SJF • Proper 20a • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
To me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard-pressed between the two; my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.
In this morning’s reading from the prophet Jonah we encountered a rather petulant man prepared to die almost out of spite. Jonah is angry at God on two counts: for letting the wicked Ninevites off the hook because they repented in response to Jonah’s own prophetic warning; and more immediately and selfishly because the bush that shaded him from the harsh desert sun has withered at God’s command. Jonah the Impatient is not one to put up with such things, and one hopes he learns better by the end of the story. At that point Jonah appears to have been struck speechless in response to God’s final question putting things in perspective. He should, after all, be happy that his prophecy was heeded and saved an entire city.
When we turn to our Epistle there is no doubt that we are dealing with a much more positive assessment. In Saint Paul’s Letter to the Philippians we behold the efforts of a committed servant of God to wrestle with the issue of whether it is better to live or to die, but for the right reasons — not choosing to die out of spite, or even out of a desire to be with God, but choosing life instead in order to serve God’s people.
Living or dying: to be or not to be. That is the issue with which the melancholy Dane Prince Hamlet wrestles, though in very different circumstances from either Jonah or Paul. As you may recall, Hamlet is a philosophy student entangled in the midst of a family drama with supernatural overtones — his father’s ghost has appeared to him and told him that he was murdered by Hamlet’s uncle, who has since married his widow.
Shakespeare’s play is among the richest and most complex ever written, and the character of Hamlet can be played in many different ways. Sir Laurence Olivier’s version resonates most with our readings this morning — in weighing the question of life and death. You may recall that the film begins with Olivier’s voice-over introducing the theme, “This is the story of a man who could not make up his mind.” That is the heart of Hamlet’s dilemma, and it lies in that most famous of Shakespearian speeches, the one that begins, “To be or not to be.” That is, as Hamlet observes, the question — the one that faces him, and Jonah, and Paul, and ultimately every thinking person. Is it better to live or to die?
Hamlet’s short speech is a brilliant summary of the philosophical arguments for and against choosing death over life, or life over death, laying out an “on the one hand this and on the other hand that” kind of argument with himself.
Hamlet really would like to just end it all — in modern terms we would probably say he is suffering from clinical depression. Life itself has just become too much of a burden — especially with his father’s ghost getting into the picture and planting seeds of suspicion — and Hamlet doesn’t know if the ghost is telling the truth or if the ghost is trying to tempt him into committing the murder of an innocent person! So Hamlet is looking for a way out, and is even contemplating suicide. In an earlier speech he has already expressed the wish that he could just die — that his “too, too solid flesh” might simply melt and evaporate and disappear; but he immediately recalls that taking any action along those lines himself has been forbidden, as the Almighty has fixed his law “against self-slaughter.”
So in the more famous speech Hamlet returns to the question, Is suffering a thing that makes you more noble and virtuous by enduring it, or is it something you should overcome or avoid? Who after all would suffer if it were an option simply to end your life in an instant, and plunge into that endless sleep? But in that sleep of death what dreams might come? Ah, as Hamlet observes, “There’s the rub!”
In the end it is the unknown — what comes after death in that “undiscovered country” from which “no traveler returns” — that keeps Hamlet alive: not a positive will to live and a commitment to act, but fear of the unknown and the consequences of action. As he concludes, “Conscience makes cowards of us all.” So Hamlet continues on the course of his tragedy, only able finally to act against his murderous uncle when he finds a way to be sure the uncle is guilty — but too late to save himself or his mother, or his prospective father-in-law or his fiancée, or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, or anyone else, from a swift journey offstage to that undiscovered country, death.
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Saint Paul, on the other hand, is not a man of doubt and double-mindedness, but of faith. He weighs the options, true, but he comes to a very different conclusion, and that right quickly. And this is because unlike Hamlet he is fully confidant of knowing what awaits him beyond the veil of death. He has absolutely no fear of what dreams might come. He does not regard death as an undiscovered country from which no traveler returns, but a land to which one indeed has gone to prepare a place for him, a land in which there are in fact many dwelling-places prepared, and from which that same one has returned, when the bonds of death were not able to keep him down. You know who that is, of course: Jesus Christ, the one in whom Paul places all of his faith. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is at the heart of Paul’s faith, Paul’s gospel, and it informs everything about his life and his ministry. It is his trust, his faith, his knowledge that he is assured of passage into the new life with Christ. In fact, he longs for it — not as Hamlet did as a kind of oblivion and end to his troubles — but as a positive desire to be with Christ. But Paul also knows that he still has work to do among the faithful — and though it is hard work and will be a sea of troubles for him, though it will mean suffering and pain, he commits to stay with it. His conscience is at work, but not to make him a coward, but to make him a hero — one willing to suffer for and with others rather than to take the easy way out. He chooses this course, convinced that remaining in the flesh — that is to say, remaining alive — is for the benefit of the struggling Christians to whom he writes. Even though he longs to be with Christ, he chooses to remain in service to and with his spiritual children.
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In the Buddhist tradition there is a figure known as the Bodhisattva. This is a person who has gained the Buddhist equivalent of sainthood — they have risen to the level of spiritual consciousness where they no longer need to suffer “the slings and arrows” of life in an endless cycle of reincarnation, but have broken through to the pure land of nirvana, the land of bliss — and yet, instead of going off to that endless bliss, the Bodhisattva chooses to remain, to stay in the flesh to help guide and teach others in their spiritual journey.
This is the kind of choice that Saint Paul makes — no quite the same, but a similar choice: not to depart and be with Christ in bliss, but to stay in the struggle, a struggle he voluntarily shares with the Philippians, striving side by side with one mind for the faith of the gospel.
Paul chooses to be rather than not to be: to be in the flesh as long as the flesh is useful to himself and to others, and only to go Christ in glory when the time is right — when God has made full use of him and the cup of suffering endured in faith has been drunk down, and the vessel is empty and he has finished his course in faith. May we also serve so faithfully, working together as long as we have life, till by the grace of God this mortal life is ended and what is mortal is laid down to rest to wait for the day of resurrection, through Christ and in Christ, our redeemer and advocate, who lives and reigns for ever and ever.