What must I do…?
February 9, 2011
I’ve been really curious about the Reformation lately, reading and watching whatever I can find on the subject. There’s the National Geographic article on Martin Luther, dated 1983, the 500th anniversary of his birth. It looks at the Germany he knew and the Germany of 1983– divided, walled, religiously oppressed. Then there’s the anarchist-anonymous-adventure novel Q, written by four Italian authors now known as Wu Ming, previously writing under the pen name Luther Blissett. Lots of stuff online. And scraps from a very dense academic survey called The Protestant Reformation, edited Hans Hillerbrand.
I’ve also been attending a series of classes in Christian formation at the Episcopal church where I work, and tonight we talked briefly about the Reformation– the differences between the English and Continental Reformations, the big tensions and questions raised. The question I keep turning over in my head– the one underneath Luther’s “problem of the terrified conscience” which drove him and other reformers forward– is the one that asks What must I do to be saved?
It’s a question very much present in Matthew 5:21-37, the passage we read together tonight. We begin each class with the upcoming Sunday’s gospel reading, practicing a kind of lectio divina: someone reads the text out loud, then we talk about which phrases or words or whole passages jumped out at each of us individually. I love this exercise; there’s so much more illuminated in company and when the words are read aloud.
This is one of few passages familiar to me, and one I struggle with. It’s got all the things Jesus is about: mercy, reconciliation, forgiveness, love. It says “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift on the altar and go; first be reconciled with your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift.”
Do I have to? Really? I’d much rather pretend that I am perfect, loving, and kind, and offer gifts of gratitude to God. That’s a whole lot easier and more fun than apologizing for being short with my housemates, admitting I forgot to pay the power bill, or making amends with someone I wronged in the deep past. In fact, the whole thing makes me feel a little nauseated, a little anxious. A little terrified.
This was the piece I got stuck on anyway, while for others it was a broader anxiety, a need to know. What is the way to righteousness, what are the things we ought to do? The verse is mostly concerned with the things we shouldn’t do: judge or accuse others, commit murder or adultery, swear and make false promises. What, we wanted to know, must we do to be saved?
Turns out there’s a pretty long list, the gist of which is simply love. It seems more or less hopeless and impossible, which we generally agreed was the point of Matthew 5. In this chapter, Jesus is telling us even if we do everything right, if we follow all of the rules, we will still fall short of perfection because we are not God, but human.
I thought immediately of the Bodhisattva vows, the koan in response to Buddha’s four noble truths:
The passions of delusion are inexhaustible.
I vow to extinguish them all at once.
The number of beings is endless. I vow to help save them all.
The Truth cannot be told. I vow to tell it.
The Way which cannot be followed is unattainable. I vow to attain it.
In this list, as in Matthew 5, the 18 root vows and the 46 secondary vows of the Bodhisattva give instructions for right living by advising what one must not do: commit heinous crimes, refuse to forgive someone who apologizes to you, praise yourself while putting others down. Who can fulfill such promises?
Who dares to take up this impossible task? If you think it is impossible, you will be defeated by skepticism. If you think you can do it, you run the risk of being pompous and inflated. Should we save all beings step by step, or all at once? Besides, who or how can we save, when there is no one to save and no one who saves? What will you do? This is the Bodhisattva’s great koan.
From an essay written by Sojun Roshi. March 2001 Berkeley Zen Center Newsletter.
I was also reminded of a little prayer a friend once copied and gave to me, and which I cut out and pasted in my sketchbook. (It turns out to have its origins in an Episcopal devotional periodical, from Forward Movement Publishing.) What I love best about it is the concluding sentence. On my best days, it makes me laugh and fills me with hope:
A Morning Resolve
I will try this day to live a simple, sincere, and serene life, repelling promptly very thought of discontent, anxiety, discouragement, impurity, and self-seeking; cultivating cheerfulness, magnanimity, charity, and the habit of holy silence; exercising economy in expenditure, generosity in giving, carefulness in conversation, diligence in appointed service, fidelity to every trust, and a childlike faith in God.
In particular, I will try to be faithful in those habits of prayer, work, study, physical exercise, eating, and sleep which I believe the Holy Spirit has shown me to be right.
And as I cannot in my own strength do this, nor even with a hope of success attempt it, I look to thee, O Lord God my Father, in Jesus my Savior, and ask for the gift of the Holy Spirit.
What can I do? What must I do? Sometimes (most of the time) these two are so far apart.
What must I do? What can I do? Right now, sleep. Get up in the morning, and start again. Pray.