Jehoiachin did evil in the sight of the Lord, just as his forebears had done. At that time the officials of Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, attacked Jerusalem, and the city came under siege.
2 Kings 24: 9-10
“Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it has been set solidly on rock. And everyone who listens to these words of mine but does not act on them will be like a fool who built his house on sand. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. And it collapsed and was completely ruined.”
Sometimes as we consider the view of the relationship between God and Israel as portrayed in the Hebrew Scriptures, we think of its cause-effect relationship as a bit benighted. As today, for example, when we read of the failure of Johoiachin and the people to live in accord with the covenant as described in the Torah as leading to their destruction and exile at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar. We feel as if this wrathful or punishing God has no connection with the God who is revealed in Jesus.
Yet, Jesus tells us in the gospel of Matthew that there is a punishment that follows from not acting upon his words. This punishment is not due to God’s nature as wrathful and punishing, rather it is the effect of not living in accord with our true place in the world. The Hebrew Scriptures attest to the fact that societies and cultures are not primarily destroyed from the outside but from within. If the society is built “on rock,” on the true nature of things, then it will endure. The further it distances from the truth, from the reality of humanity’s place in creation, the more likely it will collapse.
We in the United States live in a very conflictual time. There is apparently little on which it is possible to find any level of consensus. Yet, last week, when it became apparent that as a matter of policy our government was seizing children and taking them away from there parents, there was an almost universal sense of abhorrence. Apparently over 70% of the population found this policy repugnant. One may marvel that there are 30% who did not, but, nonetheless, in this time such a shared view of anything is unusual.
From the spiritual perspective it is worth pondering this experience. It appears that, regardless of political views, there is a shared understanding that separating children from their parents is a line that cannot be crossed. The invitation here is to ask ourselves what are the other lines that we cannot cross and remain human, let alone faithful. Has a line been crossed when we allow our children to be denied adequate nourishment and education? Or when liberty comes to mean the freedom of the wealthy and powerful to continue through sham political processes the subjugation of the many? Or when the quality of access to the courts of justice is allowed to be determined by the wealth of the accused? Or when when limitations are placed on the right to vote of the poor and marginal? Or when those once subjugated by slavery continue to be subjugated by uneven application of the law and segregation in the structures of social life?
A much watched video appeared in recent days in which a woman is verbally assaulting a man who is doing landscaping work on her property. She tells him he is a criminal and a rapist because he is from Mexico. When he questions her, she tells him that “even the President says so.” Has a line been crossed when, for the sake of power, we accept such hateful and divisive speech from our leaders? When we allow our fellow citizens and our citizens to be influenced and formed by such politically sanctioned behavior?
Perhaps the stories of the inevitable fall of Israel when it forgets to follow the Law seem antiquated to us because we have ceased to see the connection between the “Word” and our actions, between God’s will (the call to live in reality) and our relational and political lives. One of the most frightening and hypocritical aspects of our age is the demand from the Christian churches to have their rights respected, when far too often they live out a disparaging of differences in society, religion, and even within their own denominations. We have “fortnights for freedom,” but fearfully this is an assertion of our own freedom, apparently too willingly at the cost of that of others.
I always find today’s passage from Matthew a very personally challenging one. As a consecrated religious, I spend a fair amount of time reading and listening to the words of Jesus. Yet, I know, in truth, that far too little do I act on them. The form of life we call religious life is a focal attempt to spiritualize, in the best sense of the term, every daily activity. It is established to attempt to serve a wholehearted and undistracted attention to the word that manifests in every personal word and deed. It is further an attempt to create communities and societies that live on the bread of that word.
Yet, I know how more often than not my words and actions are not in alignment with the words of Jesus, which is to say with the most profound truth of things. To be truly poor, chaste, and obedient is to live in right relationship to things, persons, and creation. It is to do what the moment calls for to be done, and only that. It is, as Jesus teaches, to be a servant to the call of the moment, the situation, and the person before us. It is to be a living reminder of the reality of the call to be human, because it is to be attuned to the source of that humanity.
God is not angry or wrathful. Yet, when we choose, despite hearing the word not to follow it, we are setting out on a path of our own destruction. The psychoanalyst Karen Horney wrote that human neurosis springs from our “search for glory.” Self-aggrandizement is the neurotic solution; health lies in what St. Thomas Aquinas terms “the willing consent to one’s own being.” “For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38). When we live out the search for glory, in both greater and lesser ways, we are living for ourselves. This is the very way we lose our lives, individually, and collectively.
Jesus reminds us today that his words are “actionable.” We are not to just read them or speak about them but do them. Yet, however appealing I find them, it is really difficult to do them. When this does happen, however, even to a limited degree, I know that this is life; this is what it means to be given a human life; this is the only way to love, and peace, and joy. When I seek those on my own terms, I am destroying my life, and that of others. Karen Horney also wrote that “Concern should drive us into action, not into a depression.” It is, in fact, when we fail to act that we are prone to become depressed.
When one lives the religious life form, many ask that we pray for them. Of course, I always respond that I will, and yet far too often I forget or fail to do so. It is humbling to realize that even an act that has so little personal cost is one I far too often fail to carry through. It is a telling experience of the conflict inherent in hearing and doing the word. When I forget my promise, I am putting my time and my life over the call and word of God. As I do this in “lesser” matters, so too in “greater’ ones. We proclaim to love our neighbor, and then we hate them through prejudice and slander. We commit to welcome the orphan and the stranger, and then we arrest and alienate them. We declare that we love God above all, and then we act in preference for our own wealth and comfort.
Jesus calls us to change our lives where they are built on sand and begin again to build them on the rock that is himself and his word. At least once today, I hope that I may act in the moment where I would rather not. That my life may be built on the rock of the truth of things rather than on the sand of my own illusions.
One could not more clearly express the fact that the monastic ideal is that of a total mobilization of existence through time. While the ecclesiastical liturgy divides the celebration of the Divine Office from labor and rest, the monastic rule, as is evident in the passage cited from Cassian’s Institutions, considers the work of the hands as an indiscernible part of the opus Dei. Already Basil interprets the phrase of the apostle (“whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God”; 1 Cor. 10:31) as implying a spiritualization of the monk’s every activity. Not only is the whole life of the monk in this way presented as the execution of a “divine work,” but Basil takes care to multiply examples drawn from manual labor: like the blacksmith, while he is hammering the metal, has in mind the will of the customer, so the monk carries out “his every action, great or small” (pasan energeian kai mikran kai meizona) with care, because he is conscious in every instant of doing the will of God.
Giorgio Agamben, The Highest Poverty: Monastic Rules and Form-of-Life, p. 23