On the Level
On the Level, an Epiphany in the Exercise Room
Matthew 19:1-12. Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students. And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father—the one in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.
A hundred times, and maybe more, I have heard these words of Jesus quoted in criticism of the practice of Catholics, and others, to name their spiritual leaders "father." That emphasis misses the point. What Jesus here takes to task is the very human tendency, including very human church people, to assume some of us are closer to God than others of us.
Even my agnostic friends, who should know better, play along with this common assumption, that, "After all, Reverend, you have God's ear (if that God exists!) and I certainly don't."
Sweating in the exercise room the other Friday I struck up a conversation with a fellow on a treadmill. For whatever reason he reported that he was reading a book about Dante. One reference led to another and he allowed as how he, something of a closet Buddhist, believed in reincarnation. I demurred at this point saying that as a Christian I believed we went around only once in this life. He then recounted with admiration the monks who had devoted themselves to lives of contemplation... the better to draw closer to Nirvana and eventually to escape once and for all the chain of being. In other words, there are degrees of holiness.
To which I responded, with the saffron-clad holy men in mind, that the Gospel of Jesus Christ, by contrast, is a great leveler. I quoted the Apostle Paul's line in Romans 3:22 (NSRV), that "there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." Saints and sinners stand on common ground. And no one stands taller than another.
Oh, yes, yes, we Christians have our hagiographies (whatever they are!). Catholics canonize, Protestants pedestalize. Think Mother Theresa and Billy Graham. Fundamentalist Christians, who would rail against the "papist doctrine of the intercession of the saints," nonetheless bestow upon their favorite spiritual leaders a mantle of invincible morality and spiritual giftedness that elevates them above you and me. "Growing in grace" has come to mean, not what it meant to Martin Luther (a more profound conviction of one's own unworthiness), getting better and better, and closer and closer to God.
This same Martin Luther has been quoted (from what document I have been unable to pinpoint) as claiming that an oath upon the lips of a common man is sweeter to the ears of God than all the prayers of the saints. This startling statement is not uttered to disparage the prayers of the saints as much as it is to situate them within the overwhelming, confounding, and extraordinarily generous grace of God, in the presence of which all comparisons of our relative worthiness shrink into insignificance.
One of those agnostic friends of mine asked me how come I have never tried to convert him. I might have teased and taken the short route to an answer telling him I knew such an effort would be hopeless. In fact, I gave him no explanation at all because I knew in my heart that God is just as close to him as God is to me. Getting him to agree with me not only was unlikely but unnecessary. In God's good time, here or there, God will get to my friend.
For that is the bedrock conviction of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that God seeks us, has in fact gone great lengths in that endeavor, even to coming among us as one of us, bleeding our blood, and dying our death, to get so close to us so that when God says to us our misery or ecstasy, "I understand," we'll know he does... understand. Religion is our search for God. The Bible, however, tells a different story, the story of God's search for us. Whether we frequent the confessional or the OTB. Whether we devote ourselves to prayer or vituperation. Whether we memorize Bible verses or rock lyrics. Whether we pastor a church or sell used cars. Salvation history is replete with God's surprises, taking many who are least likely to succeed and nominating them for heroic assignments.
If Augustine could pray that "our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee," equally true is it that God is restless until we find our rest in him.
So began my thoughts of leveling, amid exercise and sweat, not exactly the likely scene of holy contemplation, where in the eyes of each other some of us are fitter, but where in the eyes of God, whatever our heart rate or body fat percentage, we are equally within God's reach.