December 11, 2016 - Self-Denial

Amen, I say to you,
among those born of women
there has been none greater than John the Baptist;
yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”

Matt 11:11

He who would become the Buddha and four companions sought to achieve enlightenment through severe asceticism.  They all starved themselves to the point of death and subjected their bodies to countless indignities.  It was only when the Buddha left his four friends and rejected asceticism that he achieved enlightenment.  According to Buddhist tradition, the Buddha returned to these four friends after his enlightenment and taught them his new way, although they were initially resistant.

Today’s reading ends with a curious rebuke of John the Baptist.  I am struck by the similarities to the story of the Buddha.  John was an extreme ascetic, living off locusts and wild honey and wearing a camel hair coat.  He and Jesus were cousins and some of John’s disciples left to become part of Jesus’s entourage (Jn 1:36-40).  They were almost certainly friends.  There are numerous moments in Scripture where Jesus contrasts his ministry to John’s and explicitly rejects asceticism: “For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they said, ‘He is possessed by a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking and they said, ‘Look, he is a glutton and a drunkard (Matt 11:16-19).  Today’s passage may indicate that asceticism is a false path.

The idea that heroic self-denial, self-discipline and perfect moral conduct is the path to faith is still prominent.  But it simply isn’t supported by Scripture.

Image: The Buddha prior to enlightenment