By Father Casey
One of my favorite koans from Zen Buddhist tradition tells of two traveling monks, who encounter a young woman waiting to step out of her sedan chair. Rains had created a large muddy puddle in the road, and she couldn’t step across without spoiling her silken robes. So she stood there, looking very cross and impatient and scolding her attendants. They had nowhere to place the packages they held for her, so they couldn’t help her across the puddle.
The younger monk noticed the woman, said nothing, and walked by. But the older monk picked her up and put her on his back, and carried her across the muddy water. After being set down on the other side, she didn’t thank the old monk, and instead pushed past him and departed.
As they continued on their way, the young monk was brooding and preoccupied. After several hours, unable to hold his silence, he spoke out. “That woman back there was very selfish and rude, but you picked her up on your back and carried her! Then she didn’t even thank you!”
“I set the woman down hours ago,” the older monk replied. “Why are you still carrying her?”
This koan has been in my head all week as I’ve reflected on the gospel for this weekend. In it, Jesus reminds us that “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:15-20). According to Jesus, our decisions and actions now carry forward into the future. What we do here matters in a way that connects to our experience of eternity. If, during the whole of this precious gift of life, we choose to hold on to things greedily and grudgingly, then we become greedy and grudging people, and that won’t simply stop when we die. But the opposite is also true: the more loosely we hold things, the freer we become, eternally.
“I set the woman down hours ago. Why are you still carrying her?”
This past week, I read a short essay by Sarah Condon in Mockingbird called “Defund Your Inner Police.” In it, she describes a time recently when someone blasted her church and her husband (who happens to be the rector) for a picture that circulated online of the church preparing for a hurricane. In the photo, crowds of people are working side-by-side, preparing emergency supplies to help victims of a pending storm. This online commentator lashed out about the apparent lack of masks on the volunteers. “What are you people thinking!?”
Never mind that the picture was three years old, from long before the pandemic. Never mind that the point of the picture was to celebrate the church’s readiness to help vulnerable people when they need it most. This person saw something she thought was wrong, jumped to conclusions, and needed to tell everyone all about it.
Condon describes how quickly her blood boiled. This person’s rage had ignited her own, and she could feel her anger crystallizing into the words of her counterattack. And that was when, by the grace of God, she realized that she needed “to defund my inner police.” She writes,
“Everyone is a complete and total mess right now. Anyone who tells you they are not is a liar. We are all desperately clinging to control in a world of trauma. But the handles have broken off the ride and we are being slung right and left, up and down, until we are absolutely nauseated with anxiety. Correction is the only control we have left. Even if my hopelessness is off the charts and my heart is cracked in two, I can use my last breath to call out what you have done wrong. It must please the devil that no matter how tired we are, we always have room for personal fury. And so I think we all must consider defunding our inner police…
Our call to be Christ-like is powerful and necessary. We absolutely need to be concerned with the welfare of the oppressed. The widows and orphans are all around us, and they need our help. People cry out from the streets, and we have to heed their call.
But the other part of being Christ-like has less valor, perhaps. And yet it is equally as vital in this divisive moment. We are called to empty ourselves in cruciform shape. We are called to have less room for our own inner self-righteous voice and more space for humility and faithfulness. We are called to question the vicious reactivity our culture is drowning in.
We have to decrease and defund our inner police so that Jesus can increase in us.”
Friends, whatever is bound on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever is loosed on earth will be loosed in heaven. If we’re not careful, the vindictiveness and vitriol that surrounds us on every side right now will crystallize in our souls. The temptation to react, to accuse, to scorn others will penetrate us completely. There will be little Christ-likeness left, because hatred and contempt will have total ownership of our hearts and minds.
I am particularly concerned for this as we enter the final months of the 2020 election. We will need the grace of God to help us participate fully in our democracy, while also holding on to humility and empathy. We will need God’s help to advocate for what we believe is right, while not resorting to words or actions that abandon the way of Jesus. Because there is no such thing as temporarily setting aside the virtues of our faith for a few weeks or months, so we can make sure our side wins. There is no end that justifies the means, because if we make peace with cruelty, lies, and contempt now, we will be bound to those things in heaven, too.
So be careful, lest you keep carrying the woman for hours down the road.
Be careful, lest your inner police cause you to become self-righteous.
Be careful, so what you bind and loose on earth will be what you want to bind and loose in heaven.