Peter Rollins is a philosopher who strives to understand how desire works. He often uses an example of a pair of brothers about to begin a new school year. Just before sending them off to school their mom and dad remind them that if anyone starts a fight with them the right thing to do is tell a teacher and let them take care of it, and not to fight back. In the first few days of school each brother has someone start a fight with them. One tells a teacher, the other pops the bully in the nose and is suspended. Even though he faces consequences at home, in subtle ways he’s treated with more respect than his brother who followed the rules because he stood up for himself. Turning the other cheek is a nice ideal, but we often respect the one who fights back.
In interpreting the Sermon on the Mount there have been many who interpret it as a spiritual or ethical ideal, but one that is hard to live up to in the real world. After all, we are sinners and not saints. But when Americans saw police turn attack dogs, water cannons and billy clubs on African Americans asserting their equal rights in a nonviolent way, public opinion shifted. Nelson Mandela, who spent 26 years in prison for opposing apartheid, said, “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I didn’t leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I’d still be in prison.” From a pragmatic perspective he knew one cannot bring about a free society that respected the rights and dignity of all through violence. Mandela also said, “I am not a saint, unless you think of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying.” For King and Mandela the seemingly lofty ideals of the Sermon on the Mount were actually pragmatic methods for bending society towards God’s justice and mercy.
In Matthew 6:19-34 Jesus’ words seem full of idealism: don’t worry about becoming wealthy, but store up treasure in heaven. Do not worry about your life, do not worry about tomorrow. We hear such words and think it sure would be nice to live that way, but this is the real world. But let’s suspend our disbelief for a moment. How often has worry and anxiety bogged us down and prevented us from living?
I heard a modern parable some years ago. A wealthy man was in his last months and decided he would indeed take it all with him. He sold all his assets and possessions and brought gold bars with them, and had them put in suitcases and buried with him. When he found himself in line for the pearly gates, sure enough he had his suitcases filled with gold with him. When he got to St. Peter, Peter was fascinated – no one had ever brought anything with them. He asked the man what was in the suitcases, and the man replied with great pride that it was what he had spent his entire life working for. St. Peter couldn’t wait to see what it was. The man opened his suitcases, proud of the treasure he earned. With a confused look on his face, Peter said, “You spent all your life working for pavement?!” For in the City of God the streets will be paved with gold.
In my work as a hospice chaplain I met a woman in her mid-forties who was in her third bout with cancer. Her deepest regret was not that she couldn’t do more to contribute to her husband’s retirement account, but that after he had loved her and cared for her so well and so deeply during her bouts with cancer, she would not be with him when he needed her. Their treasure is their love for each other, and this seemingly lofty ideal made all the difference in the life they built together. Of course there were struggles and hardships. But there is a vast difference between a life together built on shared worry versus one built on shared love. How does worry bog us down? How might our lives be different if love and not various kinds of security was our treasure?