A Foundation of Rock: Staking Life on What We Are, Not What We Own

Editor's Note: Huffington Post Religion has launched a scripture commentary series, which will bring together leading voices from different religious traditions to offer their wisdom on selected religious texts. Next month we will have Muslim commentaries for Ramadan, and in September Jewish commentaries for the High Holidays. Each day this week we will have commentaries on the Gospel featuring reflections by Rev. Jim Wallis, Dr. Serene Jones, Dr. Emilie Townes, Sister Joan Chittister, and Rev. James Martin, S.J. They will all be offering their meditations on the same passage from Matthew 7: 24-27, in which Jesus says:

24Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. 26And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell -- and great was its fall!

You read about both of them every day: the people who have everything but die crushed and miserable, and the people who go through life with barely enough to survive but die full of life and perfectly contented.

How can we possibly account for those anomalies, for the unlikely collapse of some and the glorious end of others who defy everything the world says makes for the good life?

Maybe the answer is not as incomprehensible as it may seem in a culture that weighs a person's worth in terms of what he or she has rather than in terms of what he or she is.

The Chinese have a saying that sounds in my ears every time I read Matthew 7:24-27. "If you don't know where you're going," these Chinese sages say, "any road will get you there." The tone of that insight has always sounded ominous to me. Jesus, on the other hand, adds a caveat to that idea: he says that if you do know where you're going, there is nothing in the world that can deter you from getting there.

It's a matter, it seems, of knowing what we're really about in life. On what have I staked my life? On things? On power? Or on the fullness of life itself?

If my life is all about things, for instance -- having things, getting more of them, storing them up or showing them off -- then as the stock market ricochets and the downsizing starts, there is a part of myself that seeps away from me as well. I have become what I own, in other words. When it's gone, what do I have left?

When the Great Recession comes and those things begin to disappear and their future dims for me, so does my own. I forget that what's inside me is with me still, however little else may yet be there.

The question is this, then: what have I spent my life building up inside me? A sense of "enoughness"? A trail of love? A stockpile of justice-seeking? A record of integrity? A history of peace? A heart full of faith, a soul full of beauty, a life full of goodness?

What is really left of me when little is left to me?

We live in a world, a society, in great transition. Money is scarce and, they tell us, unlikely to come back in ways we had grown to expect. Violence is increasing. The so-called security that seemed to come from having bigger bombs and better guns is now threatening our own neighborhoods and killing our own children. Work is harder to get, while early retirements and big pensions and lives of leisure are less and less likely every day.

So are we doomed, or are we finally back at the point in life where we can begin to make life choices all over again? Maybe even better ones this time? Ones that do not collapse when life's winds blow strong and its waters rage?

The fact is that everything around us is changing. In this era, in our lifetimes, every institution in the modern world has found itself in a state of flux: education has changed; governance has changed; science has changed; economics has changed; the very definitions of family and sex roles and life have changed.

The only thing over which we have much control at all anymore is what's inside us, what we cultivate in our souls, what we are really seeking in our lives. What life choices, what attitudes, what values, what goals, what priorities will we choose this time around?

Shall we give everything we have to maintain the standards of the world from which we've come and which we see disappearing before our very eyes? Or shall we again look closely at the model of Jesus, the one who loves everyone and cares for everybody; the one who lives simply himself and does justice for others; the one who knows that it's what we are, whoever we are, that counts, not what we have accumulated in power and money and status and things that shift with the sand and come and go with the water and the storms?

The Chinese have another saying that may bear thinking about as we make that kind of Gospel decision in these times. They say, "If we stay on the road we are on, we shall surely get where we are going."

Think carefully about that one.

Sister Joan Chittister is an internationally known writer and lecturer and the executive director of Benetvision, a resource and research center for contemporary spirituality. To learn more about her, visit www.joanchittister.org.