Our Gospel today is like a magnificent piece of jewelry; let’s say a
brooch. On the face of the brooch are clustered an array of precious
stones — each of them a saying of our Lord, a many faceted gem, worthy
of a lifetime’s reflection. Today, I’d like for us to lift just one of those
jewels from its setting, and hold it up for a moment to the light.
I’d like us to consider Matthew, chapter 10, verse 39: “Whoever finds
his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” Its a
beautiful saying, but its meaning isn’t immediately obvious. Our Lord is
using one of his favorite tactics; he has couched his message in terms
that capture the attention of his listeners and give them something to
puzzle over. It is a way of overcoming their comfortable assumption that
they already know all the answers.
The first clause is particularly mystifying. What can it mean to say,
“Whoever finds his life will lose it?” When faced with this kind of enigma,
it sometimes helps to look at a different translation. The New American
Bible gives verse 39 as; “He who seeks only himself brings himself to ruin,
whereas he who brings himself to naught for me discovers who he is.”
The first clause, “he who seeks only himself brings himself to ruin,”
might simply mean “spare a thought for other people” — a warning
against being too selfish. But I think there is more here.
We know that life is precious. We all try to get everything we can
out of life. We seek happiness and self-fulfillment. We want to
experience every good thing, and reach the limits of our human potential.
I think the cult of self-fulfillment tends to be particularly strong in my mid
baby boom generation. Our parents told us early on that we were the
most important people in the world. And we believed them! Ever since,
we’ve been trying to live lives worthy of our lofty status.
We are interested not so much in owning things, as in acquiring
experiences. As a rule, we are more likely to invest in an exotic vacation
than in a living room suite. We want to milk life for all it is worth. This
attitude often extends to our quest for religious experience. We want
spiritual growth commensurate with the personal growth we are have
achieved in other areas of our life. When we pray, we aspire to the
mystical experiences of the great saints.
All of this is perfectly natural, but it’s ultimately frustrating. It’s
like searching franticly for your glasses when all the while they’ve been
hanging around your neck. It’s like catching something out of the corner
of your eye that’s invisible when you stare at it.
Let me attempt another illustration. A wise old woman asks her
great-granddaughter to go out in the garden and find the most precious
thing there. The girl is very diligent. She gets down on her hands and
knees and examines closely every plant in the garden. She finds a
dazzling array of flowers, a wide assortment of vegetables, and many rare
varieties of fruit. Finally, covered with dirt from head to toe, she settles
upon a particularly beautiful apple. She picks it, and brings it to her
great-grandmother. The old woman smiles and says, “You have brought
me the most precious thing, but it isn’t the apple. It is the soil that
you’ve got all over you, because it’s the soil that brings forth everything
else in the garden.
I think it’s this frustrating inability to see the most precious thing
that Jesus is speaking about. Common sense tells us that if we would be
fulfilled we must strive for self-fulfillment. But that isn’t the way it works.
The Christian tradition tells us that ultimately, this world is not our home.
We are pilgrims here. Our destiny lies somewhere else. I think this sense
of alienation is rooted in the incongruity we’ve been talking about. The
perfectly obvious route to happiness…is an illusion. Anyone who finds his
life will lose it. If we seek ourselves, we bring ourselves to ruin.
Which brings us to the second clause: “Whoever losses his life for
my sake will find it,” or “He who brings himself to naught for me will
discover who he is.” Jesus is saying that we will reach our goal only if we
live our lives in direct contradiction to the conventional wisdom about
human happiness. We have to ignore all the usual criteria of success, and
pour ourselves out for others, and for the Kingdom of God. Whatever we
have, we must spend on Christ. And if we are good stewards of our
resources, it is only so that we can ultimately spend even more on Christ.
This isn’t a reflection about money. I’m talking about everything:
our time, our intelligence, our reputation. (That’s what’s meant by “the
ignominy of the cross.”) We have to employ all of our strengths, and
even our weakness. And this isn’t some austere discipline, some strange
asceticism that will only be rewarded in the next life. It’s the only way to
real happiness here and now. Think about it. The happiest people you
have ever met were probably the ones most heavily invested in God, and
in serving others. If you ever have the privilege of visiting a Carmelite
convent or a Cistercian monastery, for example, you will be stunned by
the joy you encounter there. And the same degree of holiness that we
find in a monastery can be achieved in every walk of life.
And, of course, in urging us to follow this path, Jesus is merely
telling us, “do as I have done.” There used to be a saying, “Don’t talk the
talk if you can’t walk the walk.” Jesus walked the walk, and bids us to
follow him. When we do, we will find out who we are. We will discover
ourselves, beyond ourselves, in God. How’s that for self-fulfillment?
Rev. Charles B. Gordon, C.S.C., is co-director of the Garaventa Center for Catholic Intellectual Life and American Culture at the University of Portland. He writes and records a regular blog called “Fractio Verbi.”