We are half way through our winter series about the centrality of love the teaching of Jesus. We’re following this sequence that the author Brian McLaren has recommended – moving from neighbor to self to whole world to God. This being our second week on unselfish love of self. We follow this sequence because when we jump right in to Jesus’ first commandment to love God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, it’s easy for that to be abstract or disembodied. Love of God can be reduced to believing a statement of faith, or to ideas we have in our head about the divine, or to like a really small number of loyalty tests — like if love God, here are the short list of things we do or don’t do.
The scope of this series is meant to ground us in what love really looks and feels like — kindness, generosity, respect, justice, freedom, a holy yearning for the highest good. And it’s meant to ground us in our real communities and lives and settings because, as I like to say, reality is the friend of God. Our present lives and circumstances are the only place we can experience the goodness and love of God, and they are the only laboratory in which we can learn to love. Our present lives and circumstances are the only studio in which we can train in God’s ways of love for us and through us.
Our reality is God’s friend, but it’s not always our friend. Or we don’t think it is. Sometimes the real us that God loves is not the person we’re trying to be.
I remember, for instance, the day I decided that if I was going to be a leader, I was going to have to become guarded and humorless. It happened like this. I was a new principal of a school, and I’d been encouraging more hands-on, discovery-based learning. Kids were bored in class, the work was too often meaningless, and I was inviting teachers to consider how they could connect their teaching with more real-world discovery and connection. So I was thrilled when I learned over email that the whole middle and high school social studies department had introduced a new kind of summer project. Rather than required readings, they were asking all students to visit a monument and to notice and do certain things. Well, I thought that was the greatest, and I wanted to encourage them. So I chimed in on this email thread where I had been included. And I said: How great is this. Who knows what amazing monuments our kids will discover and visit? Maybe one of them will even go here:
And I included a link I found. It was a picture of a monument constructed in Russia in 2008, a monument to the enema. I kid you not — this is a real thing. As you may imagine, one of a kind as well. Yeah, these three cherubs are holding an 800-pound bronze syringe bulb.
I thought this was hysterical and just the kind of thing a clever high school kid would try to visit in a monument project. So I sent the picture with my congratulations, and got a couple of cool, Gee, thanks, Steve, emails came back. But then the next day, at the end of the school day, my boss, the city’s superintendent, called me into her office. And her assistant superintendent was there as well, and they said — Steve, we need to talk. And they gave me this dressing down about how leaders have to watch what they say and email. I guess one of the middle school faculty who didn’t know me thought I was mocking their work and that the whole enema monument picture was in poor taste, which — fair enough — maybe it was. But I still hold, it was funny.
Anyway, there was something for me to learn, I’m sure, about being careful with my communications, particularly with people that didn’t know me. But the way that meeting went, I left ashamed of myself, and determined to never get in trouble like that again. I remember saying out loud, I guess if I want to do this work, I need to kill off my sense of humor, or at least bury it for a while, and I need to be on my guard.
And you know who lost out because of that? Everybody. Everyone.
This might not be the only reason, but I spent the rest of my tenure in that position more guarded, more sober, less cheerful, frankly less childlike than I actually am. Parts of true me got covered over, I put those parts of myself into hibernation, and I think my work and I both suffered for it.
Sometimes in our work, or in other areas of our lives, we lose our true selves. We cover it over with the false self we try to become or that we project to the world. We reject or hide a part of ourselves that God dearly loves, and that we’d flourish if we were to love as well.
Today I’ll talk about this concept that psychologically astute theologians have written about — it’s the true self and the false self. Part of loving ourselves as Jesus calls us to is uncovering, inhabiting, and appreciating our true selves — not the fake self we wish we were or the image we wish we could present to the world — but the one who we are, who we were made to be, the real person God loves today.
We’ll see that the recovery of the true self is one feature of what Jesus and the scriptures call salvation.
Let’s meet someone else, a man from the pages of Jesus’ memoirs, who in his work has lost his true self. He’s a man famous for being short, and for being a collector of taxes, and his name’s Zaccheus. Here’s his story.
Luke 19:1-10 (CEB)
19 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through town. 2 A man there named Zacchaeus, a ruler among tax collectors, was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but, being a short man, he couldn’t because of the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed up a sycamore tree so he could see Jesus, who was about to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came to that spot, he looked up and said, “Zacchaeus, come down at once. I must stay in your home today.” 6 So Zacchaeus came down at once, happy to welcome Jesus.
7 Everyone who saw this grumbled, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
8 Zacchaeus stopped and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much.”
9 Jesus said to him, “Today, salvation has come to this household because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 The Human One came to seek and save the lost.”
I love this story so much. We think sometimes about sin as these rash choices we make that hurt us or someone else, and virtue as these quietly good habits of ours. But in Zaccheus’ life it’s the reverse — his sin, his missing the mark, is this long, steady descent into a life I’m sure he never wanted for himself. But he reverses course in this rash, impulsive choice toward goodness and justice.
So much we don’t know about this man Zaccheus. A few things we do know, though, and then a few things I imagine might be so. We know that Zaccheus is short of stature, a line about his height but also a hint about his reputation — not fully accepted by the Romans and now also resented by his fellow Jews. A man who does not belong.
We also know that he is wealthy, and that his wealth came through questionable means. He’s a highly placed collaborator with the Roman Empire. I talked last week about how Rome pushed violence and massive taxes out to the edge of its empire to create prosperity and peace at its center. Residents of first century Palestine faced a huge tax burden that didn’t much benefit from, and local tax collectors made their wealth through charging extra and skimming it off the top. As a chief tax collector at this point, Zaccheus is benefiting from a whole team of collectors selling out their own culture, with Zaccheus skimming off what they skim. He has cheated a lot of people.
What drives a person into this line of work? How do you start betraying your own culture, and participating in an oppressive economic system? How do you end up rich, but alienated and unhappy?
Well, we don’t know, but I imagine how it might have been, and to tell you what I imagine, I have to tell you about this insight from the therapist Dan Allender. Dan Allender has written a lot of books on faith and psychology, he has a center now at the Seattle School, and he’s got this podcast I listen to sometimes too. And on the podcast, Dan Allender had three episodes on delight as a really useful compass in decision making.
And in that teaching, Allender pointed out that grownups so often make our decisions out of duty, debt, or necessity. We do what we think we ought, or we have to, or we must. And plenty of times, this is fine — this is just called being an adult. We’re supposed to do a chore in our household, and we do that chore — people are counting on us. Or we have student loans, and we do what need to do to pay them. This is part of life, and finding a way to satisfy our duties and debts and necessities with commitment, and with a measure of gratitude and joy is central to any good life.
That said, Allender observes that when we live primarily out of duty, debt, and necessity, we end up with a life of pressure and boredom, and a lack of life and vitality. We feel the pressure of our mounting debt and duties. And we don’t much like the life we’re living, so we get bored and we lack enthusiasm and energy. That describes my guarded, humorless phase of leadership pretty well. More cautious, more of what others would call responsible, but under pressure, less myself, less alive.
Can you feel me on this at all?
In your work, are you primarily driven by duty and necessity? In your finances, is the main story about your crushing debt or your anxieties? Is all this leaving you bored, or pressured, or just sucking the life out of you?
I wonder if this is what happened to Zacchues. Perhaps he was afraid of the empire’s might, and responded to their call to duty, to serve Rome? Maybe he or his parents had debt, and he saw a way to earn good money and be out from under it? Maybe he started out as a tax collector, not knowing how corrupt he’d become, or how resented he’d by his whole community, but once he’d put in time and experience, he saw no other way out, just a necessity in continuing with what he knows.
Whatever the story looked like for him, more and more he became this different person. He was small and wanted to project an image of strength, and so he did. Or he followed necessity and duty and debt into this life of wealth, but lost his center in the process. Either way, he now inhabited this false self — the person he was never meant to be.
There’s two clues in the text that I’m onto something here. One is about the tree. When Zaccheus wants to see Jesus, he climbs into a sycamore tree. Which it’s been pointed out is a tree that can look like a fruity fig tree, but in fact bears no fruit. Jesus used fruit and the fruit of fig trees in particular to represent a good life, a life whose good center is producing good, healthy, visible results. This tree isn’t that — no fruit. And then this word Zaccheus uses for what he’s done wrong – he’s cheated or defrauded people. There’s a play on words here, in that linguistically connected to the word “fig” as well — figs being an important part of the ancient near eastern economy.
Zaccheus himself is a “false fig.” No stature, and no fruit. He’s lost his way. He’s the false, unhappy, fruitless version of what he was meant to be.
The second clue is what Jesus calls him. When Jesus sees him up in the tree, in Jesus’ mind, the obvious next step is to say: we have got to share a meal together in your home. Which nobody else was doing, right? Because they hated Zaccheus, the feared him probably — go to this guy’s house and he’ll take your money. They certainly resented him, he was a sell-out; he had lost his belonging in their community.
But not to Jesus. After Zaccheus experiences Jesus seeing him, Jesus’ welcome of him, he makes this extravagant pledge of justice and economic restoration. Then Jesus says of Zaccheus, good stuff is happening today, you’re seeing salvation, because this too is a son of Abraham. This is a real Jew! This man belongs in our family. He’s good people.
Jesus sees the true self. The guy who’s great with money and the guy who’s great with communication and relationships, but who’s now using those skills the way they were meant to be used. The real you is finally showing itself, Jesus says.
The Catholic mystic Thomas Merton wrote,
Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self. This is the person that I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him… My false… self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love – outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion.
Another writer, William Shannon says the false self “is a human construct that we bring into being by our own actions, especially our habits of selfishness and our constant flight from reality. It is an empty self. This is the self that we protect at all costs and shelter with fabrications.”
We all have these versions of ourselves that we’re trying to be—the image of who we wish we were, or the image we’re trying to project into the world. These days, our social media self is part of how we do that. Look, I’m so happy, we say to the world.
Perhaps our false self is the person of our fantasies, perhaps as I talked about last week, it’s the reaction to the story someone else wrote for our life. Or perhaps our false self is the person that our duty or debt or necessity has led us to become.
God sees through this false self to the real you, the real me. In fact, theologians tell us God can’t see our false selves at all, because they don’t really exist. God can only see what’s real and true. So Jesus looks at Zaccheus and didn’t see that sold out, empty soul tax collector. Jesus didn’t love Zaccheus despite who he was. Jesus loved the true Zaccheus he could still see. He still saw the real son of Abraham, the good and just and generous guy of his true self.
Just like back when in reaction to necessity and fear, I made my vow of humorless caution, Jesus looked and still saw childlike, enthusiastic me, waiting for the true self to be released again.
I love Jesus’ favorite nickname for himself we get in the last verse. It’s normally translated Son of Man, as a title, as it references some important Hebrew scripture about a Son of Man. But it also literally means son of a guy, like a human being, or as the editors of this excellent translation call it – The Human One. The real person.
Jesus is the only human who always was his true self, and only sees the true self in everybody else. The Human One is looking for us. The Human One has come to seek and save the lost. The Human One knows the real you, and the Human One is looking for that real you to show, friends. For you to love your true self.
Sometimes Jesus finds the real us in worship, in prayer and meditation, in the vulnerability we practice in community — these are all places we can be our real selves and find that we known and loved by God, and come to know and love ourselves.
But it’s fun when this happens in public life too, like when it happens at work. I had a cool experience of this recently as a supervisor. This is a story about one of our beloved pastors, Ivy Anthony, and I share it with her total permission.
Ivy and I were having her annual review, talking about her work last year, and some things she’s learned. And one of her comments was that over the past three years as a pastor, she’s learned something important about who she is as a person and as a worker, I guess. She said she’d always known she was good at compliance. She worked in finance and business, I think in the area of compliance in particular. And she knew how to that because always, since she was young, she knew how to follow all the rules. Ivy, the person of compliance.
But you all know, if you’ve been part of this community very long, that over the past three years, Ivy has been the driving force behind some of the most beautiful innovation, the creations of sacred space. She’s envisioned and led our retreats and our occasional participatory liturgies on Sundays when we change our service to a less verbal, and more interactive experience. She’s designed these experiences in which we can take a breath and be with one another and try to notice the God who is with us in all things as well. And I’m talking with Ivy, and she’s like, this creative person, this person who designs space and experience for community and connection with God and one another — this isn’t like this thing I’ve done on the side, this is an important part of who I am. Not just compliance but innovation and creativity.
Which is such a gift to us all for Ivy to share her gifts with us, but so awesome for her to, to more and more see and love her true self, the self Jesus sees and loves as well.
This is what Jesus, the Human One, does for us all — see us, see the real me, the real you, invite himself over to spend time in our houses, saying this too is my kind of person. I love this one!
And in this, if we let it, salvation comes. The uncovering of the beloved, true self. The release of the full you and the full me.
I love this enthusiasm that is released in Zaccheus. It’s kind of over the top. He’s not thinking about what a massive and fraught program it is that he’s announcing. I’m gonna pay back everybody, and all the ones who’s suffered injustice, I’ll pay them all extra!
How will he do all this? How will he see it through? We have no idea, but we see this moment of delight. When Zaccheus shifts from duty and necessity and debt to the kind of deep goodness that brings not just temporary release or pleasure, but deep satisfaction.
In his case, Zacchues goes from a leech on his world to a force of reparative justice and generosity. He goes from boredom and pressure and no vitality, no life, on the edges of community climbing up in that tree, and he goes into community, and into a life of joyful purpose, into the delight of his real, true self.
It’s hard to drop the false self we’ve wanted to be or made ourselves look to be. So much grumbling with Zaccheus. People are upset when Jesus goes to his house. It would be easier in a way to keep his distance and just keep being that duty and debt and necessity-driven not-so-great false self he’s lived into.
But he seems to want something new too much. He’s not satisfied with the false self anymore. He wants something better. This is what loving ourselves looks like, not always just doing the next thing duty or debt drives us to, but also not just doing the next easy thing, even the next easy distracting or pleasurable thing.
Loving ourselves includes learning to live out of our true self. Asking, what would deeply delight me and bring me joy? What contribution do I have to give the world, must I give the world, really, for me to be alive? What incredible story of love and justice do I long to be part of?
To find our way back to your true self is to say yes when you can to what deeply delights you, to the real aspiration of your soul. To find your way back to your true self is to be at peace with the real you that God made and finds delightful.
An Invitation to Whole Life Flourishing
Where do you feel pressure or boredom or a lack of vitality in your primary work? Is there a primary motivation of debt or duty driving this? Is there anything truly delightful you can pursue in this setting, something that will draw out your truest self?
Spiritual Practice of the Week
Welcome Jesus into the home of your false self. Tell Jesus about the person you are trying to be, or the image you are trying to project to the world, that isn’t you, that isn’t real. Ask Jesus for a vision of work that is true to who you are, that is just, generous, and delightful.