To live, we die, and in dying, we live. That is the message of the cross. That message is central to any, and every, spiritual path. It is as basic as it gets. Spirituality 101. Every spiritual journey is, essentially, “the way of the cross.” Every spiritual master understands, incarnates, exemplifies the cross’ message of life and death, death and life. The way of the cross is the way of spiritual growth and development. It is the heart of the spiritual process.
Jesus gets this as clearly as anyone has ever gotten it. “Those who seek to save their lives will lose them, and those who lose their lives for my sake and the gospel (or, in the service of that which is greater than they are), will find them.” The “gospel,” that Jesus was talking about was the “good news of the kingdom of God,” which was, through the lives of his companions, to become as real on earth “as it was in heaven.” It was a kingdom of equality, and justice, and compassion, and peace-without-military victory. It was the antithesis of the kingdom of Caesar.
To live the way God would live if God were human (Loving one another, loving your neighbor as yourself, loving your enemies, doing unto others as you would have them do unto you) would be to invite reprisals, to make sacrifices, and to die again and again. So, Jesus could say, “No one can be my companion who does not take up the cross daily and come with me.” Companionship with Jesus is a continual experience of dying to one idea of how life should be lived and living to another idea of how life should be lived.
How SHOULD life be lived? What is central to life? What is peripheral? What are the “first things” that we must do first? How would God do it if God were human? These are the questions that Jesus seemed to have asked. His answers were quite different from the answers of his contemporaries, both Jewish and Roman.
“If God were human, God would be like a Samaritan helping a Jew. Like a loving father welcoming a prodigal home. Like a vineyard owner who paid everyone the same amount no matter how much they worked,” said Jesus. “But that would be crazy!”, objected his listeners. “The world doesn’t work like that!” “Exactly,” said Jesus.
The way of the cross is NOT the way of the world. To say, “That’s the way the world works,” or “That’s just how it is,” is to keep things as they are. “If you pay everyone the same amount, no matter how much they work, you’ll never get anyone to work in the heat of the day. That’s just how it is.” The kingdom of God is not economically savvy. The world cannot wait to take advantage of a God like God. The huckster and hustler in all of us wakes up and begins to stir. “You mean I can live the life of a prodigal, whooping it up and playing fast and loose, and then come home and be forgiven, and made over, and treated like royalty?” We like the way that sounds, until we understand that “what goes around comes around,” and that we are expected to treat one another with the same reckless abandon and gracious love that God extends to us.
It isn’t only about what we get. It is also about what we give. And when we refuse to give as we have been given, we dry up on the inside and crumble away, like whitewashed tombs. And, there is nothing left of us to resurrect from the dead, because we have died in the wrong cause, and served the wrong master, and lived in light of the wrong ideas regarding how life should be lived. “Those who seek to save their lives will lose them.” They will be like the man “who built his house on sand,” and after the storm there was nothing left.
We’re back to the question, “How SHOULD we live our life?” Jesus doesn’t spell it out, because it cannot be spelled out. There is no formula for right living, no recipe for doing it as God would do it. “Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves,” says Jesus. “You figure it out,” says Jesus. We live our way into the heart of truth. We stumble into the kingdom of God. There is no plan for realizing it. We do the right thing that is before us and see where it takes us. We live toward as much as we see that is right in this moment, and trust ourselves to find some way of continuing the process in the next moment. Already this is different from the way of the world.
The way of the world is to calculate the percentages, run the numbers, do a cost/benefit analysis every fifteen minutes, and keep an eye on the bottom line. If it isn’t profitable, we cut our losses while they are still manageable, and put our money on a sure thing. The way of the world is the way of gaining, and maintaining, and extending, the advantage. In the world, we don’t do anything that doesn’t pay off. That isn’t smart. That doesn’t turn a profit. The way of God is a gamble all the way.
God takes wild chances, forgives seventy times seven times, and keeps welcoming the prodigal home. And, doesn’t have a plan for making things happen as they should. It all hangs by a fine thread. Why should we care about doing it God’s way? What’s in it for us? The huckster and hustler in us can’t help asking “What’s in it for us?” Already, we have stepped aside from God’s way, from doing it the way God would do it if God were us. God wouldn’t ask, “What’s in it for me?” It may take a while for us to “be as God is.” That’s why the spiritual journey is the way of the cross. There is a lot of dying involved. We don’t get to the life part except through the death part. And, if we decide not to bother, well, that’s death, too.