In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus teaches people the Sermon on the Mount and various parables about the nature of the spiritual life. And then, we get this line that says, “Then Jesus turned his face towards Jerusalem”. Since we know the end of the story, we know that he is turning to face his suffering and death, his fate as the Romans would say.
It is a reminder, as we begin Lent, that we are all moving towards the ‘point of our living’. David Brooks has written a wonderful book on this subject which he titled “The Second Mountain The Quest for a Moral Life.”
What Jesus teaches us is how to find something to live for that is bigger than yourself. That our ultimate fulfillment, found later in life, has to do with our moral character and finding a purpose for living that is profound enough to make our lives worth living. This is the larger spiritual archtype of our journey through life. We all go through this and in the process, we become a genuine human being.
It is the subject of the first book you read in college if you are lucky enough to study Liberal Arts. Homer wrote the only Classic I know of that is also a genuine page turner.
The Iliad is a symbolic tale of the first half of our life, so to speak. It is the story of beauty, physical prowess, battle, where we can achieve immortality.
The most beautiful woman in Greece is stolen by the most handsome man in Troy. Was she really stolen or did she fall in love and run away? You never really know.
But King Agamemnon wants to get her back. He reconnoiters all of the soldiers he can muster and sails for Troy. The Iliad regales the biggest battles and the heroes of war. Achilles, the greatest Greek soldier battles against Paris, the greatest Trojan soldier, who is also the most handsome man in the Trojan army. Paris kills him. The war starts to favor the Trojans.
Then Ajax fights Hector, the second most skillful soldiers, also described as physically handsome men. Ajax wins. These men are lifted up as the most courageous, most skillful heros that anyone knows.
And because they are so heroic, we record their deeds. We write poems about them. They enter the realm of immortality, literally. 3500 years later, we still know their names.
This is the first half of our life. We all start off wanting to make our mark and there is nothing wrong with having ambition. We dream of becoming a star. We dream of becoming the richest person in the world. These days, we dream of starting our own company like Uber and hitting it rich while we are still young.
David Brooks says we attend high-status colleges like Amherst, Stanford, Princeton so that we can go to work for high-status companies like Google, Goldman Sachs or Williams and Connolly, so that we can go to high-status graduate schools like Wharton Business School.
When we are young, we don’t actually ask ourselves much about where we are ultimately headed. We are way too busy pragmatically working the system. Our children are no longer in church because we have scheduled them into such competitive sports program’s they don’t have time for much else. We adults are guiding them to develop the proper resume to get into the most competitive track they can handle.
Brooks says that by the time our generation is in their 20’s most of their descriptions of themselves are “how busy they are”. They are primed to go into ‘hyper-people pleasing mode’ any time they are around the boss or someone that can advance the next step in their careers. We give out gold stars of affirmation every time ‘you mold yourself into the shrewd animal the workplace wants you to be. Not surprisingly, you start to view yourself not as a soul to be uplifted but as a set of skills to be maximized.
Nowadays, we actually magnify these trends with social media. We burnish our Linkedin persona. We do more image maintenance on Instagram, being photographed at cool venues, rubbing elbows with powerful people. We post ourselves living the life of privilege on Facebook.
Without really intending it, we become ‘insecure overachievers’, living like the point of our lives is an accumulating flow of accomplishment. [i] We manage to keep our attention diverted by our perq’s and rewards through our thirties and forties.
Until one day, we lose the thread of our lives. One day, we wake up and this doesn’t exactly make sense anymore. We had a national moment like that last week at the Funeral for Kobe Bryant. What got my attention was when they panned around the arena and showed the faces of all those incredibly successful athletes in the prime of their life. They have it all- success, money, fame, beautiful people.
They were there to honor a real star and they did. But when the cameras panned the audience, a lot of them had that ‘deer in the headlights’ stare. This death stopped them in their tracks. It befuddled them. It made them question their own lives and what they were doing and why they were doing it.
There they were, listening to Michael Jordan, the star of stars. And Michael didn’t talk about the beautiful life or the accomplished life. He talked about a relationship. He talked about having a brother. He talked about having a relationship, sharing a connection. He spoke from his heart about love.
At the end of our lives, relationships are what is really real. Love is what is really real. All those athletes with that ‘deer in the headlights look’ because they are engaged for a moment in a reflection from the heart and they are wondering to themselves, ‘Am I really connected to what is really real?’
And you start thinking about these things. You notice what is missing in your life. You worry about it in late night reflections because you know the clock is ticking.
You too, will turn your face towards Jerusalem. You want to know what you are here to accomplish for real. St. Augustine once said, “My heart was restless until it was at rest in Thee.” You don’t know what it is exactly, but you know you are restless and you have to find out.
That is what happened to Odysseus. He fights in the great war. The Greeks win. He is a hero. He’s done everything that people told him to do his whole life to become a success. He has achieved it.
But he has this crushing realization. He gets to this great point, but he is so sad. His friends are all dead. And he feels so alone. Victory is great, but it is too high a price. Suddenly he doesn’t care about having achieved immortality by being written into history.
He just wants to go home. It is so weird because he has the brass ring of success in his hand, but when he is alone, all by himself, he feels so lost and adrift. He just wants to go home. He just wants to be healed. He just wants his wife Penelope.
So he starts for home. Sometime in mid-life that is what happens to you, you need to find your real home. Jesus turned towards Jerusalem.
Alas, it is not so easy. This quest requires that we actually do some interior work. This quest requires that we find out who we are in the process, who we really are.
Odysseus starts for home. But one thing happens to him after another. His boat runs aground on an island. And he has to face one challenge after another, all the time he is learning things that are valuable life lessons, but some of them take a very long time to learn. And most of the time, he feels like he is drifting this way and that, confused, frustrated.
Weeks turn into months into years. Next thing you know, he has been trying to get home for 10 years. And across all of this time, home is no longer something he left behind. He is changed so much. And his home has changed so much that home is now something out ahead of him as much as behind him. It is where he is headed.
Jesus looked forward to the Kingdom of God. It was the hopeful pull of the future. It is a curious thing, but the first half of your life, you look backward to where you came from. And the second half of y our life, you just try to keep up with the future that is outrunning you.
The first half of our life we are always looking back to where we came from, back to our family of origin and where they came from. And the second half of our life we look forward to where our family and our spiritual family (the people that are closest to us) are headed; we are just trying to keep up with those that will outlive us as long as we can.
Odysseus has changed so much his people have changed so much that home is more of a quest for what is ahead than it is what is behind.
He knows his life is passing. He realizes that he can’t do everything. He is emotionally and spiritually ready to commit himself to just one thing.
We reach this point in our life where we just feel it in our bones, so to speak, we feel it in our souls that we want to live for something bigger than us. We’ve climbed the success ladder. We’ve been very good at perfecting the resume, burnishing our exterior image.
But there has to be something more. I have to live for something bigger. Jesus called it the Kingdom of God, something more, something out there in the future that is beckoning us…
And that beckoning is not to conquest, not to dominate for ourselves. From within, we want to serve the world. We want to heal something, in our quadrant of the universe, in the time we have left. We need to do this from somewhere deep inside of us. We need something more.
And this is where you want to leave your mark. In your service. Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Nelson Mandela, Stephen Biko- we admire these people because they led their lives in service to the world. And they didn’t have to go looking for their mission. Their mission presented itself as a broken world around them that they felt they had no choice but to heal. It is the bigger story of Jesus, real spiritual leadership of service to the world that redeems what is right in front of us.
Odysseus has learned the painful lesson of our lives that the only thing that is spiritually real is fidelity, relationship, being there for each other. What he knew as a warrior was a camaraderie, the unconditional support that you knew from your brothers who had your back. What he laments in his prolonged grief, the prolonged grief that every veteran has who tries to return home to normal life, what he laments is the loss of that genuine “steadfast love”.
And he heads home, hoping to find that with his beloved wife, Penelope. But it has been so long. She is undoubtedly angry at him being gone for so long, and she is. “What is it about men and their egos and their wars?” she wants to know.
Maybe she doesn’t want him anymore. Maybe she thinks I’m dead. Maybe she has remarried, found someone else, or moved on from relationships altogether.
Suddenly one day, a bit to his surprise, he finds himself on the shores of his homeland. His town is just a short walk away. But what to do? He doesn’t want to make a grand entrance. He is so beat up by the war, by his long journey home, he doesn’t even want a hero’s welcome and it could backfire anyway.
Spiritually, he is changed. He is looking at the world differently. He is looking at his life differently. So he decides to do some reconnaissance in the place he used to call home. And he deploys an ancient practice. He already has a long beard and he is older looking now, so he grows his hair out a little and dresses up as a homeless guy and enters his town. No one notices him. They don’t pay him any attention at all. So he gets to see his old friends walk right past him. He overhears their conversations in the market.
He learns that some of his old friends have been taking advantage of his absence and have connived his wife so that they are raiding his wine cellar and slaughtering his cows and throwing elaborate parties on a regular basis.
He overhears some of his other so called ‘friends’ hitting on his wife in public and shameless manner.
And he learns that other people are models of respect for him and his family and are trying to do the right thing. Some people try to run him off as a homeless guy, sick their dogs on him. And other people are incredibly generous and humane towards him.
Through the eyes of the least of these, he sees into their character. They reveal themselves. God’s view, the honest view, comes into perspective through the lens of the least of these. “Oh Lord”, people asked Jesus, “when did we help you when you were a stranger? When did we visit you in prison?” When you did it unto the least of these.”
Fortunately for Odysseus, his wife Penelope, is a model of longsuffering faith. She has endured running the estate and all of the vultures that have taken advantage of her weakened position with her husband away for years on end. She has endured raising her children alone.
And finally, Odysseus shaves and showers, gets new clothes, and he reveals himself just to his wife. Very complex emotional event. But both of them connect on this one dimension. They have learned that you need genuine, authentic, commitment to people that you can really trust to access the deeper meaning of love and meaning that our lives have to offer.
The human psyche is wrapped like an onion. You keep peeling back another layer of emotional insulation to access what is really real about us. And the more you do it, the more vulnerable and intimate it becomes. You can only do it with people that have your back, people that are really real. You need trust.
This is the interior quest. It is how we become moral people. Romance is great. Beauty is wonderful. Youth beguiles us all with exterior sexiness and erotic power. But that only takes us so far. Eventually we have to spiritually evolve inside of us.
In the book, one Dad describe it this way. Your mother and I discovered that after the petals had all fallen our roots were as one.
We need interdependent community. We discover the life of willing, joyful service because we are living from the inside out. And with a limited time left, in our quadrant of the world, we are going to make our personal statement in redeeming what we can by leaving a positive legacy and making a difference.
So, I hope for you profound struggles in yourself. I hope that you are surrounded with people that you can count on, that you will be of service to each other. I hope that you will radiate the deeper love that you can manifest. And may you stumble on the newer, deeper meaning. May you make a new home. Amen.
[i] Brooks “The Second Mountain” chapters 2 and 3.