A scribe approached and said to him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus answered him, “Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” Another of his disciples said to him, “Lord, let me go first and bury my father.” But Jesus answered him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead.”Matthew 8: 19-22
As I read this morning’s passage from Matthew 8, I, at first, thought I had read the scripture for yesterday by mistake. But I then realized that we had read yesterday Luke’s version of the same teaching that we hear today in Matthew. The words of Jesus recorded in both gospels are almost exactly the same. The repetition of the teaching seems to emphasize to me the importance of its message at this time for me, and it is among the messages of the gospel that I have most strongly resisted in my life.
Some years ago I worked with a woman who earlier in her life had been homeless. Having been rejected in large part by her family, she found herself in poor health and so unable to work sufficiently to pay for life’s essentials: food, rent, utilities, healthcare, etc. So for a few years she lived on the street and in shelters. Even years later, now with the help of disability payments at least safely housed and fed, she lived with the deep and abiding fear of being thrust once again into homelessness. Certainly deliberately opting for that kind of uncertainty could not have been Jesus’ intention. As I think about this person, however, I also recall an even deeper fear of hers. From the time she was a child, she had consistently received the message from her family that her sense of reality was distorted and that she had to adopt to theirs. Thus, in later life she became a bit of a “fighter” if she were to maintain and assert what she termed “my own truth.”
This truly was a struggle for her, as she had been so indoctrinated in her earliest life formation to mistrust herself that she never felt “at home” with her own experiences and responses. As she would engage others, especially members of her family or church later in her life, she would have to struggle intensely not to “bail out,” as she termed it, from her own reality. So, her great fear of being homeless was, of course, of being literally cast out on the street without life’s necessities, but it was also to live in the world dissociated from her own unique life call and direction.
As a young child, I experienced, in a way that outside circumstances didn’t really seem to warrant, a sense of difference in myself and my family. Back in the 1950’s when family life had a very typical structure of father working and mother at home caring for several children, my experience met none of the criteria. My mother worked, I stayed with relatives where I never felt as if I was at home, and my father was often out of work. As a result, I found myself in a constant search for a sense of “home” that would provide the sense of security that, in my inner fearfulness and chaos, I lacked.
In light of our needs for security and acceptance of others, Jesus’ words seem not just difficult but harsh. To the person who says he will follow him wherever he goes, Jesus tells him that to do so will mean he will have no place to permanently lay his head. Jesus is not “homeless” in our sense, but that is primarily because he lives in a culture that sees hospitality as a primary value. One could be itinerant and yet, most of the time, be offered a place to rest one’s head. There is much in the gospels that is a call to the absolute. To hear and appreciate the call of Jesus and to attempt to be his disciple is to prioritize in our lives fidelity to our call over our very real and insistent need for security.
We live in a tension, hopefully a creative one most of the time, between growth and security. This manifests uniquely in each of us, depending on our temperament and on the key formation situations of our early lives. So, given my very early sense of insecurity, I have often struggled in life not to “domesticate” my life and call too much, not to seek security in external structures and acceptable conformity. Almost every day, in small and larger ways, I need to enter into the pulls of security and acceptability on the one hand and authenticity and integrity on the other. Although each of us experiences this tension uniquely, we all wrestle with it in one form or another.
So, when Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their dead,” he is forcefully reminding us of what is to have primacy in life. We have to remember that the disciple is asking Jesus to bury his father. At the heart of the decalogue, the point on which all our duties to God turn, lies the commandment to honor our father and mother. And yet, Jesus contests that even that duty should not come first. If one sets one’s hand to the plow, he or she is not to turn back. Once we have heard and received the call, its summons must be first and foremost for us.
So, what does this, in fact, mean on a day to day basis. How do we constructively and formatively live the tension between our human need for companionship and security and our call to be, first of all, a disciple of Jesus? In his initial plan for the Congregation he hoped to establish, Theodore James Ryken wrote of how he longed to see the “mission impulse” of St. Francis Xavier in his brothers:
The name of this insatiable laborer for souls will indicate, with one word, what is intended with the Congregation. According to his example one will not listen to this voice: “You can also do good here in this country.” Rather they would listen to this one: “Go throughout the world and teach all peoples.”
Ryken knew that throughout their entire history his brothers would hear contending voices: that which justified staying put where they had become accepted, successful, and comfortable, and that which would summon them out to the world, to places that were “foreign” to them and that thus would feel a bit threatening.
It is not only “missionaries” who hear the contending voices. We all do. Adrian van Kaam reminds us that we are formed through an ongoing process of differentiation and integration. We grow into the person God calls us to be when, as our current form of life breaks down and differentiates, we incorporate the differences this calls for in us into a new current integrated form of life. What this means is that we do not really ever possess a “true self” that we are able to preserve. We are always on the way, living in fidelity to that call deep within that will always require change and re-integration of us.
As I reflected this morning, my mind turned to the upcoming General Chapter, an international meeting of our congregation at which we are called to evaluate our fidelity to our congregational patrimony and to attempt to discern what God, through the needs of the world, is asking of that gift today. It is, in short, the place where we are asked to see how the realities of life and world have differentiated our congregation’s life form and how we are being called to a reintegration that will give it new and more vibrant form. This morning my attention was drawn to the daily periods of what our facilitator calls “silence with God.” And, for a moment, I felt an experience of dread.
To be silent and solitary before God always contains, at least for me, an element of dread. For if I am truly silent and alive to this simple and solitary presence before God, my personal authenticity is judged. If the silence is deep enough, it is a moment of detachment from my own projects, plans, ideas, thoughts, and even feelings, such as Jesus calls us to in today’s gospel. At the point of silence and solitude there is only the encounter with Jesus who is calling me and us to follow him. It is a moment of no excuses. And so, the dread lies in the truth of my ever present inner conflict. Something or other, some desire, need, ambition, fear is always contesting with the call. While I like to think that “the problem” is that I can’t hear the call, the greater problem is when I do hear it. Then, I am very much the scribe and the disciple of today’s passage. I want to follow, to be a disciple, but there is always something else that I’ve put first.
And so it is with groups as well. Religious groups develop all kinds of theological and pious articulations as self-justifications. Far too often we are more concerned with the works of the dead than the wholehearted following of the call. If we really enter into those periods of “silence with God” it will take great courage born of faith to follow what we hear. God, of course, is always gentle with us. So, if we lack the courage, we well may, as the Rich Young Man of the gospel, go away sad.
It is yet again a political season in the United States. A contemporary aspect of every political event is what is called “the spin room.” Here, after the speech, debate, primary election, etc., the staff of each candidate spins the results in such a way as to aggrandize the particular candidate. Most of us voters are very tired of the amount of spin we get day after day in politics. Yet, as I hear the gospel today, I am well aware of how much I spin my choices to myself and to others. I rationalize and justify and contort the call and the word in such a way as to try to convince myself and others of my fidelity. As individuals, so groups. The Rich Young Man is certainly not lost. He is authentic enough to be sad about his choice. Far too often, I refuse awareness of the sadness when I choose less than the life to which Jesus calls me.
The demands of Jesus in today’s gospel are certainly radical and even extreme. We shall often be unable to respond wholeheartedly to them. If we can be honest, however, and not spin our compromises into virtues, we can remain open, even in some pain, to the call to follow Jesus unreservedly.
Every time we enter into solitude we withdraw from our windy, tornadolike, fiery lives and we open ourselves for the great encounter, the meeting with Love. But first in our solitude is the discovery of our own restlessness, our drivenness, our compulsiveness, our urge to act quickly, to make an impact, and to have influence. We really have to try very hard to withstand the gnawing urge to return as quickly as possible to the work of “relevance.” But when we persevere with the help of a gentle discipline, we slowly come to hear the still, small voice and to feel the delicate breeze, and so come to know the presence of Love. This love goes straight to the heart, making us see the truth of who we really are. We are God’s beloved children.Henri J. M. Nouwen, Clowning in Rome, pp. 27-8
Right here we are connected to the greatest gift of solitude. It is the gift of a true self, a true identity. Solitude leads us to a new intimacy with each other and makes us see our common task precisely because in solitude we come to know our true nature, our true self, our true identity. That knowledge of who we really are allows us to live and work with each other in community. As long as our life and our work together are based on a false or distorted self-understanding, we are bound to become entangled in personal conflicts and lose perspective on our common task.