Ever since I was a child, I’ve struggled with the question, “Who am I?” Partly it’s rooted in my experience in Catholic school, when three of us Carling boys wound up in the same fourth grade class – me, my twin Frank, and my older brother Richard. You see Richard was a truant, and was held back from the fifth grade. He’d attend school very occasionally, but more often than not, he’d “play hooky,” standing outside our first floor classroom window, making rude gestures toward the teacher, then running away. The class would collapse into hysterics, and either my twin or I would end up in the principal’s office – Sister Bernadette, who steadfastly refused to learn any of our names. Try as I might to say “I’m not Richard,” she’d simply mete out punishments to whoever was available. When we’re kids, people knowing our name is important.
But as we grow up, this question of “Who am I?” becomes much more complicated, doesn’t it? We’ve become so many different people – a child of certain parents, a sibling, a soccer player, a tenor, a physics major. Eventually, our various identities span our family histories, our ethnicity, our faith tradition, our sexual orientations, our passions and aspirations, and so much more.
In all this confusion, it’s hard to remember, when we strip away all of our roles, our activities, our achievements, what’s left? At our core, who are we really?
Which is actually what’s behind the rich young man’s question to Jesus in today’s gospel, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” You see, Jesus has been preaching that eternal life is not just a distant dream we hope to attain, but rather a matter of whether we’re truly alive in the here and now; whether the choices we make every day, create either a kind of heaven or hell for ourselves, for others, and for our world. Jesus has been teaching that our deepest attachments are actually our idols, and that they’re the true test of whether we’re spiritually alive or dead, the true test of who we really are. Jesus’ answer was simply too hard a choice for the rich young man, and he knew it, which is why he went away grieving.
The great Christian thinker Henri Nouwen once said, actually while teaching at Yale, that if you asked someone today this question, “Who are you?” you’d inevitably hear a three – part answer: “I am what I do.” “I am what others say about me.” “I am what I have.”
Apparently, 2000 years after Satan drove Jesus into the wilderness to present him with the three greatest temptations known to humanity, very little has changed. “Turn these stones into bread” the devil says, “and prove you’re a miracle worker. After all, you are what you do. Climb to the pinnacle of the Temple, throw yourself down, then land unharmed, and everyone will say you’re the Messiah, because you are what people think of you. Ascend the highest mountain, look all around, and I’ll give you everything you can see. You are what you have.”
Jesus replies that these are all bald – faced lies, derived from the common human hunger to be valued in the eyes of others, to be loved. He knows there’s a better way to nurture that hunger. You see, Jesus has just come from his own baptism by John, and he’s heard from his own Father who he is – “You are my beloved child in whom I am well pleased.”
If you want to be a disciple of Jesus, in word or in deed, make sure you’re basing it on what you know first – hand, not just on what some smart person has told you. Jesus only proclaims what he himself has experienced – that God sees us, God knows us, and God loves us – just as we are – you, me, and everyone in this church, at Yale, in New Haven and beyond. Because we are all God’s beloved, Jesus calls us his sisters and brothers, which means we are siblings of every human being in this hurting and violent world.
It’s like Jesus is saying to the rich young man, “You can choose whether to live into the amazing love affair I’m offering you – with yourself, with others, with my precious creation, and with me, your God – or you can choose other gods to love – what you do, what people say about you, what you have.”
I especially love the fact that Jesus, looking at the rich young man, loved him. He didn’t judge him, and he doesn’t judge us. Jesus lived and preached among an amazing diversity of people, and the last thing he expects is that we will all make the same choices about our lives. He’s not saying that what we do, or what people say about us, or what we have aren’t important, he’s asking how attached we are to any of them. How distracted we are by them from the work of God’s kingdom?
Jesus knows the cost if we’re not careful. We become workaholics, and stop caring for our families, friends and communities. We become so imprisoned by the expectations of others, we commit our lives to vocations that have nothing to do with making this world a better place, with developing all our gifts and talents in a way that brings us true joy. We become so attached to what we have, we protect it at any cost, whether that’s war, or a country that’s become awash in guns.
It’s not enough, Jesus tells this young man, to avoid the big sins, to do what’s expected. No, we’re called to a radical re-ordering of our lives to make them consistent with God’s purposes in the world, to assure that our life, well – lived, actually makes a difference.
So the next time someone asks you, “Who are you?” remember the choice that God gives us. Are you what you do, what people think of you, what you have? Or are you the best and brightest gift that God could ever imagine, a companion of Jesus in the creation of a new world? Which will it be? Careful… how you answer is guaranteed to change your life.