Maslow and Nietzsche Eat Your Hearts Out
Maslow was a mid-20th century psychologist who said a person could reach self-actualization by meeting their human needs one by one. Nietzsche was a 19th century philosopher who said that those who loved life in its entirety could reach the higher mode of being he called Superman. What they longed for by human effort, something beyond ordinary human, we'd say fallen existence, your heavenly Father gives. But this text doesn't just give this; it prepares you to receive it.
First, come to terms with the fact that followers of Christ aren't the walking dead. Zombies go through life focused on one thing: meeting the needs of self. Yes, like the rest of humanity outside of Christ, we were at one time dead in our trespasses in sins. All died in Adam the moment he ate the Forbidden Fruit, and the moment they take their first breath their activated as zombies, the walking dead. Years before a show by that name aired a commentator on this text wrote, "Those who fervently grasp their rights and live their lives in defense of the same are the walking dead" (Gibbs, I, 303). The spirit that lives to strike back, to hoard its possessions for self, and is embittered by any demand on its time from the outside is the spirit of the walking dead.
That's one side of this text that commentators from ancient to modern times have wrestled with. If you reduce Jesus' words to hyperbole or a figure of speech, they have no real claim on you day to day. You can go about your life in the slow, persistent zombie shuffle that is all about you getting what you need.
There's another side, however, to the text. "To be generous and willing to be taken advantage of is to invite abuse" (Ibid.). That's true; zombies are relentless against non-zombies. If you never resist an evil person, you will have evil constantly done to you. If you constantly turn the other cheek, you will have very red ones. And the equivalent today of going the extra mile if you were pressed into service by a Roman official would be to pay extra on your income tax.
What's the answer? Jesus of course. He never was a zombie. He wasn't just walking life but life itself. But He was abused, insulted, oppressed, and eventually put to damnation and death. When the mob arrived in Gethsemane, He didn't resist, but said it was the hour of the power of darkness. When the Old Testament church officials mocked, ridiculed, beat and spit on Him, holy Jesus didn't' resist. When the Romans crowned His head with thorns, lashed His back with a whip, and beat Him with hands, Jesus didn't resist. When the Roman soldiers, nailed His hands to the cross, He didn't try to pull them back.
Why did all that happen? So, we can avenge our insults, protect our property, defend our rights? Is that why God the Son went to hell on the cross? To give us what every political group, left or right, demands? No, Gal. 1:4 says, Jesus gave Himself for our sins to rescue us from this present evil age. It's as if suddenly the zombie was cured no longer the walking dead. In the middle of a surging, mindless throng of zombies, he wakes up; he's born again; he's alive again. He's Zacchaeus who can't wait to repay those he harmed. He's Paul who can suddenly see everything more clearly now. He's the healed man walking, and leaping and praising God. He's not the zombie he used to be. He's a new creation.
That's pure, sweet Gospel, but we have to go back. Back to where we see that the text can't be only figurative language, but it can't only be literal instructions for us to follow either. This text exposes that in Christ we're not the walking dead, but we're certainly not the damned either. To be unforgiving, ungenerous, and unwilling even to go the first mile is to be teetering on the brink of damnation (Ibid).
This certainly is not the Spirit Jesus won for us by living a holy life in our flesh and blood. This is certainly not the Spirit Jesus gave to us in Baptism, breathes on us in Absolution, and we eat and drink in Communion. The Spirit we received constantly cries forth to God in Jesus' name, "Daddy, Daddy." The Spirit we received is of power, love, and a sound mind. The Spirit we received is out of this world and so is not understood by this world and so can be and is abused by this world.
So be it. It can't be any other way. No sooner did the Spirit of forgiveness, generosity, and willingness to serve descend on the early church, then Ananias and Sapphira were there with no desire to be forgiven for lying, no generosity, and a willingness only to serve themselves. And what happened to them? The Holy Spirit they had lied to sent these walking dead to the realm of the dead.
The best in youth movements and utopian movements long for a community of forgiveness, generosity, and willingness to serve, but without the Spirit it's as useless as trying to get zombies to behave that way. But groups can't have the Spirit; only individuals can. Societies, governments, or groups that attempt to do what Jesus says for His Spirit-filled disciples to do invite chaos (Ibid., 302, fn.6) as history shows.
It has always been this way. David's plea to be different after his adultery and murder is a plea for the Spirit that we still sing today: "Renew a right Spirit within me; take not Thy Holy Spirit from me; uphold me with Thy free Spirit." If we keep on chanting those words with lips but no heart, we become hardhearted to the Spirit's work in Word and Sacrament.
Fast forward about 500 years from David and we come to Zechariah looking at the mountain of rumble that use to be Jerusalem. And the Lord declares through him that this great mountain will be a removed and Old Testament worship restored. How? "Not by might not by power, but by My Spirit." Fast forward another 500 years from Zechariah to the upper room where the Church is cowering behind locked doors because they're afraid of the Jews. Jesus appears in the upper room breathes on them giving them the Spirit. 50 Days later He shows the whole city who has the Spirit and the Spirit transforms these men from cowering, timid, souls to bold proclaimers of the Mighty Acts of God in Christ.
In place of the world's spirit of grudges, payback, and revenge, Christ gave them the Spirit of reckless generosity and unworldliness (Ibid, 303). You have this same Spirit, and recklessly generous and naive is how your offerings and support of the Church looks to the world. All that money, all that sacrifice to preach a Gospel that the world scorns and in support of a world without end that remains hidden under weakness.
Now we're to the part where Maslow and Nietzsche eat their heart out. It's found in the last verse. The insert translates, "Be perfect, therefore as your heavenly Father is perfect." First, it's not a command but a promise. It's a statement indicating what we will be, and it's not perfect' but complete'. It's a promise that His disciples will reach the heavenly Father's goal which is nothing less than your complete salvation by full justification and sanctification. Paul describes this state of completion in Philippians 3 using the same Greek word here. Here's how he describes what it means: Not having his own righteousness from the Law but through faith in Christ; pressing on and taking hold of that which Christ took hold of him for; forgetting those sins and failings that lie behind him and pressing on toward the call to heaven in Christ.
This seems impossible, and it is to us, but not to Christ, not to the heavenly Bridegroom. What do lovers say to each other: "You complete me." What does Paul speaking in Ephesians 5 about husband and wife say he is really talking about? He says that this is a profound mystery, but he is speaking about Christ and the Church. Marriage is the physical reality of a much grander spiritual reality.
Christ is the Super Man that Nietzsche thought you could reach by self-discipline. Christ is the complete man that Maslow thought you could reach by fulfilling all your earthly needs. And you are completed by Him, in Him, through Him. You have reached the Father's goal, but with Paul in Philippians you can only see this by faith now. You won't see it by sight till your last day or the Last Day even though you're complete today!
Because this is true, Scripture can speak reckless, naive words about you. 1 John 3:9, "Whoever is born of God does not commit sin." Romans 8, "There is no condemnation to them that are in Christ Jesus." "Nothing in all creation shall separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord." Or how about this? 1 Corinthians 3:21: "All things are yours whether the world or life or death or present or future, all things belong to you." This is Jacob facing Esau. Jacob comes back a nomad from a foreign land with a big family and lots of livestock. Esau has 400 soldiers and a kingdom and has fathered many princes. Esau can say that he has plenty, but Jacob confesses before him that he has all (Genesis 33: 9-11).
These passages aren't hyperbole; they're promise. You're complete, you have it all, in the blood, the righteousness, the gifts of your Bridegroom, Christ. The Greek word translated perfect but better complete is teleios. Communion was called in the early church the teleion. It was the end; it was all; it was complete. There was nothing beyond it. There was no privilege, grace, power, or promise left for the Christian to get (Trench, 76). What could be beyond eating the body and drinking the blood of your God for forgiveness of all your sins, for life in a dying world, for enteral salvation in a world without end?
Both Maslow and Nietzsche teach that you reach their goals by right doing, right thinking. Contrast this with Luther: "Therefore the highest art and wisdom of Christians is not to know the Law, [but] to ignore works and all active righteousness, just as outside the people of God the highest wisdom is to know and study the Law, works, and active righteousness" (LW, 26, 6). Because all they know is self and what it can do, they focus on self and their efforts and that can only end short of their goal and in eating their heart out. Christ gives complete, new hearts. Focusing on His gift changes us for good and forever. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Seventh Sunday after Epiphany (20170219); Matthew 5: 38-48