“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites.  You lock the Kingdom of heaven before people.  You do not enter yourselves, nor do you allow entrance to those trying to enter.”

Matthew 23: 13-14

From our perspective, the seeming malevolence of the scribes and Pharisees, at least as presented in the gospels, is more than slightly inscrutable. Even as we begin to read today’s gospel we might ask: “Why would anyone want to lock the Kingdom of heaven before people, not enter themselves and not allow entrance to others?” Here is Jesus, offering to people the key to their own lives and destiny and the promise of greater life, joy, love, and peace. What problem could anyone possibly have with that?

There is, however, a rather hopeless naiveté in the question. For, we ourselves are often choosing to deny the offer of new and fuller life. And, like the scribes and Pharisees, when we do so we also do what we can to inhibit others from entering into the Kingdom of heaven. So, it is important for us to ask, why do we refuse to enter the Kingdom when it is offered, and then why do we try to block the entrance for others?

To begin to understand ourselves in this regard, we need to courageously look at our understanding and acceptance of our own sense of responsibility. As I observe new parents caring for their infant child, it is clear how seriously they take their responsibility for this vulnerable and helpless infant. From the moment of the child’s birth, every other aspect of their life has taken second place to their watchfulness and care in protecting and fostering their child’s life and development. There is nothing more important to them than seeing to the safety and the nourishing of their daughter’s life.  

Other than truly aberrant persons, almost all of us can understand and identify with this stance. For her part, the child, not consciously of course, recruits this attention and evokes this responsibility from the adults around her. The attraction and “cuteness” of her vulnerability draws out of her parents and loving others an almost absolute devotion, in tenderness and care, to her well-being. Her delight is her parents’ delight, and her discomfort is discomforting for them.  

Adults in this situation are well aware that their child’s very survival is dependent on their sense of responsibility for her life. As infants, we are incapable of being responsible for our own survival and flourishing, but others must be. Even beyond mere survival, the future potential of this child’s human flourishing is dependent on the capacity of her parents and others for responsibility in her regard. Very early on in life conditions for her future development are already being established.

Once we become responsible adults, however, there is no one else but ourselves to take up this burden of responsibility for our lives. There will always be the infantile residue in us that longs for another to be responsible for our lives. When we succumb to this, however, we have lost our grasp on reality and have attempted to return, if not to the womb, at least to infancy. This, of course, is the critique of Sigmund Freud and others of religion. As Freud sees it, we create a great parent figure who will shield us from the ordinary unhappiness of life and will spare us the burden of self-responsibility. Nietzsche offers a similar critique in that Christianity especially turn us into slaves who are but dependent on an often brutal and sadistic master. Both thinkers see religion as essentially a denial of our own responsibility.

The responsibility we have to and for our own life formation is difficult for us to accept and to willingly incarnate. The truth is that our lives are always in formation, that they are always changing, and that, as Adrian van Kaam describes it, we are being called at every moment of life to tentatively and gradually incarnate “in all dimensions of our lives the unique image of Christ we are called to realize.” To be a believer is to see our life and the life of the world in this way. Thus, our choices have profound consequences for which we alone are responsible. Because we are human, we shall at times make a choice that more fully incarnates the unique image of Christ that we are in our life and world, and, at other times, we shall make false choices. Thus, van Kaam says the form we give is always tentative and gradual. When the reality of our formation field makes evident the falseness in the form we have chosen, we are called to change that form.  

The reality of our own fallibility and the partialness of any forms that we give are what make responsibility so difficult for us. Van Kaam says we are formed “by trial and error.” So, to really be a human being is to be responsible for the right and the wrong choices we make.  It is to have a form of life that is characterized by humility. As a beginning teacher, I found myself fearful and threatened when a student would ask a question whose answer was unknown to me. Because my sense of authority was always in doubt for me, I thought that if they perceived me as ignorant, my students would not respect my authority. I could not understand that one can author one’s own life as a fallible human being and so responsibly own one’s own limitations and failures as well as strengths and successes.

The scribes and Pharisees, as “teachers of the Law” think, as I did at 24 years old, that to be a teacher one must be infallible. A story is told of Pope John XXIII, that one day someone asked his opinion about something. He gave it and then added, “But I’m not infallible.” It well may be that one of our greatest obstacles to incarnating “the unique form of Christ we are called to realize” is our refusal to accept responsibility for our own mistakes. We do this because, as the Pharisees, we fear that to do so will require change that threatens us. In Matthew’s Gospel (Mt. 5: 17), Jesus makes clear that he has come “not to abolish the law but to fulfill it.” In him the time has come for the tradition to be fulfilled by taking on a new form, one closer to the unique image that God has always had “in mind” for it. So, to enter the Kingdom of heaven, in Jesus’ terms, would require of the scribes and Pharisees that they have the courage (the faith) to recognize their self-imposed limits and where they are failing their deeper call and to willingly give new form to their lives. But they are unable to do this.

If we’re honest, we have no difficulty understanding their refusal. One of the reasons that it is the poor and sinful who enter the Kingdom first is that they cannot but recognize their need. They are not as apt to “hang on,” as the Rich Young Man does to his possessions, because they have nothing to hang on to. The Pharisees are at the top of the pecking order, so why would they want to change it? They mistake their prestige and power for the Kingdom, and so sadly and mistakenly think that this is all there is. Perhaps Nietzsche is right and power is our ultimate goal. For, in the Kingdom the love is a common love and no one will be more highly esteemed than anyone else.

We reify our life and experience because we no longer want to face our responsibility for the continuing formation of our life and world. We fear that to acknowledge our mistakes will be the end of us and that to acknowledge the betrayals of our call will humiliate us. And, as the Pharisees, our whole identity depends on being superior. To keep that illusory world in balance, we also must resist change. This is why the scribes and Pharisees not only refuse to enter the Kingdom themselves but also attempt to deny entrance to anyone else who is trying to enter.

To preserve our inauthentic pride form takes a lot of effort. We see this in the resistance and the anger that Jesus’ presence evokes in them. For others to follow Jesus, to enter the Kingdom, is similarly a threat to them. Every person who chooses other than they do is a potential challenge to the truth of their choice. Since their choice is not really made in full responsibility, for that requires the humility to recognize that all true human choice is fallible and tentative, they are not free to stand by it in the face of others who contradict their choice. Others must remain subservient to them. They must do all they can to discredit those who would choose differently and thus to attempt to deny their entrance into a fuller and more consonant life.

Responsibility is the ability to respond to the deepest call of reality. Our lack of responsibility very often takes the form of denial of reality. Our human capacity for denying reality seems almost limitless. At the time of the Second World War, there were those who lived in the vicinity of the concentration camps and denied to themselves what was happening there. In our day, the life and future of our planet is threatened, but we go about our lives as if this were not the case. In the United States 40% of our food goes to waste, while much of the rest of the planet starves. In the Catholic Church there is an epidemic of abuse of various kinds at many levels, and yet we refuse to even consider the problems with those basic structural flaws that foster it. In our own communal and familial lives, there is almost always a level of painful alienation and disconnection which we refuse to admit, let alone correct. In our personal lives, we are always at some remove from the consonance for which we are made and to which we are called. Yet we often struggle to maintain what we have.

Jesus entered the world of the scribes and Pharisees as a “reality check.” In his very being, he cast light upon the pride and inauthenticity that their current form of life had assumed, not by judging them but by being, in his person, the possibility of their own lives. They, often like us, were unwilling or unable to respond to the reality before them. Like the Rich Young Man, they could not abandon the many possessions they had, primarily the power and the status in their small world. And not only did they refuse themselves entrance into what Jesus offered, they worked to keep others from entering that life.  

It is difficult to realize that we never totally get it, that, as van Kaam says, there is constantly a “parting of the ways of our life direction.” Change is inevitable and constant. This means that at every moment Jesus stands before us asking us to choose with the fullest sense of responsibility we can muster. This is not only difficult but threatening for us because we have no assurance of being right. Perhaps this, above all, is what is meant by living in faith. We give form to our lives and our world “by trial and error.” To choose responsibly means also to be ready to admit our mistake. So, there are no experts in the sphere of our own life formation. Fortunately, as Jesus promises, our God loves us and seeks us out every time we make a mistake.  But this puts us all on equal footing. Finally the scribes and Pharisees refuse to enter the Kingdom and do not want others to enter it because there they are not special and powerful. So too with us. We can enter into the reality of our formation into the unique image of Christ we are called to be or we continue our ultimately fruitless and despairing search for glory. The unique image of Christ we are called to realize is the vulnerable infant that we all carry within. It needs us to be responsible for it, to protect and to nurture it, and to courageously attempt to more fully incarnate it in all the dimensions of our life.

The crisis of our divine origins means that God prepares us for a parting of the ways of our life direction. The option lies between directions of our formation that are less and those that are more in tune with the divine form at the core of our being. Crisis implies stress and uncertainty. An originality crisis may make us tense and anxious. It means that God asks us to give up a life form we felt at home with and to let God form us into one that seems at least initially foreign to us. In fact God wants to bring our life more in harmony with our original calling 

. . . A crisis of transcendence gives rise to many dangers: first, the danger to become fixated out of fear on a no longer functioning level of life, or the reverse, the danger of overreaction against the former formation period, leading to a rejection of its graced gains for our formation; second, the danger to opt for a false form of life; third, the danger of past unsolved problems that reappear during the crisis; fourth, the danger either of defensive overactivity or of withdrawal to escape the divine invitation to detachment implied in the crisis.

Yet the originality crisis also means a graced opportunity to become truly what God wants us to be; to discover our original divine form of life; to let the Spirit guide increasingly the integration of our life within that divine calling; to grow in wisdom and inwardness; to come more in touch with the image of God in the core of our being.

Adrian van Kaam, Religion and Personality, p. 184

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *