Summum Bonum

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September 08, 2019

In retrospect, it was on Easter Sunday 1974 that I became a disciple.

It was my freshman year at Amherst College. You may have heard me say that the stupidest creature on planet earth is a college freshman. I was speaking on evidence of my own experience. On Easter Eve, I lost badly at beer pong and from there my night went south. Sunday morning, I stumbled out of bed to go to church for Easter service at Grace Episcopal on the town common. I arrived late. Sounds of brass, timpani, and “Welcome Happy Morning” floated towards me through the open door. When I heard them my heart filled up and tears poured out. Music does that to me. It opens the floodgates. This was an emotional epiphany, that I wasn’t being true to things I knew and felt to be important, that were in those sounds floating through the door. I was mad at my stupidity. It had been months since I had been to church. No one else I knew was going. We freshman had other fish to fry. But I decided that day to start. Grace Church offered a Eucharist late Sunday afternoons, in its small chapel, usually just four or five people with an old priest. From that Easter forward through the next three years I always went alone and almost never missed. I believed the music and I followed.

Jesus turned to them and said: “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

Do I hate my father, God rest his soul? Quite the opposite. The worst pain I’ve felt in sixty-four years of life was watching his slow decline into dementia. I love my father. I love my mother and my sisters too. (Today is my late sister Neil’s birthday, I pray in heaven.) My most difficult night as Dean was the night before my mother died on our farm in Louisiana. It was a Saturday night and I had a wedding. I was scheduled to preach the next morning. The call came that mother was very sick. “How sick?” It was hard to say, but it might not be long. “How long?” No one knows. So do I go or do I stay?  I had gone another time and it had been a false alarm. I decided to stay for the wedding and Sunday morning church, then drove fast to Louisiana.

Weighing options, choosing as best one can—such is the life of a disciple. Mother waited until I got there, then, surrounded by her children, died. There is no hate in any part of that—just love.

Do I hate my wife? Obviously not. That would be a broken promise and unanswered prayer. Right on these steps I promised Julie I would love, comfort, honor and keep her in sickness and in health, and forsaking all others be faithful to her as long as we both would live. At the rail our promises were blessed: Let their love for each other be a seal upon their hearts. Forty-one years later we are going strong.

Do we hate our children? Are we nuts? They are our pride and joy. We love their spouses too. We adore our grandchild Rosie. In Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, a father tells his son his love for him is like the grace of God: “Your existence is a delight to me.” Our love for our children is God-like. We know this as disciples.

“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.”

What does this mean?

In context, it means that Jesus is in danger and he knows it. His crowds are swept up in an emotional epiphany. They hear his music and believe it. They will follow him into God knows what, naively. Discipleship was risky and the danger was contagious. If I go, I put my family at risk of heartbreak financial ruin. “If you want to do that to your family, follow me.” Jesus shocks the crowd, sending many home to safety. Those who stay the course now know the cost. They’ve been given fair warning. That’s a far more plausible interpretation than that Jesus Christ was anti-family.

If interpretations were blankets, though, that one is not big enough to cover the whole bed. There is another interpretation not limited to ancient context.

I dusted off my old Greek-English lexicon and looked up the word for “hate,” misew. The first meaning given is “detest.” In Southwest Conference days I hated Texas. I hate green peas. Hate like that, a bad family might deserve. Most do not. But, according to my lexicon, there

is another meaning of misew. The dictionary phrasing is awkward, so I will just tell you what I think it means.[1]

To put family first in life is natural instinct, related to survival. Faith is more than instinct. “Whoever can’t live beyond their instinct can’t be my disciple.”

One of the most life affirming themes in Christian faith is Aquinas’s teaching on God as the supreme good–– the summum bonum. The world with all our loves is good—top to bottom, end to end. All our loves, subsist in God who is their source and goal. For sub-rational creatures, loving the world and life is loving God. Humans are equipped for more. We can sort true from false and bad from good. We see the world through faith and hope, with love.

It hardly needs saying that family loyalty is good. We are rightly partial to our wives and husbands, children, parents, siblings, cousins. I owe my children a love that no one else does—my wife and parents too. “Honor your father and mother” is the Fifth Commandment. But everyone not named Cersei Lannister knows that family is not the only good. We weigh family in the balance with with other goods that claim our loyalty. We do the weighing faithfully and hopefully and lovingly in God. “Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit,” we pray.  That is the Spirit of the summum bonum.

We have everything to live for. That does need saying, lovingly. Right and left, people are losing faith not only in God but in everything good, including family. The summum bonum is the ballast for belief in all our loves. Without it, those beliefs are prone to capsize.

In faith we say and sing the highest good accompanied by timpani and brass. We are children of it, brothers and sisters in it. Christ shows it and he names it love. The closest thing to it that many of us know is love for wife, husband, children, parents, friends and family. These are reflections of the love of God: “Love divine, all loves excelling, joy of heaven to earth come down.” That’s who is speaking in the first commandment with the meaning of misew: “You shall have no other Gods but me.”

What Jesus says about our family, he also says about our stuff. We must hate that too. “So therefore, none of you can become my disciples if you do not give up your possessions.”  Hearing that, I think first of things like houses, cars, computers, and investments. Jesus means such things, no doubt. But we disciples also hear him talk of giving up our life. “Those who want to save their lives will lose them.”

So now I am thinking of possessions broadly, like John Locke did. Governments, according to Locke, were made to protect our property, by which he meant, I quote, our “life, liberty, and estate.”[2] There is so much more to that than houses, cars, computers, and investments.

Would a world without material possessions be a better place? Sometimes it works. I think of St. Francis. Sometimes it does not. I think of Joseph Stalin.

Our Episcopal roots are in the England of John Locke. Unsurprisingly, our church would leave our life, liberty, and estate in our own hands. In the old Thirty-Nine Articles of English religion, Article Thirty-Eight is titled “Of Christian Men’s’ Goods, Which are are not Common.” It states, I quote, “the riches and goods of Christians are not common, as touching the right, title, and possession of the same; as certain Anabaptists do falsely boast.” The article adds that everyone ought, “of such things as he possesseth, liberally to give alms to the poor, according to one’s ability.”[3]

God expects more from us that, I’m sure. Article Thirty-Eight sounds like it was written by a convention and adopted after an amendment from the floor. But far be it from me to quarrel with the policy that our riches and goods, so-called, remain in our possession, as disciples, “as touching the right, title, and possession of the same.” So do our God-given liberty and life.

We must watch that they don’t consume us. If even family is not the summum bonum, God forbid that goods and riches would be. Through faith and hope we know ourselves as stewards of our life, estate, and liberty. Our riches and goods subsist in God who is their source and goal—and so do we. By right, title and possession we belong to love divine, to whom we are finally accountable. In that love, no doubt, we will part with some goods and riches along the way. With faith, comes that responsibility.

I was raised in church to know that and it bothered me as I walked across the Amherst village common, late to church, one Easter Sunday morning. My goods and loves were out of whack and I could feel it. Sounds of choir with timpani and brass, floating out with scents of Easter lilies, called me in.

[1] “To be disinclined to, disfavor, disregard in contrast to preferential treatment.” Greek-English Lexicon of the New Tesmaent and Other Early Christian Literature, third edition, Frederick William Danker ed., based on Walter Bauer. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).

[2] John Lock, Second Treatise on Government, Kindle edition, page 46.

[3] See page 876 in the Book of Common Prayer.