Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Robert Farrar Capon Is a Genius, Part Two

I don't recall why--maybe I needed to pad my word count, or maybe my editor told me "You need more Bible in this book," or maybe I was simply in a mood--but on a whim one morning while working on Deliver Us from Me-Ville I started doodling about Jesus' encounter with the Rich Young Ruler, a story recounted in three of the four Gospels. And then I crammed it into the book--somewhat arbitrarily, I can now admit--and it became one of my favorite parts. I've gone on to have it excerpted in a magazine for college students and delivered it in verbal form to a variety of audiences. I actually look for opportunities to bring it up; how pathetic is that?

I think I warmed to it so thoroughly because I found myself identifying with this kid, who has the sheer moxie to approach Jesus with a dismissive wave of the hand toward everyone else around them. "Forget the riff raff," he seems to suggest; "tell me the secret. Trust me, I can take it." So, as the story goes, Jesus gives it to him. But there's more to this story: it's bookended by two other encounters. The outline goes like this: (A) Against the impulses of his followers, Jesus welcomes little children and offers them a special blessing; (2) seeing this, an impulsive up and comer comes up to Jesus and gets his come-uppance from him; (III) observing this, Jesus' impulsive disciple Peter distances himself from the brash upstart and proceeds to sound almost exactly like him in his whiny appeal for special blessing. I could go on and on (if you don't believe me, ask someone who's heard me speak), but you get the picture. I love this story.

So imagine my delight when I turned the page in the third section of the great Robert Farrar Capon's Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, in which he interprets the parables of judgment, to find him giving space to this very interchange. Identifying the young man as a "yuppie," he imagines the inner monologue that drives his request of Jesus:

"Oh yes," he sighs, "I have had what once I would have called success. I moved the vices out of the city into a chain of reconditioned lighthouses. I introduced stastitical methods into the Liberal Arts. I revived the country dances and installed electric stoves in the mountain cottages. I saved democracy by buying steel. . . . But the world is no better and it is now quite clear to me that there is nothing to be done with such a ship of fools adrift on a sugarloaf sea in which it is going very soon and suitably to its founder. Deliver me, dear Teacher, from the tantrums of my telephones and the whispers of my secretaries . . . deliver me from these helpless agglomerations of dishevelled creatures with their bed-wetting, vomiting, weeping bodies, their giggling, fugitive, disappointing hearts, and their scrawling, blotted misspelled minds, to whom I have so foolishly tried to bring the light they do not want."


I think this guy was an editor. You can taste the contempt with which he holds everyone else. Jesus once looked at his ragtag following, sighed and muttered, "How long must I abide with you?" This Rich Young Ruler (let's call him Dave) seems to have adopted that attitude as his imitation of Christ. Capon sums it up: "This fellow is a winner who will not give up trying to win." Which, as he quickly reminds us, completely misses Jesus' point:

In spite of this acted parable of the Rich Young Man--in spite of Jesus' clear insistence that no winner will ever do anything but lose--you and I go right on blithely trying to win. If it is not financial success that keeps us from the saving emptiness of Jesus on the cross, it is moral success intellectual success, emotional success, or spiritual success. We simply will not lose; and without losing, we will never, ever win.


As I'm now closing in on the big 4-0, I'm coming to terms with a cosmic truth: everything ages, and at the end of our aging lies our inevitable death--the end of our life, which can only be understood as a loss. But, as Capon repeatedly reminds us, Jesus loves losers, and Jesus uses loss to usher in a celebration of life that won't end. Jesus begs the Rich Young Ruler to give up being rich, young and a ruler; he begs the same of us, because until we let go of our preoccupations and surrender our self-assertion--until we die to such silliness--we will never enter his rest or enjoy his feast.

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