For you say, “I am rich, I have made my fortune. I have no need of anything,” not realizing that you are a pitiful wretch, poor, blind, and naked. I advise you to buy from me gold refined in the fire to make you rich, and white garments to put on to cover the shame of your nakedness, and ointment for your eyes so that you may see. All whom I love I reprove and chasten; so, be zealous, and repent!
Rev. 3: 17-19
The Community of Laodicea resided in a very wealthy commercial center. It was a center for banking, for the manufacture of clothing and carpets, and for a medical school famous for the prime ingredient in a highly desired eye salve. In an eerily contemporary sense, it was a highly successful economy based on finance, fashion, and pharmaceutical manufacture. At least at this moment in its history, its economy was so booming that its people had ceased to be in “need of anything.” Yet the author of Revelation points out that in this very surplus they are poor, naked, and blind, and that it is only by recognizing this and seeking and “buying” spiritual gold, garments and ointment that they can be healed. We can tend to romanticize the “early Church,” yet today we are reminded that they, as we, could lose the zeal for the Word and for the devoted living out of our universal communion in Christ that expresses our life in the Spirit.
The word translated “be zealous” in verse 19 is used only here in the entire New Testament. The Church of Laodicea has, in its success and affluence, lost the passion for life and care for others born of the love and fire of the Spirit. They seem to struggle, as do we in the developed and affluent world, with an acedia or spiritual sloth that is born of comfort and self-satisfaction. The great danger in affluence and comfort is that the spiritual and religious becomes yet another personal possession to be defended against the threat of “the others.”
Another manifestation of zeal and its lack is found in today’s gospel from Luke and in the story that precedes it. In the preceding passage to today’s story of Zaccheus, we hear of “the ruler” who asks Jesus what he must do “to inherit eternal life.” Jesus tells him to keep the commandments, which the ruler says he has done from his youth. Jesus then says tells him that there is “one thing that remains for you to do” and that is to give all that he has to the poor. “The ruler” however, wants the inheritance without sharing it; so, he becomes “extremely sorrowful.” This contrasts with Zaccheus who, as a tax collector, is an outcast. He is far from upright, like “the ruler,” and yet he seeks the Lord mindless of social embarrassment and commits himself to give half of what he has to the poor. He does not give everything, but he manifests a generosity and zeal of heart in his recognition that salvation is always to be shared. As Pope Francis consistently admonishes us, when we lose zeal, born of love, our religious sensibility becomes self-centered and moralistic. We mistakenly believe in a form of capitalistic spirituality: we accrue for ourselves spiritual benefits by being good, and notably better than others. Our spiritual “success” comes at the cost of our perceived failure of others. This contrasts with Jesus’ response to the ruler of Luke’s story when he answers the address “Good teacher” with the response: “Why do you call me good? No one is good except one, God” (Luke 18: 18-19). It is not a matter of being good; it is a matter of giving away what one has.
At the point at which our focus is on our own comfort, material or spiritual, our hearts become lukewarm; we lose the love and passion that is the sign of true faith. Why is it important to us to keep others who are different and whom we consider socially and morally inferior at a distance? Why do we find the paying of taxes for the welfare of others an affront? Why must the gathering of the faithful be confined to those who are “right thinking”? What makes our security and comfort more important than concern and love for others? Theodore James Ryken would encourage his brothers by reminding them to “March on! God will provide.” His vision was to forget ourselves and do whatever we can to be of service, and God will take care of us. In what small way, given our own actual circumstances and limits, are we being asked to zealously “march on” today?
This generosity gives rise to a supernatural zeal and devotion to every kind of virtuous and proper behavior. Only a person overflowing with generosity can experience this zeal, which is an insistent impulse from within toward the practice of virtue and conformity with Christ and his saints. Through such zeal a person desires to dedicate his heart and senses, his soul and body, and all that he is or has or might obtain to the honor and praise of God. Such zeal makes a person vigilant in both reasoning and discretion and leads him to practice virtue with both body and soul as righteousness requires. By means of this supernatural zeal all the powers of the soul are laid open to God and made ready for the performance of every virtue. A person’s conscience is filled with joy, and God’s grace is increased. The virtues are practiced with gladness and joy, and the exterior works a person performs receive a certain graceful embellishment. Whoever has received this living zeal from God has had the fifth capital sin driven away from him, namely, spiritual sloth and a feeling of repugnance toward the practice of the virtues that are necessary for salvation. This living zeal also at times drives away bodily sluggishness and sloth. Of the zealous Christ says, “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Mt 5:6), namely, when God’s glory is revealed and fills each person according to the measure of his love and righteousness.
Jan van Ruusbroec, The Spiritual Espousals, I, iii, A