Life in the Spirit: Obedience
If the sacraments are the banquet table by which we eat and drink the power of the Spirit, there is one other component that is vital: obedience to Jesus Christ. Just as in nature we need to not only eat and drink, but to exercise in order to grow strong and healthy, so in the spiritual life obedience to Jesus is essential. As our muscles grow stronger, our eyes and ears and wits sharper through use, so we become stronger spiritually when we practice obedience to Jesus. Paul tells us, “Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Galatians 6:7-8). Just as our muscles atrophy and the food and drink we take in can make us sick if we do not exercise, so the graces we are given in the sacrament must not be used for disobedience to Jesus. If we treat the sacraments like magic charms that give us license to sin, we can harden our hearts and sear our consciences. But if we receive the sacraments with hearts willing to try to obey Christ, we will find that our capacity to receive more grace, wisdom, strength and the fruits of the Spirit will increase in our lives. This is the point of the Parable of the Pounds:
A nobleman went into a far country to receive kingly power and then return. Calling ten of his servants, he gave them ten pounds, and said to them, “Trade with these till I come.” …. When he returned, having received the kingly power, he commanded these servants, to whom he had given the money, to be called to him, that he might know what they had gained by trading. The first came before him, saying, “Lord, your pound has made ten pounds more.” And he said to him, “Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities.” And the second came, saying, “Lord, your pound has made five pounds.” And he said to him, “And you are to be over five cities.” Then another came, saying, “Lord, here is your pound, which I kept laid away in a napkin; for I was afraid of you, because you are a severe man; you take up what you did not lay down, and reap what you did not sow.” He said to him, “I will condemn you out of your own mouth, you wicked servant! You knew that I was a severe man, taking up what I did not lay down and reaping what I did not sow? Why then did you not put my money into the bank, and at my coming I should have collected it with interest?” And he said to those who stood by, “Take the pound from him, and give it to him who has the ten pounds.” (And they said to him, “Lord, he has ten pounds!”) “I tell you, that to every one who has will more be given; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” (Luke 19:12-26)
This parable is properly terrifying, and yet it also pays us the great compliment of not treating us like children. The gospel is a message directed to adults and it takes seriously the fact that we are human beings capable of adult responsibility.
The bad servant in the parable was not asked to perform seven Herculean feats. He was simply somebody who did not do the most elementary thing asked of him: stick some money in the bank. This was ordinary stuff asked of ordinary servants every day. Indeed, his harsh description of his Master is something that appears to be entirely unreal. What we see of the Master is not cruelty, but extreme generosity to the other servants who perform the minimal task of trading with his money to make a profit. The Master does not acknowledge the truth of the bad servant’s description of him. He merely says that if the servant really believed that, then he should have shown minimal diligence at the very least. His point is that the bad servant was not treated badly. Rather, he was selfish and disobedient. He, in fact, broke faith with his Master. And so he is given what he sought–the end of the relationship with his Master—while the one who served his Master from the heart is given what he sought, a richer and deeper relationship with his Master and even more responsibility. His obedience is rewarded with the grace to do even greater things.
We are offered the same choice.
Life in the Spirit: Seek First the Kingdom
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus articulates a principle that we find foreshadowed in ordinary life and consummated in the kingdom of God. Again and again, the pattern that plays out in human affairs is that lower pleasures can only really be enjoyed if they are subordinated to higher goods. The person who pursues health as his sole goal finds only hypochondriac sickness. The person who pursues the joy of life in games, exercise, good food with friends and the beauty of the outdoors finds health as a sort of side benefit. The person who wants to be smarter than everybody else becomes an internet crank with a single idea whom people avoid as a bore. The person who seeks to humble himself before the wisdom of others gains wisdom as a side effect. The one who seeks money ends up devoid of all real human relationships. The one who seeks to be generous may wind up wealthy or poor, but either way he will own his money, not be owned by it.
So Jesus tells his disciples:
Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.” (Matthew 6:31-33)
The disciples of Jesus down through history bear this out with their lives. The rich young ruler, for instance, went away sad for he was very rich (cf. Mark 10:17-22). But the Christian disciples of Francis of Assisi discovered they were joyful, for they owned nothing. They discovered that when you put your focus on Jesus and not on things such as money, pleasure, power, and honor, you find happiness and the things you need as well. And as a result, we receive not only these things in a way that does not destroy our souls, but a far greater gift: God himself in the Person of the Holy Spirit, adored with the Father and the Son.
Next week, we will discuss some of the twists and turns in the development of the Church’s understanding of the Spirit.