Sunday, August 8, 1991

Location - FNCA 1991
Bible Verses - Amos 1:12-2:6
Matthew 1:13-22

If you want to be perfect, go, sell everything you own and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me. - Matthew 19:21

On the basis of passages like this, Christianity has tended to look at wealth with suspicion, even to regard wealth as intrinsically sinful. There is currently a widespread insistence that Christianity stands for the poor and the oppressed and against the oppressor. While the motives for such insistence may be praiseworthy, it is surely risky to take a stance against the oppressor when the Gospels explicitly tell us to pray for those who persecute us. Something seems to be out of order here.

Part of the problem, I would suggest, involves the risks inherent in making generalizations. Jesus was talking to one individual, one wealthy young man. He saw that the main spiritual obstacle this young man faced was his attachment to his wealth, and he prescribed a radical cure for this attachment. That does not mean that all wealthy people, or even all wealthy young men, suffer from the same malady. In fact, some people of relatively slender means are more preoccupied with money, more possessive in spirit, than some who would seem to have much more to be possessive about. We cannot tell people¡¯s spiritual states from their bank balances. The rich are not necessarily greedy, nor are the poor necessarily generous. The rich are not necessarily materialistic, nor are the poor necessarily enlightened.

As long as we simply take the story literally, then, we are restricted to this area of ambiguity. It is only when we look at the spiritual intent of this story that we begin to see its universal application. To put the matter simply and in traditional Swedenborgian terms, the story requires us to give up our sense of merit. Our spiritual riches are our good intentions and our true understandings, and we are to give up any sense that we deserve credit for them. This is what I have been talking about fairly often in my Assembly lectures lately, and I should like to press the point a little further.

It is not easy to give up our sense of worth. Through much of our early life, our self-esteem is a major force for good in our lives. We resist giving in to our worse impulses because we know that otherwise we couldn¡¯t live with ourselves. We make sacrifices because it helps us to maintain our self-respect. We are more hurt than we would like to admit when some good we have done goes unnoticed or seems unappreciated, when the merits of our suggestion are ignored, when we do not seem to matter. Somewhere down inside, there is a voice telling us that we are special, and there is a need to have that message confirmed by voices from the outside. The voice is telling us the truth, but we find it hard to believe it.

As long as that need for reassurance exists, we cannot afford to ¡°sell all that we have,¡± because if we do, we simply become poor. That is, we become engulfed in feelings of worthlessness, feelings that undermine our efforts to live useful lives and that cut us off from open and loving relationships with each other. We have all met people who felt rotten about themselves, and in is painfully obvious that this is not a heavenly way to live. This is not the humility that the Lord wants of us.

It is actually a feeling that makes us quite vulnerable, and churches have used it to manipulate people into obedience. Some have done this by preaching hellfire and brimstone sermons, some by insisting that only the church can deliver us from our inborn guilt. But the Lord¡¯s intent (and the intent of our theology) is not to manipulate people into anything. It is to set us free.

So perhaps we should reconsider what it is that the rich young man is supposed to sell. What would first come to mind would be his splendid house, his barns, his flocks and herds, his elegant clothes, and the like. But the command is to sell everything, not just the expensive things. It includes the broken ploughs and the overaged horses, the stuff in the back of the closet and the stretches of land where nothing will grow.

In more spiritual terms, there is something in common between having a positive self-image and having a negative one, and quite obviously, it is that both are self-images. Whether we are mightily impressed with our virtues or profoundly depressed by our vices, we are all wrapped up in ourselves. It is easy enough to recognize this in other people--they don¡¯t seem to be able to pay any real attention to us except to worry about what we are thinking about them. They keep trying to impress us with their wisdom or righteousness, or they keep fishing for approval from us. You¡¯ve probably heard the caricature of this: ¡°But that¡¯s enough talk about me, let¡¯s talk about you for a while. What do you think of my new suit?¡±

Self-righteousness is lethal stuff. It is particularly lethal because it makes genuine virtues ugly and destructive. Marital fidelity, for example, can be truly beautiful. But when physical fidelity is used as a platform for disapproval, as a tower of personal superiority, our truly good and loving instincts are repelled. Something inside us knows that if fidelity leads to this kind of smugness, it should be avoided like the plague. Marital fidelity does not, of course, lead to a sense of superiority over others. That is simply the lie that self-righteousness tells, but it can tell it powerfully and persuasively.

If both positive and negative self-images are so problematic, then it would seem that the only way out would be to have either a neutral self-image or no self-image at all; and I think we may head in the right direction through a kind of combination of the two. Can we have no self-image at all? I suspect that our first instinct is to say no, but that is an oversimplification. There are certainly times when we simply forget ourselves. Think of the difference between watching a magnificent sunset and watching ourselves watch it. The one experience takes us out of ourselves, the other embroils us in cataloguing our own reactions. Whenever we are totally absorbed in something else, whether it is watching a sunset, reading a book, peeling a potato, or listening to a friend, we have no functioning self-image. To test this, we need only to think of the change that occurs if something does call our attention to ourselves. We lose our concentration instantly, it seems, and have to deal in some way with the distraction before we can again give our attention outside ourselves.

That may do for the ¡°no self-image,¡± but it is not enough. We know all too well that we need to recognize what is going on inside ourselves. We need to sort our our motivations, and make our choices. There is a very true sense in which we can understand others only as we come to understand ourselves.

In this regard, I think the key word in our text is the word, ¡°possessions.¡± When we take inventory of ourselves, we tend to regard everything we find within ourselves as our possession--this is not just how I feel, it is what I am. It is not just that I feel resentful, somehow I am that kind of person.

In doctrinal terms, this is appropriation, claiming something as our own, and it is identified as the source of all our woes. The ¡°neutrality¡± we might cultivate is not ignoring the differences between the better and the worse things we find in ourselves, but remaining neutral about ourselves. This good impulse is not ¡°mine,¡± it is something that is being offered me. This evil impulse is not ¡°mine,¡± it is something that is being offered me. Each represents only a tiny fragment of what I am as a total person; and in fact there is so much more to that total person than I have experienced that I really do not know me very well. Further, I have no way of measuring the good and the evil impulses to see which are predominant. Even if someone is keeping score, the scoreboard is out of my sight.

This opens the path to a far more detached or disinterested self-knowledge. If I can be mindful of the feelings and thoughts that occur to me, I can become familiar with some of the patterns that tend to recur. I tend to enjoy languages, and the absurdities that languages keep presenting. Sometimes this is an asset, sometimes it gets me into trouble. In stressful situations, I tend to become quieter rather than more active. Sometimes this is appropriate and sometimes it is not. I am capable of shifting my concentration from one thing to another fairly readily, and therefore capable of forgetting things completely. The good traits and the bad ones, or the better ones and the worse ones, are equally worth knowing about. I should be neutral, then, in the additional sense that I should want equally accurate information about both.

To ¡°sell all that we have,¡± then, is not some kind of punishment for having too much. It is more like a release from a trap, deliverance from attachment to our self-image, from worrying about ourselves, from the futile cycle of praise and blame. It may seem forbidding at first, because our immediate reaction is that we are being asked to give up our affirmative self-image only, and we would dearly like to think that spiritually, we do have ¡°great possessions.¡± But if we are honest with ourselves, we realize that that affirmative image is a fragile one, shot through with uncertainty, and demanding constant and expensive maintenance. Under its surface is an ugly suspicion--based on fact, but misusing fact--that it is all a fraud. Under its surface is a self-image that is as negative as the conscious one is affirmative; both are false, and that is why we are asked to give up both.

Lastly, this is precisely what the Holy Supper is all about, in a very different image. Our bodies are maintained by a constant intake and excretion of matter. That is, our bodies are matter flowing through us, as thoughts and affections flow through our minds. The physical food and drink of the sacrament may remind us that we are neither self-contained nor self-sustaining. Whatever we may find in ourselves that is good and true is a gift from the Lord, and not our possession. In doctrinal terms, we are not life, but recipients of life. That is what Scripture and doctrine are trying to tell us in countless ways, and it can strike just as deep as we will let it. The more the import of that simple statement sinks in, the more we find a truth that makes us free indeed.


contact phil at for any problems or comments