Only the light-hearted
Eighteenth Sunday of the Year. Fr Colin Carr suggests that only the light-hearted can give their lives away.
A young Filipino fisherman was relaxing on the beach. He had caught enough fish in the early morning for his needs, including a modest income. A man from a North Atlantic country asked him why he wasn’t out fishing, and he explained that he’d done enough.
NA man said, “But if you fished all day you’d make lots more money; you’d be able to buy another boat; you could set up a freezing plant; you could become super-rich.”
“And then what?” asked the Filipino.
“Then you could enjoy a life of leisure, and relax on the beach.” The fisherman just smiled.
You might say that there is earned leisure, and accepted leisure. Or, thinking of Ecclesiastes, that there is earnest pessimism and smiling pessimism. You can say, “You can’t take it with you,” as if that was a terrible disaster, or you can say it with a great sense of relief.
I believe that the writer of Ecclesiastes was writing with a smile rather than a furrowed brow, not just because I want that to be the case, but because on the whole it seems to make more sense of the book. Christian preachers have not always taken its message, or the message of the parables, in a light-hearted sense. (Indeed, our culture would see light-heartedness as a vice; where would the North Atlantic be if we hadn’t taken life seriously? Where indeed?)
Jesus refused to take the role of an arbitrator, which is a serious role. He had another task: the task of alerting people to the possibility that there is good news for humanity, that the reign of God is a delightful thing, that we are invited to carry a light burden rather than a crushing one.
Of course it is risky to live with that lightness that Jesus seems to offer. We need to make ourselves secure; it is irresponsible not to put duty before pleasure, not to insure our lives against disaster or poverty. We don’t want to be scroungers or ne’er-do-wells, do we?
The trouble with all this earnestness and uprightness is that it can hide a very dangerous idea of what it is to be human, and a very sad view of what God is like. To be human is to be a hardworking earner of what we possess. Right?
Well, not according to the gospel. According to the gospel, to be human is to be a receiver and giver of gifts; they come from beyond us, and are for sharing around and saying goodbye to when it’s the right time.
If we are earnest possessors, then death will always be a rude interruption, a spoiling of what we haven’t quite yet learned to enjoy. If everything is a gift, even death itself, then each moment is lived lightly and well — and there is more scope for heroic self-giving as well as partying. The Son of Man came to serve, and he had a good time doing it, to the disgust of the serious-minded.
And of course he came to show us what God is like: God loves humanity enough to destroy what we possess, in case it destroys us. God is the Giver, but also the Receiver. If we realise that our whole relationship with God is one of receiving and giving, then we can see why nothing need make us either afraid of loss or complacent about possessions.
This is such a change of attitude that, as Colossians would put it, it’s like having died, like having completely stripped off the old self. For most of us it’s not something which happens once and for all, instantaneously. We are quite capable of slipping back into an “earned possessions” mentality; more subtly we can become very attached to our non-attachment. That’s why it’s worth reading the gospels over and over again, to be reminded of how good the news about our imminent demise really is.
Jesus shows us what God is like — God is the giver. And he shows us the way humanity can respond to this God — light-heartedly: only the light-hearted can give their lives away.