(It came to me recently that I have only about a dozen more columns before I retire; so I’m going to aim – unless circumstances interfere – to focus on “what really matters” between now and June.)
Jesus does something very interesting in today’s Gospel; we can learn from it. When people around him raise an issue in the news of the day (in this case, an atrocity committed by the local government), he changes the frame: instead of local gossip, the story becomes a challenge to conversion. The story is not about other people at another place and time; it becomes a challenge to the tale-teller in the here and now.
We see Jesus do this over and over: Remember the question he gets asked, “Are there only a few who are to be saved” [Lk13:23]? He ignores that question and implicitly replaces it with the one that the questioner, from Jesus’ perspective, ought to have asked, and then Jesus answers that one: “You try to enter through the narrow gate.” The question about salvation can’t be a general, curious inquiry: It has to be direct and personal: Other people’s situation doesn’t matter. What about me?
Buddhist teachers, I have heard, follow the same rule: They refuse to answer any question for information about Buddhism, responding only with a challenge or directive for the inquirer to do something that will lead toward the inquirer’s own enlightenment. These teachers understand that general questions, however well-intentioned, inevitably have two extra dimensions: First, any possible answer will be misunderstood, since the inquirer has not yet reached a state of personal clarity and development that is the foundation for proper understanding of such an answer. And second, the process of asking a general question and receiving an answer is in itself a distraction from the one thing that matters: moving toward (from the teacher’s perspective) the one thing necessary – personal enlightenment.
For us, the language and goal may differ; but, human nature being the same everywhere, the process is the same – and Jesus knows it. We can all-too-easily substitute thinking about religion, grace, sin, salvation, and all the rest for the one thing that matters: responding to God’s personal invitation to me by changing my life.
This isn’t just work that matters to me and to my individual salvation (although it certainly does). The quality of our life together – our culture, our art, our politics, our education system, our material well-being – are affected to no small degree by the number of saints among us. Whatever good personal character each of us has is the result not only of our own hard work but also of the accurate, self-sacrificial love of others: parents, teachers, mentors at school or work, interested strangers who helped us at a moment of confusion or of need, and many more. And note that it was their accurate self-sacrificial love: well-meaning but distorted help can be less than helpful. And accuracy in loving others requires self-knowledge, self-discipline, and a wide and deep awareness of where one still has to grow.
Jesus knew (and knows) that having opinions about the latest atrocity (or fad) does no one any real good. We contribute to the well-being of ourselves, of others, and of society as a whole, by doing the hard work of cooperating with God’s grace that will, if we allow it consistently, change us. Nothing could be more valuable. Until next week, peace.
For those of you interested in whether and where I plan to continue to write, here’s an update: I’m in conversation with a web-developer to use my personal website as a place to put occasional pieces. I’m not exactly sure what the format or regularity might be, but the focus will remain on how to think and act as an adult Catholic in 21st century American culture. More details to follow.