Recently, all the priests in the diocese were asked to provide updated I-9 forms. An I-9 form is an employer’s verification that employees are legally eligible to work in the United States.
I laughed a bit when I received the request for the updated form. Nothing about my citizenship or immigration status has changed in the six and a half decades since my birth. Nor do I recall crossing any border illegally. The need for the updated form was precipitated by a concern about the completeness of diocesan employment files.
All parishes in the diocese are required to use a company called CheckFail to establish employment eligibility and to process payroll. CheckFail completes these processes with the same reliability as a slot machine: sometimes it pays and sometimes it doesn’t. Rather than rely on CheckFail to complete the tasks it’s paid to complete, we were asked to provide updated forms.
The I-9 form verifies employment eligibility by recording information from recognized personal identification documents. When I gathered the documents required by the form, I was amazed at their number and variety. Our society has an incredible number of ways to establish, document, and verify a person’s identity. These are recent inventions, of course. During Jesus’ lifetime, by comparison, identification documents didn’t exist.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus invited an apparently well-intentioned man to “Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Mk. 10:21) The Gospel says that the man “went away sad, for he had many possessions.” (Mk. 10:22) The man’s wealth was only a small part of the truth behind this event.
In Jesus’ culture, a person’s identity depended entirely on the person’s family and social connections. As Identity documents, of the sort we use today, didn’t exist, one’s identity was something given and guaranteed by one’s family. The wealthy man in today’s Gospel was asked to give up his personal share of his family’s wealth; in doing so, he would also give up something of much greater value: his identity.
If the man had forfeited his share of his family’s wealth, the forfeiture would have amounted to repudiating his family. His family would probably have reciprocated by repudiating him. Jesus did not intend to impose an unnecessary burden on the man; he was merely stating the requirements of discipleship, that is, to take on a new identity, the identity of a disciple.
This change of identity would not have been uncommon at the time. It was widely assumed that to join a group such as Jesus’ disciples one would have to abandon membership in all rival groups. The man was well aware of the cost of discipleship, but he was unwilling to pay it.
Obviously, there were some who were willing to give up their old lives in order to follow Jesus; we are the beneficiaries of their sacrifice and their faith. At the same time, however, we should acknowledge the advantage they had over us; having encountered Jesus face-to-face, they knew beforehand the nature of the new life to which he called them.
Today, there is room for uncertainty regarding the new identity to which disciples are called. There are a variety of examples that one might imitate. Some people practice Christianity as a way to feel superior to other people. Other people practice Christianity as a means to obtain personal benefits. Some see faith as a part-time activity, and others see it as an aspirational value.
How are we to know what Jesus had in mind when he called his original disciples to abandon their old lives and take on a new identity? The answer lies in his words about the wealthy man’s reluctance. He said, “It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Mk. 10:25) Jesus was not denigrating the value of created things, he was merely making a reasonable assessment of the limited trustworthiness of created things.
Material things have value, but their value is finite and incapable of reaching beyond the finitude of the created universe. If one wishes to encounter the kingdom of God, it is not found by placing one’s ultimate trust in created things. The kingdom of God is found only by placing one’s complete trust in Jesus. The new identity to which Jesus’ disciples are called is characterized by an appropriately limited valuation of the world and an unreserved valuation of the kingdom Jesus preached.
Some see Baptism as a quaint social custom; others see Baptism as a magic talisman to ward off evil. Still others see it as a prerequisite for a personal reward. Jesus said that the new identity imparted by Baptism is one in which one’s entire life is guided by his teaching. The new identity created by Baptism makes one a covenant partner with God and with all the baptized.
It might be helpful for all the baptized to review and update their identity from time to time; like many things, discipleship can benefit from periodic renewal. If you had to assess your baptismal identity, what would be the result? Who are you in God’s sight? Are you an outsider to the kingdom of God, an occasional visitor, or a permanent resident?