When convicted criminals are sentenced to life in prison, it is only a blessing because it is not a sentence of death. A life sentence would still be repulsive to us on many levels. We believe such offenders forfeit their right to live in a free society, so we separate them from everyone else to prevent further harm. We deprive them of other rights belonging to free people, legitimate comforts, and basic life opportunities. We tell them to abandon their hopes and dreams; and soon they will fade from memory and be forgotten. “Life in prison” is not truly living. When we stop to think what a “full and productive life” might look like, we can easily disregard even the best that “prison life” has to offer. A life free from walls and heavily locked doors and armed guards has got to be immensely more desirable than even the best of “life behind bars.”
For the most part, most of us would also prefer being alive to being dead. I know I would. Dead people, we can safely agree, can no longer enjoy what the living enjoy. And it would be unthinkable to imagine us giving up what we have and what we are able to enjoy, and call that life “a fulfilling existence” – things like seeing the beauty of nature, breathing in the fresh air, jamming to our favorite tunes, devouring a most decadent gourmet dessert, hanging with our homies, trekking to the vacation escape of our dreams, sporting some spanking new threads, busting some cool new moves, basically, reaching for whatever our little hearts desired. If all were taken from us, we might as well be living in some unenlightened totalitarian regime, and we would not consider that a full life. Yet what we would regard as common or reasonable is often far beyond the reach of most people in the world. And whether or not we can truly find fulfillment with all our opportunities is sometimes arguable. What makes for a most fulfilling life is all within our reach, but who among us ever achieve our full potential?
Our faith teaches us that God wants to give us an abundant share of his life. We read from the prophet Ezekiel, “I will open your graves and have you rise from them, and bring you back to the land of Israel … I will put my spirit in you that you may live, and I will settle you upon your land.” Clearly God loved and favored Israel above all other nations. God wants to give his people a full and productive life. Such a life would be very different from being dead or confined to a grave. Among other things the dead do not breathe; they do not eat and drink; they do not feel; they do not move. In contrast, an abundant share of God’s life would be truly enriching and nourishing, inspiring and motivating. A full life that is adequately enriched and nourished infuses one’s whole being. When deprived of air and food, the body’s cells will slowly begin to shut down and die. So when our spiritual life begins to shut down and die, it is clearly starving for the air and food that it needs to keep it alive. A full life is inspired from within, and in turn inspires and moves others to excel, to shine, and to achieve success. We need persuasive and compelling passions to propel us beyond the ordinary, or we would have no trouble considering mediocrity as a true life goal. And those who are content with mediocrity will never achieve excellence, nor motivate others to want it.
St. Paul hints at the source of this life God desires for us. “Whoever has the Spirit of Christ belongs to Christ, and the Spirit of God dwells in that person, and such a one is not of the flesh, and is therefore able to please God.” (I had to paraphrase a little.) When we possess the Spirit of Jesus Christ, we are intent on thinking, speaking, and living as Jesus did, and not as the world. We would not be of the flesh, nor our primary concerns be those of the flesh, of passing things, of things mainly focused on feeling good, or looking good, or being popular, or making lots of money. The life of one who possesses the Spirit of Christ is shaped by truths and realities that endure, the values of the kingdom of God, the qualities that made Jesus Christ himself stand out, such that people came to believe in him who heard him speak and witnessed his wonderful signs.
Martha did not hesitate. “Yes, Lord. I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the one who is coming into the world.” At first she must have struggled. “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” She may have had to recall all that she had seen and heard. She had witnessed Jesus heal the sick, and give sight to the blind, and make the deaf hear, and the mute speak. She had witnessed Jesus feed five thousand from only a handful of fish and a few loaves of bread. She had heard him speak of God as Father, and of God’s care for us his children – that we should not worry about what we are to eat and what we are to wear because the God who nurtures all creation and clothes it in splendor would never neglect those he loves. She had seen him extend mercy to sinners and compassion to children. On many occasions she had witnessed what her friend Jesus was capable of. So when she professed faith in him, “I have come to believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God,” she truly believed he was who he claimed to be. “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” By raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus proved he had power over physical death. The man had been in the grave four days, and Martha had to warn Jesus that there would be a major stink when they opened the grave. If he had power over physical death, would he also have power over spiritual death?
The most basic physical existence is certainly more desirable than death. But God wants to give us the fullness of life. We were not created to get by with an average and ordinary life. We were created for the best life has to give, a meaningful and purposeful existence exceeding our highest expectations. Yet if God wants to give us so much, how can we be content with far less? The fullness of human existence is only achieved by possessing the Spirit of Jesus Christ, and not giving in to worldliness or embracing the values of this world. Everything this world and the flesh have to offer ends in death. But what God wants to give us endures unto eternal life.
I am amazed sometimes when people sue for damages, they might also sue for future losses, losses they consider significant because they feel robbed of the possibility of achieving some future profit. Yet many make little effort to achieve that potential while they actually can. We don’t like being robbed of future opportunity, but do we embrace opportunity when it is staring us in the face? Are we content with mediocrity even as we are offered life in its fullness? We want to profess true and unwavering faith in Jesus as Martha did, but are we also willing to give up the world and its fleeting values? We may think a life in prison is no life at all. Yet it is exactly what we choose when we pass on the life God offers. To the truly wise, it’s a no-brainer. Why settle for less?