Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Type A Christian: A Sunday Rumination

     Now a man came up to him and said, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to gain eternal life?” He said to him, “Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. But if you want to enter into life, keep the commandments.” “Which ones?” he asked. Jesus replied, “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false witness, honor your father and mother and love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “I have kept all these things. What do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go sell your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” But when the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he was very rich. [Matthew 19:16-22]

     I’ve often cited the first four of the verses above without continuing on to the ones that follow. Every now and then someone will ask why I haven’t “completed the lesson,” for surely the end provides the meaning to the beginning.

     At which I smile, shake my head, and say, “Another Type A heard from.”

     The above citation from Matthew, describing Jesus’s encounter with the “rich young man,” is narrated slightly differently in Mark (10:17-22) and Luke (18:18-23). Unfortunately, it’s been used by many a cleric with an agenda of his own as an exhortation to eschew all worldly wealth and desire for it. But an attentive reading, properly set in the context of first-Century Judea, puts the lie to such interpretations.

     Note that after citing the Decalogue Commandments Four through Eight plus the Second Great Commandment, Jesus came to a full stop. But the “rich young man,” referred to in Luke as “a certain ruler,” pressed the Savior for more: “I have kept all these things. What do I still lack?”

     Reflect on who it is, in that passage, that testifies that the “rich young man” is still lacking.

     Clearly, had the “rich young man” thanked the Savior and departed without that final query, the strictures Jesus had already given him would have been all the counsel he received. It was he who felt that more would be required of him. If Luke’s description of him as “a certain ruler” is taken at face value, his wealth was probably ill-gotten: derived from his political status rather than from honest and productive effort. In first-Century Judea, the majority of men regarded as wealthy had gained their wealth in such a fashion, if not by means even more foul, which contextualizes what Jesus went on to say after the “rich young man” departed:

     Then Jesus said to his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it will be hard for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I say, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter into the kingdom of God.” [Matthew 19:23-24]

     For in that time and place it was rare to encounter a wealthy man who was not obsessed with material things – a man whose principal pride was his ability to afford to sacrifice a bull at the Temple, when others had to make do with a dove bought for a few pennies from the sellers in the vestibule.

     Among the greatest of God’s gifts is that of the individual conscience: that property of our souls that informs us when we’re verging upon a trespass of God’s laws. For far too many centuries the Church ignored the conscience in favor of ever more luxuriant proclamations of this and that – things never mentioned in the Decalogue or the Gospels – as sins. Virtually every form of recreation we enjoy today has at one time or another been denounced as a sin. Typically, the more we enjoy it, the more stridently some cleric condemned it. The dynamic drove a wedge of increasing width ever deeper between the hierarchical Church and lay Catholics.

     Today things are different. The Church has recognized that each man’s conscience is his proper guide, provided only that he is taught that there are some things – specifically, those proscribed by the Decalogue Commandments – that are absolutely wrong and cannot be tolerated no matter what anyone might say. As G. K. Chesterton wisely told us:

     The truth is, of course, that the curtness of the Commandments is an evidence, not of the gloom and narrowness of a religion, but, on the contrary, of its liberality and humanity. It is shorter to state the things forbidden than the things permitted; precisely because most things are permitted, and only a few things are forbidden.

     That having been said, if one’s conscience is one’s proper guide, what of those times when it demands of him more than simple adherence to the Commandments mentioned above? Is it to be heeded?

     Which is where we turn to the subject of the Type A Christian.

     The “Type A personality” is shorthand for the relentlessly driven sort: he who cannot relax, who is seldom if ever satisfied, and who keeps on plugging despite whatever accomplishments and successes he’s already attained. Such a man is a difficult case for Christianity. He’s unlikely to look at Jesus’s encounter with the “rich young man” the way I do here. He’s far more likely to say “Well, of course more is required of us! Just adhering to those Commandments is much too simple.” From that will arise a tension that pits his striver’s nature against his desire to enjoy the satisfactions of temporal life. In effect, he’ll infer that he cannot be in God’s good graces without embracing poverty, from which he’s likely to recoil.

     But some Christians are notified by their consciences that merely adhering to the Commandments is not enough, that “More is required of you.” And perhaps it is indeed so...for them.

     Such messages should be taken seriously, for what God asks of us is not uniform. He wants us to use our individual gifts, which are obviously not universally shared, for the fulfillment of the Second Great Commandment: that we love our neighbor as ourselves.

     Who is my neighbor – that is, who is near to me? What does it mean to love him as I love myself? Jesus told us:

     “In everything, treat others as you would want them to treat you, for this fulfills the law and the prophets.” [Matthew 7:12]

     Your service to your neighbors should be proportioned to your gifts. If you can do little for others, little will be asked of you; if you can do much, much will be asked...when the occasion demands it. For our scope to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” is constrained by the respect we must show for those others’ individual needs, abilities, rightful liberty, and consciences.

     Whatever the actual status and abilities of the “rich young man,” he clearly felt that more than observance of the Commandments was required of him. Christ decided to put him to the severest imaginable test, and he fell short out of his attachment to his wealth. Perhaps the encounter with the Redeemer awakened his conscience, which guided him properly thenceforward; we cannot know. But the deep lesson is plain, if not obvious.

     Listen to your conscience. The Commandments are a foundation, not the entire edifice of a Christian life. The messages your conscience provides are the bricks and mortar for the rest.

     May God bless and keep you all.

1 comment:

doubletrouble said...

This one always scrambles me, but your essay was better than the sermon I got.