How would you define the good life? Much ink has been spilt on this question over the centuries. About seven years ago, American philosopher Michael Bishop entered the debate with his book The Good Life: Unifying the Philosophy and Psychology of Well-Being. The title gives away what the book is about: it brings together insights from philosophy and psychology to identify the good life with personal well-being. For Professor Bishop, the good life is being locked in a perpetuating cycle of states of joy and contentment, optimism, strong relationships, success and good health. This can play out in many different ways, based on a whole range of factors like age, gender, race, geographical location, and so forth.
I suspect that many people resonate with what Professor Bishop is saying. It even seems consistent with the words of Psalm 16: “You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” Isn’t this what each of us desires of God?
But then we’re confronted with today’s Gospel. Just like the Gospel from three weeks ago—where Jesus says, “I haven’t come to bring peace but rather division”—today’s Gospel contains more hard sayings of Jesus. Jesus says that if you don’t hate (strong word!) your parents, spouse, children, siblings, even life itself, you cannot be his disciple. And then he says, “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” What is Jesus really getting at? And how do these words relate, if at all, to the good life?
Let me say right up front that Jesus is not telling his followers to target family members and begin relating to them in hateful and harmful ways. If we hear Jesus in this way, then we’ve completely missed the mark. I think what Jesus is doing in today’s Gospel is drawing a sharp contrast between, on the one hand, the world as it is, and on the other hand, the alternative way of being that Jesus calls us to live into. It’s a contrast between the structures that determine all facets of existence, including what and who constitutes family, and the new creation that God is bringing about. When Jesus says that we must “hate life itself” to be his disciple, he means that we must live in such a way that we are turning our backs on the structures of this world and, instead, living into a different existence—what Jesus himself called the kingdom of God. For Jesus, the kingdom of God is not a spiritual event that applies only to the heart and soul. It is a concrete historical reality that is realized visibly. It is a real manifestation of the new creation.
How does it look? It’s a community in which the last are first and the first are last, the poor are blessed, the marginalized liberated, the hungry fed, those without a roof housed, captives freed, the sick cared for, the bereaved lifted up, orphans provided for, debts forgiven, interest payments canceled, peacemaking prioritized, mercy practiced and forgiveness bestowed, all of creation loved, where economy is not about growth and quarterly profits, but rather sharing and simplicity of living. That is just a glimpse of Jesus’ messianic vision of the kingdom of God, a vision realized in his own life, a vision which led to his own execution.
When Jesus says, “whoever does not hate even life itself cannot be my disciple,” he is challenging his followers, including all of us today, to examine how our lives have been overrun by a world that is antithetical, even antagonistic, to the kingdom of God. When he says, “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions,” he is challenging us to do just that—to examine what we need and what we don’t need, to let go of what keeps us too comfortable.
Professor Michael Bishop has his own definition of the good life. I’d like to suggest that Jesus is offering a different perspective, a counterintuitive take, on what the good life really is. It’s a life that doesn’t seek its own but is oriented to the neighbor who is struggling to survive. This vision that has inspired more than a few in our day. Let me mention two voices I’ve come across who are echoing Jesus.
First, Dietrich Bonhoeffer—a German theologian and pastor who was hanged by the Nazis in 1945 for his participation in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Near the end of his life, while imprisoned, Bonhoeffer jotted down notes for three chapters of a book he wanted to write. In his notes for chapter 3, he wrote: “The church is the church only when it exists for others. To make a start, it should give away all its property to those in need. The clergy must live solely on the free-will offerings of their congregations, or possibly engage in some secular calling.” Bonhoeffer wasn’t being hyperbolic; he meant exactly what he said. His words should make us uncomfortable, just as Jesus’ own words should, as we consider the big building renovation project that we’re wrapping up. If we’re not in a position to give away our property to those in need, as Bonhoeffer would challenge us to do, what about a commitment to utilizing this building for the good of those marginalized and vulnerable? That sort of commitment could become our own litmus test for everything that goes on here.
A second example is a recent social media post from British journalist Andrew Graystone, who also happens to be an Anglican. Last month Anglican bishops all over the world met in Canterbury for the Lambeth Conference that is typically convened once every decade. As the bishops discussed and debated the mission of the church, Graystone tweeted: “Guys – do something BIG that tells us what you are about. Sell all your homes and give the money to the poor. Go out and share food with homeless people in London. Tear your robes as a sign of repentance. Just DO SOMETHING.” Of course, the bishops didn’t heed Graystone’s call, whether they saw his tweet or not. But the tweet reflects a serious longing in our churches for episcopal and parish leadership that doesn’t dodge Jesus’ hard sayings but embodies them, living as an example for others to follow.
Let me conclude with this point: today’s Gospel doesn’t nullify the good life; it is the good life. If we embrace it, we don’t need to bear the burden of saving the planet or changing the world. In his book Faith, Hope and Mischief, Andrew Graystone says that our task “is simply to find the good things that are going on, and to nurture them. This is not one vast project, but a million tiny acts of rebellion—saying no to the way the world is, and yes to another way.” So we all have some homework as we conclude the summer. Let’s assess our lives and identify the areas of extravagance that can be eliminated. And then let’s reacquaint ourselves with Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God so that together we can embody it here in this place.