This is what we hear at the end of today's gospel reading:
"When Jesus finished these words, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes." (Matt 7.28-29)
I find that really interesting: "he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes." It's more curious when you consider that the scribes actually were recognised authorities, whereas Jesus was a simple "layman."

"Having authority," in this case, clearly does not mean having "official" authority, as in an ordained position. So what is this "authority"?

Br. David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, gave a terrific answer to this question in an interview that was published in What Is Enlightenment? magazine a while back. He said:
Jesus placed the authority of God, which was always seen as external, in the very hearts of his hearers. The core teaching of Jesus is not, "I am going to tell you all," or anything like that. No, he presupposes you know it all. "Don't you know it? I'll remind you of it. You know it all." This is his typical voice. This question opens many of the parables, "Who of you doesn't know this already?" It's not sufficiently emphasized nowadays in Christian teaching, but the moment you are alerted to it you see it.
In other words, Jesus was seen as having authority because the truth of what he was saying did not depend on some external source of validation. He didn't require blind faith, and he didn't ask anyone to just take his word for it. He persuaded people to the truth of his teachings by appealing to what they already knew.

I think this accords well with the notion, found in some forms of Mahayana Buddhism (like Zen, for instance), that we are already enlightened, but most of us don't know it yet.

By the way, you can read Br. David's interview here.

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Consider the lilies...

So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today. (Matt 6.24-34)

In her book With or Without God, which I reviewed a few weeks ago, Gretta Vosper alludes to this teaching, which she cites as one example of Jesus's teachings that we can no longer accept as valid. Her argument is that we cannot be "reckless about the future."

But what is Jesus really counselling here? Is he really saying that we should only think about the present, and not give any thought whatsoever to the future?

The verb that is used throughout today's gospel reading (Matt 6.24-34), merimnao -- translated here as "worry" -- means exactly that. It does not mean that we should not give any thought to the future, only that we shouldn't worry about it.

There is no upside to worrying: it never makes things better, but it often makes things worse.

The problem, though, is that being told not to worry rarely helps us stop worrying. We don't have a lot of direct control over our worrying. But the good news is that worrying is the result of other things that we do have control over.

Worrying and Desire

The Second Noble Truth of Buddhism is that suffering is caused by desire. In other words, reality is one way, but I want it to be another way. When this is true, suffering is the result.

I think Jesus's teaching about worrying is related to this. I want things to turn out one way, but it appears that things are going to turn out another way, so I worry. But what is this worrying? Is it not merely the suffering that results from my desire for things to be other than they are?

To end my worrying, I need to end my desire for things to be a particular way. This doesn't mean I sit passively and avoid working to attain the things that I need. It just means I don't form any emotional attachment to any particular end, or, where an attachment already exists, I let it go. The desire doesn't help, and worrying doesn't help. On the contrary, worrying often undermines our performance of doing what we have to do in order to attain the end we seek.

Anthony de Mello tells a great story, attributed to a Chinese sage named Tranxu (aka Chuang Tzu):

When the archer shoots for no particular prize, he has all his skills; when he shoots to win a brass buckle, he is already nervous; when he shoots for a gold prize, he goes blind, sees two targets, and is out of his mind. (Awareness 58)1

Or, in other words, keep your eyes off the prize, and focus on the task at hand.


[1] The wording in de Mello's book is very similar to that found in Thomas Merton's Way of Chuang Tzu, and I suspect that is where he got it from.

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After my second year as an undergrad, I changed my major to Religious Studies. One thing I discovered very quickly is that when you inform others that you are studying religion, they very often want to talk about it. You wouldn't believe how many theological discussions I've had with complete strangers.

One thing that struck me very early on is how many people -- including Christians -- believe in reincarnation. At the time I was kind of an agnostic about matters of life after death, in that I didn't think it was possible to know anything about what happens after we die. When one understands exactly how it is that we come to know anything, it doesn't take long to realise that notions of "everlasting life" can never be anything more than speculation. We, being temporal beings, cannot possibly experience anything of the kind.

Reincarnation is a little different, in that many people do report having memories of previous lives. There are some pretty compelling stories of people who have "remembered" things that they could not possibly have known. Reincarnation is not the only possible explanation for these, of course, but it would seem to be the simplest.

I read a very compelling article on the subject a while back, in an issue of What Is Enlightenment? magazine. I'm still a little skeptical about the idea, but this article certainly inspired me to keep an open mind. I found it online recently, and definitely recommend checking it out: "Death, Rebirth, and Everything in Between," by Carter Phipps.


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