Now, I don’t mean this in the sense that I had some grand political vision; I wasn’t trying to bring about the revolution of the proletariat or anything like that. Rather, I became convinced that we had a moral obligation as Christians to completely divest ourselves of our personal property. It seemed clear to me that God had commanded me to give away all my possessions to the poor. After all, Jesus says in the Gospel according to Matthew, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” Now, if there is one thing that unites all Yale students, it is the constant pressure we put on ourselves to be perfect. So naturally, I took Jesus’s words at face value and concluded that the only way for me to be a perfect Christian and “win” Christianity, was to sell all I had and dress in sackcloth and ashes. I really thought this was the only possible interpretation of Jesus when he says in this week’s Gospel: “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” Now, if anyone knows me, they’ll know that sackcloth has never constituted part of my wardrobe, but I thought that’s what was expected of me, and that in not doing so, I was failing God.
On top of this desire for perfection, I took great note when Christ said, also in the Gospel according to Matthew, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.” When I first read this passage, I thought to myself, “This seems pretty straightforward: physical things are bad”. In my intensity, I became something of a closeted Gnostic, castigating myself for my worldliness. And I would just like to say for the record that I do not think I was entirely wrong. We should not accumulate material things. However, I may have been slightly missing the point. We must remember that Scripture is not simply a list of moral commandments; its wisdom is greater than a simple checklist of do’s and don’ts. It seems the important part of Jesus’s words is not condemning the mere ownership of physical things. God has blessed His followers many times with physical possessions. “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good”. Rather than goods themselves, it’s all about where one’s heart is oriented. The problem with material goods is when we begin to love our possessions for their own sake, rather than as reflections or conduits to something greater. Like Aaron with the golden calf, we err when we make idols from the things of this world. And this is also clear from Scripture. Jesus finishes the previous quote about treasure by stating, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also”. So, like most things in the Christian faith, it all boils down to love. We are called not to love the products of this world, but to set our hearts on something higher. We are called to love not our material possessions but to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” God, the source of all goodness and beauty and truth, is the only thing worth devoting ourselves to.
Now, what does this have to do with the Gospel reading for this week? Much like Jesus’s words about money, I truly believe this week’s Gospel readings are all about proper Christian love. I must admit, I’ve long struggled with this particular reading. Jesus tells us that ““Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple”. Now, I am quite fond of my parents and my siblings, and I am most certainly fond of life, so it seemed difficult to swallow that Christ would want us to despise our family to be his disciple. Jesus’ first miracle at wedding at Cannae was done out of filial duty to the Virgin Mary. Furthermore, one of the greatest signs of Jesus’s power was his ability to heal people. The story of Lazarus doesn’t make a whole lot of sense if our lives are meant to be hated. I had originally interpreted this passages much like the previous passages about money: as telling us to do something that might seem unpleasant, but is ultimately necessary to devote oneself to God. I thought that the only Christians who were really doing Christianity right were people like Simon Stylites, St. Anthony, or Julian of Norwich: ascetics who completely separate themselves from the world in order to properly focus on God. One can really sense a pattern in how I think about holiness. And again in my defense, this seemed to make some sense. The love of God seems to be the highest form of love, and so naturally we must focus all our attention on this love if we are to be perfect.
And yet, as much as it pains me to say it, I think I may have missed the point again. While I have nothing but the deepest of respect for ascetics and monastics, I don’t think God is requiring all of us to wander into the desert alone wearing hair shirts. Proper expression of faith is simply not that narrow. What really helped clarify things for me was when I was getting coffee with Rebecca, our program director, and she was talking about how strange it was to be married. She mentioned to me that her marriage was meant to reflect Christ’s love for the world, and how strange it is to be reminded of that every day in the person of her husband. I think that’s how we’re meant to interpret our Gospel reading for today. It is not that we must remove ourselves from our communities and hate those we are close to. Rather, we must not love those close to us, simply because they are close to us. Christ’s choice of words are no accident here. He specifies that it is our family relations, those we are closest to on this Earth that we must hate. That is because it is no great thing to love those who are bound to you. Everyone, from the saintliest figure to the greatest monsters of history have someone they love. At the end of the day, while this kind of love is certainly good, it is egotistical. We love our parents because they are meaningful to us. We love our siblings because they make us happy. We love them because they fall within our circle of ownership and we can claim some form of possession over them. As Christians, we are called to a higher form of love. If we truly follow the Great Commandment, “to love our neighbors as ourselves”, that means we love all people equally, without regard for the particularities of circumstance. We are called to love not because they are our mother or father, but because they are people, made in the image of God, who are worthy of our love. Our love must not be some base thing, colored by personal interest or sentimentality. This Gospel exists to remind us that we are meant to love one another as Christ loves each and every one of us: absolutely and unconditionally.