Friday, October 3, 2008

Checked Baggage

A rich man asks Jesus what he must do to gain eternal life. "Sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have a treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." (Lk 18:22) Mark's version comes across as a little more forgiving, leaving out the "all" and "it" (that is, all that was sold): "Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."

After hearing this story Saint Antony (and countless others) took it to heart and gave away their savings and possessions. I have tried to do the same and realize that I have a long way to go. When I saw all my things piled up in the bus, I was filled with anxiety over the prospect of having to give away what I saw as indispensables. But I am doing a little bit at a time: my DSL and Netflix, donating my bed, sheets, most of my clothes, shoes, and books, eating simpler fare, shedding electricity, etc. Certain things--my tools, bike, computer--are staying put.

Being in my parents' house reminds me of the burdensome feeling that comes with owning a lot. My dad would like to live with less; my mom has no interest in doing so. She likes to buy things because she likes having things. When you are in a marriage you have to compromise and so my dad compromises his desire to simplify because of my mom's flair for 'things.'

But my parents are good people. In Mark's version of the story of the rich man, the author feels it important not to leave out the fact that despite his unwillingness to abandon his wealth, Jesus loved the man: "Jesus, looking at him, loved him (10:21).To what degree we own wealth has no bearing on the degree to which God loves us.

This idea of giving away all that you have can be taken to extremes, for instance, by arguing that having a cloak (as Jesus had) is a luxury in and of itself. It can also be rationalized as an adage not to be taken literally. I think both miss the mark. When talking about wealth and possessions, I prefer something along the lines of: "Everything you need, and nothing you don't."

Trimming the fat (so to speak) can be done in a dramatic, sudden metanoia, as with St. Antony, or it can be done in installments, as I am trying to do. It involves questions like: Why do I have three plates when I only need one? Why do I have ten shirts when I only wear two? I still have not come to terms with giving away my savings, since we need money to live in today's society, but maybe some time in the future the time will come for that.

When I was young I tried to only own as much as I could fit in a rucksack, so as to be ready when the Apocolypse came. Anticipation of this event is actually at the heart of this move towards greater poverty: shedding what one has in this life does not make sense except in the light of eschatology.

I think Jesus' imagry of a camel trying to fit through the eye of a needle is akin to the zen parable of The Empty Cup:

A university professor went to visit a famous Zen master. While the master quietly served tea, the professor talked about Zen. The master poured the visitor's cup to the brim, and then kept pouring. The professor watched the overflowing cup until he could no longer restrain himself. "It's overfull! No more will go in!" the professor blurted. "You are like this cup," the master replied, "How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?"

How can a camel fit through the eye of a needle? It can't! Only something small and insignificant like a fruitfly or gnat can fit through such a space. Camels are known to carry heavy burdens; they are typically encumbered animals. When Jesus said that one must become like a little child to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, he was speaking about this diminutive principal: you cannot become big and strong until you have made yourself small and meek. The cup must be emptied before it can be filled.

Possessions and wealth must be checked at the door before the Kingdom can be actualized in this life--eschatology becomes praxis. I've even found a good way to judge my attachment to things: the degree to which I feel pain in abandoning them. In my case, I am in for a lot of pain...

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