I’m currently reading a book by Tyler Cowen, entitled DISCOVER
YOUR INNER ECONOMIST. Though I have barely started it, one message
is clear: we must understand what motivates people to do things;
and with that understanding comes our ability to have a “happier,
more satisfying life.” This book takes an economist’s
view of human interactions, which some Christians may feel does
not apply to the higher dynamics of spirituality.
There is a desired disposition (“poor in spirit”), followed by a reward (“Kingdom of Heaven”).
These kinds of passages have always made me nervous, because I intuitively think they are contrary to human nature. At least they are contrary to my human nature. I’m not crazy about mourning, being insulted or persecuted, and public humiliation. Rejoice and be glad? For what? “For your reward will be great in heaven.”
Everyone reading this may not share my experiences, but I’ve found that sometimes this passage is used to get people to work in the Church for free, and to put up with stuff that they would otherwise protest. The common interpretation of this passage seems to deny the very natural fact that humans have needs – the need for money to live – and that they have rights – the right (some say the duty) to protest mistreatment. It is not too much of a stretch to assert that humans are motivated to tend to their needs and rights; they tend to evaluate their options according to what’s in it for them.
So let us ask ourselves, and not be afraid of the questions or the answers: “What motivates us to be holy people? What’s in it for us?”
One of the first reactions I get when I ask this question is, “How dare you suggest that we get something out of it! We do it because we believe, because it’s the right thing to do.”
Yet, much of Jesus’ teaching, including today’s Gospel passage, is steeped in the benefits of being a disciple. Do you want to “see God?” Do you want the “Kingdom of Heaven?” Do you want to “be satisfied?” Do you want to “inherit the land?”
Note, too, that the Lord (in the first reading) does not leave Elijah to perish in his hiding place. He sends ravens to feed him. He also does not expect Elijah to tell off the King and stand there to take his punishment (most likely a long, painful death). He sends him off into hiding. He takes care of Elijah’s needs.
In another book, called BURGLARS ON THE JOB, the authors describe the attitudes of most of the residential burglars they interviewed. The offenders by and large lived their lives focused on getting money for short-term fixes – sometimes to pay bills, but often to finance various pleasures of the flesh. It was counterproductive for them to consider the possible consequences of their actions, such as incarceration or death from self-destructive behaviors. They lived for the myopic moment. It’s obvious to all that their choices hurt others in their community. It’s not so obvious that, in the long run, their choices meant that they hurt themselves, too.
This, I believe, is what Jesus is addressing during the Sermon on the Mount. Let us always remember that many of Jesus’ disciples were petty thieves, prostitutes, tax collectors, and a host of other unsavory characters who often had one common pursuit: to live each day for their next “fix.” Jesus is trying to get them to see beyond that next fix – whatever it is for them – and into the future. He isn’t asking them to neglect their needs. Instead, He wants them to get out of the vicious cycles that are holding them down as human beings. He wants them to go to a higher place, both in their daily existences, as well as in their eventual destinations. He is constantly telling them that they will get more out of such a life, that they will be happier, healthier, holier people. To use a commonly overused phrase, it’s a win-win.
That is why Lent is so important for us Christians. It puts us in touch with those daily vices and pleasures that could, if not put securely in their places, drag us down into an inhuman, myopic existence. Lent is over, but let’s examine those days after Lent. What did we do on Easter day (and the days following)? Did we gorge ourselves on food? Did we drink too much alcohol? Did we chew an entire pack of gum? Did we say, “Whew, got through Lent!” and go back to daily existences that were more focused on daily pleasures than on the Kingdom of God? Perhaps it’s time for a mini-Lent of our own making; a day spent placing our daily pleasures to the back of our minds instead of at the front of them.
Today, and every day in the Gospels, Jesus is calling us to higher things than simple animal pleasures. He is offering us Eternal Life. The acceptance of that Eternal Life does not – cannot – start when we die. The “happier, more satisfying life” is being offered right now. It’s up to all of us to put our hands out and accept it.
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