Whenever a strong man is fully armed and guards his palace, his possessions are secure. But when a stronger than him breaks in and wins victory, he strips off the armor on which the man had relied, and distributes his spoils. The person who is not with me is against me. The one who does not join me scatters.
Luke 11: 21-23
In his commentary on this passage from Luke, Luke Timothy Johnson writes: “The strong man had ‘relied’ on his possessions, but they needed his protection to be safe! The illusion is revealed when he is stripped and his things distributed” (The Gospel of Luke, p. 183). Jesus is speaking in this section of Luke’s gospel about a great battle that we are living. It is a battle between God and the devil, between the good and the evil spirits. Jesus challenges us, his listeners, to make a choice. It is not adequate to “hedge our bets,” to decide by not deciding. It is not enough to be a good enough or nice enough person, to compromise with the promptings of the complacent, the selfish, and the comfortable in us. “The person who is not with me is against me. The one who does not join me scatters.” (Luke 11: 23) Luke’s unique description of the role of possessions in this struggle speaks strikingly to where we, in these years where the “gospel of wealth” is imploding, find ourselves.
This morning we awoke here in the United States to the news that the President had signed an executive order which will eliminate the government’s subsidies for health care to the poorest citizens of this country. This follows his pronouncement that while there is all the money that is needed for the citizens of Texas and Florida, there are severe limits to the funds available for the U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico. When he meets today with so-called “Christian leaders,” it is quite unlikely that they will confront him with the horror and callousness of these actions, in large part because the directives of our capitalist tradition have overwhelmed those of our scriptural tradition.
There has long been a strain of embourgeoisement in American Christianity. Success has often been conflated with virtue and piety. The result is that the highest value is not, as in the scriptures, how we tend to the most vulnerable and suffering among us, but rather how we build ourselves up in moral virtue and possessions. It is what we make of ourselves that truly matters.
In today’s gospel we see “a strong man” who relies on his possessions for security, but who discovers that they are always vulnerable to one who is stronger. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus speaks a truth that is the exact counter to the illusions of that strong man.
“When you strip naked without being ashamed, and take up your clothes and put them under your feet like little children, and tread on them. Then you will see the Child of the Living One and you will not be afraid.”
It is typical of us human beings that we convert our “metaphysical terrors” into physical ones. Our fear of death is covered over by our fear of being without enough. We believe that once we accumulate and possess more than enough for ourselves, we shall be safe from those forces that will “strip off the armor on which . . . [we] had relied.” This is why the Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas tells us that we shall not be afraid anymore when we are able to “strip naked without being ashamed” and can “tread on” our possessions.
We are familiar with the story of the conversion of St. Francis of Assisi who strips naked in the town square and hands his clothes back to his father. As Francis was wont to do, he took the words of the gospels literally and knew the necessity to struggle without ceasing if we are to develop in ourselves the spirit of gospel poverty.
To try to take in this call of the gospel is to realize the truth of Jesus’ description of our life as a battle, as a struggle with our illusions about security and how to attain it, on the one hand, and the truth that it is only by not merely flirting with but choosing with all our being the call to be “with Jesus,” on the other, that we can ever really “not be afraid.” In the Gospel of Mark we are told the story of the rich young man. Jesus looks at him with love and tells him that there is but one thing more he is to do: to sell all he has, to give it to the poor, and to come follow Jesus. Mark then tells us: “At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth” (Mark 10:22).
I am both the rich young man as well as the man in today’s gospel who relies on his possessions for security. So strong is the hold of comfort, complacence, and selfishness on me that the direct teaching of Jesus seems overwhelming. As presented in the gospels, the encounter with Jesus is always a moment that calls for a direct choice, for action that determines life direction. The disciples “lay down their nets” when Jesus calls. Although even for them, the struggle to trust in God alone continues throughout life. On the night before Jesus’ death, Peter’s insecurity leads him to deny that he knows Jesus.
For myself, although because of my vow of poverty I do not really possess anything, my life is as secure as one’s can be. I do not need to worry about housing, or food, or healthcare, or occasions of recreation and entertainment. I do not even need to worry about adequate remuneration for my work. Yet, all of these things, as well as the small comforts around me, have become impediments to my making the choice that Jesus demands in the gospel today. I want to have it all, to be a good enough person and do good, but to keep trusting, at some level, in those possessions that surround me. The Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas tells me that until I can strip myself naked of those possessions and tread on them, I will continue, at the deepest level, to be afraid.
Over ten years ago, a General Chapter of our Congregation asked every brother and every community to evaluate their lives in terms of the call to gospel poverty and simplicity. It is seldom that such a concrete and specific directive is given. Yet, most if not all of us failed (refused) to do this. Research into the life and death of religious communities and congregations has shown that the pillars of any successful renewal and refoundation are poverty and prayer. To really commit to the call of Jesus wholeheartedly requires both of these elements, two elements whose radical demands on our lives at every level make such a commitment so difficult.
To focus solely on the difficult aspect of the call to poverty, however, would be to miss the point. Jesus calls us to let go of everything that is less than him for the sake of true freedom and security. As long as we rely on things, on our possessions, to cover our fears, we shall always be under their control. It is fear that leads us to put down others and to try to keep them down. It is fear that asserts the superiority of our kind, or our views, of our successes, and of our social status. In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus says that when we are naked and not ashamed and when we tread on our possessions, we shall “see the Child of the Living One” and “not be afraid.” We shall see, finally, ourselves as we are, and as we are is as a child of the Living One. It is when stripped bare and naked, when we come before God and ourselves in all we have tried to hide, that we know the truth of the love of God for us. It is “perfect love that casts out fear.” We can never know that love, however, as long as our love is divided, as long as we try to dabble in the truth of the Gospel while holding on to the false security that we mistakenly trust that our own possessions give us.
Jesus said, “Do not worry, from morning to evening and from evening to morning, about your food, about what you’re going to eat, or about your clothing, what you are going to wear. You are far better than the lilies, which do not care nor spin. As for you when you have no clothes, what will you put on? Who might add to your status? That one will give you your clothes.”
His disciples said: “When will you appear to us, and when will we see you?” Jesus said: “When you strip naked without being ashamed, and take up your clothes and put them under your feet like little children, and tread on them. Then you will see the Child of the Living One and you will not be afraid.”
The Gospel of Thomas, 36-37