For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it? - Luke 14:28
Conventional wisdom sometimes divides people into two classes, the idealists and the realists, the dreamers and the practical people. It isn¡¯t that simple. We have all seen contented and successful people who have held fast to their ideals, and we have all seen hard-headed ¡°realists¡± whose lives have come apart on them. There is an immense amount of wisdom on this subject in the Gospels, and I¡¯d like to look at some of it this morning. Most of it will be familiar, but it may help to bring it together.
Right at the center of the issue is Jesus¡¯ very familiar admonition from the Sermon on the Mount:
Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal; But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.
This is not an easy saying to live up to. We tend to think of practical people as ¡°down-to-earth,¡± and if we call someone ¡°other-worldly,¡± we usually mean that person is not very practical. So before we gloss over the difficulties, we need to recognize that this saying is not advising us to pay no attention to worldly matters. It is telling us not to set our hearts on them.
Let¡¯s take an example. We want safety and comfort for our families, and work hard to live in safe and comfortable surroundings. If possible, we buy a house in a neighborhood where people share our basic values, a neighborhood where we can feel at home. There is nothing wrong with this. But if we think that the house is going to make us feel safe and comfortable, we are setting ourselves up for disillusionment. If we are not working to be at peace with ourselves, then we will not be at peace with our families, and when there is anger breaking out in the home, before long we will not be at peace with our neighbors.
Or let¡¯s take a parable instead. Suppose you were building your home rather than buying it. Anyone with an ounce of practicality would tell you to use materials that will last. You can do a quick and cheap job that may even look elegant, but if the paint is going to peel and the sills are going to rot and the he shingles are going to crack, you¡¯ve wasted your money disastrously. Every once in a while we read about someone who has gotten stuck with a badly-built house, and it is a horror story of mounting expenses for something that is next to worthless.
Jesus is saying that in comparison with spiritual, heavenly realities, the whole physical world is like that. Compared to our souls, our bodies just won¡¯t last. Compared to our qualities of mind and heart, our physical houses are strictly temporary. Compared to our talents, our abilities, our bank accounts are definitely short-term. Let¡¯s face it, we are going to have to live with ourselves forever, and it makes all kinds of sense to try to be people we can stand to live with.
Make no mistake about it, though. The means by which we become people we can live with are right here in the physical world. We become honest and trustworthy by building solid houses, by using our money responsibly, by keeping our commitments. We become gentle and compassionate by taking care of people with our words and our deeds--by helping those in need and in distress. In Swedenborg¡¯s terms, a spiritual character has to be built on a physical foundation. It isn¡¯t a castle in the air. The point of the Sermon on the Mount is that the physical, necessary as it is, is not the goal, is not an end in itself, but a means. If we perform a useful service for someone who needs it, our action is inadequate unless it arises from and encourages a genuine caring for that individual.
It is a prime case of both/and rather than either/or. We need both the compassion and the action. If we stop and reflect on the last decade or so of our country¡¯s history, it seems as though there was a massive effort to believe that everyone could take more out of the system than they were putting into it. The heroes were the people who had found ingenious ways to get rich rather then the people who had found ways to do something worthwhile or had actually done something worthwhile.
These were the so-called ¡°practical¡± people, the ones who thought we could build a thriving economy simply by stimulating everyone to get as much out of it as possible. This is where the hard-nosed idealist needs to come in and point out the obvious fact that if you pump more out of the well than is flowing in, the well is going to run dry. Grown-ups can figure out theories complicated enough to pretend it isn¡¯t so, but it is obvious to most children.
If ¡°laying up treasures on earth¡± is the goal, though, it is unwelcome news. Of course we need to work for financial security. Again, Swedenborg says quite explicitly that we cannot be of much use to the neighbor if we are in need of everything ourselves. But as we tend to our physical and financial needs, our hearts need to be set on such spiritual goals as integrity, understanding, and mutual affection. These will last forever--and so, it seems, will their opposites.
Together with this, we might also look at the parable of the talents. The obvious message of this is that we must use whatever gifts we have been given, but there is a kind of by-product as well. That is the message that it is pointless to compare ourselves with others. It is not a matter of who has more or less to work with, but of what we are doing with what we turn out to have. There may be a certain amount of emotional validity to sentences that begin, ¡°If I were you,¡± but we must not let them delude us. The fact is that I am not you and never will be, so rather than trying to figure out what kind of you I would be, I had better concentrate on deciding what kind of me I want to be.
This carries over into matters of circumstance, to sentences that begin, ¡°If I were in your shoes.¡± No one could accuse Helen Keller of social irresponsibility. She was a tireless worker for the unfortunate. Yet she wrote,
Now I am as much up in arms against needless poverty and degrading influences as anyone else, but, at the same time, I believe human experience teaches that if we cannot succeed in our present position, we could not succeed in any other. . . . The most important question is not the sort of environment we have but the kind of thoughts we think every day, the kind of ideals we are following; in a word, the kind of men and women we really are. The Arab proverb is admirably true: ¡°That is thy world wherein thou findest thyself.¡±
If we use this as an excuse for evading our social responsibilities, that is saying something very dark about ¡°the kind of thoughts we think every day, the kind of ideals we are following; in a word, the kind of men and women we really are.¡± If we refuse to face its wisdom, though, then we delude ourselves into thinking we have done much more than we really have when we provide material help to someone in need. We offer enduring help only when, so to speak, the gift of food is accompanied by the gift of understanding and affection. Sometimes what is needed is that difficult quality currently known as ¡°tough love¡±--the refusal to bail out which impels the other to accept responsibility. Without understanding and affection, we do not know when it is right to say yes and when it is right to say no.
A similar message is conveyed by the story of the widow¡¯s mite. We cannot judge the spiritual value of an act by its price tag in dollars. There are laws specifically designed to encourage charitable gifts, and people can develop such skills in the use of those laws that companies and individuals can make substantial donations and come out ahead. We can surely be grateful to discover that such and such a company has set up a foundation which is doing wonderful things, but the parable is telling us that our own apparently minute efforts may be qualitatively greater. Incredible as it seems, the evening you spend at the soup kitchen, or the time you spend getting clothes ready for Goodwill, may amount to more spiritually than the annual program of the Ford Foundation.
Now that really sounds like an ivory-tower sentiment, but it needs to be taken seriously. What Jesus is saying goes back to something eminently practical, namely that our outward problems have their roots in our attitudes toward each other, and that the problems will not be cleared up until those attitudes change. Oh, we may solve this problem or that one, but unless we as people become more consistently humane, the same inhumanities will simply break out in new forms. A scholar named Samuel Kramer wrote a book called It Happened in Sumer: Twenty-one Firsts in Recorded History. He takes texts four thousand or more years old, and the people are awfully recognizable. There¡¯s a first case of apple-polishing, a first case of teen-age delinquency, and so on. It seems as though human nature hasn¡¯t changed all that much.
This would be immensely discouraging if it were not for one absolutely vital fact. We know that human nature can change. We have seen it happen, in ourselves and in others. We can look back on our own lives and see that we have learned greater sensitivity and understanding. We can read stories of people who have awakened to new senses of responsibility and mission. Perhaps we can even suspect that this would happen more often if we paid more attention to it, if we valued such growth more highly, if we were more concerned to lay up for ourselves treasures in heaven.
Our Lord¡¯s kind of idealism is severely practical. He is urging us to look deeply and honestly at what really works, at what really increases our sense of peace and wholeness. The Gospels are not just pretty stories about how everything will be nice of we are nice. They are strong stuff, designed to shatter some of our cherished illusions--illusions about how happy we would be if only we had this or that, illusions about how much better we are going to be tomorrow, illusions about how our problems are really someone else¡¯s fault. They press us to face reality--the spiritual reality that is so real that it lasts forever.