As you go, proclaim this message: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, drive out demons. Freely you have received; freely give.
The words of Jesus in today’s gospel are quoted in the Fundamental Principles:
you will realize
that the cost of your discipleship
is your very life,
freely consecrated to God
in poverty, celibacy, and obedience,
and offered to the world
as a sign of His love and care.
The gift you have received
give as a gift.
Last night I received from a very dear friend of many years the last of the day’s birthday greetings. He wrote in part:
Thoughts of you always evoke my favorite quote from Marian Wright Edelman: “The only thing that lasts is what is shared with others.” I’ve had the gift of your friendship most of my adult life; how’s that for a lasting legacy of kindness, thoughtfulness, and generosity?
I had just spent some truly blessed and joyful hours with friends whose “kindness, thoughtfulness, and generosity” enrich my life beyond measure, and so I was in a very open-hearted and maybe vulnerable position to receive these words. For me, these words make the words of Jesus in today’s gospel alive and urgently meaningful for the life of each of us.
Now, at the age of 72, thoughts about “legacy” often intrude into my consciousness. As a celibate without progeny, in the physical sense, what will I have left behind? And the answer I hear today from Jesus and from my friend is what will remain is whatever I have given away of what I have been given.
Today’s reading from Hosea reminds us of the depth of God’s love for Israel and for us. Through Hosea the Lord says: “When Israel was a child I loved him, / out of Egypt I called my son.” (Hosea 11:1) In God’s sight, we are God’s children. God has called us “out” to be, to have life, in love. When Jesus says that “the kingdom of heaven has come near,” he is speaking of our awakening to the truth of our nature as God’s children. As he instructs his disciples, we see that the awakening to the eternal life of the kingdom of heaven is a call to go out and share it. As the Fundamental Principles put it, as we awaken we come to “realize that the cost of discipleship is our very life, offered to the world as a sign of God’s love and care.” This sign is not our signifying an idea we have, it is rather our sharing an experience: the experience of our very life as a gift of a loving God.
In his email, my friend quotes Marian Wright Edelman to the effect that what lasts is what is shared with others. In Jesus’ understanding and in gospel terms, this is “eternal life.” When my friends asked to spend the evening of my birthday with me, they were giving me the greatest of gifts that we have to give. They were sharing their “very lives” as the Fundamental Principles would put it.
Of late, so many of us have struggled with a certain feeling of impotence and hopelessness about the state of society and the world. The problems are so large, and we are so small. What can one person do in the face of such an apparently hopeless situation? Perhaps my first reaction to this is to grow frustrated and angry. That stance, however, for all its sound and fury is essentially constrictive. As I gear up for battle, I protectively close down my heart. Jesus’ call in the gospel today, however, is very different. He says we are to go out and proclaim that the kingdom of God is at hand.
It’s now well over two thousand years later, and to all appearances the “kingdom” hasn’t come much closer. So, what does Jesus mean that it is “at hand.” In Jesus himself the kingdom has drawn near to us. It is not evident because we remain distant from it. If we are to experience it, and so become a proclamation of it to others, we must ourselves dare to draw near to it.
So, we must ask ourselves, where are we keeping our distance from that to which we are being called to draw near? To ask ourselves this potentially dynamic question is to begin to understand the inherent connection between receiving and giving the gift. It is often said that we can’t give what we don’t have. Yet, not as obviously but nonetheless as true, we cannot have what we do not give. So, perhaps we truly begin to know the nearness of the kingdom when we dare to give ourselves to ourselves, when we risk drawing near to our own inner truth. Jesus says we have freely been given our lives, so we are freely to give them away. Much of the human project, however, is devoted to our refusing the gift we have been given. Even much of our “giving” to others is often not the giving of the gift we have received but an attempt to create the alternative self that we wish we were.
Our inability to draw near to ourselves results in our living a life of what we call, in psychological terms, “dissociation.” As Augustine writes: “God was within and we were outside.” Augustine speaks of seeking God outside of himself, that is to find himself as valuable in light of the values of the world. This “refusal of our spiritual awareness,” says Adrian van Kaam, “is the primordial act of violence” and thus the source of all other violence in the world.
Sometimes we mistakenly fear that such “drawing near” and embracing our life as the gift it is to us will lead us to self-absorption and turn us away from our responsibility to and for the world. This, however, comes from the basic misunderstanding of our lives that comes out of our pride form. We get self-absorbed when we experience and understand our lives as our own rather than as a gift. To draw near to our lives in their truth is to know them as a gift. As I so recognized last evening, to realize our life as gift evokes not pride or self-absorption but gratitude, a gratitude that must go out and proclaim the good news that the kingdom is very near.
The email I received last evening spoke of a “lasting legacy” that I can only hope is true. Although he wouldn’t be inclined to put his understanding in such theological terms, my friend is speaking of our sharing together the proximity of the kingdom of heaven, a proximity we experience in kindness, thoughtfulness, and generosity. These are traits he attributes to me, but they are even more true of him. In both cases, however, as in all cases, they are really attributes of the God who gifts us each as a unique image of Divine life.
The call to be a disciple and to serve our broken world is a call not to constrict in anger, fear, and dissociation but to “go out” and to proclaim, not our own virtue but the gift of God. The disposition that is required of us before we can do so, however, is a pervasive and active gratitude. When we are so grateful to God for the gift of our lives, we cannot help but desire to recognize that God has consecrated them to be offered to the world, each in our own way. For most of my younger life, I was so busy depreciating the person that I was that I could never have imagined offering it to another and to others as a gift. I would try to do plenty for others, but I always withheld much of myself. What I am slowly coming to learn is that the greatest joy comes from giving myself away to others, not despite my sense of unworthiness to do so but actually because of it. When I stop worrying about how impoverished I am and how little I have to give, I then offer that gift simply and directly and realize in doing so that the kingdom has drawn near. What robs us of joy in life is our lack of gratitude for it. It is the refusal of our spiritual awareness, the awareness that “all we have and are come from God” as a gift to us and for the world.
Francis strove to hide the good things of the Lord in the secrecy of his heart, not wanting to display for his own glory what could be the cause of ruin. Often, when many were calling him blessed, he would reply with these words: “Do not praise me as if I were safe; I can still have sons and daughters! No one should be praised as long as his end is uncertain. Whenever something is on loan and the lender wants it back, all that is left is body and soul—and even non-believers have that much!” This he would say to those who praised him. But he would say to himself, “If the Most High had given so much to a thief, he would be more grateful than you, Francis!”
Thomas of Celano, The Remembrance of the Desire of the Soul, II, 333f