Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Fortress

He had loved God’s law from his earliest youth, it was sweetness to his heart and supremely desirable. He had no desire to kill or to take another’s wife, and the Sabbath was a glad break from the routine of running his business. He sought no other gods, and could not imagine making a false accusation. When it came to the ritual law he conceded that the priests were the experts, and he did exactly as they instructed him. The thought of stealing or coveting was laughable – he already owned more than anyone else he knew! He was honest enough to recognise that he was privileged way beyond most men, and humble enough to ascribe it to the blessing of God and not his own intrinsic superiority. Life was full, life was beautiful – so how could he feel so empty at the same time? He was sincerely puzzled, and when he broached the subject with the rabbis he knew, they were equally puzzled: he obeyed the commandments, he was living the blessed life, surely any remaining discomfort of soul must come from his own emotions?

But then he heard of a new rabbi, some said a prophet, whose teaching was different and who did works of healing wherever he went. This was his last chance to make sure he was doing everything needful to obtain God’s favour, so when he learned the rabbi’s whereabouts he ran to him (forgetting his dignity), fell on his knees before him, and surprised himself with the words that came from his mouth, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Now all the rabbis he had known would be flattered by this form of address, but this one, apparently, was impervious to flattery. “Why do you call me good?” he said. “Only God is good.” Those words sat oddly on the young man’s soul, disquieting his expectations. Apparently law-keeping was not enough to earn the accolade of goodness. But the rabbi continued, asking questions like a doctor checking symptoms, and to these the young man could answer in the affirmative. Truly he had kept all these, truly he loved God’s law. And as they spoke he felt a warmth from the rabbi, a vast kindness that would draw him in to wonder beyond his imagination.

But then came the words that devastated him:  One thing you lack: go and sell all you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me.” Was this really the answer, that he should relinquish the very things that he had been taught were the signs of God’s favour, leave his whole life behind and follow an itinerant rabbi instead? How could he even answer this? He turned away, dejected, considering, faced with a dilemma he had never considered before. He had always seen his wealth as a fortress, his safe place against the vicissitudes of life. His wealth shielded him from both pain and temptation and gave him status as a man favoured by God’s blessing. But what if, in this fortress, he was not a comfortable guest, but, instead, a prisoner? What if, instead of being the way towards God, it was locking him away from the truly blessed life? Was it really necessary to walk away from that shelter and stand naked beneath the rain and wind of heaven? Did a man truly have to lose his life before he could find it?

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