A Commentary for the Fifth Sunday After Pentecost

Posted by: on Jun 27, 2010 | No Comments

Today I want to talk about what Paul says in his letter to the Galatians and also about the Gospel from Luke, where we hear Jesus as Teacher instructing those who would be his disciples.

With Paul, I again look at an idea that is central to the practice of our Christian faith: the idea of Incarnation as the goal, rather than the starting point, of our spiritual life. We begin with a phrase in Paul’s letter: “For what the Flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the Flesh.” This opposition, this comparison of the two ways—Spirit and Flesh—is not quite so straightforward as it first appears. Paul is actually laying before us a paradox.

A little background is necessary to see this paradox clearly. It is important to understand that, for Paul, human life is dynamically active. Human beings are not static entities, mere “things” that have certain fixed qualities. We are “beings-in-process”, influenced always by factors outside ourselves, and also by the intentions of our own awareness and desires. The question for Paul is: do we understand our own basic orientation, the goal which organizes our desiring and striving? And further: what helps us connect more deeply with authentic human existence, and what takes us further away from it?
When Paul speaks of Spirit and Flesh, he is talking about “domains” of human thought and activity, organizing principles that shape the way we experience ourselves. The Flesh is, for Paul, a way of talking about the power and reality of sin. We might say that Flesh is the realm in which people move away from authentic existence and toward illusory goals, toward things which can never satisfy them. Flesh is the realm of being on the wrong path, of being lost.

The Spirit, on the other hand, is the living reality of God, in whose presence we discover at last what our own true life is to be. The Spirit is where we come alive. We “wake up” to our own awareness, not isolated but connected to and grounded in the living source of all reality: God.

To awaken in this way is the true apostolic commission. It is with this awareness that we are sent into the world, to see the world with a new mind. To see in this way, to have a new perspective on what we thought to be the familiar world around us, is of course the literal meaning of repentance. That is what Paul is urging on his hearers when he cries out in Ephesians, “Sleepers, wake!”

The paradox of the Flesh is this: Flesh, as a domain, is actually organized around the rejection of physical existence. What the Flesh cannot do, above all, is tolerate the vulnerability, the frailty, the mortality, of life in the body. The Flesh echoes W. B. Yeats when he speaks of being “sick with desire, and fastened to a dying animal.” The Flesh hates its connection to a dying animal—the human body. Everything the Flesh suggests to us is based upon the central idea of escaping or transcending the limitations of being in the body. The basic impulse is avoidance.

The paradox of the Spirit is this: Spirit accepts what Flesh rejects: the frailty, the vulnerability, the mortality, of life in the body. The Spirit is what invites us actually to inhabit our bodies, to become, in another of Paul’s images, “temples of the Holy Spirit.” Here the basic impulse is acceptance.

In other words, both Flesh and Spirit are basic spiritual attitudes or orientations. The Flesh puts us at odds with ourselves, struggling hopelessly in the attempt to escape fundamentally what we are. The Spirit reconciles us to ourselves in the acceptance of who and what we are. This acceptance is not accomplished once and for all. It is a process carried out over a lifetime. It is the process that I would call “incarnation”, and to hear this impulse within oneself, to listen and respond to it, is “faith”. As Paul said, and Kierkegaard made so emphatic, the opposite of sin is not virtue. The opposite of sin is faith.

I often return to this idea that incarnation is the goal, rather than the starting point, of human experience. It is an idea that confronts us with the basic human anxiety of being “fastened to a dying animal” and suggests that the way out of this anxiety is not to escape, but to connect more deeply with our own physical existence. Incarnation is not a single event pertaining only to Jesus. Incarnation is a path set before us as human beings: to let the awareness of our minds inhabit the place of our greatest vulnerability, our bodies. This is the goal of our spiritual practice, of our worship and prayer and study. This is the way of Spirit. It is the path of becoming actual existing human subjects, no longer dominated by our anxiety about our life in the body, but present, alert, alive—in our bodies.

In the Gospel for today we hear three short teachings about the conditions of following Jesus as his disciple. These must have been challenging and perplexing teachings to those who heard them first, as they are meant to be for us. As usual, Jesus overturns many of our assumptions about what is truly important.

The first encounter provides a context for Jesus and his teaching. It is an encounter with a hostile social structure, a society based on prejudice. The Samaritans had already “made up their minds” about where they stood in relation to Jerusalem and its ideas about God. They were not open to any new experiences; there was no conversation. This is, of course, the exact opposite of the attitude that Jesus exemplified during his lifetime. Jesus was not prejudiced. He did not “make up his mind” beforehand about people, but instead created a spiritual and emotional space in which people could experience themselves in new and surprising ways. Jesus did not see “definitions” of people—the prostitute, the rich tax collector—but people, real living beings.

This represents the possibility of a profound social liberation. Jesus opened a “space” for people apart from the ways they had been defined or categorized. He set people free from the conclusions that other people had formed about them, and from the judgments they passed upon themselves within their own hearts.

The saying that “foxes have holes, and the birds of heaven have nests” is not about mere physical homelessness. It goes deeper than that, and points toward a relation to the social world of human culture. It is about being disillusioned with culture, but in a positive and necessary way: seeing culture for what it is, with its virtues and also its shadow values, the things that no culture can admit about itself. It is about the impossibility of “belonging” to any culture uncritically.

In biblical language, the issue is one’s relation to the “world”. As Jesus says elsewhere, the goal is to be in the world, but not of the world. One way to look at this is to say that we cannot live as responsible spiritual beings simply by following the “rules” laid down for us by our families, our governments, our religious institutions, or any other structure of culture. Nothing outside ourselves can do the work of being human for us.
This is also what Paul is talking about when he speaks about those who are led by the Spirit as being beyond the Law. Those who are beyond the Law are not free to do whatever they want; the freedom of which Paul speaks is not a freedom “below” the Law and exempt from its demands, but “above” it. Paul is talking about a higher standard, a greater responsibility. Ultimately, this standard for Paul is the Spirit of God within one’s own heart and mind, the place of living encounter between the human and the divine. It is, as Paul insists, the way of Love in the service of others.

As Jesus said, so simply and so radically, “Why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?” Why, in other words, do you not activate within yourselves the capacity to see clearly, and act in ways that are appropriate to your own discernment? This “freedom” is actually the humblest responsibility of all for a human being, for it leads to a life of service and love. Freedom is never to be used for the satisfaction of our own selfish desires, but to help others.

In the passage about “letting the dead bury their own dead”, Jesus is suggesting that even those duties we consider to be necessary and good cannot lay claim to us as ultimately important. For Jesus, what is always most important is to be awake to the presence of God, and to be completely available to whatever this presence reveals to us. Other obligations are always subordinate to this primary awareness.

The image of setting hand to the plow and not looking back is perhaps the most challenging teaching of all. There is biblical resonance with other images about looking back: Lot’s wife, who looked back and was turned into a pillar of salt; or the Israelites, who looked back longingly toward their former slavery in Egypt when they wearied of their freedom in the wilderness. It is understood that to “look back” is to be attached to what one already knows. It is to prefer the relative comfort of a familiar world and a familiar self to the process of discovering one’s own freedom and responsibility. But this “comfort” comes at a high price, for it is the comfort of slaves; it is the way we refuse to be set free.

Another aspect of “looking back” is illustrated in the well-known story: two monks were traveling along a path and came to a river. There was a woman at the river’s edge. One of the monks carried her across, although their monastic discipline forbade them even to look at a woman, much less make physical contact. The two monks walked on. An hour later, one monk said to the other, “I can’t believe what you did with that woman!” The other monk replied, “I picked her up, carried her across the river, and put her down again. I see you’re still carrying her along.”

When Jesus instructs us not to “look at the things that are behind”, he is inviting us to stop understanding ourselves based on what has already happened in our lives. It is as if he were asking us, Who are you? Do you think you know? Paul says repeatedly that we do not, and cannot, know who we are because none of us is “finished”. We are still in the process of becoming, and everything we need can be discovered in what is happening “now”. Nothing essential to us is left behind when we stop looking back.

Those who embrace this new attitude discover the liberation that we have already mentioned: a freedom from the definitions imposed upon us, and the “self-knowledge” that lives as a habit within us. It is a freedom from the heart’s fear that there is no hope, nothing new, no real possibility, but only the weary continuation of what has gone before.

This new attitude of not looking back brings a resolve to live in the “always-being-created-newness” of God’s presence, in the reality that springs “fresh from the Word” as the familiar hymn would remind us. It invites us to set down the burden of the past, to cease ruminating on what might have been. It invites us to recognize that true life is in front of us as a living encounter. The important question becomes: how will you respond to what is right before you, in this present moment?

Jesus is saying that what happened yesterday, or five years ago, need not have the power to determine how I look at my life today. He is saying that I can see my own life, and the lives of those around me, from a new perspective, with fresh eyes and a fresh mind.

Again, we come to the literal meaning of repentance—to see with a new mind. What a pleasant irony to discover that in repentance we find not our accuser, but our friend, the one who turns our eyes from what has been and helps us see what is right in front of us, abundant, still to be lived.