At Play In His Presence

LTC-brjohn-clean

Jesus looked at the man, loved him, and said:”One thing is lacking to you. Go, sell whatever you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, and come follow me.”
Mark 10: 21

[Wisdom spoke]. . . “I was by God’s side, a master craftsman,/delighting him day after day,/ever at play in his presence,/at play everywhere in his world,/delighting to be with the children of men.”
Proverbs 8: 30-31

In their commentary on Mark 10:21, John R. Donohue, SJ and Daniel Harrington, SJ point out the following:

As the example of Job shows, a pious man was expected to prosper and then to serve as a benefactor for those in need (see Job 1:1-5; 29:1-25). Being a benefactor in turn won gratitude from the beneficiaries and a good reputation in society at large. Jesus is asking the man to divest himself of all his goods once and for all and so deprive himself of the role of benefactor. (The Gospel of Mark, p. 303)

In fact, the people of Jesus’ time were not so different from ourselves. We readily perceive our value to ourselves and others in terms of what we have to offer them, quite often in the material realm. There is, of course, good reason for this belief. What are the nature of those gatherings which honor the generosity and benevolence of people in our culture? Such occasions are usually held in as lavish a surrounding as possible, with the most extravagant food, drink, and entertainment affordable. They are celebrations of benefaction that is the result of prosperity. In our time its, we might say realistically, the prosperous big donors that make benevolence to others possible.

Jesus looks at the rich man, the gospel tells us, with love. “Jesus looked at the man, loved him, and said: ‘One thing is lacking to you.’” There is for us enormous irony in what Jesus says to the man. The precise cause of the man’s lack is his wealth. Jesus looks with love on him not because of but despite and beyond his wealth. Jesus sees, and so loves, what this “good” man is beneath his attachments, including the attachment to possessions in order to “do good” with them. The love of Jesus is an invitation to the man to change his relationship to wealth and possession that he might know and so share the love that Jesus is offering.

The “certain man” of this gospel passage is most of us. We want to be good and to do good with what we have. Like the man whom Jesus encounters, we try to keep the commandments and to give to others from what we have come to possess. Yet, the great pathos in this passage is the same that we ourselves too often experience. We are often unable, as the gospel character, to recognize and respond to the loving look of Jesus on us. We, as he, have so come to identify with what we do and what we possess that we longer know ourselves as the one whom Jesus is loving beneath all our material and moral possessions.

Jesus’ rejecting the man’s identification of him as “good” is often a mysterious aspect of this gospel. Perhaps, however, what Jesus is rejecting is what the man means when he calls Jesus good. As Jesus tells him, “No one is good except God alone.” We see ourselves and others as worthy of love because they are, in our terms, “good”, that is successful and benevolent. That, however, is not the nature of the love of God and of Jesus. God does not love us because of what we do and what we have, but because of who we are in God’s sight. The poor are blessed because their situation makes them less likely to be confused about this. They have no “valuables” with which to cover themselves, with which to build an alternative identity. To be able to respond to the love with which Jesus looks on us, we must sell all and give the proceeds away. It is not that act that act of dispossession that makes us worthy of being loved, however. it is, rather, that by becoming poor we are then able to recognize the love of Jesus for us and respond to it.

Yesterday, as we celebrated the Feast of the Holy Trinity, we heard from Proverbs a description of Wisdom. Wisdom is forever at play in the presence of God everywhere in the world, and also delights in the human race. In our materialistic consciousness, we continue to believe that affluence is a source of joy. Our own sense of values and what is good continue to blind us who live in the world of affluence to what seems to be an increasing inability to play and experience delight in each other. The need to make more, even in order to do our “good” works, and to preserve and increase what we have, creates a deepening sense of frustration, cynicism, and dismal earnestness that seems to have overcome our capacity and eroded our time for play and delight. I cannot delight in someone with whom I am contracting. I cannot play when my own well-being or the well-being of my project is “on the line” in my various human encounters.

To play requires a heart that is capable of reception and delight. Very unlike many of our physical, material, and functional counterfeit forms of love, the experience of recognizing and receiving the wonder of the world and the spiritual delight of other human persons evokes a playful response in us. Perhaps we are most truly God’s children when we recognize each other as “playmates.” Little children do not naturally discriminate. When they see any other young children, they awaken with delight and desire to play with them. They do not rationally engage in appraising what the other has or doesn’t have to offer them. They rather recognize another like themselves with whom they long to share life and delight for a while.

The challenge of today’s gospel, for those of us who live a life of relative (or absolute) affluence, is whether or not we are willing, for the sake of love, to sell what we have and give it to the poor. For us, the great obstacle to love is our misunderstanding of where love comes from and what it asks of us. As the people of Jesus’ time, we are convinced that our goodness is dependent on our virtue, and our benevolence is dependent on our possessions. Yet, we are not called to make ourselves good, for “No one is good except God alone.” Rather, all of us, without discrimination, are being looked on with love by Jesus. In the delight of loving and being loved, the hard work of making something of ourselves and being good is transformed into the grateful and appreciative playing together in God’s world that is a sharing in the creative life of wisdom among us.

Wisdom is the ability to possess oneself rather than to dominate oneself. It transforms the parcel of being which is given to us into a good, ever present, and indefinitely increasing. We slowly acquire a subtle and powerful art; we do not devalue the finite by comparison with the infinite, but rather we learn to find the infinite in the finite. So far from separating me from the world, I discover ever new relationships between the world and myself, responses coming from the world to appeals coming from me, and appeals coming from the world to which I must respond.

The wise person can always be recognized by an extremely delicate sensitivity, with the consequence that the world contains no object which fails to awaken an echo in his or her heart, teaching that person something or requiring something of that person. At the opposite end of the scale, the blind of heart remains ever alone, and the fool always acts too soon or too late.

Louis Lavelle, The Dilemma of Narcissus, p. 202

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