Richard Leonard | Jun 27 2007 - 9:40am | 1 comment
In his book, Things You Get For Free, Michael McGirr tells the story of going on pilgrimage to Rome with his mother. Maureen McGirr had always wanted to see St Peter’s Basilica. Michael records the big day. "One of the features of a visit to St Peter’s is the modesty inspection. This is the kind of examination which most Australians [or Americans] on a visit to Bali would flunk. You aren’t allowed to wear shorts or sleeveless garments. No swimming costumes, either, unless they have long legs and sleeves. No singlets. The modesty inspection has a point. It keeps out nudists and other undesirables...I would be more comfortable if the signs warned against coming in with a closed mind or an angry heart." "When you get inside, however, St Peter’s strips you bear. Mum took a few steps forward into the cavernous gloom and stopped. I looked up into the dome that Michelangelo designed late in life: he never lived to see it finished. In that moment, hundreds of visitors rushed past. "What on earth are they trying to prove?" I wasn’t sure if Mum was talking about the building or all the people rushing past. Officials were still clearing away the cheap plastic stacking chairs which come out for big masses. They were not part of the original design. I was distracted by the noise. "When you think," said Mum, leaving her sentence unfinished... "When you think what?" I asked... "I don’t know. When you think." "What?" I was getting testy with her. Mum drew in breath to say something important. "When you think that Jesus had nothing." "It was a naked response. For seventy years, this building had stood as the physical centre of Mum’s religion. This was her pilgrimage to Mecca. Yet her response was almost revulsion. I want to put a break on her reaction and jolly her along and tell her that Jesus would rather have had this as a monument than the Empire State Building or the Crown Casino." No matter how much we try to ignore it, or play it down, the call to simplicity of lifestyle and detachment are important elements in the teaching of Jesus and the way he lived his own life. In the Luke’s Gospel and his second volume, "The Acts of the Apostles," the obligations of the haves to the have-knots are regularly underlined. Scholars think Luke’s Gospel keeps this teaching most alive because it was a community divided by wealth. In today’s Gospel this obligation is put in its starkest form. To "bury the dead" in first-century Palestine sometimes meant having to take on their responsibilities--farm, fishing or family. To have "nowhere to lay one’s head" gave as much freedom then as it does today; and to be detached, without regret, has always been a sign of God’s kingdom. Some preachers can blast off into what seems like loopy-land when they start drawing out lessons from this teaching. While Jesus’ words have a radical edge which must not be blunted, if all Christians everywhere were to live this teaching literally we would constitute a family of happy but homeless people, surrounded by decomposing loved ones! There is no dignity in poverty and most people who are poor, while they can be rich in the best human values, do not want to stay poor. What they deserve, and what all Christians should want, is economic and social justice. We are not at liberty to follow Jesus and watch the rich get fatter and all-consuming while the poor pay the price for unchecked greed. Some Christians are given the gift of living very simply and to the degree that this gift brings life to them, and those around them, it is a wonderful sign of God’s kingdom. All the rest of us, who struggle to embrace this gift, or a desire to ever want it, must face up to the challenge of Jesus teaching here. But it’s not just about money. We are also called to detach ourselves from memories, which can be cluttered with anger and revenge; from the demands of work which keeps us from being with those we love; and to be generous with our time, talent, hospitality and compassion. Previous generations strayed from the demands of this gospel. Grand Cathedrals, courtly behavior and princely mansions were meant to reflect on earth the reign of God. These are our legacy, but may it not be said of us, what Michael McGirr says of St Peter’s, "any sense of the Divine completely disappears under the materialism of it all." Rather, may our generation show the kingdom of God most visibly in the way we live simply, fight for justice and are detached from everything, except the essentials. Richard Leonard, S.J.