Faced with death, people inevitably ask questions about what is truly important in life. Is it saving my own hide? Hanging onto what I feel I "deserve"? Gaining the whole world? Usually not. Usually, dying and grieving people place the highest value on finding their truest self, discovering the gifts God has given them, and using those gifts to the best of their ability. They realize that possessions are no consolation, and that loving people well and becoming who God created them to be, even if that means not being as famous, rich, or "successful" in the eyes of the world, is what ultimately matters.
How many people on their deathbed wish they had spent more hours at work, or made greater family sacrifices to gain fame or wealth? How many feel that the plaques adorning their walls are more important than the respect and love of their spouse, children, and friends? If you were on your deathbed tonight, of what choices and priorities would you be proud, and about what would you have misgivings? How can you live today differently in order to have fewer regrets?
These questions are similar to the challenge of today’s readings. Moses calls you to choose: Do you wish to follow God’s commands or not? He frames it in terms of life and death – if you choose God’s commands you will live, but if you turn away from God you will surely die.
The unfortunate effect of this framework is our interpretation of it in terms of reward and punishment. We assume that if we follow God’s ways, we will live because God will reward us with long life, prosperity, and trouble-free living. If we choose against God, we will die because God will send punishments, poverty, illness, and trials. In other words, we decide to choose God in order to obtain the rewards we are promised if we obey, while avoiding the dire consequences of God’s anger if we disobey.
But Jesus turns that idea on its head. Jesus promises us that if we follow God, we will endure betrayal, rejection, suffering, and death. Following Jesus does not mean an easy life; it means taking up the cross. Doesn’t that contradict Moses’ assertion that following God brings life?
Properly understood, both Moses and Jesus are correct. If I reject God’s commands, I may look and even feel happy, especially if I am able to amass wealth and possessions and rise to the top of the corporate ladder. Yet all the money and earthly success in the world cannot give me integrity, meaning, hope, and fullness of life. I will eventually find that life is hollow and meaningless. In other words, if I reject God’s ways, God does not have to send punishment to me; I bring death to myself, even if I am outwardly successful. I will lie on my deathbed with regrets over my life choices.
Instead, Jesus calls me to deny myself. He does not mean to deny who I am, to deny the call or the desires God has placed in my heart, to refuse to recognize or use my gifts to the fullest extent possible. He does not mean I have to reject achieving goals or having a good job. He calls me to deny the part of me that wants to run away from God, that wants to be selfish and tight-fisted, that wants to be #1 at all costs, or that is tempted to cheat or lie or bend the rules for my own gain. He calls me to reject the temptation to find ultimate meaning in external factors, but to find it in the cross – in self-sacrificial love, in staying true to our mission to serve, and in following the commands of God.
Contrary to the "easy" interpretation of Moses’ choice, Jesus reminds me that choosing God’s ways does not mean I will have a trouble-free life. In fact, it is far more difficult and demanding to live according to gospel teachings. It hurts to deny myself, to strip away those comfortable sources of security, and my reliance on my own hard work, my bank account balance, and my status in society. Nor can anything or anyone protect me from the crosses of illness, separation from loved ones, crises with my children, injustice, tragedy, and grief. As Jesus said, there will inevitably be trials, suffering, and death.
Yet no matter what happens, if I choose to obey God’s commands, I will live. It will not be because God will "bless me" with the rewards I expect – with health, wealth, carefree living, and length of days – although some of those may be part of my life as well. Rather, even in the midst of trials, suffering, and death, I will live because choosing God’s ways is the path to truth, meaning, wholeness, and peace.
Every morning, then, I need to figuratively lie on my deathbed and choose. Is the purpose of my life today primarily to gain the whole world, or to love with my whole being? Today, how can I relate to people, set my priorities, and live my life so that if I die tonight I can die without regrets? What choices can I make that allow me to stand with integrity before God and those I love?
Life and death are set before me. What do I choose?
Amy Florian is a teacher and consultant working in Chicago. For many years she has partnered with the Passionists. Visit Amy’s website: http://www.amyflorian.com/.