This morning as I was floating along in my contemplation of the famous parable of the Good Samaritan, my mind hitched up on a snag. What, I wondered, is this “what must I do to inherit eternal life” bit? Is eternal life the reward for good Christian behavior? What is eternal life?
There is no doubt in my heart that Christ has led us, through his suffering, death, and resurrection, into the understanding that, as St. Paul says, death has no sting. He has conquered death and prepared a place for us, and so I don’t have to fear. But this living on beyond death does not seem to me to be something one earns through doing things, through loving God and being a good neighbor. Rather it is the free gift of a God who loves us each profoundly and who doesn’t want to lose the unique essence of us – ever.
So, what is this eternal life that must be inherited?
This morning I was contemplating from a chair out in my backyard. The leaves of the trees above were telegraphing green light. A dozen or so little birds, finches probably, were gathered around the empty bird feeder, fluttering hopefully from the tray to the ground in search of seeds. Other birds, hidden away in neighbors’ yards, broke the silence with their piercing song. Two squirrels hopped onto the tree under which I sat and stared at me from the branches just out of my reach. I could see the sunlight sparkling in their eyes. I sipped my coffee – rich and nutty.
Some people say that eternal life means being in the eternal present – being here, now, in the mindfulness that Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn espouses. And I can see how loving God with my whole heart, all my soul, all my strength and all my mind surely puts me in the present moment. Loving God, being thankful and grateful, taking in the incredible wealth right here, right now, all around me – that’s surely present-moment stuff. Even when the moments aren’t all that great – those moments in the Emergency Room that are full of pain and fear, the moments of taking leave, of grieving – being aware of the living God in the middle of these makes a big difference.
Some people say that loving God and loving one’s neighbor are just two lenses through which we conceptualize the same activity – two sides of the same coin. If I think of my neighbor as a window to God – and I know we are all windows to God – that feels right. But I have to be willing to listen deeply, to really see and hear that neighbor of mine.
Personally, I don’t know. But it seems to me that the moments of loving God and of loving my neighbor are good moments. When I can really see and listen deeply to the person who is in front of me, that is a good moment. When God’s presence pushes its way past the ego barriers that keep me perseverating on the successes and tragedies of my life, that is a good moment. Somehow these moments just feel more real. I remember them longer. They become the material of good stories and fresh dreams.
I would love to know what Christ would say today in our modern language and in our current ways of thinking, about eternal life. Beloved Christ, what is eternal life and what must we do to find it?